In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections India’s oldest party, the Congress was reduced to 44 MPs. This was followed by a series of routs in state elections across the country. But in December last year, victories in Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh indicated that the party’s clawback to relevance had begun. So what does the Congress have to offer India today? Anuradha SenGupta discusses the party’s manifesto and plans, with Congress leader, former union finance and home minister and Rajya Sabha MP, P Chidambaram. Edited excerpts from the weekly conversation show Off Centre on
CNN News18. Anuradha SenGupta: Let's start by looking at political reactions that have come into your manifesto starting with the PM on the campaign trail, calling it a manifesto of ‘Pakistan conspiracies’, while the current finance minister Arun Jaitley called it a ‘Tukde Tukde’ manifesto reacting to the Congress party’s plans to remove the IPC’s sedition clause and review AFSPA. How do you react to the political reactions that are coming in? Chidambaram: I can only be sorry for them. Both of them to be very polite are using terminological inexactitudes. Let's start with the PM. Why is he so obsessed with Pakistan? For 10 years under UPA I and the UPA II we kept the peace on the border. There was some friction between India and Pakistan but never the threat of a war and peace returned largely, in very great measure to the Kashmir valley. The numbers will speak for themselves. Sometimes I think that the Prime Minister is itching for a confrontation with Pakistan in order to win an election in India. His 56-inch chest has obviously failed to protect India, there is more infiltration, more infiltrators have come to India, more incidents in Jammu and Kashmir, more civilian casualties, more security forces casualties. And the people of the Kashmir valley are totally alienated.
So Prime Minister's Pakistan policy or J&K policy is a complete failure. Now let's take Jaitley, if he is talking about sedition I think he should go back to his law library and look at the laws. Sedition is part of a law passed by the British Parliament, it's colonial. Since then the Indian Parliament has passed the Defence of India Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
So you are saying that it is not necessary and it can be misused the way it does get used? Chidambaram: Sedition is misused, sedition provision 124A is grossly misused, if you look at the provision of the other two laws they cover everything and more that sedition can cover, obviously Jaitley has forgotten his law. But in the 10 years of UPA 1 and UPA 2, state governments have used it and the UPA at that time didn’t change, do anything about it. Today there is a change of heart, a change of mind and that's acceptable. The question is what prompted this change? Chidambaram: I don't deny that state governments have used the sedition law. I can't recall a single instance where the central government has used it. I think the central government used section 66A of the IT Act. Chidambaram: I don’t deny that but we are talking about sedition I thought. Let’s not mix up two things. State governments have indeed used sedition which is why in today’s manifesto we say we will repeal that provision. What has prompted this change of mind which puts individual freedom and human rights sort of front and centre in this manifesto? Chidambaram: Do you change your mind or not when new facts come in place? Of course. So what are the new facts? Chidambaram: Precisely why a party changes its mind. Today there is a greater awareness of human rights world over and in India. There’s a lot of young people and civil society activists who stress the importance of human rights. If you don't stress the importance of human rights the danger is that the state will become more and more authoritarian. The best example is Modi. Therefore the stark contrast between authoritarianism and the emphasis of human rights is quite clear. Therefore going by experience going by lessons law we have come to the conclusion the sedition law must go. They are using these elements in the Congress manifesto to put forward the perception that the Congress is soft on terror, soft on separatism and that the Congress is a soft party and will not provide strong leadership, which is the case they are making for Modi. For a second term for Modi and his government. How is this narrative going to be countered by the Congress, because the discussion of the manifesto in the media is one thing and the discussion of the manifesto with people or amongst the electorate is another? Chidambaram: Nobody believes Modi when he says that he has kept the country safer then what it was under the UPA. In fact, all the states of the border are gripped with fear. And all the states of North India are gripped with fear. So Modi's claim that he has kept India safer is complete rubbish. Compare the 10 years under UPA I and UPA II and the five years under Modi and the numbers will speak for themselves. And the kind of progress we made in mending relations with Pakistan will also speak for themselves.
I expect them to do what they are good at, namely thump their chest and cry hoarse that Pakistan is a grave danger. The minions will say Muslims in India are a grave danger, they will call them a virus and they will polarise the electorate. This may or may not work in the core Hindi heartland. I assure you this nefarious attempt to polarise the electorate will not work outside the Hindi heartland.
