Senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha’s article criticising the government on the poor state of the economy caused a stir in the NDA government, and prompted the Prime Minister and several senior ministers, including Ravi Shankar Prasad, to defend the growth numbers. The landmark Supreme Court judgment, declaring privacy as a fundamental right, with questions being raised about its impact on Aadhaar, has also made Prasad’s role as Law Minister crucial. As the Minister for Information Technology, the Rajya Sabha MP has been working on creating a model framework for regulating the online marketplace.
RAVI SHANKAR PRASAD: The fundamentals of the Indian economy are strong, whether it is inflation, current account deficit or FDI. The Prime Minister has made an extraordinary initiative, that is to make the Indian economy from informal to formal, from black to white, from tax avoiding to tax complying. Some momentary disruptions can take place but we have a very good record of growth. This quarter if it has dipped, it will pick up again because our fundamentals are strong.
Mr Yashwant Sinha has been the Bihar BJP president, he has been the national vice-president, he was also the leader of Opposition in Bihar, he was the finance minister and external affairs minister. After occupying so many important posts, he knows the reeti and neeti (tradition and policy) of the BJP. He could have written a letter to the PM, expressing all his concerns. Going public with an article… some of the observations are deeply personal. Was he right? I will leave that to his own judgment and understanding of the BJP.
A lot of questions have been raised on Aadhaar. What does my Aadhaar card contain? It contains my photograph, but it does not contain the name of my parents, my caste, my community, my religion, my income profile, my educational profile or my medical profile, through which I can be tracked. The Aadhaar system has my fingerprints and my iris, both of which are kept in safe, secure conditions in an encrypted format. We need to understand that there is a one-in-a-billion chance of this encrypted data being leaked. Sections 27, 28, 29 and 30 of the Aadhaar law are so tough that even if I as the IT and Law minister of India, disclose my iris and fingerprint, I can be prosecuted.
RAVISH TIWARI: Why have Yashwant Sinha’s observations about the BJP and government been met with such criticism and disapproval? Is this how the BJP takes criticism from within the party?
The Prime Minister has clearly said that we are open to criticism, and that criticism per se is not bad. But to criticise in this manner is unfair. He could have written a letter to the Prime Minister. The BJP believes in democracy, in exchanges.
Was it right on his part to unleash an almost personal attack on Arun Jaitley? The last line of the article published in your newspaper said, “The prime minister claims that he has seen poverty from close quarters. His finance minister is working over-time to make sure that all Indians also see it from equally close quarters.”… Arun Jaitley has done a good job as Finance Minister. He worked to forge a consensus on GST.
COOMI KAPOOR: There was a subtle tone of criticism in RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s Vijayadashami address, where he said that economic advantage has not filtered down to certain sections of the society — unemployed youth, traders etc.
Mohan Bhagwatji, while appreciating the overall economic architecture, said that the concerns of the traders etc should also be properly addressed. The Indian economy is undergoing a big metamorphosis. The income tax (collections) have risen enormously; by over 15 per cent. A large number of traders have become a part of the GST platform.
We will take note of the suggestions. When a government goes in for this kind of disruption and transformation, you need to be open to suggestions.
HARISH DAMODARAN: Yashwant Sinha raised the issue of raid raj in his piece. The PM has said that there will be no retrospective tax, inspection, survey and opening of books. But this doesn’t seem to be happening on the ground.
First of all, the country has the Prime Minister’s assurance. It was publicly made and was broadcast live on television. So, we should not be worried about that. Both the PM and the Finance Minister have repeatedly said that there shouldn’t be any kind of harassment of genuine taxpayers. The message will definitely reach the ground.
RAVISH TIWARI: After Yashwant Sinha’s piece, there was an attempt to defend the economy and take on those who were criticising the government. However, after the death of Bangalore-based journalist Gauri Lankesh, there was no attempt to pull up those who were cheering her murder.
The comparison is misplaced. All of us condemned Gauri Lankesh’s murder.
SUNIL JAIN: Nobody expects the Prime Minister to come out and condemn the death of every journalist. But when it is brought to his attention that a person he follows is using extremely abusive language against a dead journalist, he still continues to follow him.
I am sorry to say but that was explained very clearly. Also, the next day, a Congress general secretary tweeted. Was there a similar condemnation of his words on certain news channels?
The whole system must be following the Prime Minister on Twitter. You are being too judgmental on this. You are being grossly unfair and harsh on the Prime Minister only because of one irresponsible tweet by someone. It is wrong and I am condemning it, but what about the silence on Digvijaya Singh’s irresponsible tweet against the Prime Minister.
RISHI RANJAN KALA: Has Apple agreed to align its plans with Make In India? Has the government agreed to give Apple the concessions that it had asked for?
The IT Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Corporate Affairs Ministry are all working on it. Let the process go on. India is a huge market. While we expect Apple to come here, Apple also needs to understand that India offers a big market.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: Consent forms a major part of the privacy judgment. When it comes to Aadhaar, where does consent stand?
First of all, whenever one opts for such things, consent is taken under Section 7. Today, we have 100 crore bank accounts, of which 60 crore are linked to Aadhaar. The moment your bank account is linked to Aadhaar, you cannot say that this account, which, let’s say, was being used for extraneous purposes, is not mine.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: So, at the time of enrolment there is a form for consent. But then what about minors and newborns? How do you get consent there? And can they revoke their consent later?
Parents provide consent for them (minors). Has any poor person complained against Aadhaar? Has any beedi worker or MNREGA beneficiary, whose payment was earlier sliced by mukhiyas complained about Aadhaar? Tea garden workers are feeling empowered because now their money is going straight into their bank accounts. Earlier, the trade unions took a cut from their salaries.
