NDTV's Barkha Dutt speaks to Finance Minister P Chidambaram. Here's the full transcript of the interview:
NDTV: The outgoing UPA government is perhaps getting set to face one of its toughest electoral battles in recent memory. This as the last session of Parliament will come to a close this week, a session that of course has been dominated by the Vote on Account. It was the Finance Minister's 9th Budget and also of course been dominated by the proceedings around Telangana, which has gone through in the Lok Sabha, but amidst serious questions being raised as to whether the process was transparent and democratic, LK Advani going so far as to call it a perversion of democracy. To talk about the proceedings in Parliament, his 9th Budget and of course the political battle that the Congress is getting set to confront is the Finance Minister Mr P Chidambaram.
I want to start by asking you about Telangana, not just because you are one of the senior most ministers in the government, but also because in your past avatar as Home Minister in 2009, you first confronted how messy Telangana can be. You announced that the process for creation of Telangana was now going to begin, and as Andhra went into a melt down, you actually had to create the Sri Krishna Committee to take another look at it. So you first hand knew how terribly messy it is. Will you say with all honesty that the process that has surrounded the pushing through of Telangana satisfies you? Is it as it should have been? Should the country not have watched the constructive, uninterrupted debate?
P Chidambaram: There was no constructive, uninterrupted debate. We wanted one. But please look at the larger picture. There are 543 members in the Lok Sabha and 12 people were determined to disrupt it. So if 12 people are allowed to disrupt the Lok Sabha day after day, even on the day when the Bill is brought to vote, is that democratic? That is the most undemocratic act, and since there is no agreement what to do with the 12. We had to push through the Bill yesterday in circumstances that doesn't make you happy, but there's no other way. Other wise there is a complete break down of Parliamentary processes. No bill can pass in future.
NDTV: But aren't the disruptions in large measure from the Congress divided family?
P Chidambaram: That is because the Congress has its footprint on both the sides.
NDTV: In other words Congress has not been able to create consensus within its own party.
P Chidambaram: It's true that Congress has not been able to create consensus within its own party, nor has the TDP nor have the CPI and CPM, which have footprints on either side. It's only a party that does not have a presence in one of both sides, which can claim to have consensus.
NDTV: You're talking about the BJP. But you'll have to acknowledge a certain degree of mismanagement by the Congress leadership in the entire Andhra issue. We haven't seen a number of former Congress leaders, people you have known well, people like Jagan Reddy, they were Congress men once, they are now making sharp attacks at Sonia Gandhi. He said in an interview to me that she is more brutal than the British. What I think he meant was Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have not reached out, they have not gone to Andhra Pradesh in a few years. Those 12 disruptors who we talk about could also be suspended like the earlier 16 MP's were. Hasn't the Congress failed both with the carrot and the stick? Carrot has been used selectively and the stick also has been selectively as well. Kiran Reddy is going to resign today, but he has been allowed full reign as Chief Minister.
P Chidambaram: Well you have got question and the answers
NDTV: Have you mismanaged Telangana?
P Chidambaram: The Congress has been extremely tolerant. My view is Congress should not have been so tolerant. The fact that the Congress has been so tolerant is being thrown back at the Congress. The Congress in Andhra Pradesh is a very, very big party. It is bigger than all the parties put together and therefore it's very difficult to manage the contradictions. But I have not seen anybody come forward and say I have got the solution, I'll manage the contradictions. We have tried our best. I have spoken to them on several occasions. We had a Group of Ministers talking to them, we had the Sri Krishna Committee talking to them, we have had the various emissaries talking to them, but the two sides are irreconcilably opposed and one side is determined to break away. How do you find the solution to this logjam? The only way is for the Parliament to set in and take the decision, and the Congress party took the decision as early as December 9, 2009 and the BJP took the decision later. And when the two large political parties in the Parliament decided to push through this Bill, we pushed it through in circumstances that don't make you happy, but alternative is worse, that 12 members will stop Parliament day after day.
NDTV: Though this Sri Krishna Committee, which was appointed when you were Home Minister, looking at Telanagana actually said that uniting Andhra Pradesh was the most preferable option. He listed six, I know, so in these circumstances do you personally believe it was wise to go ahead with Telangana?
