In this Idea Exchange moderated by Senior Editor D K Singh, Union Minister of Commerce and Industry Anand Sharma defends Rahul Gandhi’s strategies, questions Narendra Modi’s development claims, and admits Congress lacks in communication
D K Singh: Where do you stand today before the elections?
Each election is a challenge and we are capable of meeting it. We are telling people what we have achieved. We have delivered and remained focused. When you look at the economy, social indices and empowerment, the UPA government stands out. There has been a slowdown in the last few years, but we have to look at fundamentals at the macro level. The GDP growth has been 7.3 per cent in 10 years and two-way trade has increased from $140 billion in 2004 to more than $210 billion. India has been one of the top three most favoured destinations for foreign investors since 2008. Foreign direct investment (FDI) is $176 billion and, by the end of the year, it will touch $210 billion. We have opened many sectors for FDI. In consumption patterns for the farm sector, we have ensured remunerative prices. As for social indices, life expectancy is up by five years for men and six years for women. We have ensured bank branches, social and financial inclusion to the weakest and vulnerable sections of the society. There is much to be said when it comes to achievements, but it gets lost.
D K Singh: Are you dismissive of the pre-poll surveys?
It depends on how you take it — with a pinch, or a fistful of salt. Voters and their thinking evolve with campaigns and I hope they will be objective. This is an informed and educated electorate, especially the first-time voters. So, to expect what happened in December 2013 to get reflected in May 2014 may be off the mark.
D K Singh: Since Rahul Gandhi is the new campaigner for the Congress, will the election results be a verdict on his leadership?
He is leading the charge and all senior leaders are in the campaign fray. We have not gone for advanced anointment like the BJP. It is a collective effort and the manifesto and the strategy are decided when a group of leaders sits together. Members do change it before it goes to the working committee. We have to adapt and the 2014 manifesto may be different from the 2009 one, but the ground realities do get commented on. That’s what we have been working on.
D K Singh: So, should Rahul Gandhi not be credited or blamed for the results?
The party is making its contribution, but he belongs to the new generation. In a country like ours, Rahul is seeking to connect with the people as a whole and is representative of the younger generation. He has been in active public life for 10 years but not sought office as he has worked for the organisation to understand how things happen. He will bring a lot of value to the campaign, but elections depend on many factors.
Shekhar Gupta: He is middle-aged and at a stage where people go through their first mid-life crisis. Why does he need anticipatory bail? Are you scared of calling him your leader?
Rahul Gandhi is the Congress vice-president. He is spearheading the campaign. He is capable of hitting back — argument for argument and punch for punch. There is no question of a hit wicket. We will fight. The BJP’s case is restiveness, intolerance and snatching away power based on untruths and half-truths and leading the polity toward polarisation. We can’t be expected to behave the way BJP is behaving where everything is Mr Modi and he has been over-obsessed since August 15. There has to be decency and humility which Rahul Gandhi has. This is what we are — and that is the fundamental difference between us.
Unni Rajen Shanker: Was Rahul’s act of calling the Cabinet’s ordinance shielding convicted lawmakers ‘rubbish’ an act of humility?
Rahul Gandhi had something to convey, which he did. It was an act of anger which he discussed with the Prime Minister, but that is behind us. The two (Modi and Rahul) can’t be equated and I am talking in general, not a one-off case. At least the Congress vice-president is leading the campaign and talks to all. Narendra Modi has started his chai pe charcha, which Rahul Gandhi has been doing for years. He has addressed press conferences and taken criticism. Why is Narendra Modi not addressing a national press conference? Modi has to answer.
Maneesh Chhibber: If you lose the elections, will it be proof that the youth have rejected Rahul Gandhi?
We have victories and setbacks in elections as these are based on principles and ideologies. There is always space to improve. Our opponent goes against the story of India and believes in majoritarianism, shrill and aggressive self-anointment, arrogance and misrepresentation.
Maneesh Chhibber: What is your strategy to counter the Modi onslaught?
We don’t lack a strategy and we are going to people on the strength of what we have done. What I tell you is not untruthful or boastful, but what the others say is false. The average income in Gujarat is Rs 2,472 — which is well below the national income. Modi claims that investment and MOUs signed since 2003-04, during the various Vibrant Gujarat summits, is more than $1,000 billion, but the RBI says that Gujarat is at number six and in reality the FDI inflow is $8 billion. Even on social indices, all BJP-ruled states are weaker than the Congress-ruled ones. What kind of leadership is there? If Gujarat is a rich state, what do these figures tell you?
Modi’s strengths are only in Gujarat. His development model and claims are boastful and false. Let’s see how the national voter votes. This is a great country. We are not supposed to be teaching him history, about where Alexander turned back or where Syama Prasad Mookerjee died and he got his ashes.
Their marketing and branding, and how they put together the campaign, are good. It is attractive but when you look at the end product, it is, maybe, substandard. People should not waste their vote on someone who does not understand what India is and lacks humility. It is the right of the RSS to nominate and the BJP to rubber-stamp it. Talking of Modi sarkar shows authoritarianism of a disturbing kind. It is for the BJP leaders to worry whether they are part of that government, because it is one individual. However, our approach is not one, but all.
Raj Kamal Jha: So how would you read a Modi victory?