So you’re saying the southern states are not going to accept this. Chidambaram: Southern states will reject the BJP lock, stock and barrel. They will get zero in Kerala, they will get zero in Telangana they will get zero in Andhra Pradesh and possibly get zero in Tamil Nadu. They may win a few seats in Karnataka but it will still be less than what they have today. Let's look at the substantive areas which would result in policy If the Congress party were to become a government. I know that you have said ‘loan maafi’ will be to go to be ‘loan mukti’ and loan mafi will happen in all the states if you’ll come to power. Will the PM Kisan Yojna which the NDA government has implemented since December 2018, after introducing it in the interim budget, this Rs. 75,000 crore annual outlay, if your party were to form a government, does the Kisan Yojana stay and if it doesn't, does the expenditure on agriculture stay? Chidambaram: A new government is entirely free to devise its own policies, we are not bound by the policies of the previous government, therefore I can’t say anything about what policies will be adopted. If the Congress plays a lead role our policies will be broadly based on the principles that we have set out in section 7 of this manifesto. PM Kisan scheme in my view is only a bribe for vote. It’s Rs 2,000 just before elections were notified and Rs 2,000 before the date of the first phase of polling. So that's the timing your talking about… Chidambaram: It's a pure bribe for a vote. It is Rs 17 per day per family and it is crumbs thrown at the poor. The outlay every year for this scheme is going into the agriculture budget, isn't it? Chidambaram: No it is not, it’s simply a dole, it’s simply income support. But income support of Rs 6,000 a year to the farmer is practically no support. Secondly, the so-called income support goes to the landlord farmer, who may be an absentee farmer. It doesn't go to the tenant farmer, it doesn't go to the agriculture worker. Of the three limbs of farming today, the second and the third are the most vital. The actual tenant farmer, the actual tiller and the agricultural worker. A friend of mine in Hyderabad said, he is a chartered accountant, he hasn't visited his farm for many, many, many years and he got money, for what? Therefore, this is pure cash for vote scheme and the less said about it the better. If we devise a scheme of income support to the farmer, it will take into account NYAY, which income support will also cover a large number of farmers, and then we will decide what another income support has to be given to the farmer. NYAY that is the centrepiece of the manifesto, give us a sense of how this is going to be funded? Chidambaram: The GDP today is more than 210 lakh crore. In five years, it will reach nearly 400 lakh crore. You are taking a rate of growth of roughly? Chidambaram: Even if you take nominal rate of growth of 11-12, it will go to 400 lakh crore. The total expenditure of the central and the state governments, today is 60 lakh crore, at the normal rate growth in last five-ten years, it will become a little over 130 lakh crore. In a GDP of 400 lakh crore, at its peak the NYAY programme will cost 3.6 lakh crore, less than 1 percent. If a country can't set apart less than 1 percent of the GDP for 20 percent of its population, it's a country ruled by heartless people, ruled by callous people. We believe that the country owes it to the poor to set apart a very small fraction of the GDP for the poor. I challenge any economist to come and tell me that this is not doable. Is there a sense that the 25 years since liberalisation, the kind of benefits that the economic reforms that we saw unleashed in the early ‘90s, that the trickle down benefits of those have either not happened or have reached a certain level and stopped? Chidambaram: That’s not correct. You see in any case where the economy is opened up the early winners will be those who already had the opportunities and they will seize the new opportunities. The people who never had the opportunity will take some time to take advantage of the opportunities. Which is why in any case of liberalisation inequalities will increase initially and then the inequalities will decrease, as wealth gets distributed more evenly. We are at a stage where the early winners reaped most of the benefits. We also went into stage 2 where we created a large middle class. I can boast that the entire middle class in India today is the child of liberalisation. What we have not been able to do is move to the third stage when the very poor will get a fair share of the growth. That's not happened. Or to be even be able to access it in terms of their education or facilities. Chidambaram: Because they have poor education, they have poor health because of limited access to comprehensive health care they have poor infrastructure and there are other social inhibitors, the fact that you are a Dalit, the fact you are a tribal, the fact that you are living in the North East with no access to banks. The fact that you are Muslim… Chidambaram: The fact that you are a minority, so all these are social inhibitors. So what we are trying to say is yes while liberalisation will continue, while we will stress on growth, the