In this session moderated by Associate Editor D K Singh, Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan speaks about the coming Bihar bypolls, argues RJD, JD(U) will lose because talking caste alone can’t get votes, and claims Modi will be PM for 15 years
D K Singh: Why did the government not organise an iftaar this time? You had to go to Patna to organise one.
I have been doing this in Patna for the past three years. Our iftaars in Delhi used to be very big, with a number of VIPs attending it. And it used to also get good media coverage. But our workers were unhappy. That’s why I started holding iftaars in Patna. I am happy that our party has won this time. Of all the iftaars held so far, this one was the best.
D K Singh: Both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh used to hold iftaars during their prime ministerial tenure. Why didn’t Prime Minister Modi do so this time? In fact, no one in the government organised iftaar this year.
I will not comment on this.
Maneesh Chhibber: In the UPA government, none of the ministers sought the PM’s permission before speaking (to the media). But now, no one even utters a word without first asking the PM. Is everyone scared (of the PM)?
The PM is PM. The PMO is PMO. We have worked under different people. Indira Gandhi had her own style. I K Gujral had his own style. Manmohan Singh and Vajpayee had their own styles of working. Now it is Narendra Modi’s turn. He may not be interacting with the media, but the kind of interaction Modi has with his ministers is unprecedented. The new government took charge only two months ago. In every department and in every ministry, discussions are happening behind closed doors where no media is present to assess the plus and minus points. The PM holds discussions with every ministry. This is benefitting us and helping the PM as well. If we do good things, the media will highlight it.
Ritu Sarin: What is the mood in the Cabinet meetings?
A minister cannot say what is happening in the Cabinet meetings.We can say what is happening outside the Cabinet.
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D K Singh: What is the difference between Vajpayee’s and Modi’s style?
Every PM has an individual style of working. While inaugurating a train in Jammu and Kashmir, Modi said that this is Vajpayee’s unfinished work: ‘Unka adhura kaam hai aur hamari ichcha hai ki hum ise poora karein’. The UPA had a different agenda; the NDA has a different one.
Coomi Kapoor: Despite so many discussions, food prices have not come down; the prices of tomato and onion are skyrocketing.
Regarding food prices, there are some essential items. We cannot live without water, but the moment one gets water, he thinks of having a Coca Cola. The basic needs are rice, pulses and wheat, and there’s no shortage of these items. In fact, we are giving these out to the market. Two days ago, we took out one crore tonnes of wheat (from our godowns). We still have a huge stock.
There are few items though like onion, tomato and potato which are seasonal. If you look at the statistics of the last 10 years, the June to October period is very crucial. The reason for a decrease in supply is panic. Let us suppose that there’s a news about scarcity of certain products. Those who listen to this news will buy from the market and so, there will be scarcity of that product. Our main target is that production should not decrease…
If you ask Nashik farmers, they will say, ‘Why are you stopping our export of onions?’ Similarly in Punjab, farmers will say, ‘We have to go to mandi’. He sells his produce in a mandi at Rs 8 per kg. When the same product comes to Delhi, it is Rs 20 per kg. If the farmer is given an opportunity to sell his product here, instead of Rs 8, he will get Rs 12 per kg. The public will get it for Rs 15 instead of Rs 20 per kg. We do not have a common national market. The other big problem is black marketing. We have decided to work on these issues and find out how to tackle hoarding. We need to evolve a national market.
The other issue is that of storage. We have a long-term programme. If for three months we can store onion, potato and tomato, just as we don’t have a shortage of rice and wheat, we will not have a deficit of these products as well.
Every time people say there is a deficit, the price keeps increasing. Jitna daam badhtaa nahi hai, us se zyada halla hota hai. Whatever happens due to panic or less supply in the market is restricted to three-four months. And it happens only in the case of three to four items like potato, tomato and onion.
D K Singh: What is your opinion on the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Act?
The APMC Act should be removed and India should take the national market route.
Avishek G Dastidar: NDA’s ministers can’t appoint those people as private secretaries who worked under the UPA government. If a minister cannot appoint his own secretaries, how can he take bigger decisions?
There is no restriction as far as Class III officers are concerned. It is only in the case of Class II officers. Even in the police force, you cannot give jobs to relatives.
Unni Rajen Shanker: You were a minister in the UPA government. So are you saying that you had private secretaries and they shouldn’t be kept again?
