This edition of the Express Adda, held at Express Towers, Nariman Point, Mumbai, saw former Union Minister and senior Congress leader P Chidambaram in conversation with The Indian Express National Opinion Editor Vandita Mishra and National Affairs Editor P Vaidyanathan Iyer. Chidambaram took questions from a select audience, speaking about reservations in universities, nationalism, banking reforms, and the challenges facing the Indian economy.
On the suspension of AIMIM MLA
Jawaharlal Nehru explained ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ by saying Bharat Mata means the people of India and the slogan ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ is victory to the people of India. I don’t think anyone has any quarrel or qualms about saying victory to the people of India. But when a political party appropriates that slogan and says this is the definition of patriotism, then I reject that definition. I think on more careful reflection, the (Maharashtra) Assembly should not have suspended that MLA (AIMIM MLA Waris Pathan, after he refused to chant ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’).
On BJP appropriating the nationalism plank
Well, I don’t think the BJP will succeed in appropriating the nationalism plank. We have other powerful voices. Kanhaiya Kumar in JNU is another powerful voice. There are other voices in other colleges. I think we are all patriots. We all cherish our beliefs but refuse to be told that unless you raise a slogan you are not a patriot. I would have no hesitation at all in saying ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ but I can’t dictate to another person that unless you say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, you are not a patriot.
On Afzal Guru and the ban on The Satanic Verses
As a member of the government, which prosecuted Afzal Guru, I am bound by the judgement of the Supreme Court. But if another person holds an honest belief that the degree of involvement of Afzal Guru was not correctly determined or that the punishment imposed in his case was disproportionate, he has the right to hold that belief.
(On the Rajiv Gandhi government imposing the ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses) In hindsight, looking back 25 years… although the context was very different. I think banning books doesn’t serve any purpose.
Of the three objections we have raised, practically everyone has endorsed two objections. Why can’t the government endorse the two objections? On the third objection, the only reason which the government gives is that ‘there is no precedent’. But that’s wrong. The very bill introduced by Mr Jaitley — in one clause, he has put one per cent in the Constitutional amendment bill. That bill is the precedent. If you look for another precedent, Article 276 is a precedent, where for professional tax, the Constitution imposes a cap. Therefore, the precedent argument is no argument.
On the Ishrat Jahan case
The issue is not whether Ishrat Jahan was a terrorist or not. The issue is, can anyone be killed in a fake encounter? I can give you four examples in recent times when the government has framed the debate in a wrong way. The issue in the University of Hyderabad is not whether Rohith Vemula was Dalit or non-Dalit. The issue was, can a first-generation learner from a poor background be driven to such desperation by an insensitive university administration that he is forced to commit suicide?
On the changing profile of college campuses
The composition of our universities has changed. And I don’t think any of us recognise the change. Except in the southern states and in one or two other states, where there has been reservation for quite sometime, by and large, universities did not give space to people from the background of Rohith Vemula or Kanhaiya Kumar. What UPA II did when we introduced 50 per cent reservation in universities, was I think the most transformational social change of that period of India’s history. I was in IIM, Bangalore, a few weeks ago. Fifty per cent of the class today is from the scheduled caste, schedule tribe and OBC. These boys and girls are bringing a very different kind of experience into the universities.
Rohith Vemula or Kanhaiya Kumar bring their childhood experience, the discrimination they faced, the neglect they faced, the struggles of their parents to the university. Imagine 20 years ago, a boy like Kanhaiya Kumar becoming JNUSU president.
Therefore, their world view, their experience, their struggles are different and that is getting reflected in universities today. This is the storm that is gathering across the country. The evidence of that storm is visible in universities and other public spaces. It is not easy to get 5,000 or 10,000 students every third or fourth day on the streets of Delhi. But, these students are passionate and they are coming out on the streets on every third or fourth day. That is the gathering storm I was referring to. And if we ignore the storm, we ignore it at our peril.
On challenges facing the Indian economy
I don’t question the CSO’s figure. I have been part of the government for many many years. I don’t question the integrity of those numbers but how many here feel in their bones that the Indian economy is growing at 7.5 per cent this year? Why are exports down from 15 months ago? Why is credit growth limping along at about 9 per cent? Why are the figures showing that sales are down six per cent?
