Former finance minister P. Chidambaram talks about the Modi government’s handling of the GST, Robert Vadra, Karti Chidambaram, attacks on the opposition, Gujarat elections and more in an interview with Swati Chaturvedi.
The following is the verbatim transcript of the interview:
Swati Chaturvedi: Hello and welcome to The Wire special. I am Swati Chaturvedi and I’ll be talking to P. Chidambaram, former finance minister, about the economy, how its growth has collapsed, about the corruption charges against his son, when will Rahul Gandhi finally give this country a proper opposition, and also what has happened to freedom of expression. Let’s start off with your favourite subject, the economy. The UPA-II had policy paralysis and now, Arun Jaitley, the current finance minister blames everything as a legacy issue. He says that you had left the banks with such NPAs (non-performing assets) that he had no choice but to bail them out. What do you say?
On bad loans by banks during UPA, NDA
P. Chidambaram: What was the NPA level in 2014 and what is the NPA level today? There is a bunch of loans. One set of the loans are NPA on 2014.
Chidambaram: But you forget that the other sets of loans are performing loans. They were performing assets. Why have those performing assets become non-performing assets today?
Chaturvedi: Tell us.
Chidambaram: It is because the economy has taken a downturn. And therefore, what was a performing asset has become a non-performing asset. The NPA level in 2014 was only 3 crore. The rest was perfectly performing, interest was being paid, instalments were being paid. Perfectly performing. If they’ve become non-performing today, it’s because the economy has been mismanaged and those loans have become non-performing assets.
Chaturvedi: My point is different. All public sector banks are owned by one single owner, who arm-twists them; they are milch cows of whichever government is in office. It was the same in your tenure, it is the same in the NDA’s tenure. What do you think should be done now? Forget about the political blame game which is always ongoing. But you, when you were finance minister, were the single biggest owner of public sector banks and now it’s Arun Jaitley. What do you think is the solution to this?
Chidambaram: I do not think that the opinion in the country has turned around to say “let’s privatise public sector banks. Political parties can only reflect public opinion.
Chaturvedi: But don’t you think all political parties, including the Congress, treat them as a milch cow? There are 50 people who own the biggest debts, these 50 people have remained the same during both the UPA and the NDA.
Chidambaram: That’s not correct. There was no occasion when I had picked up the phone and told a chairman, ‘give this loan’. In fact, SBI’s chairperson who just retired, Arundhati Bhattacharya, made a statement that no one ever told her to give a loan to A or B. I don’t know what’s happening under this government. Speaking for my government, speaking for myself, I can say with the utmost confidence we have never asked any bank to give a loan to A or B.
Chaturvedi: At all ever?
Chaturvedi: Because they outline cases like Vijay Mallya. They say that the loans were evergreen to Vijay Mallya by the UPA. And they are bearing the brunt of it.
Chidambaram: Let them name who told the chairman of the consortium. Please understand most loans are not single bank loans. They are consortium loans. No one has the capacity and influence to reach out to all the chairmen of the banks. In fact, in the UPA we started taking action against the Mallya account, the excise department started taking action, the service tax department started taking action, the income tax department started taking action, the airplane was impounded. All that is on record. To suggest that the UPA or somebody in the UPA government told the chairman of the banks to give a loan to Mallya is an outrageous lie.
On the ‘complete mess of a GST’
Chaturvedi: Now, that was just great – GST was pioneered by the Congress. It was scuttled at every level by the BJP, by the states and in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. Now the GST has come along with of course demonetisation and I think it is a disaster. What do you make of the twin blow that has struck the economy? Was this the kind of GST that you wanted as finance minister.
Chidambaram: This is not GST.
Chidambaram: You have to call it by some other name or some other acronym.
Chaturvedi: Your leaders call it ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’.
Chidambaram: I don’t even want the initials ‘GST’ to apply, the alphabets GST to apply. GST by definition is one rate. In the transition period, you can have a rate plus and a rate minus, demerit rate and a merit rate which is what the chief economic advisor recommended in his report. But they have got eight rates and upon that they have got cesses and upon that they have given liberty to state governments to withdraw taxes. For example, Gujarat, a couple of days ago withdrew some tax on some commodities peculiar to Gujarat.
