Sonia Gandhi in the well was a new low…even Rajiv would have not behaved this way: Ravi Shankar Prasad

Sonia Gandhi in the well was a new low…even Rajiv would have not behaved this way: Ravi Shankar Prasad

Union Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad says the Congress stalling of Parliament was meant to derail passing of the GST Bill, tells Nitish Kumar he cannot claim to be the ‘epitome of Bihar DNA’.

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Chief of Bureau Maneesh Chhibber, who moderated this Idea Exchange session, with Ravi Shankar Prasad at The Indian Express office. (Source: Express Photo by Ravi Kanojia)

Union Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad says the Congress stalling of Parliament was meant to derail passing of the GST Bill, tells Nitish Kumar he cannot claim to be the ‘epitome of Bihar DNA’, and dismisses claims of mobile phone radiation as part of a ‘sinister’ campaign.

Why Ravi Shankar Prasad?

Union Minister for Telecommunications and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad is spearheading the government’s move to make telecommunications more consumer-friendly. His ministry is in the news for blocking 857 porn websites briefly and is at the centre of the net neutrality debate. The BJP leader is expected to play a key role in the coming Bihar polls too. As key spokesperson of the government, Prasad has been at the forefront of the NDA’s attacks on the Gandhis, targeting them for the whitewash of the last Parliament session.

WATCH VIDEO: How Many Times Will Sonia Gandhi Repackage Rahul Gandhi, says Ravi Shankar Prasad

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Ravi Shankar Prasad: This session Parliament witnessed a new low. I have been in Parliament since 2000. One can debate, one can bitterly talk, but howling and screaming for so long? I have rarely seen that. The Opposition has a role, but should it be at the nation’s cost? The last Parliament session was the most productive in the last eight-nine years — we passed the insurance Bill, the mining Bill, the coal auction Bill, the pension Bill. The Congress cooperated, to be fair. Rahul Gandhi became uncomfortable about this cooperation over passing of Bills. I suspect that Rahul and Sonia Gandhi knew that the Sushma Swaraj issue would not be a tangible debate. The real reason, as Arun Jaitley said, was that they wanted to derail the GST Bill.

If I have to explain in one word the difference between the UPA’s and NDA’s approach to GST, it is that Mr P Chidambaram, unlike Mr Jaitley, could not forge a consensus.

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi feel they have the divine right to be the permanent residents of 7, RCR. How can you explain Sonia Gandhi coming to the well of the House?

If you set the bar so high — demanding Sushma’s resignation — give and take is not possible. So, Sonia Gandhi coming to the well for the first time is not only reprehensible, it shows the mindset. They cannot oppose the BJP otherwise.

Many Congress leaders I talk to in confidence are uncomfortable with this kind of politics. Rahul Gandhi is now effective number two in the Congress, the attempt to make him number one being without success. This frequent repackaging of Rahul Gandhi will not give any boost to the Congress. Wherever he has gone, the party has lost. I see a pattern in frequent launching and relaunching and packaging and repackaging of Rahul Gandhi. After vacation, he will get repackaged.

Moving on to the Bihar elections, the happiest moment (for us) is Nitish Kumar sitting on the shoulders of Lalu Prasad, and claiming the plank of good governance. He has forfeited that right completely. Lalu Prasad is everything that is not good governance. I think my state is heading towards a very profound change. People will see through their game. Bihar election is important, and we will do our best.

WATCH VIDEO: NDA Government Intolerant Of Dissent?

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MANEESH CHHIBBER: Your party has been accusing the Congress of not letting Parliament function, but one doesn’t see anything changing. The non-NDA opposition continues to be in majority in Rajya Sabha, so how are your Bills going to get passed?

Apart from the Congress, almost all are on board. The Left is always left out, and we need not worry about them. But physical prevention of voting has taxed our patience. The PM has said that ‘I know, yes, we also used to raise slogans’… But some of the most extreme forms of slogans were raised against Modi. We all heard them, very provocative, but we kept quiet. I must tell you that he still trusts the wisdom of the Congress to realise that they have become 44 and that if they persist, they will become 4. In many states, they are down to minus10, including in Bihar.

COOMI KAPOOR: Why did you go ahead with censorship of porn sites?

Let me clarify that I did not go ahead with it. A PIL seeking a ban on pornography sites was pending since 2013. (We have told the court that) we cannot ban things in the privacy of one’s house. The government also clarified that it did not want to do ‘moral policing’… But the matter is serious, and action needs to be taken. Let the state decide its stand….

WATCH VIDEO: Ravi Shankar Prasad Talks About The Upcoming Bihar Elections

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MANEESH CHHIBBER: Talking about Rahul, after all the name-calling, do you expect the Congress to support you in the next session in passage of Bills?

We do not need their support in the Lok Sabha. But in the Rajya Sabha, they can debate, they can seek amendment and withdrawal of a particular clause, but if they feel that they will just disrupt any legislation, let the country also see it. We will persuade, we will discuss, we will debate. It is for the Congress to decide whether the bitter confrontational politics of Rahul Gandhi, patronised by Sonia Gandhi, should become the standard of the party.

