Union MoS for commerce and industry Nirmala Sitharaman says the Bihar elections won’t be easy, asks why nobody questioned ‘leftist’ appointments to government institutions in the past, and finds no problem in ministers interacting with the RSS.
Why Nirmala Sitharaman?
Nirmala Sitharaman is an MoS of a significant ministry, that is responsible for framing the FDI policy of the country, as well as for managing foreign trade. Prior to her Cabinet post, she was one of the most important and aggressive spokespersons of the BJP. She still takes up that role and is often at the party headquarters to address the media. As Bihar goes into elections — the biggest electoral test for the NDA since it came to power last year — she has been vocal about the alliance’s plans for the state. She is the Union minister in charge of the BJP in West Bengal, another state that ranks high on the party’s list of priorities
Liz Mathew: The Bihar polls will be the NDA government’s biggest electoral test. What would be your USP in the campaign? The Opposition has accused the government of re-packaging old promises.
It’s not right to say that the package offered by the Prime Minister to Bihar consists of what was given earlier. That has been explained by the PMO and ministers who belong to Bihar. Not one per cent of it is repackaging. If you are asking about the USP, the performance of the BJP ministers in the JD(U)-BJP government before Nitish Kumar chose to walk out was noteworthy. The performance of the JD(U)-BJP combine was majorly dependent on the BJP ministers. Our USP would be to focus on development as one of the most important goals. Our USP will be not just the brief period when we were in alliance but also the experiences of the BJP state governments, the NDA government now, and the earlier one of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: What do you make of the meat ban in Mumbai? Your ally, the Shiv Sena, and the MNS are protesting against the ban. Why is the BJP silent?
What an irony, right? This issue has been on for many years. The last several governments made their decisions each time — sometime extending it (the ban), sometimes reducing it. It makes me wonder why only, when there is a BJP government, everything becomes so much of a protest and a matter worth coming onto the roads for. It absolutely makes me curious about why something that has been on the earth through five different governments becomes an issue only when the BJP is in power.
Sheela Bhatt: Don’t you think the political climate is getting bitter because of the way the ruling party and the Opposition are talking? When Sonia Gandhi said hawabaazi, the PM responded with hawalabaazi. As a former spokesperson, aren’t you worried about this tu-tu main-main?
It’s been worrying me for a long time. It is not because of Sonia ji’s comment or the PM’s response to it. Hasn’t this been for a very long time? Ideally, somewhere there has to be a scaling down. Where should it begin? I wouldn’t know. But it is not just the BJP and the Congress. It is not encouraging to say this, but it is worse in some other states. I’m not sure if the general public who live their lives between one election and the other as citizens of this country are enjoying it.
Harish Damodaran: Last year, you announced a minimum export price on potatoes and today prices have crashed. You have done the same now with onions. In farm products, you are putting all kinds of export bans, while giving subsidies on imports. At the same time, there are now moves to impose safeguards or anti-dumping duties on steel and petrochemical intermediates. Isn’t this being pro-corporate and anti-farmer?
You have got your facts wrong. On potato, the MEP restrictions were removed last December when we got representations from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha, saying there will be a glut in the market. We said if you want to export, no problem, go ahead, as a result of which farmers benefited. It is not as if we are restricting movement and buying and selling of agricultural produce without thinking about the prices farmers are going to get. We have been observing outputs and prices, comparing it with previous years, opening up exports where it will benefit the farmer and restricting where it is going to be a problem. In onions, when we realised about two months ago there is going to be a shortage, we even decided to import. About two years ago, when there was a similar crisis in onions, the then government decided to import about 2,000 metric tonnes. We said we will go up to 10,000 MT so that there will be no shortage. It is nearer to import from Pakistan. But this time, Pakistan did not facilitate the process. Even for the Afghan onions, the movement was not facilitated. So, the tenders took more time and we have had to find out alternative sources of bringing onions in.