Chaturvedi: Khakhra, namkeen and man-made yarn.
Chidamabaram: This is a complete mess of a GST. This is a caricature of a GST. Everything about this law that they made and the tax they have introduced is flawed. Concept, design, structure, rates, backbone, compliance requirements. Everything is flawed. So if you have so many flaws in a tax that you are introducing, this is the mess you will create. Add it to demonetisation, this practically killed small and medium enterprises in this country. On the micro, the less that the better, they have all shut down.
Chaturvedi: You had once said that Narendra Modi’s knowledge of economics was confined to a poster stamp. It has been three and a half years of this government, have you had a chance to review that opinion or do you still hold the same?
Chidambaram: Please remember that was in response to his jibe that the exchange rate and the finance minister’s age were trending together, or something to that effect. When he said that, I told him, since his knowledge about the exchange rates was obviously very limited, I made that comment. Remember the BJP’s official position was that if we come to power, the exchange rate will be 40 rupees a dollar. Please ask him to enforce that promise and make it 40 rupees a dollar! Along with demonetisation and GST, if the rupee becomes 40 to a dollar, that would be a death knell for India’s economy for the next 20 years. Therefore, I think the prime minister has candidly admitted that his knowledge of economics – I don’t blame him for that, he is not a trained economist, he was never in the central government. So macroeconomics is something which is foreign to most chief ministers. So today, apart from a chief economic advisor, he has to create a structure in the NITI Aayog and he has put a couple of people there who are supposed to advise him in economics. And above that, he has now resurrected the economic advisory council and he has put five people there who are supposed to advise him and advise him alone, which is a candid admission that he relies upon advice on economic matters.
Chaturvedi: Now since you are talking about economics – when they change the rate, how do we understand growth, what do you have to say about that? Also, that a lot of the things that they are doing like even the bank recapitalisation is something that you have done earlier. What could they have done differently and what ideally would have ensured that India’s growth story had not collapsed the way it has?
Chidambaram: They could have stopped from messing with the economy. They could have avoided demonetisation. Nobody advised demonetisation and even today we don’t know whose brain it was. They could have certainly taken our advice on GST, after all, I announced GST, UPA was the author of the GST. The first bill was introduced by [Pranab] Mukherjee and they could have taken our inputs on GST and designed the GST. Why could not a neutral body design the GST law rather than be located only in the revenue department and the PMO? A neutral body could have designed the GST.
Chaturvedi: But they can turn around and say that you could also have given it in the hands of a neutral body rather than keep it to yourself.
Chidambaram: We had come up with GST based on a model recommended by the finance minister’s council after they had visited a dozen countries where GST is enforced. So the finance minister’s council was a kind of a neutral body. They had visited a dozen countries, came back and recommended the model which was in line with the accepted GST model. You made a mockery of the model, you have made a mess of the model when you designed it within the revenue department and with the PMO, when you introduced multiple rates.
Chaturvedi: Narendra Modi came and he said we are going to have ‘Achhe Din’ – good days. Three and a half years down the term of the NDA government led by him, do you think anybody is experiencing ‘Achhe Din’ and is the good governance promise being followed?
Chidambaram: Even the prime minister no longer speaks of ‘Achhe din.’. In his rallies now he has not uttered the phrase ‘Achhe din aane wale hai’ or ‘Achhe Din is coming’, he has avoided it. Just like ‘India shining’ was there for about a few months and it was buried, Achhe Din is now buried. Even Modi knows if he talks about Achhe Din today, people will laugh. He doesn’t talk about Achhe Din knowing that those promises cannot be redeemed by this government. I think now he is talking about other things, things like Swachh Bharat and things like that.
Chaturvedi: New India
Chidambaram: New India. But that is simply a slogan replacing another slogan. If slogans can drive economic growth, if slogans can sustain the government, India Shining should have sustained the Vajpayee government. It did not.
On corruption allegations against the UPA
Chaturvedi: And Modi has said there was huge of amount of corruption in UPA-II and that this government will crack down heavily on corruption. Do you think that is a jumla? I will give you two examples. He said the moment he will be in office, Robert Vadra will be arrested in a month. It has been three and a half years and there are lots of cases against your son as well.