P Chidambaram: He did say that the sixth option is the best option. But the 6th option was unacceptable to the Telangana people. So we had to fall back upon the fifth option. The Telangana option is also there in the report with a number of caveats. We have addressed those caveats, but please understand Telangana was a forced union in year 1958 or so. The forced union and this problem have festered for the last 50 years. The 10 districts of Telangana are determined to break away. You heard Owaisi yesterday, that they are determined to break away, in fact they even opposed Owaisi's party in an way, keeping Hyderabad as the common capital for 10 years, or having a common High Court for a few months. So that is the kind of determination Telangana is showing to break away. When 10 districts want to break away and form a separate state, the other side, we have tried to tell them to reach a solution. But the Seemandhra side has not been able to convince the Telangana side that forget the past, we can still live together. Now if they are not able to convince and the Telangana side is not convinced, what is the solution? Does a forced union continue, a forced union? Is it a solution? It is a solution for a few days, few weeks, but the problem will burst out again. Therefore, under the circumstances, the only solution is and I am underlining the word solution, is to allow 2 states to be created and then hope that Telugu language will bind them and they will remain friendly states.
NDTV: Yet you did say that in your personal opinion the Congress was far too tolerant in dealing with the dissent. Would it be fair to say that you believe some one like Kiran Reddy, as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, perhaps should have been asked to go much earlier?
P Chidambaram: I think so.
NDTV: Why do you think he was allowed then to openly question?
P Chidambaram: Because as I said earlier Congress party was extremely tolerant to the protestors, to the dissenters.
NDTV: And you think that it was a mistake that now looks like mismanagement?
P Chidambaram: I can't characterise a party's decision as a mistake or mismanagement. I can only say that Congress party was extremely tolerant and in my view he breached all limits of propriety, and he should have been asked to go earlier, but that doesn't mean it is a mistake, it is my view
NDTV: There has been dismay as Lok Sabha proceedings have been disrupted abruptly, at least not available on television for a live telecast. Contradictory explanations have been emerged, there were some Ministers who have suggested that this was permitted in the rules and this was a government's decision. Even officials in the Lok Sabha Secretariat are not identifying themselves with the order of the government. Is this not acutely anti-democratic? Is this not frankly completely in contradiction to the Right to Information that the Congress so loves to tom-tom as one of its biggest achievements?
P Chidambaram: Government has nothing to hide, that I can tell you. Why it happened, what happened, I don't know. That's a question you should put to the Lok Sabha Secretariat.
NDTV: Would you have preferred it not to be so?
P Chidambaram: No. That has worked for the last three weeks. What is it if they worked for 1 more day?
NDTV: Who's going to believe that just for those 80 minutes these cameras mysteriously stopped working?
P Chidambaram: Then don't believe it. We didn't hide anything, there were 100 reporters and every word, every act of what happened inside the House was reported today, we only don't have pictures. We have a verbal picture. We don't have an image, that's what we don't have. But these images will only be the same images that were telecast for the last three weeks.
NDTV: Mrs Swaraj says it was not a technical glitch, it's a tactical glitch. Arun Jaitley is drawing parallels with the Emergency. He's saying remember that day when the newspapers didn't come out. At that time too they say glitch.
P Chidambaram: You see the BJP goes ballistic. The point is there were 100 reporters, everything was known to the reporters. They reported it today. The only thing missing is a visual on a television set. So if anybody should complain, it should be the Channel who should complain, nobody else should complain.
NDTV: So you personally don't feel that the messages seemed a bit secretive, not transparent?
P Chidambaram: Government did nothing to do it.
NDTV: There have been contradictory statements from some ministers
P Chidambaram: If four channels ask three Ministers at five different points of time there will be contradictions.
NDTV: And your position is nothing lost, cannot be telecast.
P Chidambaram: I already said I'm not happy with whatever happened with the cameras, but nothing is lost because all that was missing was a visual of some people protesting. After a first couple of minutes, the Lok Sabha television camera focuses only on the Speaker and the member who is addressing the House. It does not focus on the demonstrators. All that was missing was the background music. That was missing.
NDTV: Okay. Before we go on to the political campaign and your voter account and your current sparring with Narendra Modi, there is actually news that has emerged today that that the Tamil Nadu Cabinet, and Tamil Nadu is of course your state, has decided that it would like to see the killers of Rajiv Gandhi actually be released. This is something that was expected. Mr. Karunanidhi made a similar demand yesterday. All of this has happened in the aftermath of the Supreme Court deciding to commute death to life, I want to ask you your opinion, as a senior lawyer, as a Tamilian, as someone who knew Rajiv, does this make you comfortable?
