New Law and Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad says just as the Vajpayee government was known for building national highways, the Modi government will be known for the broadband highway. In this Idea Exchange moderated by Senior Editor (Legal Affairs) Maneesh Chhibber, he also makes it clear that in both the portfolios he holds, changes will be seen in tandem with the new government.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: This is a verdict of hope. The kind of majority that we have got is a very proud moment for Indian democracy. The motto of our campaign was to deliver good governance, which India was sadly lacking, and people have trusted our motto. Our Prime Minister is the most hardworking leader. In the decade-plus years that he was chief minister, he did not take even a single day’s leave.
During the entire campaign, he used to reach Ahmedabad late in the night, meet his core campaign team and governance team in the morning at 6:30 and again leave for the airport. And even after this hectic campaign, he did not take a single day’s break. Right from Day 1, we are all on the job. And we’re sure that under his leadership we will fulfill the mandate that the people have given us. The situation is really bad in the economy, infrastructure and investment. On Thursday, I addressed all the officers of the Telecom Department; there is demoralisation, lingering apprehension. We have to do a lot of things to change this, and we will do our best.
Maneesh Chhibber: A number of Bills are pending in the Law Ministry, many of these are constitutional amendments. How do you propose to take them up?
We will take them up on a priority basis. Issues pertaining to national judicial commission will surely be taken up. If some more improvement is needed, I’ll go for that; if some wider consultation is needed, I will be open to that.
Raj Kamal Jha: You said that you met your staff and there were lingering apprehensions. Can you elaborate on some of them?
I am talking about the Telecom Department. This ministry has been in the news for the wrong reasons. The first thing I did was to call all of them; it was a great experience for me. I’m now sure that the Government of India has best officers possible, and they must be given time to work. I assured them that decisions will be taken in a transparent manner, without being influenced by any extraneous consideration, these will be objective, taking into consideration national interest and consumer interest, and we will work as a team. I asked them to open up, come up with ideas.
Sunil Jain: A few weeks ago, the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal came down heavily on the Telecom Department, saying it may have been misleading the government for over three years on 3G intra-circle roaming. When you say the Telecom Department has been in the news for the wrong reasons, how do you plan to change that?
I don’t dispute that it has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. So many licences have been cancelled, there are judicial interventions, the issue is in public domain. The first and foremost thing which is required is to assure confidence. And the first thing I said after taking over was that decisions will be taken in a transparent and non-discriminatory manner. If the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was known for national highways, the Narendra Modi government will be known for broadband highway. That’s one idea I’m going to pursue very strongly.
Sunil Jain: But your bureaucrats were taking anti-business decisions actively.
I will have to take a look at the TDSAT order. It is a judicial judgment, I should not comment on that.
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: An ordinance was issued to appoint Nripendra Misra. You already had a strong majority and people agree that the order of the TRAI Act that people should not be allowed post-retirement appointment was draconian. Was it necessary to have an ordinance?
First, the focus was an individual officer. Nripendra Misra is known for his impeccable integrity, outstanding professional competence and extraordinary experience both at the state and national levels. Once the PM chose to have him as his principal secretary, it was found that this was just a technical glitch. If the PM is going for the word ‘Go’ from Day 1, he needs to have a principal secretary.
Shyamlal Yadav: The UPA government implemented the RTI Act. There are apprehensions that your government will kill the Act.
I don’t think there is any basis for this apprehension. Much of the groundwork for the RTI Act was done in the Vajpayee government. RTI existed but governance was a casualty (with the UPA). RTI is certainly going to be respected, but governance is going to be restored. That’s the mantra of the Narendra Modi government.
Aneesha Mathur: What is going to be done with the judicial accountability Bill? Can we expect any action considering the debate over the collegium system?
We are going to have a national judicial commission. It is important, but many eminent voices felt that they were not heard, there is a need to hear them more. I will look into that.
Rakesh Sinha: Last week, Kapil Sibal said that he had asked the solicitor general to clarify before the Supreme Court in the Snoopgate case. He said that he had never said that the probe won’t go on. What is the status of this?