Chidambaram: There are no cases, you have got it wrong. There are allegations.
Chaturvedi: There are allegations. So my point is do you think these things are held over the heads of opponents as a political thing or is there any action against what they call is large-scale corruption?
Chidambaram: I don’t want to comment on anything that concerns me because I am pretty secure in my beliefs and conviction, that we have done nothing wrong. Leave that aside. There were serious allegations of corruption in the telecom sector and the coal sector. In the coal sector, there has been one conviction – of civil servants. I think one of the former ministers, I am not sure. In telecom, there has been no conviction so far. So only when the cases go to court and end in a judgment can we come to the conclusion if there was actual corruption or not. Now the government seems to have given up on UPA-II allegations of corruption, they have now gone back to Bofors. This shows the government is desperate to put the tag of corruption on the Congress party. Now in Bofors, there is a judgment which says no evidence was presented before the CBI.
Chaturvedi: Do you think it’s slightly incredulous that no action has been taken against Robert Vadra? They made it a huge poll issue, the whole damaad-Ji corruption case?
Chidambaram: As I said, I don’t want to comment on allegations. If there is corruption, the law requires you to file a charge sheet, go to court have charges framed and start a trial. Now for the media, allegations are enough. As someone said, everyone is presumed guilty until proven innocent. But for a lawyer, for a person trained in law, we take the exact opposite view – everybody is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The only way you can prove anyone guilty is under the rule of law. That is the only way, there is no other way. You have to file a charge sheet, have charges framed at the court and conduct a trial. There is one other celebrated case they had against the then telecom minister, but even the charges could not be framed. At the stage of the charge sheet, the court threw it out. But imagine, recall the sound and fury around that case but the chargesheet itself was thrown out. I won’t comment on allegations. I will respond when a charge sheet is filed against somebody, then I think the government has a duty to respond to that. Nobody in the UPA has an obligation to respond to an allegation.
On tax terrorism
Chaturvedi: Industry says – let’s go back the economy – the tax inspector raj has been unleashed. If you write something against the government or the government doesn’t like you for some reason, it’s a government which is thin-skinned with any kind of criticism. We saw yesterday night in Chattisgarh a midnight knock – not a midnight knock, a 3:00 am knock – a journalist was arrested because he possessed a CD about one of the ministers. Now, what do you think, in this kind of climate, is FDI going to come – with, we have some very strange VAT laws and so on. How do you see that panning out?
Chidambaram: I don’t think FDI has anything to do with this. Foreign money will come to India as long there is an interest differential between the interest and the returns offered by the Indian market and the returns offered by the US market or the European market. Which is why the FDI inflows are very high. Now as far as tax terrorism is concerned, I go by data, I go by facts. Now the facts before me show that they have made some draconian amendments to the tax laws, especially to the Income Tax Act. They have armed their tax officials with excessive power, including the power to not disclose reasons. I think the investigative agencies are in overdrive in harassing business persons, and since the very powerful and very rich seem to be protected, the brunt of the efforts of the investigative agencies fall upon the small business persons. Which is why no businessman today wants to invest anything more or expand businesses. There is no entrepreneur today who is happy that…is happy to remain invested in India, which is why no additional investment is taking place, and we have a list of amendments they have made to tax laws which I think a future government would have to reverse.
Chidambaram: Absolutely, and many of the powers given to tax officials would have to be withdrawn. I am sure a sensible future government would do exactly that.
On freedom of expression under threat
Chaturvedi: Arun Shourie said to me that currently there is an undeclared emergency in the country. Whoever criticises the government is in trouble. What do you have to say?
Chidambaram: Well, that is true. There are numerous examples of people being threatened, silenced and harassed. Much of this can’t be explained as coincidence. When the Mersal controversy broke out, why did an income tax officer visit the Mersal office the very next day? It can’t be a coincidence. They could have done it two weeks earlier, he could have visited two months later. I can’t explain this as coincidence. There are too many examples to rule the theory of coincidence. All that it means is there is someone who is directing these agencies to silence the critics.