I have got full respect for those who criticise Aadhaar, but the benefits of Aadhaar are there for all to see. It is a measure of our own foresight that while Aadhaar was started by the previous government — there was no law for it — we passed a law, provided statutory back-up, and laid down the do’s and don’ts. And I want to repeat that Aadhaar is safe and secure.
ANANTHAKRISHNAN G: What is the latest on the Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) for higher judiciary appointments?
All I can say is that it is a work in progress. The matter is pending with the Supreme Court, and beyond that, I should not make any comment. (Work on a new MoP began after a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court, in October 2014, declared as ‘unconstitutional and void’ the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Act passed by Parliament. The bench later directed that a new MoP be finalised by the government in consultation with the CJI).
RAVISH TIWARI: It has been three years since the NJAC Act was passed. You were the Law Minister in 2014. However, since then, things have not moved. Who is not yielding? Is there a breakdown in the relationship between the Executive and the Judiciary?
Firstly, it is about principles. This government is led by the Prime Minister and it has senior ministers such as Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad and some others. All of us have fought against the Emergency. We fought for three freedoms: individual freedom, media freedom and independence of the judiciary. This government is led by leaders who have suffered, gone to jail, suffered lathi blows for the sake of independence of the judiciary. That is the level of our commitment.
Secondly, yes, on May 26, 2014, the Prime Minister gave me the law portfolio. In August 2014, the NJAC Act was passed. It was challenged, and it continues to be challenged. In December 2015, the final order came, which said that the government must recast the MoP in consultation with the judiciary. I would not like to divulge the developments that happened thereafter. But there have been cases where there has been no movement from the other side as well. The judgment stated that the MoP shall be framed by the Chief Justice of India in consultation with and with the unanimous view of the collegium. So, unless it comes from there, I could not have taken any action.
We are not unyielding at all. The point is that there should be appointment of good judges. The judiciary must also represent the diversity of India. There have to be women, people from the backward castes etc. I get very disturbed when I see that from one high court only one particular caste of people are recommended by the collegium. I try to protest in a gentle manner. These are issues. But I have the best relationship with the judiciary, of mutual respect and frequent interaction.
ANANTHAKRISHNAN G: After the privacy judgment, you tweeted that we want privacy for people. However, former attorney general Mukul Rohatgi described it as a case of ‘judicial overreach’. In hindsight, do you think the situation was not handled well? Maybe the counsel was not properly briefed? Could you have taken a different stance?
See, the judgment has come and Mukul Rohatgi did a good job on the case. Remember one thing, at the time, the law itself stated that it was not a fundamental right. Decisions have to be made on a case-to-case basis.
Let me give you an example. If anybody decides to go to Mumbai, it is his personal choice. But the mode of transport he takes can make his details public. If he takes a flight, the ticket will be digital. At the airport, his image will be captured by the CCTV. If he goes by train, there too he will have a digital ticket. So anyone with access to the website will know the details of his travel. If you want your privacy to be absolute, then you will have to cycle to Mumbai. That’s the only way.
Similarly, the kind of food you choose to eat is your personal choice. But then when you go out to eat at a restaurant, a bill will be generated with details of what you have eaten.
COOMI KAPOOR: Justice Jayant M Patel, the seniormost judge of the Karnataka High Court, was not made the chief of the court and instead transferred to the Allahabad High Court. Was there any government pressure to do so? Also, the CBI arrested a retired Odisha high court judge in a graft case. What do you make of that?
See, no recommendation for his (Justice Patel) transfer ever came to us. The collegium has publicly stated that it was a unanimous decision to transfer him. He has now resigned and the resignation has been accepted. I would like to set the record straight that we did not receive any recommendation for his transfer.
As for the second judge, I am saying with a great degree of pain: Does being a high court judge, serving or retired, give you a licence to be corrupt? That question would have to be answered at some point in time. What is the real authority of a judge? I think the real authority of a judge is moral authority. And moral authority flows from probity, propriety and integrity.
SHOBHANA SUBRAMANIAN: Why is your government opposed to FDI in multi-brand retail?
First of all, India has attracted the biggest FDI in all the brands, apart from e-commerce. If you see India’s evolution, the neighbourhood grocery store has been a big tradition in India. The government has to keep their concerns in mind also. An architecture that responds to the needs of both (local stores and multi-brand ventures) has to be undertaken.
ANANTHAKRISHNAN G: What is your ministry’s view on the demand for audio and video recordings of constitutional courts?
We need to work together with the judiciary. The judiciary has certain reservations on the issue.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: Aadhaar has been made mandatory for many things. But isn’t it time to also make Aadhaar compulsory for political funding?
That’s an idea for thought.
RAVISH TIWARI: You talked about the moral authority of the judiciary. Doesn’t our position on Rohingyas take away from our moral authority? Also, with Nitish Kumar returning to the NDA fold, after a rather bitter exit earlier; doesn’t the question of moral authority arise there?
The issue of Rohingyas, it is purely a question of national security. I cannot share many things publicly. In government, we are privy to all kinds of information, including sensitive ones.
As far as Bihar is concerned, I cannot deny what has happened in the state. Nitish Kumar left us, but then why did he come back to us? Out of probity and propriety. In all fairness, I must say that Nitish Kumar has some degree of commitment. I know it for sure. When Lalu Prasad’s misadventures as far as impropriety are concerned crossed all limits, he had to take a call. And he took a call and we have come back together.
RAVISH TIWARI: The Ram Janmabhoomi case is going to be heard in the Supreme Court from December 5. Who is going to represent Ram, the deity. You were his lawyer.
The Law Minister should not speak on the subject.