What has Arun Jaitley to do with the Farm Legislations? Well, in a similar situation when all the states and the opposition parties were hostile to legislating the Bill that enabled auction of Coal Blocks in 2015, he played a stellar role in getting all the stakeholders on board. And, these stakeholders included the “hostile” states and political parties. He formulated a strategy of engaging with them. He was convinced that dialogue with them was better that riding a roughshod. A few instances that demonstrated that he was a strategist par-excellence are narrated in my books, “Not Just A Civil Servant” and the recently released, “Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant”.
After the judgements of the Supreme Court that led to the cancellation of 204 coal blocks, the challenge was to get the coal mining related Bill passed by the Parliament. It was easy to get the Bill introduced and cleared in the Lok Sabha, but the real test was to get it past the Rajya Sabha where the government did not have the majority. Moreover, the opposition parties were in no mood to play ball. They were keen to pay the government in the same coin by repeatedly disrupting the functioning of the Parliament. In the absence of legislative business, most of the bills that were introduced in the Parliament were languishing.
To carry out the auction of the coal blocks that were cancelled by the Supreme Court, it was imperative to get the aforementioned legislation passed. Hence, a multipronged strategy was chalked out under the guidance of Arun Jaitley who was the Finance Minister then. He had nothing to do with coal directly but PM Modi had faith in him. The strategy entailed engagement with the parliamentarians and those that mattered, and to convey the value proposition behind the legislation.
A part of the strategy was to reach out to the Chief Ministers of the opposition-ruled states (states where non-NDA parties were in power). I was then the Coal Secretary. It was a Sunday when I got a message from Arun Jaitley’s house that the Chief Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik had arrived at his residence, and I was asked to come over and explain the proposed legislation to him. When I reached Arun Jaitley’s residence, I was ushered into a room where he, Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister, Odisha and Piyush Goyal, Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Power and Coal were already present. Arun Jaitley introduced me to the Chief Minister. I was then asked to explain the Bill and its rationale. I made an opening statement keeping in mind that the Chief Minister was upset at his state getting a smaller amount from the auctions as compared to the amount received by Chhattisgarh.
I explained that the Central Government was not getting a single penny out of these auctions, yet it was putting in all the effort to auction the blocks in a transparent manner. He was surprised and it showed in his response, ‘Is that so, Mr Swarup?’ Then I went on to explain the full process of auction. My statements and explanations were interspersed with his, ‘Is that so, Mr Swarup!’ I used my smartphone and went to the web portal where the live auction was being webcast.
Fortunately, an Odisha-based mine was being auctioned. I informed him that every Rs 2 increase in the bid translated into Rs 50 lakh for the state. He could not but be impressed with the way the auctions were being conducted. Finally, what settled the issue was my statement that the state of Odisha was likely to get around Rs 27,000 crores through these auctions. This was the last ‘Is that so, Mr Swarup!’ Biju Janta Dal (BJD) supported the Bill in the Parliament.
However, the real problem was with the leading opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC). It had got a severe drubbing at the elections. Moreover, the ruling party denied the leader of INC in Lok Sabha the status of Leader of the Opposition, as technically it had not won 10 percent of the seats in the House. The INC and its leaders were very upset. The question now was how to get their support for the crucial Bill.
Approaching its leader, Mallikarjun Kharge politically, looked very unlikely. I had worked with him in the Labour Ministry not very long ago and enjoyed an excellent rapport with him while working there.
As a part of the strategy, I rang up Mallikarjun Kharge’s office to seek an appointment. Instead of responding to my request, the office (most of those in his office knew me) put the call across to him. He was his usual benign self. The moment I requested him for an appointment, he agreed to meet me the next morning at his residence.
When I reached there the next morning, he was already waiting for me. He was always a gracious host and treated me to hot ‘
pakauris’ (light snacks). As we were sipping tea, I broached the issue with him and explained to him how critical the Bill was for the country. He gave me a patient hearing. I don’t know whether he was convinced about the necessity of the Bill but expressed his inability to support it purely on account of political considerations. I could appreciate his position.
I then made a request that he had perhaps not expected. I requested him to convince his colleagues in the party to not rush to the ‘Well’ of the Rajya Sabha when the Bill was being discussed and voted upon. Rushing to the ‘Well’ was a ploy adopted by the Opposition to stall the proceedings of the House. Through this approach, the passage of the Bill was impacted. It was by now clear that the Bill would be able to muster requisite support in both the Houses but if the Opposition chose to use this tactic, it would stall the passage of the Bill. He understood the implication of my request. He was candid enough not to promise anything but went on to add that he would try his best.
When the Bill did come up for consideration in the two houses of the Parliament, there were indeed a lot of ruckuses, but no one came down to the well. The Bill was discussed and voted upon. It was one of the rare Bills that saw the light of the day around that time.
In my understanding, the Farm Legislations were long overdue. It is in the overall interest of the farmers. The problem perhaps has been its poor political management. It shouldn’t have been rushed in the Rajya Sabha as it actually was. Arun Jaitley would not have advised that. He would have done it in the same manner as he handled the coal-related legislation by engaging with the stakeholders and attempting to take them on board.
Anil Swarup is former Secretary, Government of India and author of the book 'Not Just A Civil Servant'. The views expressed are personal
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