Chaturvedi: So would you say that freedom of expression is really under threat? You keep writing about it in your column. Do you really think freedom of expression is under threat in India?
Chidambaram: It is, and not only by knocking doors of people who have allegedly violated the law. I think freedom of expression is under threat in other walks of life, ordinary people wearing a set of clothes as a form of expression, writing blogs as a form of expression, tweeting as a form of expression, putting up cartoons as a form of expression, speaking in universities as a form of expression, and that is being threatened. My scheduled lecture in IIT Delhi was canceled the previous day. Sitaram Yechuri’s lecture in Nagpur was canceled. There are numerous examples of this and therefore I think the overwhelming feeling among the people is that this dispensation is clearly silencing or threatening people into silence.
On the autonomy of RBI and ECI
Chaturvedi: Two examples– Raghuram Rajan when he was removed, the way he was removed and how demonetisation happened – how the autonomy of the RBI was compromised in a single fell blow. Do you agree with that?
Chidambaram: Yes I have written about it. I do not think RBI covered itself in glory when it received the letter on the 7th of November, called a ‘truncated board meeting’, and obediently endorsed the proposal on the 8th of November, which I think was a serious blow to the autonomy of the RBI, and I am afraid they have not recovered from the blow yet. World over, central bankers are of a very poor opinion of our RBI after the demonetisation fiasco.
Chaturvedi: We saw institution there with the RBI, and we have seen another where you very pithily tweeted that the election commissioner, what happened with the Gujarat dates… What do you think happened, there has been so much institutional damage in the three and a half years of this government. Why has so much institutional damage taken place?
Chidambaram: Institutional damage takes place when institutions don’t stand up. People in power will attempt to damage institutions, but those who are manning the institutions should be able to stand up. If they don’t stand up, the damage will happen. It’s sad that the Election Commission announced dates of election for Himachal and Gujarat with an interval of 13 days. Let me argue this way. If the Gujarat date had to be deferred to the 24th of October, Himachal could also have been announced on the 24th of October. What was the need to announce Himachal 13 days earlier and Gujarat 13 days later? Unless the intent was that the Himachal Government should be restrained from making any announcements but the Gujarat government be given a 13-day period to make announcements.
Chaturvedi: Clearly not a level playing field.
Chidambaram: Clearly not a level playing field, clearly very discriminatory, and clearly exposes that the Election Commission came under pressure.
On the Modi government’s Kashmir policy
Chaturvedi: Final two questions. The government made a U-turn on Kashmir– they were trying this muscular policy of not engaging in talks and they appointed a new Interlocutor. What do you think the sensible approach would be now, considering what happened with the pellet guns and so forth?
Chidambaram: I don’t think they have taken a U-turn, I think this is simply a diversionary move. You have heard the army chief, you heard the minister of state of the PMO yesterday. I think those two voices reflect the real view of the government. The appointment of an interlocutor – and they have even denied he is an interlocutor – the appointment of Dineshwar Sharma, is a diversionary move to please or appease a section which says ‘why are you not holding talks?’ After I heard the army chief and MoS PMO, I don’t think this gentleman has the mandate to hold meaningful talks with all sections of the people. It’s only when he talks, I will know if he talks at all.
Chaturvedi: But looking at what’s happening in Kashmir, with the pellet guns and Major [Leetul] Gogoi tying up that voter to a jeep, and this kind of hyper-nationalism and whats happening in campuses – JNU was branded anti-national. How do you perceive all of this?
Chidambaram: I think the government has a completely misguided policy on Kashmir and the situation in Kashmir is worse than any time before. Much worse than what it was in 2011. All the good work done from 2011 and say up to the middle of 2015 after the NDA government came to office – all that has been wiped out in the last two years.
Chaturvedi: Are you worried about it?
Chidambaram: Of course. I am very worried about what’s happening in Kashmir and we have people meeting us from J&K regularly, I think there is a deep ferment in the Valley. The approach of this current government is misguided, wrong and will lead us on a slippery slope. This appointment of an interlocutor should not lead us to think that there is a change in the heart of the government. I don’t believe there is a change of heart or change of approach, I still believe they continue to hold onto their muscular policy, and that is the military solution.
