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Nirmala Sitharaman interview: ‘Fight us in House, attract smaller parties, keep us under watch…but Cong moving further to fringe’

Nirmala Sitharaman Indian Express interview: "I think the Congress party is losing a golden opportunity to show the people of India that they have been in power in this country for several decades and today being in the Opposition they will give that advantage to the Parliamentary system."

From Covid, health, and economics to ED and Delhi riot politics, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman speaks to The Indian Express.

From Covid, health, and economics to ED and Delhi riot politics, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman speaks to The Indian Express. Excerpts:

Six months since Lockdown 1 began, what has changed from where you sit?

All of us were facing a situation never been seen for generations. So the earlier focus was on adapting, responding to that change; hearing out difficulties from the ground. Now it’s keeping pace with the changes, calibrating the response. So six months gone hasn’t really reduced the challenges, their nature has changed. The Ministry is now quicker in responding; it has understood these are things for which they have to be on their feet constantly.

https://images.indianexpress.com/2020/08/1x1.png

What concerns have reduced, what haven’t? There is a steady surge in cases.

No, I’m not even going that far. I’m looking at it more from the point of view of how long we still have to go on with these preventive measures. Wear your mask, keep your social distance, wash your hand, you are doing all this with no material change…you don’t have a sure-shot vaccine, you don’t have a clear-cut end date. There are some reports of people who were cured, some getting it back. These are big uncertainties playing in the minds of entrepreneurs, small and medium. They are very worried to what extent can they expose their staff; to what extent can they go out there — like earlier — to access raw material. The good news is the rural areas, there the spread is probably lesser than anyone would have thought, their economic activity is back. And that is the big story which I suppose the Indian economy can draw comfort from.

What’s the corporate sector telling you?

In fact, at three o’clock today (September 26), I had a big industry leader call me — he is not in India but has units here. When I was telling him what I have heard from industry here, he said it matches with what he wanted to report about his units.

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That production and utilization of capacities are almost near pre-COVID levels. From many areas, workers have started coming back; industries are spending resources to get them back, offering them a slightly better deal. In some industries, pickup in export of produce is far better than the domestic pickup. Some good news I heard from some core industries, for example, steel, which has seen a strong demand from China. Then labour-intensive areas like textiles, hosiery, have started using their full capacities.

But the service sector remains badly hit.

That’s right. Hospitality, hotel, tourists are really badly affected. You hear in some pockets, domestic tourists have started coming. Hopefully, there will be some improvement in the festival season. Weekend destinations closer to metros have started seeing people coming for a day, those tired of being locked up. Food takeaways are showing some signs of activity. There is a mixed story about revival.

We have been talking to a range of officials who have had meetings with the Prime Minister. Many of them talk of increasing expenditure, pushing financial sector reforms. But there is disquiet that three months have passed since the package and the government is risk averse, it’s not willing to spend.

Well, no, I don’t think there’s any such hesitation. You’re right, the Prime Minister himself heard — I was present in each one of those meetings — cross-section of experts, economists, political observers, industry leaders, business leaders, chambers of commerce, everyone. Some people have written to the Prime Minister, which he duly forwards to me, and we also look into it.

The AtmaNirbhar package consists of so many different things for so many different sectors… it’s not as if what we announced got exhausted within 24 hours. Actually, it’s rolling on even now. Take the example of this emergency liquidity guarantee. We have expanded its scope from MSMEs now to cover proprietorships, partnerships, and even individual professionals. So, what was announced (across the board) has expanded in its scope and scale.

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Migrants at New Delhi railway station (File)

The funding of NBFCs has increased; banks have been given more liquidity. RBI lent them at far below the repo rate to the extent that now they are returning the money saying we have enough, we’re spending it.

NABARD brought in another Rs 45,000 crore over and above what it used to give for farmers so that they can have that extra cash as they looked at Rabi sowing. So that original Rs 90,000 crore, and this Rs 45,000 crore, have expanded the access of liquidity for farmers.

We are also looking at simultaneously opening up and doing some systemic reforms, that’s where your labour codes, your agricultural APMC come in.

What about extra spending?

I am not closed (on) the option… doing all this, we have kept ourselves open to the idea of… in case, there is any need for further stimulus.

Within the government, we get an impression there is risk aversion on pushing expenditure this year… one fear is will it reach the right hands.

None of this is true. First of all, there is no risk aversion the way you are saying. Two, it can’t be on these grounds. DBT (Direct Benefit Transfer) being in our hands, an instrument which no other country has, why should we be worried about whether it will reach the person it is meant for. I will, of course, time the way…as to when I want to do the stimulus…

Another argument against spending is that money that went into Jan Dhan accounts is sitting there, no one is spending.