Video: Nirmala Sitharaman On FDI in e-commerce, ease of doing business & exports package
Regarding steel, several delegations of small and medium steel users have told me not to impose duties, because getting cheaper steel is an opportunity for them. After all, Indian steel manufacturers did not reduce prices when they had an advantage over the last 15-20 years. When the steel manufacturers came to us, we openly said, ‘Tell us why your prices are not far lesser’. In fact, we challenged them. But ultimately, it is a balancing act. We have to protect the small and medium industries which generate a lot of jobs, and they have now got an opportunity of cheaper raw material. If they shut shop, so many people will be without jobs. At the same time, the large steel companies have also invested so much in making themselves efficient. So, we cannot really allow them to also suffer, which is why we increased the import duty once by 2% and later 7%. Even for safeguard duties, we will invoke these if there is enough factual evidence to prove that they have to be. The commerce secretary sits on the larger board, but the director-general of safeguards comes under the finance ministry. So, it is not as if we are taking a singular approach in all this.
Nishant Shekhar: Coming back to the Bihar elections, the NDA is relying more on the Dalit/Mahadalit vote but a crack appears to have developed with Jitan Ram Manjhi openly criticising Ram Vilas Paswan. Is this not creating confusion in the Dalit votebank?
The NDA is relying on all sections of voters, not just on Mahadalits. As regards differences, they both recently gave statements which are supportive of each other.
Nishant Shekhar: There are reports of back-channel talks between Manjhi and Lalu Prasad.
I wouldn’t give them much weight.
Coomi Kapoor: Isn’t it the duty of the government to have a working relationship with the Opposition and not take a confrontational line? Otherwise all your legislations — whether it is the GST or the land Bill — are not being passed.
Yes, very much so, and I don’t think that we by choice have taken a confrontational line. Even now we are willing to work, willing to talk, willing to engage. There are attempts to bring all opposition parties on board to talk. They are sometimes on, sometimes off, and sometimes they don’t respond.
Coomi Kapoor: The kind of language used against them is not going to encourage cooperation.
Unfortunately, the language with which the engagement happens doesn’t get public view. The one odd comment somewhere does get blown.
Liz Mathew: With the PM and other ministers frequently attacking the Opposition, how do you expect them to come on board to talk?
I agree the government has to be at the receiving, softer and accommodating end and has to reach out. But somewhere the discourse gets too skewed and too verging on the abusive. You cannot sit back and say, ‘Oh, because we are the government, we’ll have to sit and watch this’. That verging-on-the-abusive has been a trend in the last few years. I’ve been defending my party when we were in the Opposition. The language that was then used for our leaders was not questioned by the media. After all, why do you want to give so much importance to one state chief minister? Outrageous abuses were thrown at him — the current PM and the then chief minister. We were screaming our guts out, saying what is this, why do you want to do it? But one more person from the Congress would say, ‘Oh, we’ll say even worse’. All of you know about the trail of choicest of abuses. We certainly do not want to match it. But my worry is, as I said for the meat ban, the hurry to comment on the BJP. We are getting used to it but it is noteworthy.
Abantika Ghosh: Asaduddin Owaisi is considering fighting 25-odd seats in Bihar. Is the AIMIM’s participation in Bihar polls good or bad for the BJP?
It is good. The MIM’s identity politics doesn’t believe in development, good governance or reaching out to all sections of the society. Our campaign in Bihar is based on (the goal) that all Biharis should benefit from good governance. And therefore, when the discourse is out in the open, the people of Bihar will know everybody has to grow, and that will help us.
Abantika Ghosh: There are insinuations that Owaisi’s Bihar foray has the BJP’s tacit backing, and the fact that you are saying that it will be good for the BJP, fits that narrative.
I don’t go by insinuations. You can work on them.
Liz Mathew: You are the Union minister in charge of the BJP in West Bengal. R K Mohanty, a former DG of the Bengal Armed Police and a BJP member, has alleged the party has ruined its chances in the state by not putting up a new leadership. Rahul Sinha, the state unit chief, is likely to get another term now. The state BJP leadership has failed to take up the right issues. And the central leadership has failed to choose the right state leadership. Your view?
West Bengal’s BJP unit has really suffered, earlier under the Marxist rule, and now under the Trinamool Congress. There is a lot of violence in Bengal politics. The party unit and workers have borne its brunt. They wanted the party to ensure that next year’s election is fought with great vigour, to stand up and challenge this politics of violence and to ensure that Bengal gets a government which can come up with development and governance issues. So for them leadership-related issues will have to fall in place well before the next year elections. They have been repeatedly saying that the central leadership should come and take a call on what is going to happen in Bengal, which the central leadership will do. But because the expectations are so high from the central party, such comments might come in.