On Rahul Gandhi as Congress leader
Chaturvedi: Final question. India desperately needs an opposition. Every democracy needs one but we really need one right now. Your party got 44 seats the last time and Rahul Gandhi is going to become the president of Congress. Will we finally get a decent opposition or is he going to, as the BJP says, a failed dynast?
Chidambaram: We are the opposition. There are only two parties with a national footprint – one is the Congress other is the BJP. No one can wipe out the footprints of the Congress in every part of India, every town of India and every village of India. Yes, in the last election people returned only 44 seats to the Congress but that doesn’t mean they won’t vote for the Congress again. We have to convince the people that the governance of the BJP has brought about jobless growth. He talks about vikas and development. It is vikas without jobs, vikas with stagnant growth in rural India. We have to convince the people that this kind of governance the BJP is giving only strengthens forces which will divide the country and does not bring about the kind of development that we require. Look at our rank in the Hunger Index, look at the level of malnutrition in the country. Look at the number of people who are destitute in this country. Look at the number of people who do not have quality elementary education, look at the number of people who do not have access to basic medical care. I am not alleging all this happened post-2014, what I am saying is there was always an effort to improve all these things and things in fact improved. After 2014, there has been no effort to improve the metrics. There has been a deterioration in the metrics. On the hunger index, our score was 17 in 2014 and it’s 31 today, that’s because you neglected and refused to implement the National Food Security Act, imagine if MGNREGA also had been buried, the way it was threatened to. Imagine the kind of misery.
Chaturvedi: Modi said he was keeping it on as a ‘monument of shame’ –
Chidambaram: Monument of shame! Thank God MGNREGA is in place. But the NFSA was not implemented that’s why there is so much hunger, so much malnutrition. Likewise, the National Health Mission which we rolled out has been stopped in its tracks. Likewise, the Right to Education Act, which we passed has not been implemented. Therefore, instead of taking the country forward – in 60 years the country moved forward, yes maybe it moved forward in small steps, maybe it stumbled along the way, but at least the movement was a forward movement –today, I don’t get the impression we are moving forward. In fact, we are moving backward in many ways. In many areas, the progress seems to have halted, which is why I said the model of government which the BJP has adopted and implemented in this country is regressive and halted progress and brought about a deterioration in many ways.
Chaturvedi: But the question a lot of people ask is if Rahul Gandhi can even take on Narendra Modi, who is an outstanding orator and is sharp and is in constant campaign mode. Your leader, on the other hand, the BJP calls him a failed dynast and says he doesn’t fully engage, and you never know if he will take off somewhere
Chidambaram: I want to answer to this ‘dynast’ question as it has been used more than once.
Chaturvedi: Smriti Irani called him a failed dynast.
Chidambaram: Who is the last member of the Nehru-Gandhi family who has held any constitutional office since 1989? In the last 28 years, there has not been a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family holding any position such as a minister or any other constitutional position. In the 28 years, there have been 6-7 prime ministers, numerous ministers, numerous governments, so this argument that a dynasty is controlling India is rubbish and let us put an end to this frivolous and foolish argument. Question is – Vajpayee was also a great orator. I think he was a more persuasive speaker than the present prime minister, and he was a man with a large heart. He was genuinely very compassionate and one can’t accuse him of dividing or polarising the electorate. And everybody thought, and I confess even I thought in 2004 that election would be won by the BJP. The media had predicted a resounding victory for the BJP. But the BJP lost. I don’t think you can predict the results of elections which are 18 months away. We are making an effort, we are presenting an alternative argument, an alternative model of governance, we draw upon our record. Our record is a good record with some bad spots. We are drawing upon our record. Yes, mistakes have happened but we are drawing upon our record. The most important aspect of that record is that in 10 years we have lifted 140 million people out of poverty. On that record, I am confident that the people of India will renew or extend their support to the Congress party. If they don’t, we sit in the opposition, if they do, we form our government. But that’s democracy, I don’t think it’s a matter of life and death. It’s a matter of convincing the people of India.
Chaturvedi: Thank you.
Swati Chaturvedi is a journalist and author based in Delhi. She tweets at @bainjal.
Interview transcribed by Shruti Janardhan.