Union Law and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad asserts that India is at the cusp of a digital change, says comments made by former CJI were “avoidable”, dismisses rumours about Justice Khehar’s elevation, and underlines the need for an institutional change to make political transactions transparent.
Why Ravi Shankar Prasad
The Ministry of Information Technology, headed by Ravi Shankar Prasad, lies at the centre of the Prime Minister’s push for a digital economy. The minister believes that the country has embraced the new platform, inspite of the realities on the ground. His role as Law Minister also assumes significance at a time when the Centre and the Supreme Court are locked in a tussle over the new Memorandum of Procedure for the appointment of judges. The senior Supreme Court lawyer says that the government is willing to walk the extra mile to resolve the issues.
RAVI SHANKAR PRASAD: The powerful thrust on digital India is for building an empowered India, an honest India, and an accountable India. This was long overdue. Notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 denomination formed 86 per cent of the cash transactions. (After demonetisation) Hawala is down, Maoist activities are down. A very unique scenario is emerging in India now. My take is that Indians first observe technology, then they adopt it, then they start enjoying it, and then they become empowered in the process. How do you explain India being home to five billion mobile phones? What is important here is India’s passion for technology. India is indeed sitting at the cusp of a digital change.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: You say India is at the cusp of a digital transformation, but at the same time, even in a city like Delhi, the problem of Internet connectivity is huge. There is the problem of call drops as well. Is the government taking steps to change that?
Two things: this is not a new problem, but this extraordinary platform has expanded inspite of these problems. Secondly, the government has done a lot of things to reinforce the tower, the BTS (Base Transceiver Station), and help with Internet proliferation and the spread of digital economy. We will also have new players coming in with better services. India’s digital economy is going to become a one trillion-dollar economy in the next three-four years.
In the past one-and-a-half years, we have seen 42 mobile manufacturing units in India, and 30 charger ancillary units. About 11 crore mobile phones have been manufactured (in India). Noida and Greater Noida are emerging as a big hub of mobile manufacturing. A lot of Chinese companies have established base in West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and in the south. We say come make in India for India and also export outside, to the neighbouring countries and the Middle East.
SHEELA BHATT: When Pramod Mahajan started the India Shining campaign he was also talking about similar things.
‘India Shining’ in itself wasn’t wrong. Maybe, its communication strategy was different. If you ask my view, and I was also a minister in that government, the better expression would have been ‘India has begun to shine’.
The India of 2016-17 is vastly different from the India of 2001-02. Now, people have accepted the power of this new technology. They appreciate its transformative character because it is impacting them. That is how I see it. And in pure political terms, we are winning everywhere, isn’t it?
We cannot run away from the realities of India, but inspite of all the realities, India is changing.
SHEELA BHATT: Justice J S Khehar has taken over as the new Chief Justice of India. When do you think this underlying tension between the Executive and Judiciary will dissipate?
Our commitment to the independence of judiciary is complete and total. This government is led by Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Ravi Shankar Prasad, all of whom have fought against Emergency. During that time, three freedoms were under question — press freedom, individual freedom and the independence of the judiciary. This government is led by a Prime Minister who has suffered for the sake of the judiciary.
Secondly, the NJAC (National Judicial Appointments Commission) Act was piloted by me. Except for Ram Jethmalani, who walked out from the Rajya Sabha, we had 100 per cent support for it. The Supreme Court quashed it. We accepted that.
The SC also said that the collegium system needs to be improved (2015), that there needs to be more transparency. Let me for the first time publicly share my own observation on the judgment as a student of India’s Constitution and law, and not as the Law Minister. The crux of the reasoning of the SC is, because the Law Minister is a member of the collegium, therefore when any judge is appointed through that process, then a litigant with a case against the government may feel otherwise. So will the judge be fair or not? They (the SC) quashed it. This is the sum and substance of the judgment.