If you are giving me an impression that you got in June, I will agree with you. That’s not at all the case now. The additional Rs 2,000 for farmers released is reaching people, otherwise why do you think the rural economy is all robust; without money being spent, to buy raw materials or seeds or medicines. Tractor sales, agriculture equipment sales, have gone up. People are saying our business in rural areas is doing well.

So what’s the dashboard you are looking at to decide when and how to intervene, and where?

I’m looking at banks and their reportage. Which are the sections who are taking it? Are they retail, agriculture loans, are they student loans, are they homebuyers? If one gets that picture, then you’re able to see which are the sections desperately reaching out and taking the help of the institutions. That analysis is happening.

Were you surprised by the protests against the farm Bills?

I am not surprised, I am disappointed because the extent to which consultations had happened, not just with stakeholders, but MPs were asked for their views. I must give credit to Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar for having gone through the rigour, for talking to the people, taking their inputs, and then bringing it to the Cabinet.

When I announced it in AtmaNirbhar, by that time itself, most of the consultations were done. And amazingly, these are the very things most parties had committed themselves to.

Farmers protest in Patiala (Express photo by Harmeet Sodhi)

Why didn’t you say yes to a select committee?

(They would have said) when it’s in the select committee, what’s the need to go for an Ordinance. There is no end to the debate because the debate is not on the merit of the matter. Ask us that one question where we can’t answer you.

Another aspect to the risk-aversion, officers tell us, is look at the Arun Shourie ITDC disinvestment case. The CBI files a closure report, Special CBI court issues an arrest warrant 18 years after the sale.

One thing is very clear, the PM and all of us are constantly ensuring that the decisions are fairly and collectively taken. There are committees of Secretaries, there are committees of inter-ministerial group of Secretaries, the Air India Special Group of Secretaries; then there is the Group of Ministers. So, there is the first layering of all decisions, taking it through the hierarchy, and before the Cabinet takes a decision, there are so many people who are brought into the system of decision-making itself. Clearly, no one Secretary is going to feel, I am alone who is signing this file, God knows what will happen to me after I retire.

There is a perception that Enforcement Directorate is the new CBI. Its abysmal record of convictions, its potential of harassment, we see in the Sushant Singh Rajput case.

I am not commenting on any one particular case. But it’s also a time where we have to understand that globally, too, there is this very serious concern about money laundering. Now largely, what does the ED deal with? It deals with PMLA (Prevention of Money Laundering Act), which are clearly money laundering cases, and ED on its own doesn’t book any case, it has to be a case which the CBI is handling, and if there is a money laundering aspect to it, ED comes in.

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Yes, I agree, ED has very severe challenges. They want a Letter Rogatory issued for some fellow who’s gone away. Or he’s in some tax haven with his money. That process itself takes more than 360 days. In the meanwhile, in the court, your chargesheet, 90 days business comes in. Then we’ll pull up the ED saying look you went with it to the court, but you’re not even in a position to file a substantive chargesheet.

He would then say, look, I’m waiting for a reply to come from this particular country or that particular country. So, the mismatch in terms of response, which is critical for a chargesheet, also makes ED appear as if they’re just trigger happy.

FM Sitharaman talks about Sushant Singh Rajput death case

Coming back to Sushant Singh Rajput case, because ED got the phones first, it didn’t find any evidence of money being siphoned off as the father had alleged; then the WhatsApp chats went to Narcotics. What started off as a suicide of a young man, the way it has morphed…

Matter of fact is I don’t know. How much of an attention a particular case should be given is completely in the hands of the agencies. I may not be able to even tell them why you are overdoing here? Why are you exaggerating here? I can’t, I’m not privy to many of the operational details. It can’t be that the minister is sitting and lording over them. Not at all. They should have the independence to do their job professionally.

Agencies need independence but take the Delhi riots. Students chargesheeted based on ideology. This is perhaps the first riots case where debates, protests are being linked to violence; when civil society, academics are being questioned. There is fear on campus that being anti-BJP could get you named in a chargesheet linked to violence. How do you see this?

There’s no question that young people should have freedom. I’ve been part of that (JNU) university. And I’m not commenting on any one particular case. That said, big student protests have happened earlier; big violent protests have happened earlier. Academics writing about any one issue in which they feel very strongly about (has) happened earlier.

Now, I’m asking you a question: protests happening now, is there an aura added to it because it’s against this government whom we love to oppose? When protests happen now, I find it gets gilt-edged, it attains a certain halo, oh, look at this. And it’s followed up by a lot of international voices quickly. And it, therefore, acquires a greater traction.

