This government has damaged social fabric, polarised people, divided communities, says P Chidambaram
Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram has been a strong critic of Narendra Modi’s government. He believes that the government hasn’t done enough to make India’s economy more competitive and efficient.india Updated: May 26, 2018 07:32 IST
P Chidambaram, former Union Minister, Rajya Sabha MP and senior Congress leader, is a strong critic of PM Narendra Modi’s government. He spoke to Prashant Jha about its track record. Edited excerpts:
Q: What are the government’s biggest successes and failures in four years?
They will beat the drums on the successes. I don’t wish to spoil their celebration. Let me concede and assume they have built roads, completed infrastructure projects, built toilets, extended the coverage of electricity, but any government will do that. Any government in office for five years can only build more roads, infrastructure projects, toilets. The real questions are what has the government done to make this country’s economy more competitive, efficient, and productive and raise the rank of this country across parameters. On that, they have failed. There is a more serious issue. What they have done to damage the social fabric of this country, to polarise people along religious lines, and divide communities completely wipes out whatever good work they may have done in the things I mentioned.
Q: The government argues it has instituted a formal, rule based economy with legislations like Goods and Services Tax, Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, Benami Transactions Act. Do you agree?
I don’t agree. There are more important laws which they have not implemented. The National Food Security Act has not been implemented. The Right to Education has not been implemented. The Right of Forest Dwellers Act has been diluted and practically defiled. The new Land Acquisition Act has been completely diluted by allowing states to make their own amendments and giving presidential assent to those amendments. I think these are more fundamental laws. Take the laws you have mentioned. The Benami Act is a draconian act. It arms the Income Tax Department with draconian powers, and you will see the consequences as it is being implemented. Never before have officers been armed with so much power – be it CBI, IT, ED. These are erosions of personal liberty. This is a reflection of the BJP and PM’s belief that we must have a muscular government. We had cautioned them on the GST. They refused to listen and had to make a series of changes and amendments to bring it back on rail. We still caution them on RERA. We cautioned them on IBC (Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code); they brought an ordinance this week. Their approach seems to be leap and then look. You should look before you leap.
Q: On the jobs debate, the government argues that through road construction and MUDRA in particular, they have created jobs.
The MUDRA claim is a joke. The average loan in MUDRA is Rs 43,000. How do you create a job with Rs 43,000 additional capital? I have no objection if you give away Rs 43,000 crore, and create one crore jobs. But with Rs 43,000, a shoe-repairer can get a few tools; a tailor can get a few instruments; a guy who runs an ice-cream parlour can get an ice-box; someone can install a fan. In the formal sector, it costs Rs one crore to create a formal job. If someone invests Rs 3000 crore in a power plant of 5000 MWs, direct and indirect employment will not cross 3000.
Road construction creates jobs. I am not denying that. Question is has it created additional jobs? If you construct a five-km road, jobs are created. By that argument, when the construction is complete, those jobs are over. Then you construct another five-kms, the same people move there to build those roads. It does not add to the total number of jobs.
Thirdly, what we are talking about is formal jobs. ILO defines a job as regular, certain and with a reasonable degree of security. Other jobs will be created. You tell me how many formal, regular jobs have been created. That is the true measure, the only measure on which you can compare it to a previous government or a succeeding government. And the only data we have is the Labour Bureau Survey. The Labour Bureau’s Quarterly Survey has given us for three quarters jobs in the thousands. The highest has been 136,000 in a quarter. It is in the thousands, not in millions.
Q: Have you been surprised with the government’s turn towards the rhetoric of welfare from growth and development?
There is really no conflict between development and welfare. Many welfare programmes are indeed development programmes. What they did well was take UPA programmes and fast forwarded it. Take electrification. Now it is absolutely clear that 97% of all villages had been electrified till May 2014. They took the last 12,000 or 15,000 villages; it is like putting an icing on the cake. I don’t complain. Good you have completed it, but remember 97% was electrified. It is similar with the gas connections; they took an existing programme and fast forwarded it.
Q: The Congress has alleged the government has undermined institutions. How?
I wrote a column where I pointed out the huge number of vacancies in key institutions, beginning with the Supreme Court. That is one way to diminish an institution’s importance and performance. In the SC today, with the retirement of Justice Chelameswar, there are eight vacancies; three or four more will occur this year. The system is paralysed. In the High Courts today, there are over 400 vacancies. The strength of our High Courts taken together is much less than what is required to dispose of cases which are pending and cases which are instituted every day. That number itself is insufficient and even in that sanctioned number, you have 400 vacancies. In the teaching posts of central universities, over 5000 are vacant – what kind of teaching takes place in those central universities? I think they have cut back on the number of Information Commissioners sharply; they are proposing to cut back the size of the Competition Commission; they have combined tribunals and practically eliminated some regulatory tribunals. In a large country like India, not all problems can be attended to by the elected government and ministers. That is why we create institutions and put men and women there passionately devoted to the subject, who can then pay special attention to those problems. If all those institutions are either diminished or eliminated or downsized or kept vacant, how do you think that a democracy can function?
Q: If there is such a governance deficit across spheres, how does BJP keep winning elections?
This is another myth which the media propagates, including your paper. Where have they won? We had five elections on the same day. They won in UP and Uttarakhand. They lost Punjab. In Manipur and Goa, BJP lost to the Congress in the elections but with the help of Governor and by putting together a post-poll coalition, buying MLAs, they formed the government. I don’t grudge them. But the fact is electorally, in three of the five states, BJP was defeated by the popular vote. Gujarat was no victory for the BJP. It was a defeat for them. Technically, they won. But if you ask the BJP leaders, as I do sometimes, they admit they lost and say we aimed for 150, and came down to 99. After that, we have had by-elections, in which their record is dismal. In Karnataka, the Congress was the number one party in terms of popular votes, a good two percent ahead of the BJP, but because of the way the votes were distributed, they got more seats. The real test will now come in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where fortunately, the choice is a binary one – Congress or BJP. Direct fight – let us see.
Q: The opposition is coming together against the BJP, but does the need for allies itself reflect the Congress’ vulnerability?
We are not vulnerable. We are just realistic. In 11 or 12 states, the Congress is the number 1 party and the challenger to the BJP. In eight states, we are not the number one party and not the prime challenger. I am not counting the smaller states. Realistically, Congress should do what the other opposition parties did in the 1960s. Where you are the leader, take the lead. Where you are not the leader, follow the leader, as long as you can agree there is a common adversary. What the Congress is doing now is the correct approach.
Q: You were a key leader of the United Front. It is contradictions on the question of leadership which hobble such an experiment.
The United Front was not led by a national party. At the head was a regional party, with footprints in Karnataka and Bihar. I think a coalition government under one of the two parties with a national footprint can promote development, and at the same time, provide checks and balances against arbitrary exercise of power and authoritarianism. What has happened today, since 2014, is an authoritarian model of government which does not work for India and which will not work for India.