Vandita Mishra: Recently, an array of senior ministers participated in consultations with the RSS either to discuss what they were doing in the ministries or to give an account of their work. Were you a part of that? Isn’t such an interaction problematic given that one of your strongest criticisms of the Congress was that the line of accountability, that should stretch ideally between the people and the PM, was getting lost, and going into 10 Janpath or the National Advisory Council (NAC). Isn’t a similar fudging of the line of accountability happening here vis-a-vis the RSS?
Yes, I was a part of it. I was asked to come over and I went. It was not to present an account of my ministry, I didn’t even speak. Nor was I asked questions as to did you do or not do this.
We do have interactions with the RSS because, ideologically, we have derived a lot of inspiration from them. We shared ideas about the Indian economy, about exports, about imports, what is happening, is China really flooding us, etc. The interaction was not to weigh our performance, nor was it about establishing that we were doing their bidding — no not at all. I don’t see an issue, it is just not comparable to the NAC of the previous regime.
Vandita Mishra: But the point is there was an extra-constitutional authority to which the government seemed to defer and the same allegation can be levelled even now.
It is completely different to the extent that now an interaction with the ideological mentors is happening, to discuss the environment and also what is happening in India today. Unlike earlier, when some of the comments that had come into public domain told us about the fights that were going on in there in the previous regime.
Harish Damodaran: But we are seeing RSS-backed appointments in the FTII and many institutions?
For the last 60 years, this country has appointed some of the best thinkers from the leftist ideology to some of the best institutions, like the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), to take just one example. Unquestioningly, this country accepted them, none of us shouted, ‘Oh my God, he is a leftist, why is he sitting in ICSSR?’. Political affiliations cannot be held up as a negative point when an appointment is made, if it is permitted within the framework of that organisation. I can tell you the number of appointments made to the Indian Council for Historical Research. Today their norms have become the norms that everybody has to comply with? Some of the chairmen, who had the support of these groups, would not publish a paper even if I had sent it, not as a minister, as a random researcher. Because I am not a card-holder of the left-wing parties. This is the way this country’s academia had excluded some sort of people. And today that exclusion is acceptable and that norm which they had set up has become the norm that we have to comply with? When we shake that up, it becomes an issue.
Vandita Mishra: But the more substantial argument against Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment as FTII chairman is the simple lack of credentials, which the students are protesting against. As an achiever in your right, how would you defend his appointment?
I will certainly not comment on a particular individual. Institutions need to have good people, no doubt. But as in all questions of propriety, quality, excellence, should not institutions be better off? Where were we earlier? I want institutions to be better off. Institutions were run down, completely washed out, coloured, painted. Until now, none of us even had the chance to blink an eyelid about it.
Sheela Bhatt: On Make in India, there is no perceptible change on the ground, no mega investment.
Make in India is an initiative. It is not an attempt to build factories everywhere. It is not even an attempt to get investors to come and make them build a factory immediately. It is an initiative to make sure that manufacturing is given priority in India, because otherwise you will not know where to engage that excess of labour which is going to come out of agriculture. The service sector cannot engage that many people. As regards manufacturing and more investments coming in, we are clearing a whole lot of backlog of all that deterred business from taking place in India, from investments coming into India. That backlog itself required a lot of work that was not attractive, you had to engage with the state governments and tell them, ‘Look these are the obstructions you have to remove, these are the simplifications you have to do’. Ninety-eight different specific points were given to the state governments, in December. By June 30, most of them had worked on it, and that is why this ranking is happening, this year’s ranking will be on the basis of states who responded on time. So next year they should be in better place to receive investments.
Sheela Bhatt: What about jobs?
Have we been 10 years in power? It is a five-year mandate. It is just the first year. We have just done this, kind of cleansing work, which has not been done for decades. And the five-year mandate is expected to be done within the first year? This is a new paradigm for Indian electoral politics.
Liz Mathew: BJP leaders are expressing a lot of confidence regarding the Bihar polls, especially after the PM’s announcement of the package for the state. Is this an easy election?
No, it is certainly not an easy election. We will have to fight it at every booth level. Because in Bihar, the voters are conscious of what is happening in the political arena, they discuss, talk about it a lot. It’s an election where you have to convince every voter, and that kind of a vibrant participation of the voter will challenge every political party.
Transcribed by Arun Subramanian & Madhurita Goswami