What I am saying is that there aren’t restrictions as far as Class III and IV employees are concerned. However, in the new government we have new personal secretaries.
Avishek G Dastidar: In the past, a lot of discussion happened with the states on how to control hoarding. Is there any state that is not cooperating with the Centre on this?
None of the state agriculture ministers who came for discussions spoke against it. No letter has been written against it.
Avishek G Dastidar: What about Mamata Banerjee?
It was a wrong report. I had gone there. I go to every state, but that doesn’t mean that every chief minister comes to meet me. I go to a particular state, do my work, see Food Corporation of India’s stores, and come back. Similarly, I went to Bengal. The next day, it was out in the media that Paswan is going to meet the CM. How do I contradict this news? She must have read it too and must have been tense as well. She made a telephone call and said, “Paswanji, hum purane mitra hain. Hum yahan nahi hai. Agli baar aayiye to khana khake jaiyega.” Now, do I have to contradict the media all the time?
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: As per the production so far, what is the percentage of black marketing?
In 2012-13, onion produce was 168 lakh tonnes; in 2013-14, it was 193 lakh tonnes. Similarly, in 2012-13, potato produce was 453 lakh tonnes and in 2013-14, this went up to 464 lakh tonnes. Wheat was 935 lakh tonnes in 2012-13, and it has risen to 960 lakh tonnes this year. As far as production is concerned, there’s no shortage. There are two main reasons for the shortage — panic and hoarding. There has to be a limit.
If someone goes to raid some place, that person should be told he cannot keep food items beyond a limit. We have been writing to the Centre about this. We carried out raids in some places in Delhi. However, we cannot achieve the kind of success we want without the complete cooperation of the state government. We cannot completely restrain hoarders. We could raid places in Delhi because the government there is under the Centre. We can’t do similar work in other states.
Rohit T: Are you thinking of bringing changes in the Food Security Act?
Eleven states have already implemented the Food Security Act. Earlier, the system was different. For the APL category, the benefits were rice at Rs 8 per kg and wheat at Rs 6 per kg. For the BPL category, wheat was Rs 6 per kg and rice was Rs 4 per kg. The Antyodaya category used to get wheat at Rs 2 per kg and rice at Rs 3 per kg. Those under the BPL and Antyodaya categories were given 35 kg food grains per family. The APL families were given according to what was available in the stock. Once the Food Security Act was implemented, it was announced that there would be no APL or BPL beneficiaries, only Antyodaya would be covered.
Accordingly, in every state, a percentage of the population was covered under the scheme. These people got 5 kg food grain per person. Earlier, we did not know how many members were there in a family. Now we know this and if there are five members in a family, they would get 25 kg and if there are eight members, it would be 35 kg. The subsidy burden on the government has increased. And the food grains have increased too. In Tamil Nadu, everyone gets free rice and wheat. They want to bring everyone under the Food Security Act. The Act was brought in by the UPA government. Within a year, every state should have implemented it. We have given three more months to implement it. That does not mean that we are stopping food grains. People are getting it according to the old system.
Vandita Mishra: You have crossed the line drawn between Mandal and kamandal drawn in the ’90s. Now, in your own state, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad are trying to create a new line. How do you view it and do you think there are contradictions between the two that can land this experiment into a problem?
This is politics of frustration. Jab baadh aati hai to saanp aur bichchoo ek hi ped pe chadh jaate hain. Ye NDA ki baadh hai. When we had collaborated with the NDA, Nitish had said, ‘vichitra magar satya (strange but true)’. Nitish aur Lalu ka milna bhi vichitra par satya hai. These two used to think that they are the kings. Now they are saying that if there are a total of 10 seats, give us two or four. In the long run, Lalu and Nitish will not be together. How can two different parties be together?
Now, the Mandal issue. In Bihar, there has been no chief minister from the upper caste since the Mandal Commission report was implemented in the 1990s. Bihar has seen Lalu Prasad, Rabri Devi and Nitish Kumar become chief ministers. For the time being, they are playing the Mahadalit card. You have ruled Bihar for 24 years. What have you done for the state? What have you done for the poor, Dalit and Backward Class? We haven’t faced the kind of humiliation that our great grandfathers had faced, though we did face indignity. But if I say that my son Chirag faces humiliation, it would mean that I am betraying myself and my country.