As the new Law Minister, I should not be intervening between the former law minister and the former solicitor general. As far as the present case is concerned, I will have to examine it. The concerned lady has gone to the Supreme Court and said, ‘I don’t want this, please spare me this agony’.
Sunil Jain: One of the first things that you talked about was ‘tax terror’ and you said that ideally, you should not have retrospective taxation. But how will you deal with the current lot of cases — whether Shell or Vodafone?
I have never used the word ‘tax terror’, that’s your coinage. I said that the entire taxing regime must be stable, transparent and assuring, and it shall be my endeavour to ensure that Indian investors have a feeling of stability. These were my exact words as both the Law and Telecom Minister. As far as follow-up action is concerned, income tax initiatives are managed by the Finance Minister. Talking of arbitration, one of the issues I have asked the Law Ministry to work on is, ‘What can we do to make India a hub of international arbitration?’.
Ritu Sarin: You already have a big arbitration centre in Delhi.
But we don’t get much international arbitration here.
Ritu Sarin: There is an impression that the Law Ministry becomes a hub of manipulation because all departments and ministries, whether it’s the CBI or Finance Ministry, send things to them for reference and law officers are often pliable. What firewall would you want to build against such an impression?
I’m not handling this department for the first time. Earlier I had held it for an year and I don’t think I gave any cause for concern to you. It all depends on how you lead it. I can assure you that, under my leadership, things will be straight and decisions will be taken on merit.
Ritu Sarin: The second thing that’s been hanging fire is directorate of prosecution under the Law Ministry.
I have to check, because even in the government there are two views on that. First we have to take a structured view of the government because a lot of debate has come up and a lot of difference of opinion exists.
Sunil Jain: On the issue of arbitration, one big problem in a case like that of Reliance is that the government denies everything, and hence this cannot be brought under arbitration. How do we ensure that arbitration awards given in India or abroad get implemented? How do we ensure that the government starts admitting cases for arbitration? In Vodafone, the government was not even willing to accept the arbitration.
First of all, don’t fasten upon me the follies of the previous government.
Sunil Jain: But as far as arbitration is concerned, if somebody files a case against you, are you going to say this does not fall under this thing or will you agree to appoint an arbitrator?
If there is a provision for arbitration, then why not? But if there is a grievance about the award, any party, even the government, has the right to proceed further.
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: What are your first thoughts on the Cabinet? Will you have Cabinet meetings daily or weekly? Will you take up any Bills in this session of Parliament?
Regarding the Bills, that would be decided in consultation with other departments. The governance of Narendra Modi will be different. He gave an indication of that even before he took over, asking all the secretaries to give a presentation on three points — what went wrong, what decision helped it go wrong, and if you would had been given the authority, what would you have done differently? Number one, it is going to be a very interactive government, led by the Prime Minister. Number two, it will be a PMO-driven government. Number three, it will not be a government for the GoM, of the GoM and by the GoM. Decisions will not be delayed. One of the issues the Prime Minister has highlighted is that delivery and implementation are equally important in governance, and ministers must ensure that whatever is there must be delivered and implemented properly, because implementation aspect is many a time ignored. I would also like to highlight that it was a momentous event of oath-taking, but did you see any member of the Prime Minister’s family there? There is also a manner in which he gives his messages.
Maneesh Chhibber: You referred to his family not being there. Does it also have to do with the fact that in the previous government, there was too much of a family?
No, I am not going to raise that issue.
D K Singh: A lot of judicial activism seems to be impinging on our policy making.
No, the Constitution is very clear about the segregation of the judiciary and the Executive in terms of policy-making. It all depends on how we govern. The alibi of judicial activism should not be resorted to to cover your own inaction.
Muzamil Jaleel: One of the first decisions the BJP government took was reinstating police officer G L Singhal. His name had come up in Snoopgate case which is being investigated. He was involved in fake encounters.
I would not like to get into the specifics since the matter is subjudice, but I know from my experience as a lawyer that the rules of the game are very clear — that you cannot be kept under suspension for an indefinite period. So long as you are in jail, you remain suspended. Once you come out of jail, if your trial is pending, the government can take a review upon considerations.