I have said that we have accepted the judgment. But if the mere presence of the Law Minister creates doubts about the impartiality of the selection, then a larger question has to be raised. The Prime Minister is the principal player in the appointment of the president of India, the vice-president, the three chiefs of the armed forces. He is the main player in the selection of the chief election commissioner, the central vigilance commissioner, the Police Service Commission. I hope you understand my point. He has a nuclear button in his hand. The people of the country trust the Prime Minister to do so much, which he does either by himself or along with his ministers. The PM as the leader of his team can do all this, but he cannot be trusted to appoint a fair judge? That is the larger question.
But again, I repeat, we have accepted the judgment. The second observation I’d like to make is that we have the highest regard for the Chief Justice as well. But some of the public observations by Justice TS Thakur (the former chief justice of India) were avoidable. And in particular, I would like to say today, that on August 15, on the SC premises — I was present at the function and I didn’t say a word — the way he castigated our government on judicial appointments… The PM did not speak a word from the ramparts of the Red Fort… It’s unheard of. But I wish him good luck.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: If you have accepted the judgment, why is the government sitting on so many appointments and transfers?
I think if the judgment is binding on the government, then it is equally binding on the judiciary. What does the judgment say? The government of India is supplement to the Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) designed to make the collegium transparent for screening and appraisal of candidates. And upon the recommendations of the government, the Supreme Court Chief Justice will take a view with the unanimous advice of the members of the collegium. On August 3, I sent my government’s view. It is pending there. Therefore, I had to do something, but the MoP also needed to be finalised. Having said that, under the old collegium system, the SC is found to be lacking in fairness and other things.
We have appointed several chief justices of the high court, 126 fresh appointments have been made and 124 additional judges have been made permanent. I will not get into the nitty-gritty of the MoP because that is pending, but I would like to ask that with seven vacancies in the SC, why have no names come up in the last one year? There are 5,000 vacancies in the subordinate judiciary all over the country. Subordinate judiciary is filled up by the high court itself, either through an examination or recommendation to the Public Service Commission.
But I would say it is a collective call. And as the Law Minister of India, let me say it very clearly and categorically, we are willing to walk the extra mile to complete the process.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: There was a lot of speculation over the elevation of Justice Khehar.
I am aware of a whispering campaign. As per the MOP, the sitting chief justice recommends the name of his successor. And the day the name came up, I sent the file to the Prime Minister and he cleared it. Justice Khehar is a very distinguished judge and the judiciary is going to be deeply enriched by his presence. We never had any doubts over Justice Khehar’s elevation.
SUNIL JAIN: What is your view on the recent SC judgment that bans seeking votes in the name of religion, caste, race, community or language?
The earlier judgment said that, and I have only gone through it cursorily, that plea of caste, religion, language etc, can only be made by the candidate or his agent with his approval. There were questions then about the caste, creed and religion of the electors. This bench’s decision, by a four-three split, has held that even the religion of electors will come into being. The SC judgment is there. But Justice M B Lokur has also said in the judgment that every case shall be decided based on the evidence available.
SUNIL JAIN: Say, for instance, someone says Dalits have been discriminated against in India and you vote for me because we will stop this discrimination, is that allowed?
In fact Justice D Y Chandrachud in his judgment has discussed this. We will have to see.
ANIL SASI: If a digital and cashless economy was the ultimate aim of demonetisation, why weren’t technology-based apps such as Unified Payments Interface (UPI) and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) pushed earlier?
Remember one thing, the few people who abuse the system are very smart. If despite maintaining so much confidentiality, they have tried to abuse the system, some bank managers… My government has been very tough. Rs 7,800 crore has been recovered, some bank managers were sent to jail. A lawyer, whom I have hardly seen practicing ever, has shown an earning of hundreds of crores. See, if these things (UPI and USSD) were improved upon earlier, some indication would have gone out.
Digital payment is going to push the innovative spirit of India. The better the product, the better the acceptability. I see a lot of start-up companies coming up with new products.