P Chidambaram: Our grief is an irreparable grief. Our grief is because Rajeev Gandhi was killed, brutally killed. Some of the killers have been punished. Some died in the aftermath of the investigation. Three of them were sentenced to death that has been commuted to life, on the principle that the Supreme Court has reiterated in more than one case in the last six months. I can't say I'm unhappy with the decision. It is the decision of the Supreme Court. It is not a matter of happiness or unhappiness.
NDTV: Does it make you uncomfortable? It sets a precedent, set earlier by the Court
P Chidambaram: The precedent was set earlier. Well therefore I can't say that I'm unhappy. Three people have been sentenced to life rather than sentenced to death. That's the decision of the Supreme Court. I'm neither happy nor unhappy. Our grief does not arise out of recent events. Our grief arises from the brutal killing of Rajiv Gandhi. Our grief will always remain. It will always remain. The Supreme Court doesn't declare them innocent. That is the point.
NDTV: Are they going to walk free? That's the decision of the TN government
P Chidambaram: If they walk free after about 20-22 years that's it. That is the punishment that the Court felt they should suffer, so be it. I don't have to say whether I'm happy or unhappy be that as it may. As a legal proposition, there is an issue with the reasoning of the Supreme Court. The mere delay is enough to commute the sentence. Now when does this delay happen in this case? Mercy petition reached the Home Ministry near 2000. Who was in office in 2000? NDA was in office in 2000. They did not deal with the mercy petition for nearly 4 years, it was taken up only in 2005 by Mr Shivraj Patil, and he sent it to the President. It remained in the President's office for nearly 5 years. After I became Home Minister, all the remaining mercy petitions were returned to me and I had to deal with them one by one. Therefore to say that mere delay means that the sentence can be commuted to life, this is a serious question of law. It has nothing to do with this case. As an abstract proposition of law, I have to examine the correctness of that proposition.
NDTV: In principle, not particularly in this case, as a principle it doesn't make you entirely comfortable?
P Chidambaram: I'll tell you why. It is not only in India. In every country of the world, death sentence prisoners exhaust every remedy available to them and it takes years. In the US it has taken 20-25 years. And the laws, as we understand them, whenever there is a petition on a death sentence prisoner or on his behalf or by him, it has to be examined. Every new piece of information has to be dealt with. Every petition concerning the case has be dealt with and disposed off. Then Presidents also have their own views on death sentence, some Presidents take one view other Presidents take another view. The matter lies with President's office for several years. So I'm comfortable with the proposition and a delay, a mere delay alone is a reason, in a way if you look at it, it is a delay, which has given them a lease of life. No delay so the question won't arise.
NDTV: You won't protest the decision. You won't see it as an example of cynical politics 2 months before the elections?
P Chidambaram: I don't look at it as a cynical decision. I don't look at it as cynical politics. That's the decision of the Court and the Executive government in office decides that 22 years of imprisonment is sufficient, so be it.
NDTV: You don't believe that questions will arise and they have already started. In J&K, for example why there was such hurry with the execution of Afzal Guru. If this mercy, so to say, can be shown to killers or people who were implicated in Rajiv Gandhi, why not in other cases?
P Chidambaram: That's why I say the reasoning on which the judgement stands will be debated, because we apply the reasoning, because then people will ask why are certain cases are decided in one way and certain cases decided in other way? Why did the executor act in one way and why did the executor act in other way?
NDTV: Omar Abdullah may say I want the power too
P Chidambaram: That's why I'm saying as an abstract legal proposition, this reasoning will be debated for a long time. But this is nothing to do on the merits of death penalty, that's a separate debate.
NDTV: But in this case it was India's Prime Minister, former Prime Minister, he was assassinated, but in this case the Executive decision, the political decision that these 4 people will now walk free. You said you are not unhappy, but there will be those who would say it is a mockery of justice.
P Chidambaram: No I maintain that I'm not unhappy. Our grief can never be fully redressed. That's an irreversible injury to our party, to me as a person. Our grief arises out of the brutal killing of Rajiv Gandhi, but if the Court decides and the Executive acts follow the Court's decision so be it.