It was for the poorest of the poor, including SC/STs, that the Mandal Commission was implemented. The backward classes, SC/STs get reservation according to it. So if you want to remove poverty, above caste, creed and religion, we need to make a policy for the poor… There is an environment of hatred due to this (casteist politics) too. We have Maharastra elections and they say we will give reservations… other people will be angry. Whenever there are elections in Uttar Pradesh, some reservations are announced…
But suppose there is a Ram Vilas Paswan or any other political worker who has gotten in on the basis of being an SC/ST in the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha, nobody is against that, or against a person who got reservation for a government job.
Vandita Mishra: On the one hand, there is ‘NaMo NaMo’ chant and on the other, there’s the Saharanpur incident. As a part of the NDA government, doesn’t it bother you to see what’s happening there?
If anybody is to be blamed for that incident, it is Mulayam Singh Yadav. The BJP is not involved in this, nor in Muzaffarnagar (riots). Rahul Gandhi had said at that time that Pakistani intelligence agency is involved in the incident. If anyone from the BJP had said this, it would have become a big issue. The responsibility is on the state government. In Badaun, we have seen people fleeing villages. We spoke to our Muslim brothers in Muzaffarnagar. The demand was to transfer two district magistrates. But then you transfer one and don’t transfer the other. Even our Muslim brothers came to us and asked, ‘What are they doing? Do they want us to be targeted?’.
We want to address issues pertaining to minorities. It’s our mission. But this will take time to reach the national level. We need to make a strong policy.
In Gujarat, the Godhra incident happened three months after Modi came to power. It’s been 12 years since then and we are trying to move on, but all we hear is ‘Godhra, Godhra, Godhra’. There are people who, after the Emergency, had said, ‘I am anti-Congress’, and now we see them at dinner parties with the same people. They’ve forgotten the Emergency, the Sikh riots, but they still talk about Godhra. I saw an interview of Rahul Gandhi. He was asked about the 1984 riots repeatedly and he refused to say he was apologetic for what happened.
All I am saying is that give Modi some time. People want results within 30 days, whereas even seat allotment hasn’t happened in Parliament in this time.
D K Singh: The general impression is that the alliance needs the BJP more, and not the other way around. Is the relevance of allies over?
It’s not about relevance. The day Modi won 250-odd seats, he said that though we have won on our own merit, we do have an alliance and it will continue. Take the Shiv Sena, for example. They openly talk about what they feel is right. Nobody is authorised to stop them. This is democracy.
D K Singh: Would you say that the era of coalition governments is over?
Definitely. This election result has ended it. A political party, that nobody expected, won over 250 seats. I think that for the next 15 years Modi will be our PM.
D K Singh: Have all your voters shifted to the BJP?
Why would that happen? We are part of an alliance. Have you ever heard of Paswan taking away Lalu’s voters? Our voters will remain with us.
D K Singh: How did you decide to be associated with Modi?
We considered a lot of factors. When the parliamentary board meeting took place, I didn’t go there as I was worried that people would be biased. The decision was given to me in writing. And then I spoke to Modi at Rajnath Singh’s house.
Sandip Das: Regarding PDS, you must be aware that 30-40 per cent food grains get diverted or lost. How can you control this?
We have made several complaints to the FCI office, but nothing has happened so far. When we visit villages, people tell us that their names have been removed from the PDS list even though we are distributing grains regularly. The best work that PDS has done is in Chhattisgarh, followed by Madhya Pradesh. We are planning a centralised and web-based system. Another issue is the state government giving bonus as an incentive to farmers to produce more grains. If farmers produce more than required, what is to be done? The Central government believes that if farmers produce more, they should arrange for their own storage facilities. We take care of grains in our storage. For example, if in Haryana, farmers get a bigger amount for their produce, and in Punjab it is less, all of Punjab’s market will shift to Haryana.
Raj Kamal Jha: What kind of role do you see for son Chirag?
He is not very ambitious. Right now he is undertaking Bihar Bachao Yatra.
Vandita mishra: Will you be fighting the bypolls in Bihar?
Yes, we will fight it with our full strength.
D K Singh: You had supported the idea of reservation in the private sector.
I am still for it.
Transcribed by Pallavi Chattopadhyay & Swetha Ramakrishnan