A day after former Finance Minister and senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha, in an opinion piece in The Indian Express, critiqued the growth slowdown and the government’s handling of economic issues, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley hit back Thursday saying he does not have the “luxury yet of being a former finance minister” to “conveniently forget a policy paralysis” or of having been removed as finance minister.
Speaking at the release of the book India @ 70, Modi @ 3.5: Capturing India’s Transformation Under Narendra Modi by Bibek Debroy and Ashok Malik, Jaitley took a swipe at Sinha, without naming him, to say that perhaps the book should have been named “India@70, Modi@3.5 and job applicant@80”.
“I do not have the luxury as yet of being a former finance minister. Nor do I have the luxury of being a former finance minister who has turned a columnist and, therefore, I can conveniently forget a policy paralysis, I can conveniently forget the 15 per cent NPAs of 1998-2002, I can conveniently forget the $4-billion reserve left in 1991 and I can switch over and change a narrative,” Jaitley said.
Without naming predecessors Sinha and P Chidambaram, Jaitley said they have “decided to act in concert because speaking on persons and then bypassing the issues is something which is very easily done”.
He said he had done his own “little research” and went on to cite remarks made by Sinha against Chidambaram in the past.
“One said of the other: Chidambaram will have to be born again to match my record as a finance minister. He then linked Finance Minister Chidambaram to an incompetent doctor for failing to curb India’s alarming fiscal deficit and then he went on and said ‘I accuse him of running the economy down to the ground.’ He then said that ‘Chidambaram is the most conceited person.’ He then went on to accuse him of bugging his phones. Today with complete responsibility I want to say when I raise the issue of Aircel-Maxis, Chidambaram ordered my phone to be bugged,” Jaitley said of Sinha.
And referring to Chidambaram’s past remarks against Sinha, he said, “The other one was not to be left behind and he said, ‘I thought Sinha would be happy to remain a distant memory for the people of India. However, since he seems determined to stay relevant in his party, I am obliged to call his record during his four years as finance minister. I may point out that 2000-01 and 2002-03 were the worst years since liberalisation in terms of growth and PM Vajpayee had then to force him out and replace him’.”
In September 2012, Sinha had alleged that Chidambaram had ordered tapping of his phone over the issue of the Aircel-Maxis deal. In May 2014, Chidambaram had described Sinha’s term as finance minister as “the worst years since liberalisation in terms of growth”, following which Sinha had commented that Chidambaram will have to be born again to match his record as finance minister.
Jaitley said that when he first entered Parliament as a minister in 1999 and made a speech related to the Bofors issue, BJP leader L K Advani had advised him to speak on issues, rather than persons. “…after I finished my speech, our senior leader, Mr Advani, who was sitting next to me, congratulated me and emotionally held my hand and made a very interesting comment which I have repeated in the past. He said: ‘When you speak in Parliament or outside, speak on issues, avoid speaking on persons’. Of course I have breached this rule once in a while, but I have tried to follow it as far as possible.”
He said he was glad that they (Sinha and Chidambaram) “didn’t have Mr Advani to advise them. But then acting in tandem itself won’t change the facts”.
Jaitley remarked that a new ideological divergence was emerging in India, which had been conventionally not there in the last 70 years.
“In a democracy, ideological polarisations will always take place and I can see across the country, a new ideological polarisation taking place in terms of both acting in tandem, and on several issues taking a stand in convergence amongst the ultra-Left in india and the extreme jihadi elements across the country. And therefore, the alternate ideological pole to the one that we represent is now converging around this particular thought and it is quite evident their electoral base is very narrow. And therefore, if they were to contest elections, probably winning seats would be extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible,” he said.
He said if one looks at areas such as university campuses, media, some writers, some civil society activists, those who traditionally occupied the central space have “virtually abandoned that space” and on most issues have actually become “cheerleaders of this thought which seems to be emerging”.
“As an alternative pole to this, that traditional classification of who is the Left and who is the Right, I think this labelling in India will get diluted. Therefore, the pole that I represent in terms of ideological position naturally becomes… has the responsibility of not only having replaced the Congress party at the centrestage of Indian politics but also then becomes a natural protector of the state,” Jaitley said.
On the economy, the Finance Minister said the irony was that after the government took charge, in the first one or two years, “the favourite comment among those unable to reconcile was that these are incremental changes, there is no big bang”. But the biggest criticism that he faced in GST, he said, was why did he do it so quickly and that he should have delayed it a little more.
He said some “teething problems” were expected from the GST rollout. The government, he said, was working on the low rate of the compliance burden as far as small, medium sectors were concerned. He said he was keen to implement the electoral bond scheme which was in its final stages, “so that political funding in India is legitimised and that underground funding comes to an end”.