NDTV: Let's then focus to what's our 9th budget. There are those who would say that in this Interim Budget, it couldn't be too much of an event but the one, but the one pattern that could be spotted was that you were trying to woo a constituency that was not being typically being wooed by the Congress, the military constituency, the ex-servicemen with One Rank One Pension, the urban Indian. Usually the Congress is quoted in rural India. Let's start with One Rank One Pension. It was typically something that was pending for at least 5 years. Has it now been pushed through because Rahul Gandhi said it should be so?
P Chidambaram: These are such predictable questions
NDTV: Because there seems to be a script. He meets the servicemen last week and then he announces the 500 crore sop
P Chidambaram: Please remember that the One Rank One Pension has been corrected three times by the UPA government
NDTV: But partially implemented not to the satisfaction of the community.
P Chidambaram: That's not correct. I have the facts and you and your viewers should know the facts. We corrected it in 2006, we corrected it again in 2010, we corrected it again in 2013 and we closed the gap for 4 ranks, so what is left is 2 Other Ranks, OR, and 2 other ranks and the officers category. That is what is left out. And therefore we've got the last rank in this journey of correction, we have walked a substantial distance since 2006 and we walked the last mile and we said let's close the gap completely. So this is a process. That process which the Vice President of the Party met with ex-servicemen at some point and said I'll take up your cause. Well I congratulate him for that. The point is these are discussions that have been going on for quite some time within the government, within the Finance Ministry or Defence Ministry before I drafted my speech, I started writing it a several days before.
NDTV: Well before Mr Gandhi met with ex-servicemen?
P Chidambaram: Drafting started much before that, but the process is going on since 2006. But consultations within the Party, within the government, I can share with you, have been going on for at least a month now.
NDTV: There are military personnel who have raised concerns that 500 crores are not enough and that the Defence Ministry estimated 1300 cores, now it is 1700 crores. Will this be implemented? Now it is up to the next government.
P Chidambaram: In fact I gave this news, the first estimate was about 1300 crores, the second estimate was based on earlier calculations, 1700 crores. The final estimate is 500 crores, the number is not relevant
NDTV: And you believe that number is sufficient to be implemented for years?
P Chidambaram: The number is not relevant. I have made it absolutely clear in my post budget discussion. This number I've taken because the MoD has given me this number. But whatever it requires will be given next year. As an earnest, I have given the 500 crores due next year, even this year. I'm transferring the 500 crores this year. I'm not passing on the burden. In fact I'm relieving the burden in the next fiscal year.
NDTV: Now in the Budget you also referred to how majoritarianism and populism. In the Budget you also referred to how majoritarianism and populism is not an alternative form of governance. You didn't name anyone, but will it be fair to say, if I look at theses two words by populism, you were referring to the AAP? And the majoritarianism you were referring to, would it be fair to interpret that?
P Chidambaram: Why do you associate populism with the AAP? It's a question and I'm answering in the form of a question. Why do you associate the word populism with the AAP and majoritarianism with Mr. Narendra Modi? You and thousands like you, the mental association, when that words comes?
NDTV: Congress leaders using those words as well
P Chidambaram: There must be some truth in it. Let me tell you millions of people in this country associate Mr Modi with majoritarianism, I do.
NDTV: What do mean by majoritarianism?
P Chidambaram: That is majority will decide what is right, what is wrong. The majority will prevail and that is not the democratic way of governance. In any democracy, there will be a majority behind a particular idea or a particular policy. It could be a religion-based majority, it could be a caste-based majority, it could be a region-based majority, but that doesn't mean that they can trample over the rights of minority as opposed to the majority. Majoritarianism is the antithesis of the way of governance as we have accepted it. Likewise populism, in fact I, in one point in my draft, had used the word crowd sourcing. Then I thought crowd sourcing was too technical, so I used the word populism. You find government crowd sourcing policy. This is not the democratic way of governance. Democratic way of governance let me repeat is only through elected representatives. Elected representatives represent not only the majority, it's also the minority.
NDTV: Both Mr Modi and Mr Kejriwal are elected representatives, where Mr Kejriwal was. The Assembly is now in suspended animation. Two questions emerging from what you said, has the Congress's attack or the opposition, ideological opposition to Mr Narendra Modi been blunted by the fact that RK Raghavan, SIT said there was no prosecutable evidence against him and the local court upheld that finding? In other words the BJP sees the clean chit has buried the 2002 attack. You even have the USA reaching out to Mr Modi ending perhaps a 10-year boycott that was started in 2005. Does the Congress find itself unable to issue a protest?