time has come when we ask ourselves can India afford an MISP – a Minimum Income Support Scheme - I will readily concede that twenty years ago we could not have afforded this scheme. Now we can? Chidambaram: I think we can. The manifesto says the state needs to play a bigger role in providing quality education and quality health. Is this a changed perspective, because we know that effort in the direction of privatisation of education, especially higher education was something we saw during the time of UPA II? Chidambaram: The Congress has always believed education and that healthcare are two public goods which have to be delivered by the state. There are two models of development – one is the European model, one is the pure capitalist model. I don’t deny that the capitalist model has also created great universities, great hospitals, great hospital systems. But the European model is a more compassionate model, a more caring mode, it’s a model that treats both rich and poor alike. Where these basic amenities of life are concerned? Chidambaram: We believe that education and health must largely be delivered by the state. Therefore most education institutions and most healthcare institutions must be in the public sector. Of course, the private sector can supplement it. Those who can afford it can use them, but for the bulk of the people, a vast majority of the people, education and healthcare must be delivered by the state. How do you react when journalists and rural affairs experts like P Sainath say that one of the reasons for the agrarian distress today in 2019, is the kind of reforms that were, he uses the word "unleashed" with liberalisation and the corporatisation of agriculture which has seen soaring costs of inputs. a globalised market in which a small Indian farmer cannot be competitive. How do you react to that? Chidambaram: I don’t agree. Without liberalisation India would be poorer today than what it is. India would be much poorer. We could never have achieved 8.5 percent average growth over a period of five years and 7.5 percent average growth over ten years, so I don't agree with those who believe that the old model was a better models. The old model served its purpose but outlived its utility and therefore we had to switch to a liberalised model. Let me pull out a little bit from the manifesto, now look at the last five years and how the Congress party strategy has evolved politically. What would you identify as the biggest lesson for the party and for the leadership since 2014 and that result. Chidambaram: That we cannot neglect organisation. See most of our senior leaders are drafted into the government and the party organisation is neglected, which I think is a big mistake. In fact, I sometimes nostalgically look back to the Kamaraj plan of 1963 when Jawaharlal Nehru asked his senior ministers to go back to the party. Well I don't know how it will play out fifty years later, but I think among the senior leaders, among the competent leaders, among the credible leaders a sizeable number must be earmarked for party work and building the organisation. We cannot allow the organisation to decay when we focus on governance. Number one. Number two, whatever we do, we must communicate. We can’t be shy of communication, we can’t be modest about communication. We don't have to adopt the brash attitude of Narendra Modi, where he exaggerates and lies. We don't have to exaggerate, we don't have to utter untruths. Even what we have done we have to communicate more effectively. As the first phase gets under way what is the best case scenario for the Congress? What is your party's analysis of the Congress party’s performance in these elections? Chidambaram: This is entirely the province of enterprising, adventurous and usually wrong journalists. The great fiasco of the NDTV when they did Bihar is there as a lesson for all of you, There is no national election, it’s a collection of state elections. If there is no election in Tamil Nadu in the first phase, the first phase won’t change a jot as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned. If there is no 7th phase in Tamil Nadu it makes no difference to Tamil Nadu. So each state you have to take it as a separate unit and ask the question what is the situation in that state. No one with any degree of common sense will try to predict a national election when there is no national election. We saw income tax raids on Kamalnath’s family. You have tweeted that your homes maybe raided. What have these past five years been like for you personally? If I can ask you a personal question, because it has been hard on you, your son.
I don't discuss cases in the media, there can be no media trial, the trial can only be in a court of law. Just as a matter of fact I’ll tell you, there are only FIRs against us - first information report. There is not even a charge sheet which has been taken cognizance by court. It is the FIR which is there, for 5 years, there’s been a FIR so let it remain and I don't discuss cases in the media.
It’s only because you tweeted about this. Chidambaram: I tweeted it for discussion. But we are discussing the manifesto which is a more relevant document. I hope you agree this manifesto is more relevant that the false FIR.