PRANAV MUKUL: India is ranked second in the list of countries seeking user data from Facebook and its companies, WhatsApp and Instagram.
Our commitment to freedom of social media is complete. We are using the platform to spread information. But I will check up on the numbers, that is all I can tell you. The information is sensitive in nature. If some of the content is not removed, it will lead to mayhem. Internet is one of the finest creations of the human mind, but then there are a few people who abuse it. There has to be a balance and blend.
ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: How much of the total money deposited since November 8 is black money? Do you have an estimate?
Let me tell you one thing very clearly, jitna paisa bank mein hai, sab white nahin hai (All the money deposited in the bank is not white). You must ask Arun Jaitley this question. Mr Jaitley, the Prime Minister and I, we have all said that those who have deposited money will have to declare its source, and whether tax has been paid for it.
This is also where the digital platform comes in handy. You have 3.5 crore taxpayers in the country, roughly. But out of this only 24 lakh people pay tax of Rs 1 lakh and above. Is that a good base? We need to increase this base. It won’t be difficult (to monitor the accounts), the Tax Department can do it because now tax is filed online. So it will need a little hard work, but it is not difficult.
ANAND MISHRA: But don’t you think the digital platform needs more time to grow. The numbers for digital transactions in India are still very low.
I share your concerns, but let me give you the positive side of it. See the e-commerce boom in India, how do you explain it? There is no government support for it. Indians have an innovative spirit.
Also, it is a question of habit. Just look at the way placing orders online and digital transfers have picked up. In fact when I asked a postman in Hapur, ‘Aap logon ki halat kaisi hai (How are you doing)?’, he said we feel better. He said people are ordering phones etc online now, and we have become relevant again. So all I am saying is, let us wait. Digital revolution, e-commerce, mobile revolution, this is all evidence to show the digital propensity of Indians.
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: Bengaluru has been iconic in terms of the digital revolution. But look at what happened on December 31. Several women were allegedly molested in the city. Do you see a paradox between our talk about building virtual infrastructure while the real, on-the-ground law and order seems to be crumbling everyday?
It is regrettable, condemnable and shameful. It was a failure of the local police and the administration. But without impinging upon the shameless character of the incident, let me say this, look how India has revolted. See how young girls are reacting, how the civil society is reacting. There was an instant reaction and strong condemnation by the peopleof India.
NANDAGOPAL RAJAN: Is there a fear that in this push for digital India we will actually end up creating monopolies of a new kind?
No. I will give you a parallel. Indians by temperament loathe monopoly. Our government will never encourage monopoly. The way mobile revolution has taken place, the way e-commerce has shaped up, India is now home to the biggest innovative industry. On the contrary, I see a lot of competition and our government will encourage competition.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: Given the push for a digital revolution, will the BJP take the lead and promise to accept donations only thorough digital transactions?
The Prime Minister has publicly stated this, even in his address on Doordarshan, that it is time for the political process to change. So why not? If the Election Commission takes a lead… But one party cannot do it, it has to be a trans-party process. Number two, institutional change is also required.
ANAND MISHRA: Are the comments made by Rahul Gandhi — ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’, his stand on the land Bill — a concern for the government?
No. Most of the comments made by Rahul Gandhi are juvenile. He is bringing a new low in the political discourse of the country. We have to respond (to his comments) because media picks it up, and then it becomes 24/7 news. We need to set the record straight.
ANAND MISHRA: Do you think it was easier to convince people about demonetisation than going cashless?
First of all, it is not cashless, it is less cash. You can have legitimate cash. We have said ‘digital payment’. Let’s just leave it to the people of India. Empirical evidence suggests that we are winning everywhere after November 8. From bypolls, to Lok Sabha elections, to municipal elections, from Chandigarh to Chhattisgarh to Gujarat to Maharashtra… Let us leave the final analysis to the great wisdom of the people of India.