WHILE an “irresponsible” Opposition was trying to paint the BJP as anti-Dalit, the Modi government was committed to ensuring that the SC/ST Atrocities Act is not diluted, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said at the Express Adda here on Saturday.
“Those promoting these agitations want the government to be seen as anti-Dalit. But sorry, we are not giving them the opportunity. We are with SC/STs. For those who want to make political capital out of a social guarantee given by our Constitution, I am really disappointed… that instead of fighting for (SC/ST) rights, they are building distrust… For the last 60 years, you (the Opposition) haven’t done anything for them,” Sitharaman said.
She added that it was a court that had ordered change in provisions of the SC/ST Act. “These decisions are not of the government. The dilution in the Act would mean that a few benefits given to the Dalits, just to take their fight for justice a bit forward, will all go. We are not in favour. We will not dilute it,” the BJP leader said.
The Express Adda is a series of interactions with people at the centre of change.
Sitharaman said no government in the past has been put constantly on test as the Modi government. “Questions never stop. This government, if anything, has faced tonnes and tonnes of questions. We are continuously put on test… ‘Prove yourself in Delhi, Bihar, Assam… and now Karnataka’.”
She added that unlike the Opposition, the BJP never talked of losing trust in the government when it was on the other side. “When corruption was rampant, we did not lose trust… But for everything, they say, trust is gone. On the Dalit andolan (protest), the trust in Modi is gone. On media, trust is gone.”
Asked about the controversy surrounding a recent circular by the I&B Ministry as a means to curb fake news, which was later withdrawn, and the uneasy relationship between the media and government, Sitharaman said, “Why would media lose trust with us? I thought you now have a lot more opportunities to question the government… During Kapil Sabil’s time (when (Section 66 A of the IT Act was brought in), none of us lost trust in the government. Rajiv Gandhi got a bhayankar kanoon (dreadful law, on defamation), no trust was lost. Now for everything, it is either this or ‘India doesn’t exist the next morning’.”
The first woman to hold full-time charge of the Defence Ministry, Sitharaman said that after the ‘surgical strikes’ against Pakistan, “We are finishing them off at the border. If that makes the border hot, so be it. We can’t allow them to come in and after that strategise on how to deal with it… which becomes terrorism on our land. So the policy is not to keep it hot or cold, it is more to make sure that it is timely, relevant on the ground, rather than allowing them to come in and determine the rules of the game.”
To a question on how 68 per cent of the equipment used by the armed forces was considered dated, the Defence Minister said, “There is rapid removal of old and vintage and (bringing in of) modern. That is happening simultaneously. In the mandated five years we are trying to rapidly change, modernise, bring in capacities.”
She took a dig at the UPA defence procurement policy, adding that the NDA government wanted to be correct, transparent and place everything on record. “Each one takes six-six months before you take the next step. So there is always this sense of we are not up-to-date… The Israelis have got something, the Russians have something else… We are always catching up because we have given ourselves such a foolproof procurement process.”
Sitharaman added that the NDA government had taken two years to simplify procedures and in 2016, introduced a new procurement policy. Since then, she said, procurement had gone up rapidly. “There is not one case pending before the defence acquisition council, and all the three forces have reprioritised their requirements.”
On those questioning the government’s defence policy based on a parliamentary standing committee report, Sitharaman said, “The same report will tell you that the Vice-Chiefs have been given all the necessary powers. They are procuring the ammunition required, emergency powers are with them, adequate money has been given to them. The financial muscle given to them is enhanced. Before this Budget, the IAF for instance wouldn’t have reached a 105 per cent of utilisation of funds, the Army has used about 98 per cent, and similarly the Navy had utilised all its funds much before the Budget… If the GoI expenditure is taken on account and used as a base, we get 16.6 per cent of total expenditure of the GoI as budget for defence,” she said.
On the Doklam stand-off, she said that post the “disengagement”, “on August 28, 2017”, “Each one of us has moved back. They to the north and we to the south. What they do further north is what is getting a lot of coverage. Post that, if they move… we have to keep a watch, be alert.”
On AFSPA, Sitharaman said her ministry’s views reflect the government’s view.
The minister also talked about her struggles being an outsider to Delhi and a woman. “It used to be just one set of clothes, one bag full of clothes and one set of friends… There was a time when I was a little hesitant… But then you are so much soaked into what you want to do, you just put up with whatever facilities are available.”
At the Adda, Sitharaman was in conversation with Express’s National Opinion Editor Vandita Mishra. Guests at the event in the past have included the Dalai Lama, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Union minister Nitin Gadkari, filmmaker Karan Johar, and oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee.