Congress is shrinking, it isn’t in national interest, says Steel minister Chaudhary Birender Singh

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Published: February 26, 2017 6:25:59 AM

‘National parties must be visible prominently. Cong is shrinking, it isn’t in national interest’

Steel minister Chaudhary Birender Singh.

SURYA SARATHI RAY: Considering the fact that the steel sector is debt-ridden, how do you plan to meet the target of producing 300 million tonnes of steel from the current 120 million tonnes? Also, how will you ensure that the smaller players get sufficient funds to expand?

Countries in the West are frontrunners in steel production. Now, however, they have either stopped or reduced their production. In India and our neighbouring countries, we are in the process of developing infrastructure, and so the demand for steel in India and southeast Asian countries will increase in the times to come. In a nutshell, if we go on increasing our demand, we are safe as far as our production is concerned for another 50 years. We can be sure that whatever we produce will be consumed. I don’t think the target of 300 million tonnes will be very difficult to achieve.

After taking over as the steel minister, I realised the importance of the secondary steel sector. A composite or integrated steel plant with a capacity of 1 million tonnes requires R6,000 crore, but secondary steel plants can produce the same amount of steel with Rs 2,000-crore investment. To see that they are on a par, things have to be examined by the customer and for that we have put in place the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). Since February 7, BIS authorisation has been made mandatory to ensure that the integrated and secondary sectors are on a par.

SURYA SARATHI RAY: There are five-six primary steel producers which account for 57% of the production in India, while secondary steel producers generate the rest. It is not a level-playing field between them. The bigger players get a lot more protection. How do you balance out things for the two sides and protect the interests of the secondary steel producers?

Secondary producers generate steel that is for end-use, such as stainless steel. In this Budget, we asked the commerce and finance ministries to reduce certain duties. The duty on chromium as well as nickel has been brought down to zero. The sector is satisfied with this decision. But even otherwise, MIP (Minimum Import Price), or putting some other kind of restriction on import, goes in favour of the secondary steel consumer. There is no real difference between big players and secondary producers. On certain items, they think they can have cheaper imports, which is why we have made BIS authorisation mandatory. This is helping in quality control. Every country has its own standards of authorisation and that is not a domain we are going to interfere in.

BIS has helped bring in uniformity in exports and imports. In times to come, secondary steel producers will have a more prominent position in the steel industry. We have started giving them that place.

I constituted a committee regarding consumer steel and ensured that all associations, and even the commoner—a user of steel—was involved. Earlier, there was representation from the Tatas, Jindals or SAIL. There has been an overhaul of the Steel Consumer Committee of India. Now, secondary steel producers have been put in a prominent position where they can have their say. We are talking to the commerce and finance ministries to address their other concerns as well. I don’t think there is any disparity between primary and secondary producers.

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MANEESH CHHIBBER: The issue of MIP has gone to the World Trade Organisation. Was it your call or that of the commerce ministry, because now you will have to fight things out there? Even countries such as Japan have moved the WTO on the matter. What is in store on that regard?

Look, we were not in favour of MIP, but it was the last resort. The industry was under a loan stress of R3,17,000 crore. In terms of improving the scenario pertaining to production and consumption, nothing substantial happened in the past two to three years. In February 2016, it was decided that MIP should be applied. Initially it was put on 170-odd items and it showed results. Then we reduced it to about 60 products.

You can say MIP was an emergency clause. When we talk of anti-dumping, finalising things takes time because there is a separate body to decide on the items. Now, this month, there is no MIP. Anti-dumping is serving the purpose and if you see the result of the past nine months, there is a 34.6% reduction in imports and about 54 per cent increase in exports. That has improved the condition of the steel industry. Now, the Finance Ministry has said they have started making the instalment payments on time. Besides, there is an increase in production and in some of the items, under anti-dumping, the import is zero. With the passage of time, you will see the industry take shape and move forward and there won’t be any need for anti-dumping or any other safeguard. We are nearing that situation.

COOMI KAPOOR: What do you think about an Indian firm such as Tata Steel investing in a foreign steel company such as Corus, and then having to subsidise their losses?

At one point it was believed that Tata and other such companies were in a position to invest in the West. But now even the Tatas are under stress, as far as their steel sector is concerned. They have the advantage—90-100-year-old mines, a set establishment, and the fact that they can afford to have a buffer to a large extent. They have attained that status where they have the technology that would make it possible in the future for high-end steel to be used in car manufacturing and electronics, and those articles would be of export quality. They have invested in India also and that is how they are moving ahead.

DEEPAK PATEL: Are you happy with the performance of the steel PSUs as compared to the private players in the past two or three quarters, or do you think they can do better?

I am already on record saying that we are trying to boost growth. I have asked PSUs to set a benchmark, failing which they may not be in a position to survive in the future. There is an international benchmark now, which has to be met. This is not just for the steel industry, but for the whole country in general.

SHEELA BHATT: On the eve of the first phase of elections in Uttar Pradesh, there was a meeting of senior Jat leaders with BJP president Amit Shah, at your residence. An audio recording of that meeting was leaked and the authenticity of it was not denied either by the BJP or Amit Shah. Can you describe to us the background of the meeting and its outcome?

The Jat community plays an important role in around 108 constituencies. These 108 constituencies voted in the first and the second phases of the Uttar Pradesh elections. Between 2014 and now, the party must have felt that there was a communication gap (with the Jat community)—the support they (the BJP leaders) were expecting, they did not see. So, it was decided to hold talks with prominent leaders of the community, those who are not from the BJP, and take them into confidence. There are so many factors—khaps are a factor as their leaders have their own influence, and then there is the reservation issue.

During the Congress government, Jats were included in the OBC list. At the time, I was in the Congress and I had told the then home minister, P Chidambaram, that unless you get a positive report from the National Commission For Backward Classes, the move will not stand the scrutiny of the court. He, however, said that we could just ignore the report (of the commission). That move was taken in haste on the eve of elections, in February 2014. Later, the Supreme Court pointed out that when you have an adverse report, how can you give reservation (to Jats). Now, what we are saying is that there should a fresh survey.

In north India, and this is my personal view, there are certain castes, such as the Yadavs, Gujjars and Sainis, which have a similar background and history as the Jats. These castes are mainly engaged in agriculture. When I speak about the Jat agitation, I make it clear that historically if you find any difference (with the other agriculture communities) then don’t give us (reservation). We have faced the same discrimination and the same exploitation as faced by the other agriculture-oriented communities and that is why reservation is our right.

The bone of contention is that the Jats started to assert themselves (politically and socially) as early as the 19th century. The others have started asserting themselves only recently. 1950 onwards, Jat representation in Parliament has always remained in double digits.

SHEELA BHATT: In the audio clip it appeared that the Jats were not keen on supporting the BJP this time, as much as they were in 2014.

In two or three districts, the Jats may have gone with the other parties, but in several other districts such as Bijnor, Moradabad, Aligarh, Bulandshahr and Muzaffarnagar, a majority of the Jats have voted for the BJP.

In areas where the Jats completely dominate the scene, they behaved differently—for example in Baghpat, Mathura and Hathras. But in places where the Jat vote was important but they weren’t the dominant community, they had something different on their minds.

As far as Haryana is concerned, a decision on the issue of reservation is in its final stages. The fresh Jat agitation which is going on will, hopefully, end soon and things will normalise. The Haryana government has sorted out certain issues with the Jat leaders, such as withdrawal of cases against some Jats.

The state government has decided to give reservation to Jats, but the matter is pending in the high court. Let there be a judgment from the high court, and if the decision is in the favour of the state government, then the state government must recommend the inclusion of the Jat quota law in the Ninth Schedule.

SHEELA BHATT: Many see the Jat agitation in Haryana as an opposition to a non-Jat chief minister.

There have been 10 chief ministers in Haryana; five have been Jats and five have been non-Jats. This is a non-issue. Jats form one-fourth of the population of Haryana and naturally they assert themselves. When 1% of the population holds 57% of the wealth, then just jobs alone cannot end the disparity. You can eliminate poverty, but elimination of disparity is also very important. This is one of the reasons for the Jat reservation agitation. People say that the Jats are well-off, but this is because of our assertion. But until 150 years ago, we were being exploited. We are seeking reservation on the basis of our historical background.

MANEESH CHHIBBER: In 2014, you were the most influential leader to leave the Congress. Once you were a contender for the chief minister’s post, and then there were talks to make you a Union minister in the previous government. However, that did not happen. Do you think that if the Congress fails to win Punjab and performs poorly in UP, other leaders will leave the party for the BJP?

I believe that national parties such as the Congress, the Left parties and the BJP should be prominently seen on the political horizon. But, when we see the Congress in the past three-four years, the party tied up with the Left in West Bengal, with Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad in Bihar, and now with the SP in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress is shrinking, and this is not in national interest.

I know the Congress from the inside. There is a big vacuum in the party, and if this continues, the Congress will shrink to such an extent that there will be a question mark on its role as a national party. And this will be most unfortunate.

RAJ KAMAL JHA: Could you elaborate on your statement that if the Congress ties up with smaller parties it is not in national interest and will lead to the shrinking of the party.

As a political analyst, I believe that the importance of regional parties will soon start reducing. When you get into such alliances, parliamentary democracy doesn’t mature. Let us take the example of the BJP. In Haryana, when they ditched the Chautalas’ INLD, which is a regional party, they never thought they will get a majority. But that was a good sign for the BJP and the political system.

In the Odisha panchayat elections, 849 seats were at stake. The previous time, the BJP only had 34 seats to its credit, now they have 316. This (gain) was against a man and his party (BJD), which so far had not been challenged in Odisha. So, it is a good sign.

When I was with the Congress, I was in Odisha once for some party work. I was interacting with people there. They told me that they wanted to get rid of this government (the BJD government), but no one wanted to challenge it. The BJP’s success in Odisha shows that the younger generation looks at parliamentary democracy from a different angle, and this is good for the country.

ANAND MISHRA: UP politics is based on rigid caste lines, which have been broken only a couple of times in the name of Hindutva. In 2014, Jats voted for the BJP, but this time it appears that they are going to support the RLD. With caste and identity politics gaining currency in Uttar Pradesh once again, how do you see the BJP’s chances in the Assembly polls?

Jats form only 2% of the population in Uttar Pradesh, but the advantage is that they have settled in clusters in 13-14 districts in the western part of the state. But then Uttar Pradesh has a population of 20 crore.

Caste politics has been playing out heavily in UP since 1989. But this kind of politics is not good for the state, and people realise it now. I don’t know what will be the outcome, but certainly it will be a different result.

RAJ KAMAL JHA: In what ways has your experience in the BJP been different to that in the Congress?

Close to 42 years in one political outfit and that too with important responsibilities… I had the privilege of being election in-charge of seven states.

Where the Congress stands now is very sad. The BJP is a cadre-based party and they work differently. Party workers are given importance here (in the BJP). But in some of the areas, they have not been able to make their presence felt.

As I mentioned earlier, in Odisha we won in nine districts, all ST-dominated seats. You will see this in the UP elections too, and I have said this to the Prime Minister as well, that the poorer sections are voting for the BJP because of demonetisation and because of unification of people in the economic sector.

PRADEEP KAUSHAL: You want a stronger Congress, but the BJP wants a Congress-mukt Bharat.

These are political things. If there is no Congress, then there will be some other outfit which can claim the status of a national party. All I am saying is that if we do not have three or four parties with national status, then it is bad for parliamentary democracy.

 

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