P Chidambaram: It is an issue. It will be an issue. And I think all of you are underestimating the issue. The point is 1984 was an issue, Congress party has won elections in Delhi, lost elections in Delhi, but 1984 was an issue, will be an issue.
NDTV: Yet Rahul Gandhi refuses to apologise for it.
P Chidamabaram: Congress party has apologised.
NDTV: He's the leader of the Congress party.
P Chidambaram: The Congress President has apologised, the PM's apologised.
NDTV: Do you think you made a mistake in not apologising?
P Chidambaram: Well, I don't know what the context was. I was not here when the things were telecast. But the point is the Congress party, the PM, the Congress President has apologised. Mr Modi by contrast has not apologised. For some reason he's too proud to utter two words,' I apologise ' and that is revealing his character.
NDTV: But if I'm not wrong it took the Congress 25 years to apologise, it took Modi 2 decades. The PM's apology in the Parliament came well after
P Chidambaram: He could make an apology as PM only after he becomes PM. I don't know what he has said as an MP or private citizen.
NDTV: But the legal developments in the case, don't they help Mr Modi and blunt the Congress?
P Chidambaram: Contrast the legal developments in 1984 and 2002. In the 1984 riots, Home Ministry has put it out, the Commissioner of Police has put it out that several cases, over 3-4 dozen cases, have ended in conviction. Several people have been sentenced to life term imprisonment and several cases are under trial. In the case of Mr Modi, some cases are on trial but the case that implicated or accused Mr Modi, the first court accepted the SIT Report and said he cannot be made accused. The matter is on appeal. It's the first court that has said, I have nothing against him. He may be guilty. He may not be guilty. I'm not the court. But the first court has said SIT report is acceptable, there is a higher court and the matter is before a higher court. I don't think you can say the matter is being closed.
NDTV: Okay. I was just going to make one point about this, Sir I want to ask you about Arvind Kejriwal and his questions about the gas pricing. It concerns your domain of expertise, but all of 1984 people point out that while in 2002 you have seen a Maya Kodnani, you have seen a high profile conviction, you have seen a Babu Bajrangi go to jail, here till very recently Jagdish Tytler was drawing benefits of a CBI clean chit. Transparency of that decision by CBI is under scrutiny. You have had CBI officials involved in the cases later getting plump postings after retirement. Does this disappoint you that the high profile Congress leaders associated with these riots for example Jagdish Tytler, he killed, Bhagat, no longer alive, Sajjan Kumar, they have remained associated with the party for long many, many years after the riots?
P Chidamabaram: Wait, you are contradicting yourself. The CBI gave a clean chit to Mr Tytler and that has been reversed by a court
NDTV: That CBI director was awarded
P Chidamabaram: That's a process. The SIT gives a clean chit and that's accepted by a first court and an appeal on a higher court does that stand on a different; investigating agencies give clean chits, investigating agencies file charge sheets, ultimately the court decides whether a) or b) is accused or not. Why is the principle that what you articulated only 5 minutes ago doesn't apply in Jagdish Tytler's case or in the Jagdish Tytler's case development?
P Chidamabaram: Jagdish Tytler case was not honest and the Court interfered. I assumed that the SIT process is honest and the court will not I think you are contradicting yourself
NDTV: I have to move on, as you have to go to Parliament. You spoke about the crowd sourcing which you almost spoke about in your Budget speech and then didn't, about Arvind Kejriwal. Mr Kejriwal seems to have raised a question that almost none of the political parties were talking about, though the BJP now says that we too object in the Standing Committee, now headed by Yashwant Sinha, and that is the issue of gas prices. Because it is such a complex, technical subject, let me ask you very simply, we know there is a Rangarajan Committee, we know its aggregative prices of three different regions of the world and so on. But you have the CAG Report as it were on Reliance and KG Basin. You have the question of under production and you have questions being raised by very eminent people, whose integrity will not be questioned. People who are eminent bureaucrats, people who have been advisors to the Power and Energy Ministry, who are saying that this perception, let's just talk about the perception, 1dollar is the operating cost and its being sold at 8 dollars per unit. P Chidambaram, is there now a serious question mark over the influence that Mr Ambani and his company has wielded over the decision of gas prices?