I will give you this example. We still believe in our courts however long-drawn their process is. That’s why we even quote in international fora, that whether it was a terror accused in the (26/11) Mumbai attack, caught red-handed, we ensure due process from every stage until the mercy petition to the Rashtrapati. We believe in the institutions in this country.

PB Mehta writes: Delhi riots chargesheet invents conspiracy and enemy, as per script

The riots in Northeast Delhi left 53 dead. (Photo: Praveen Khanna)

…(And then) people who should believe in the institutions of this country write about an elected Chief Minister to the US President that deny him visa, don’t allow him to come to your country.

They were also professors, scholars, thinkers, there were Members of Parliament in it at that time, didn’t they believe in this country’s judiciary? Some of them today are joining in the same protest against this government. The same set of people today are saying there is fear, that the thin line between protest and violent riots is lost.

Tell me one individual, let him be a journalist, let him be a writer, who has been held or chargesheeted because they attacked the Prime Minister or spoke about the BJP or spoke about us, any ministers.

Whereas I’ll name non-BJP states, where journalists have been arrested, questioned, how many such protesters are put inside for questioning.

Rajasthan, you have an example. Maharashtra, you have an example. Kerala, you have several examples. So, everything that happens is thanks to Modi, is it? What is the questioning of a journalist in Mumbai or what is that which is happening in Rajasthan — Dalit atrocity in Rajasthan — goes unnoticed. No professors or teachers or thinkers write about that.

Yesterday in Telangana, an honour killing happened. Professors, where are you? Kerala, such a major incident is happening every day, about thrashing political opponents. Where are the professors writing about it? West Bengal, you utter a word against the government there, I’m not talking about individuals, people are hanged in public on branches of trees. Tell me where are the professors writing letters about that oppression.

But even that oppression is thanks to Modi, even what’s happening in Maharashtra is thanks to Modi, what happens in Kerala is thanks to Modi when it comes to these kinds of things.

But all over the country 83 crore people are getting free food, that’s not thanks to Modi. The poorest of poor getting Rs 1,500 directly into their accounts during the lockdown, no middlemen. That’s not thanks to Modi.

FM Sitharaman talks about Delhi riots chargesheet

So the politics of the protesters undermines their right?

They are not just being academics or theoreticians or ideologues, they are wearing their politics on their sleeve. And making sure that when they talk against this government, the international community, the league, the Old Boys Club they built over these last 50 years, is invoked. So that immediately there can be an international outcry.

Anybody we will align with, so long as it’s against this particular government, this particular leader, this particular ideology, this particular set of people, and that’s where it doesn’t stand the scrutiny of being objective. And when it doesn’t stand the scrutiny of being objective, being an academic, being an ideologue, being somebody who thinks about India, completely gets watered down.

But to call your critics anti-national?

Let us understand: who’s calling anybody an anti-national? Has any one of us done it? No. People out there can do it. Calling anyone anti-national is wrong? Yes, it is wrong. But what was the other way around? We don’t believe in our systems, we go outside to achieve our norms, you did that.

We have not written to any country saying please stop so and so from coming. We have not written to any country saying, Oh My God, I’m scared to live here, I want to get out the moment X gets elected. Or the moment X gets elected, I will run away, my wife will run away, we don’t want to live in this country…Who’s uttered these kinds of things, they may not be anti-national, but they did enough, because some people who are great icons for the youth, when they say these sort of things, today you also have the some mocking them and saying: Oh, why didn’t you go, X has got elected? Haven’t you gone?

We got used to this country of quiet, accept-everything… today when people are, everybody is their own lord, they’re speaking out…everybody’s flashing their own opinion, you call them the unbound unwashed masses. You don’t want to hear them. You say they are not (in) my league.

These are voices long silenced?

Absolutely, and intellectuals have to sit down and listen. And such voices which didn’t have a voice earlier, may say what manners, what decorum? And today, there is a powerful tool in your hand (the cellphone). Every fellow is using it. This is not a tirade against one ideology. There are people accusing every minister, too. You are useless, you resign. Certainly not my fans. So those who are with you are also speaking this language. You may choose to put hate on me, but I am receiving hate. The maturity level of our so-called self-appointed liberals is to be questioned.

What do you mean by maturity?

There should definitely be a lot of engagement, a lot of talking, a lot of hearing one another’s point of view.

Your party has been in power for six years and, going by numbers, is as strong as ever. Doesn’t that mean the onus is on you to give space. There will be critics, there will be noise, some critics will be very partisan…You can’t paint everybody with the same brush.