LIZ MATHEW: There has been a lot of criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not speaking in the House. He chose to address the NDA MPs instead of speaking in Parliament. What is the party’s explanation?

The PM is a very effective communicator. What is the guarantee that the Prime Minister would have been heard by the Congress party? Sushma Swaraj was being pilloried by them for more than a month. We were ready for a debate from day one. You saw the entire drama, she was not allowed to speak, they were forcibly moving towards her. You want the same scene to be repeated in the case of the Prime Minister? That is our concern.

Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, she spoke something outside the House, none of us appreciated it. She withdrew the comment, she apologised in the House. The Opposition said let the PM come, and he came and said, ‘She is new, hails from a socially disadvantaged community, I am sorry’. For the next three days, they said sack her.

Rahul Gandhi needs to grow up between slogan shouting and speaking in Parliament, which Arun Jaitleyji also said. Because ultimately, let me tell you, the Congress party’s history in destabilising the Chandra Shekhar government, Inder Kumar Gujral government… it is too well known, I will not recall it here.

Even Rajiv Gandhi in opposition never behaved in the manner Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are behaving. How do you deal with this situation in the howling and screaming, and in the forcible prevention of someone from speaking? That is the point.

WATCH VIDEO: Future Strategy For Legislative Business

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SUBHOMOY BHATTACHARJEE: Do you feel the BJP did not do its homework on tackling the Lalit Modi controversy in the House? The issue was expected to dominate the session.

Debate, yes. Noise, yes. Growling, yes. Screaming, yes. Derailment of two-three days, yes. But an entire washout of 15 days? When the session is physically prevented from being held, what do you do then is my question. It is a very sad day for us that the Congress party asked for an adjournment notion, we agreed and they agreed, and they kept on shouting for one hour. Once the Question Hour ended, they started the debate. Sushmaji got up and they agreed to hear in patience. But what happened thereafter? Has in the history of India a lady Speaker or any Speaker’s house been surrounded by semi-naked workers of a party? Rahul Gandhi is yet to say a word against this kind of behaviour. He still maintains his silence on 2G to Coalgate to everything.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: Do you think the suspension of 25 Congress MPs took your momentum away?

In hindsight, you could have waited, yes. But seeing their behaviour, I don’t think anything would have (happened). The Speaker can take his/her call. It wasn’t the first time that people have been suspended. To address your question squarely, even if the suspension had been withdrawn, I don’t think they would have allowed the House to function.

WATCH VIDEO: PM’s Silence On The Controversies

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SANTOSH TIWARI: Why don’t telecom ministers operate from Electronics Niketan?

I wanted to tell you that the day I entered my chamber, there was no puja. Even the chair has not been changed. This is how I work. I can proudly say that the corridors of Sanchar Bhavan are free from middlemen and lobbyists. I am happy to say that today we have about 98 crore mobile phones in India.

But a sinister campaign is going on over the so-called radiation issue. It is wrong. Some 30,000 surveys have been done, and there is no evidence of any dangerous impact. I have seen judgments of various high courts and expert committee recommendations, and I am very clear — if any unmotivated tangible evidence comes out, I am ready to look into it.

UTKARSH ANAND: The Supreme Court has quashed Sec 66 (A) of the IT Act. Does the country need a new law as far as social media posts and online defamation are concerned?

On Sec 66(A), again I have a legacy issue because the PIL was pending before I became the minister. When the file came to me, I asked my department to tell our lawyers to take their time, that I would revisit the whole guidelines if need be, I would reconsider the Act itself. The Supreme Court said no, they will consider it. Thereafter, in the counter-affidavit, we said very clearly and categorically that our government completely supports freedom on social media.

LIZ MATHEW: We have heard that the PM and PMO often deal directly with officials in the ministry bypassing the minister. Can you tell us something about the relationship the ministers have with the PM?

I have had the privilege to be in the Cabinet of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and I am in the Cabinet of Narendra Modi. It is as democratic as possible. The PM gives us full space. I cannot divulge the secrets of the Cabinet — I am under oath — except that whenever any agenda is there, the minister concerned makes his point, the other ministers make their points, there is a full debate. Yes, the PM and PMO monitor the implementation very effectively, and that’s what the parliamentary system of governance is.

SANJAY SINGH: Is the government planning to have additional spectrum for telecom operators? They complain of not having enough spectrum.

I would appeal to the operators to use the present spectrum effectively and properly for 2G, 3G etc… I have heard that many of them are storing it for 4G. I don’t appreciate this ‘always lack of spectrum’ alibi and not taking the step that you are supposed to do to reinforce optimisation. Acquisition of customer is fine, but you also need to fulfil your obligation towards the customer. That is equally important.

ANKITA DWIVEDI JOHRI: Narendra Modi’s campaign manager is now working on Nitish Kumar’s campaign strategy. Is that a cause of concern for your party?