P Chidambaram: The argument that the marginal cost of producing one unit is one dollar and should it be priced at eight dollars or over eight dollars is an argument that has to be stated. To be rejected. It betrays complete ignorance of economics. Marginal cost does not decide the actual price of the product. There is a capital investment. Capital can go to 10 different destinations. Capital goes where profits are maximized. The point is that if you did not produce one unit of gas because you say I won't pay more than one dollar, that's your argument. I will not pay you more than one dollar if that one unit of gas is not produced, you will have to buy it today for fourteen dollars per unit. That's the price today the world, the market is fixed for gas. Therefore the choice is between buying one unit of gas at fourteen dollars or giving to the producer here an $8 price. That's the correct way to look at a commercial event like investing, exploring, failing, succeeding in producing gas. Therefore I think this argument of one dollar and paying eight dollars is a completely misplaced argument. Anyone who is acquainted with one on one economics will know it has to be rejected
NDTV: But the people who are raising question are who know more than one on one economics. They are the people who served in, a former Revenue Secretary, a former Cabinet Secretary
P Chidambaram: I doubt it, if he knows and still makes this argument
NDTV: You know who the people are
P Chidambaram: I know, that's why I'm saying, if he knows and still makes the argument, I'm only very sorry for him. I think he is putting up a pretence; an act
NDTV: Why would he put up an act?
P Chidambaram: I don't know. You should ask him that. You should ask him is marginal cost production a way to fix the price, you should ask him if you did not produce that gas and offer to pay anything more than one dollar you would have imported for 14 dollars today. We are importing today at 14, the spot prices are hovering around 14 dollars. We, we will, if you tell the world I will only pay you one dollar no one will sell you gas today. You said CAG and something other?
NDTV: CAG accused Reliance of violating the terms of the contract
P Chidambaram: Those are being addressed separately. We have posed penalties upon that company. We have taken bank guarantees for them for the gas that they fail to deliver. According to us the pricing issue is an separate issue, the pricing issue has nothing to do with a company, because the maximum gainer from this price increase will be ONGC. Because ONGC produces, of the Indian production, it's ONGC, which produces about 75%. The biggest gainer of this price increase will be ONGC. Why don't you talk to the ONGC Chairman and ask him, will he be happy to produce gas if I pay him one dollar a unit?
NDTV: Yet the BJP has joined the chorus of voices now questioning the gas pricing. Chandan Mitra said that this is undue favour being shown to one company. We have placed our objections in the Standing Committee
P Chidambaram: It's possible that the BJP in its private discussion has come to the conclusion that they will not be in a position or a place where they will decide the price of the gas, its quite possible.
NDTV: You think that they think they will not come to power?
P Chidambaram: It's possible. Otherwise who aspires to form the government if he argues that you must pay one dollar per unit of gas, when market price in the world is 14 dollars? I think, the only conclusion I can draw is he probably thinks that he is not going to have to make that decision
NDTV: Are you disappointed that as the Finance Minister that you have not been able to settle the Vodafone retrospective taxation, because the conciliation you say now that the company doesn't seem to be fully interested but ...
P Chidambaram: But they, they are, they do not know to make up their mind. In fact in their very words, they have got different legal opinions and they don't know which one is right. I said why don't you take my advice as a lawyer and start the conciliation? But they are unable to make up their mind.
NDTV: Is there any hope you will be able to settle this before the elections?
P Chidambaram: I'm saying it publicly, on television today, if they decide to begin the conciliation, if we can appoint 2 eminent conciliators, the conciliation process should not take more than a few days because the problem is known, the issue is known, the type of solutions are known to anyone whose acquainted in the matter, and 2 well trained legal minds can reach solution and suggest a solution. As conciliators only suggest a solution, they can suggest a solution in a matter of days, but for that I must begin conciliation. I'm ready, but they are not ready to begin conciliation
NDTV: But would you call the retrospective tax one of the biggest financial mistakes of the government?
P Chidambaram: See, whether it was a mistake or not...
NDTV: But was it?
P Chidambaram: Whether it was a mistake or not is not the issue, but I don't agree it was retrospective taxation, it was a clarificatory amendment
NDTV: Despite the Supreme Court judgement?