Muzamil Jaleel: But his name is there in an ongoing investigation. He is the main guy in the Snoopgate case. How would that impact the investigation?
About Snoopgate case, I have already made my comment. Beyond that I don’t need to add anything. Snoopgate cannot become the benchmark for assessing the suitability of an officer.
Ravish Tiwari: How do you read the mandate in Bihar and what suggestion do you have for your friend Nitish Kumar?
The first thing, on a positive note, he congratulated me over the phone after I became a minister. After so many months, it was nice to hear his voice. Bihar has always been blamed for everything wrong with our society and polity — casteism, mafia, etc. But see how the people of Bihar have responded. They gave Lalu Prasad four seats and Nitish Kumar two. Narendra Modi was an issue in Bihar even before he became an issue nationally, from 2010. The people in Bihar never appreciated the breakup of the BJP-JD(U) alliance. And the kind of reasons Nitish Kumar proferred for that never cut ice with them. I think Nitish paid very heavily for that. As far as Lalu Prasad is concerned, he carries a lot of baggage with him. Both his wife and daughter lost. I had never expected that these two leaders would join hands within a week of defeat.
D K Singh: What if Nitish wants to come back?
I think that question doesn’t arise.
Ritu Sarin: You’ve announced your 100-day programme, but your team is not complete. What was the reason for not announcing the full Cabinet? Was it because too few candidates or too many?
The Prime Minister is focusing on a full five-year mandate. It is entirely the Prime Minister’s decision to have a small team to work well. Given the mandate Narendra Modi got, your question about too many pressures is not relevant.
Abantika Ghosh: What happens to the communal violence Bill?
I think a view has to be taken about that. There have been many apprehensions that the communal violence Bill has certain elements which are different in context. Why has there been no riot in Gujarat for the past 10 years? And why so many riots in Uttar Pradesh? Do we need a communal violence Bill? Why has proper relief not been given to so many victims of Muzaffarnagar or Assam riots? These are issues of governance and commitment. A Bill is not the only thing that can save people. Yes, there must be accountability. Those officers who are responsible must be taken to task.
Aneesha Mathur: There are some slightly contentious issues before the courts and the government — mainly the issue of Section 377 (which criminalises homosexuality) and making marital rape a criminal offence. What can we expect from the government?
My approach will be positive. I will have to examine what stand the government has taken and then respond to it.
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: There was a case which had come to the Law Ministry — the SEBI Bill, an ordinance giving bigger powers to police ponzi cases and others. You have also appeared in some such cases. What is your view?
Ravi Shankar Prasad, the senior advocate, and Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Law Minister, are two different entities. Yes, I have appeared in many cases, but that was my professional obligation. Now as a Law Minister, I am a totally different entity. I can only reply on principles. Transparency in the stock market ought to be there. Transparency in an investment ought to be there. But existence and exercise of power should not bear in a manner that genuine people become hesitant to conduct economic operations. How we blend the two is the larger issue.
Sunil Jain: One of the hallmarks of the Narendra Modi government was to downsize the Cabinet, to merge ministries which have a synergy. Power and Coal, for instance. What is the synergy between Law and Telecom?
That is the discretion of the Prime Minister.
@id2talk*: Do you have any plans regarding tackling crimes by minors?
A minor’s rights have to be respected. But equally pressing are concerns of the victims of their crimes. You have seen the case of Delhi gangrape. A very serious concern was expressed in the courts as well as to how someone is being given the benefit because he is supposedly a minor. We need to find a healthy way.
Maneesh Chhibber: The previous chief justice of India talked about the need to have fixed tenure for the CJI. Do you think that the idea needs to be given some thought?
It is a tentative idea. To enable the Executive to consider it properly, there must be a structured view by the judiciary itself. It is an off-the-cuff remark by the former CJI. The judiciary hasn’t spoken about it in one voice. If they do, we will think about it.
Transcribed by Aneesha Mathur & Siddhartha Gupta
* Twitter handle of a reader