Of course, I want to ask who’s painting, if any one of us has even remotely painted, pull us up. I’m fully willing to stand up and say, yes, sorry, that was wrong. That was off tangent.They say you painted all of us anti-nationals, tell me where have I (done that)? I want to know when.

CAA is a classic example. You built a narrative outside, and said, this is going to mean that minorities in this country will be stripped of their citizenship. Just show me one Indian citizen non-Hindu who has been denied citizenship, who has been stripped of citizenship.

Conversely, from Afghanistan and from Pakistan, how many people who are oppressed because they are religious minorities, whose cases are coming up, are saying please save us, we desperately want to come. Whether they are Sikhs, whether they are Christians, whether they are Hindus, have they come or not?

Tell me which aspect of CAA is the cause of fear: Sitharaman

But there is fear.

So tell me which aspect of CAA is the cause of fear. You want to have your figment of imagination thrown at me. I may not be able to answer. But here I am standing in Parliament, here I am standing outside and saying show me.

If you are a Muslim and you have heard the Home Minister talk about chronology, and you know you have no representation in Parliament in the ruling party, you know that CAA is the first Indian law that excluded your faith…then comes along a video of a Muslim man being harassed, all this reinforces fear.

That is exactly my point. Five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, many things happened. But when it is Prime Minister Modi’s government, even what happened 5, 10, 20 years ago, in some remote village, it attains a certain traction because that’s the level to which certain people in the Opposition would want to go to undermine an elected government. It is definitely undermining the elected government. People have given a vote, it’s a solid vote, majority, but I can’t digest it. I will do anything to disturb the stability of this country. You are unable to remain out of power and fight for the causes close to your heart.

Come fight in Parliament. Demand things you want to demand for those sections who you say are living in fear. Come, fight, ask us.

To contain or suppress this fear is wrong. But you should address it. And if you have to address this fear, here we go… a, b, c, d… Do that. You don’t want to do that. You don’t want to sweat it out. You don’t want to think constructively. You want to continuously keep destabilising this government.

Whenever Congress has been in Opposition, or whenever there is fear they will go into Opposition, they have done everything to remain in power, inclusive of Mrs Indira Gandhi, who knowing what the Allahabad High Court decision is going to do to her, twisted the Constitution to continue being in power.

I will compare here again, till before 1998, was there a chance for BJP to come to power? Didn’t BJP play its role of Opposition? And in the Opposition, didn’t they raise issues which matter to the people? And only because of that, here was a responsible party, gradually from two, today we have come to 303.

And even in the recent past, when UPA I and UPA II was there, Congress repeatedly reminded us, even though you were very disruptive in Parliament and all that, but we played a role in the Opposition. We didn’t choose to sit on the sidelines and kindle fear, we didn’t stoke fear. We didn’t give statements like aar paar ki ladayi ho jaayegi.

(On the CAA debate), at a time when people have to come out as responsible Opposition to say, don’t worry, we tried doing it (countering the law) in Parliament but because we didn’t have the numbers we couldn’t, but we will engage with the government to ensure nothing goes which you fear. They didn’t do that on the CAA.

What was the statement given? Aar paar ki ladayi ho jaayegi…

Till today, these 18-23 people who are writing letters, professors, thinkers, writers, never questioned Congress leadership to say, what does that line mean? Will that lead to riots? Is that a responsible line to take?

Congress and the level of maturity of their leadership, is such that they can never play the role of a responsible Opposition. And more so, now. They have moved further to the fringe.

The suspended members sat on a dharna outside Parliament on Monday.

Numerically, the Opposition is far weaker.

The Congress’s number may be small, the other small parties should look up to you. I remember, Sushmaji (Swaraj) in Lok Sabha and (Arun) Jaitleyji in Rajya Sabha would be like a magnet, attracting all small parties saying hum sab question karenge.

Here we find that completely absent. And to then go into a denial mode and say this government is not engaging with us, is unfair.

In a democracy, the Opposition plays an equal, if not, more significant role. We look forward to having them do that. I felt in the Rajya Sabha, the leader of the Opposition, if anything, I was very saddened when I heard him speak. The role of the leader of the Opposition has been undermined, he said in Rajya Sabha. I am not sure if it is the House which is undermining the leader of the Opposition or the Congress party’s internal politics is undermining him.

I think the Congress party is losing a golden opportunity to show the people of India that they have been in power in this country for several decades and today being in the Opposition they will give that advantage to the Parliamentary system. The public will feel confident that there is this responsible party which knows how to govern the country, and therefore when it is sitting in Opposition, we are sure the government will every now and then be watched, pulled up and made to answer. It is not doing that.

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