P Chidambaram: Let me complete my answer. It's a clarificatory amendment that had a retroactive application after the Supreme Court judgement and why was it necessary? On the section, as it stood, the Bombay High Court took a view accepting the government interpretation. The Supreme Court took a contrary view, accepting the Vodafone interpretation. Parliament stepped in. It wasn't an Executive change, the Parliament stepped in and said sorry, this is what we meant when we made the original section. The Bombay High Court interpretation is correct, the Supreme Court interpretation is wrong. Therefore we clarify that the section always meant what we said. This is not retrospective taxation and Vodafone knows it. I'll tell you why Vodafone knows it. Despite this tussle about the tax issue it is investing huge amounts in India. They are buying out the shares of the minority shareholders, they are buying spectrum, they are investing in telecom infrastructure, planning their footwork; they are expanding their network. In fact after this tussle, which started in say 2011 or so, in the last 4 years I think it has brought in the country over 10 billion US Dollars
NDTV: If you were Finance Minister then would you have supported or moved on the clarificatory amendment?
P Chidambaram: I would have looked for another way to solve to resolve the problem. We have a much smaller problem, but a similar problem, with ITC. I have resolved it differently. I would have explored whether the tax matter could not be settled through a different approach. So it's possible that the Finance Minister could have taken a different approach.
NDTV: Let me ask you in the end how a younger generation should take over the power and how you're looking forward to traveling and writing? Yet people have always wondered whether you are a potential Prime Ministerial candidate in the future? What if you become Manmohan Singh to Rahul Gandhi?
P Chidambaram: Why do you wonder? I have made it very clear that my party has clearly decided, that if the Congress is voted back to power, the MPs will elect Shri Rahul Gandhi as the leader. Now that is very clearly decided by the party. So there is nothing to wonder, that is clearly decided by my party.
NDTV: So he's the de jure Prime Ministerial candidate. I mean the de facto Prime Ministerial candidate, not the de jure Prime Ministerial candidate. It's all but named?
P Chidambaram: It's the party's desire. In fact I go to my constituency every 2 weeks. If I assemble 100 party workers and ask them who will you like to be the Prime Minister of India if Congress party is voted to power, I don't have the slightest doubt that all 100 party workers, they will name Rahul Gandhi. So that issue is settled by the ranks inside the party, which will be represented by the elected MPs of the party. Now that as far as I'm concerned this is a settled issue and party is happy with that decision. I don't know anyone else should be unhappy with the decision.
NDTV: Nobody knew Mnmohan Singh would be PM.
P Chidambaram: I made it clear what I wanted to do. I have no such aspirations. My aspirations are to travel, read and write and I'm on record in the AICC to say one half of the seats must at least be given to the young candidates. After all in India, in half of Indians are under the age of 35 and 83 crore people are under the age of 35.
NDTV: In one of your interviews you described Narendra Modi as a challenger. As we draw closer to the elections, would you accept him as a frontrunner? What ever your ideological reservations with him are, you have been candid enough to say the Congress is entering this election as an underdog, I think that's the word you used.
P Chidambaram: No, that was an answer to a question, that much rather Congress goes to an election as an underdog rather than a triumphal note, because I know the BJP in 2004 and 2009 when they entered the election fray as if all that remained was to be crowned.
NDTV: do you see Mr Modi as a frontrunner today, and what do you make of the Harvard hard work battle that both of you seem to have been locked in?
P Chidambaram: I'm not locked in any battle. He is the one indulging in school boy word play, Harvard and hard work
NDTV: Doesn't it raise deeper questions because you've had a Mani Shankar Aiyar mocking his origins as a son of a tea vendor?
P Chidambaram: I don't support Mani Shankar Aiyar's jibe at Mr Modi. I think all professions are dignified professions. I'm not sure if he started his career as a tea seller, but I think tea selling is as honorable as being a lawyer or a journalist or a civil servant, so I don't accept his, Mani Shankar Aiyar's...
NDTV: So the hard work, hardhearted Harvard battle?
P Chidambaram: These are word plays, I dont indulge in word play, but if he indulges in a word play and I'm entitled to retort, then that is precisely what I said in my Budget speech
NDTV: You did say that. You said that Harvard and my mother taught me the value of hard work. Mr Chidambram, what has been your biggest achievement, I won't say as Finance Minister, but as your years in the government and your biggest sense of regret?
P Chidambaram: Recent or entire?
NDTV: Look at these 10 years.