If campaign managers could have won elections, Rajiv Gandhi would have never lost. Campaign managers are just campaign managers. If you advertise a product, the product itself must be saleable. Narendra Modi won because the people appreciated him, as a product to redeem India from the mess of the UPA. Nitish Kumar cannot win Bihar on Prashant Kishor’s strategy in the company of Lalu Prasad. It is very important to note that since the day Nitish left the BJP, Bihar’s crime graph has been growing, investment proposals have come down, there is no industry, there is not even a single private university or major investment in Bihar. Till 2012-13, when we were together, Bihar received Rs 17,000 crore worth of investment, now it has come down to Rs 7,000-8,000 crore. Therefore the product should be good, not the patron and promoter.

LIZ MATHEW: Nitish Kumar is using Modi’s DNA remark to evoke ‘Bihar asmita’. The Prime Minister had similarly evoked Gujarati pride during the state elections and made chaiwallah comments during the general elections. Was the DNA comment a mistake?

I was present on the dais with the Prime Minister in Muzaffarpur and all of you have seen what he (PM) was saying.

What is this? That you give a dinner and you withdraw. I have never discussed this, but let me say it. I am in the BJP’s National Executive since 1995. Even the Congress chief ministers used to give us lunch or high tea at the time of Atalji and Advaniji. But Nitish Kumar said, no, if you have to come, come without Narendra Modi. He returned the relief fund for Kosi floods too. Is this a part of Bihar DNA? The way Jitan Ram Manjhi was treated — is it a part of democratic DNA? That’s what Modi said. Nitish took it as “my DNA”.

My reply to Nitish Kumar: I am also a Bihari. The DNA of Bihar is of Jayaprakash Narayan, of Rajendra Prasad, of Karpoori Thakur, of Veer Kunwar Singh and a whole range of other big leaders. Please don’t claim to be the epitome of Bihari DNA, that is not fair.

P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: There is a growing impression that the NDA government is intolerant of dissent. When (HDFC Chairman) Deepak Parekh said he is not seeing much work happening on the ground, one of your Cabinet colleagues told industry chambers he should have not said that. TV channels who showed Yakub Memon’s lawyer got notices.

Number one, our government is headed by Mr Narendra Modi who won by massive support from the people of India. How much harassment and humiliation he had to undergo in the last 14 years — the kind of cases that were filed against him in the Supreme Court, the kind of orders that were passed… Today I can tell you, the matter is over. He was put through nine hours of interrogation and nothing was found against him. You talk of victimisation, but did Mr Modi at any point in time react? The reason I am saying this is to show the tolerance level of my Prime Minister. What happened to him in Snoopgate? It was the most malicious propaganda at the onset of elections. Look how he handled it. So please, for heaven’s sake, don’t question our tolerance levels.

As far as these specific instances are concerned, we always welcome criticism, why not? I don’t know which minister spoke to him (Deepak Parekh), but we do our best. As regards notices to the channels, we are completely for freedom, but maybe some people have the feeling that since three hearings (in the Yakub case) were given, this could have been handled with a greater degree of poise. If a notice has gone, they can reply and the matter will be addressed.

RAGHVENDRA RAO: You called Sonia Gandhi trooping into the well as a low witnessed during the session. Don’t you think she had a good provocation to do so?

Therefore you will not allow Sushma Swaraj to even speak, in spite of humiliating her in full public view for two months? Provocation is not important — I think more pernicious remarks were passed against her son-in-law in the past. What is important is a sense of responsibility. If Sonia Gandhi trooped into the well due to provocation, then I can say what her partymen are doing.

Express Opinion

ABANTIKA GHOSH: How far is the government willing to go on the GST? Will you concede to the Congress’s demand of inclusion of alcohol, tobacco and electricity?

The government doesn’t have to take a call, the council of ministers has to. If they want alcohol or 10 other things, they will consider. The consensus was on fuel and fuel products, therefore the GST council will take a call. Here we are acceding to the federal principles in toto whereby the state finance ministers in consultation with the Union Finance Minister have taken a call.

MANEESH CHHIBBER: You staked your government’s complete first year on the land Bill. You brought in three ordinances. But now there is a U-turn. What do you think compelled the government to do that?

There is no question of a U-turn. A view has come that many state governments do not want to be caged in by the legislation. ‘Give us the freedom’ — that suggestion has also come.

It was not strategic at all. On the contrary we walked the extra mile to accommodate them (opposition and states). They said bring a joint committee, we agreed even to that.

LIZ MATHEW: On the Lalit Modi issue, Mr Jaitley has said that this government has taken stringent steps. If Lalit Modi has to go to Portugal tomorrow, would this government allow him?

How can I reply to this question? Sushmaji has replied. It was (for) his wife who had to undergo an operation. As of now there is a legal process, a red corner notice has also been issued. Therefore, it is what Mr Jaitley said in plain and simple terms, that Mr Chidambaram and company deliberately did not take the right actions and initiatives against Mr Lalit Modi.

The most humorous was that blue corner notice, applicable only to airports in India, when the gentleman was in London — that itself shows.


Mr Chidambaram is saying that I will do my best.

Transcribed by Somya Lakhani & Pallavi Chattopadhyay