You asked me what are the major challenges facing the Indian economy. I think there are three. First is aggregate demand. Nothing has been done that addresses the issue of sluggish aggregate demand. The second is private investment. The Chief Economic Advisor himself has admitted that two of the four engines of economic growth have virtually stalled — exports and private investments. If investors are not willing to invest in India, that is the problem you should address. The third problem is exports. Fifteen months in a row, never in India’s history, have exports been negative.
On caste violence in Tamil Nadu
In many parts of India, we make our reformers into icons and we junk reforms. It’s sad that the state that gave Periyar EV Ramasamy, who campaigned all his life for the abolition of caste, should have now descended into a virtual state of tribalism. Caste lines are more firmly drawn today than I can ever recall. It happened about a couple of years ago with a Vanniyar boy in Dharampuri and it has happened again with a Dalit boy and a Thevar girl. I am truly ashamed of what’s happening in Tamil Nadu, especially people who kill because two young people have fallen in love and married but belong to different castes. I married outside my caste and I remember with great pride that EV Ramasamy wrote an editorial in his paper on that day, celebrating my marriage outside my caste. But today, 45 years down the line, if people will kill because two young people, a boy and a girl belonging to different castes, have married, I think that’s truly shameful.
On NPAs and banking reforms
NPAs didn’t start with UPA. In fact, NPA is a combination of NDA and UPA. NPAs have turned for the worse after the global recession in 2008. It so happens that the UPA was in office in 2008 but whoever was in office, if there is a global recession, it will affect India, it will affect India’s economy. I don’t think it is correct to say that NPAs have risen or NPAs have fallen and connect it to who was in government and who was not in government. Of course, there must be banking reforms. But there has to be a consensus among the people of India that we must privatise our public sector banks. I am afraid there is no consensus.
Ajit Ranade | Chief Economist, Aditya Birla Group
Your ’97 budget is called the ‘dream budget’. This was the first time that dividend income was made tax free in the hands of the receiver. Is it fair that someone who is getting a 100-crore dividend today is not paying any tax and someone who is getting a Rs 3-lakh salary pays an income tax of perhaps 10 or 20 per cent?
Dividends are taxed, except that they are taxed when the payment is made out, rather than in the hands of the recipients. I think the CBDT came to the conclusion that dividend distribution tax is a more efficient way to collect the tax than dividend tax. And I fully endorse that view.
TJ Ravishankar | Director, JN Tata Endowment Trust
Why is it that when we talk about NPAs in India, the focus is only on the public sector banks? Don’t you think it is time people also look at private sector banks?
I am sure the RBI looks at private banks also. But I think as a broad statement, the NPAs of public sector banks are much higher than those of private sector banks. The reason is that private sector banks do not lend to those sections whom the public sector banks lend. Private sector banks don’t lend that much to agriculture and to weaker sections. Public sector banks have certain social obligations, which require them to lend to certain sections, which is why NPAs are higher in public sector banks but nobody is excusing NPAs of private sector banks either. I am sure the RBI will look at their books also.
Feroz Abbas Khan | Theatre and film director
Since you were also the Home Minister, is Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA ) a part of Kashmir’s problem or part of its solution?
I wonder how may of you have read AFSPA. It empowers an officer to use force “even to the causing of death”. I have not come across any law in any civilised countries which carried those words. A police force is not expected to use force even to the causing of death. It can only use force which is proportionate. I think AFSPA is a blot on our country. It should go, lock stock and barrel. It can be replaced by a more humane law. In fact, the then NSA and I drafted the amendments to AFSPA. I am quite clear in my mind that AFSPA has no place in a civilised society.
Ambi Parmeswaran | Executive Director and CEO, DraftFCB Ulka
There are 36 million income tax assesses in the country according to a report and 90 per cent do not pay any taxes, 2 per cent declare an income of Rs 20 lakh and you have said that 42,800 admit to a taxable income of Rs 1 crore. Why did your government not use data to make the other 28 million people to pay tax?
We did. Look at the number of tax paying assesses when UPA took office and when UPA demitted office, there is a considerable increase. The highest tax to GDP ratio was when I was finance minister — 11.9 per cent. We took it up from 8.5 per cent. But since then the economic downturn, the global recession, has affected it. But every effort must be made to raise the tax to GDP ratio. So, we must continue to press the accelerator to get more direct taxes.