P Chidambaram: Barkha, oh these 10 years, the most satisfying achievement was putting India's economy on a stable fiscal position and growth of over 9% for over three years, that is the most satisfying achievement. The most challenging assignment was pulling back India's economy from the low it had hit. Q1 of the current year was 4.4, we have pulled it back to now 4.8 in Q2, and by all reports it will be at least 5.2% in Q3 and Q4. Pulling it back when the world economy is still fragile and very turbulent, that is the most challenging assignment
NDTV: You rejected policy paralysis in your Budget speech, but you would have to concede that there has been a kind of lack of energy in the government in the last couple of years, beleaguered by the scams, paralysed perhaps by the silence of the very top?
P Chidambaram: I can't talk about the very top. All I can say is there was a certain amount of slow down in policy, but that I won't call policy paralysis. That is because of a number of factors, external factors, regulatory over reach, fear among civil servants and the working style of individual Ministers. But we have corrected it over the last 10-15 months, we have increased the pace of decision-making and a number of major decisions have been taken up, that is undeniable. You cannot clear 6 lakhs, 60 thousand crore rupees worth of projects, if what you say, policy paralysis, is correct. We have cleared projects, we have set up institutions; we have set in motion policies taken courageous decisions. I listed 5 of them in my Budget speech. All this has happened because we realise that may be knowingly decision-making has slowed down
NDTV: You have also suddenly empowered the states to manage their own expenditure when it comes to managing their own social welfare plans, something that hasn't been discussed?
P Chidambaram: Because many of you don't follow Cabinet decisions. It was a decision taken several months ago in the Cabinet.
NDTV: But again with one eye on elections, and again with one eye on regional players
P Chidambaram: This was taken several months ago in response to demands, which we were receiving. Over the years NDC has demanded that even in centrally sponsored schemes the money must go to the state government through the state plan. They must be charged with the responsibility of implementing the schemes. So we had to first restructure the schemes, that took time, so we converted into 66 teams and the same day we announced the restructuring. The other decision of the Cabinet was the money would now flow through the state plan. This was a decision taken I think almost 6-7 months ago, you guys don't care about these decisions, you don't report them and when I am announcing the Budget speech, you suddenly wake up. This was decided 6-7 months ago. NDC demanded it from long, long ago.
NDTV: Are you looking forward to a 10th Budget?
P Chidambaram: I look forward to my party presenting a 10th Budget
NDTV: You don't see yourself in that avatar in near future?
P Chidambaram: I have already said, I said in a lighter vein, I may be my own successor, but I prefer a young, educated capable hand, man or woman to be the Finance Minister of the next UPA government, headed by the UPA Congress
NDTV: You really think the UPA has any chance of forming the next government?
P Chidambaram: Well, what did you guys say in 2004?
NDTV: It's a bit different today
P Chidambaram: What did you say in 2009? Every Election is different. As I said nobody can predict the result of an election. I would always prefer to go into an election as in individual candidate, or as a party or as an under dog. I don't think we should go into an election on a triumphant note.
NDTV: But you're not announcing your political retirement are you?
P Chidambaram: Of course not, I am going to be extremely active in politics and I'll probably haunt you on your channels.
NDTV: And look forward to sparring with Mr Modi?
P Chidambaram: If he wants to engage in a debate, I would engage him in a debate.
NDTV: You would be ready to debate Mr.Modi?
P Chidambaram: Of course, but he has to first spell out his views, I can't debate with my views spelt out, my vision spelt out, my policies known, but I know nothing about my opponent's views. Has he once spoken to you? Has he spoken at the press conference? Has he addressed issues of what is his position on fiscal deficit, what is his stand on monetary policies?
NDTV: But we don't necessarily know Mr Rahul Gandhi's views either?
P Chidambaram: Maybe, but Mr Rahul Gandhi is willing to speak and he is speaking today. The last 2-3 months he has spoken on at least half a dozen issues. He has spoken on corruption bills, ex-servicemen, he has spoken on disability; he speaks to me, he texts me on some issues that are brought to his notice.
NDTV: But Mr Modi doesn't speak to journalists nor does Mr Rahul Gandhi, he may have begun that process, but it hasn't quite taken off.
P Chidambaram: Mr Rahul has begun that process, Mr Modi runs away from media, why? Why doesn't he just sit down and have a full-fledged press conference addressing all issues? He has been named as the Prime Minister candidate. A candidate cannot run away from meeting the media.
NDTV: I think on that note I would certainly like to agree. We would like to hear you, Narendra Modi, Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister, who we never seem to hear from or we hear very little from these days. It's going to be an interesting couple of months ahead.