I don’t want to walk into the partisan propaganda. I believe in the collective wisdom of young Indians. They will be careful in choosing and we can’t pre-judge or pre-announce the verdict because it is disrespectful to the voters. Why is there this impression of a Modi victory? Can we announce the verdict nine months before the election? They did it last September.
Rishi Raj: How are things being dealt on the United States International Trade Commission (USITC ) issues on India’s compulsory licences and the intellectual property rights (IPR) regime?
We are clear that India is fully compliant with its international obligations and multilateral agreements, including Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and WTO. What we have is compliant with the WTO. We say that we will not even attempt to discuss TRIPS plus issues because any improvement in TRIPS has to be multilateral. Compulsory licences (CL) in pharma and healthcare are important to them also and Indian generics support the availability of medicines and public healthcare in 87 countries.
In antiretrovirals, the costs went down from $13,000 per patient per year to $1,100 in the mid-’90s and now it is less than a dollar a day. We have never taken the executive route for CLs but the US has invoked this flexibility many times. We have only taken the adjudication route and that too for an anticancer drug. The issue is section 3(d) of the Patents Act because we don’t accept ever-greening. Minor tweaking before the patent expires in the name of a new patent is a false claim and our laws and TRIPS do not accept it. There is a cartel of MNCs behind this. In fact, the US has placed three orders with Indian pharma companies to make available cancer medicines for American patients. There is no way that India will accept anything that’s TRIPS plus. We will protect our domestic industry and the poor countries. After the US, India has the highest number of drug master filings and FDA approvals. The number one country of our generic exports is the US. This shows how good we are.
Shruti Srivastava: FDI in multi-brand retail trading has not taken off. Is it because of the threat of the Opposition or lack of clarity of policy?
The policy has clarity. One approval has gone through, and the second will also hopefully go through. I can’t divulge the details. I agree that a lot of disservice has been done to the investors because a Cabinet decision on policy was taken but was disputed by the Opposition. We have never reversed any decision of an executive nature. They moved 100 per cent multi-brand retail trading but we didn’t reverse it. Our policy has certain requirements for rural infrastructure but they dragged it to a parliamentary debate and lost in both Houses. Then they went to the Supreme Court which also endorsed the policy.
Some 12 states responded positively. Punjab said ‘yes’ in writing but ‘no’ in public but never withdrew the letter. Gujarat never responded in positive or negative and sought more clarifications. They never said ‘no’ but kept that window open. Modi gave a new life to this now when he recently spoke to the traders. I hope the BJP is listening now. Why did Guajrat not exercise the option then? Modi should explain his position. Also, as the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee, he should ask the CM of Rajasthan to withdraw the letter. When we gave the option to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, those who exercised the option were then notified. This is not a revolving door. He should give an apology and include it in the party’s manifesto. In Delhi, there was an elected government in office which took a decision and communicated to the government of India. We are not a banana republic.
Shruti Srivastava: What is the legal position on the states withdrawing from the policy?
The states have exercised and exhausted the option. The intent of the policy is stability and predictability.
Manoj CG: Rahul Gandhi has not met corporate representatives. Will his manifesto deal only with social issues considering his lineage with social programmes?
He has met FICCI and captains of the industry more than once. He met a CII delegation twice. These were closed-door consultations. Both the finance minister and I spent three hours with the representative groups of industry leaders for their inputs which will get reflected. The manifesto must reflect a balance as social agenda is important. He is talking of the manufacturing policy and industrial corridors. If he talks of only the economic policies, then we will be accused of favouring the rich.
Surabhi: Between UPA-I and II, which is more successful?
UPA-II assumed office in the backdrop of severe financial crises. We offered three stimulus packages which took away 3 per cent of the GDP. This was followed by a drought but food security was ensured. Farmers have seen an increase of MSP and disposable incomes. We are number one in rice and two in wheat. We brought about awareness through transparency. The malaise was always there but it is only coming out now. We must bear in mind that in a sharp downturn, we are not insulated and India gets affected. We have done well. The biggest policy rollout is the national manufacturing policy which is under implementation.
We also have our share of criticism. Perhaps communication is an area where we could have done better. Telling people who we are. We did not counter what was being said — untruths, sensationalism and vilification of a sincere government. Rahul Gandhi has been talking about it. In every speech, he does. We should have done better in communication.
Dilip Bobb: Businessmen are considered pro-Modi and many of them critical of UPA-II in terms of reforms and decisions.
Decisions were made and not only social legislation but also policy rollouts. We opened up FDI in multiple sectors. If people become prisoners of cliché, it is sad. They got carried away by India Shining in 2004, and now it is ‘I-me-my-Modi’.
D K Singh: Is it a golden handshake by the Congress, to move Sheila Dikshit to Kerala? As the first national spokesperson of the Congress, are leaders like you still relevant?
Things have changed and evolved. Earlier, general secretaries used to communicate and be in charge. It is not a handshake to move her as her experience can be used. We are a 127-year-old party. Some decades ago, I was a young leader and now we have moved on in age. Congress believes in infusing young blood, that’s why we have survived. The young are important and the old have to be encouraging to make space for the young. We are very much relevant.
(Transcribed by Kirtika Suneja)