May 29, 2020
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CNN-IBN Devil's Advocate

'I Am Neither Happy Nor Unhappy'

The finance minister on the fiscal deficit, Telangana, Parliament's behaviour, Rajiv Gandhi's killers, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, Congress prospects and Narendra Modi's majoritarianism and 'I, me, mine'

'I Am Neither Happy Nor Unhappy'


Transcript of the CNN-IBN's Devil's Advocate programme with finance minister P. Chidambaram

On the Interim Budget and Fiscal Deficit Numbers

Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate. How credible is the governments claim that it has reduced the fiscal deficit to 4.6 percent of GDP. That is one of the key issues I should explore today with the finance minister P Chidambaram.

Karan Thapar: 24 hours after you made that claim that the fiscal deficit has been contained at 4.6 percent of GDP. Swaminathan Iyer writing on the front page of the Economic Times has said "this year's figure was massaged by creative accounting to postpone expenditure to next year, while stealing next year's revenue through massive interim dividends from Public sectors undertakings". What he's suggesting is that you have used smoke and mirror to try and bring the fiscal deficit down to 4.6 percent but actually it's considerably higher. How do you respond to him?

P. Chidambaram: Last year in this very room, he said my last year's number was also smoke and mirror. My last years number was in the Budget estimates. We have presented the revised estimates. Nobody has been able to find fault with the number that I presented in the revised estimates.

Karan Thapar: Let us then focus on the actual quantity of subsidies that you rolled over to next year. You have admitted that Rs 35000 crore of fuel subsidies have been rolled over to next year. However Moody's has said that you under estimated the fuel subsidy bill. They claim that you under estimated by some 30 or 40 percent and therefore the rollover of fuel subsidy alone will be considerably more than the Rs 35000 crore you have admitted to?

P. Chidambaram: Last year we rolled over Rs 45000 crore and they said that hides the true figure. This year we have shown the accounts. We did rollover only Rs 45000 crore. This year we are rolling over Rs 35000 crore. Wait for the revised estimates of next year and you will find that we have actually rollover only Rs 35000 crore.

Karan Thapar: You are saying that Moody's is wrong?

P. Chidambaram: I think they don't have the numbers which I have. They don't have the data which I have.

Karan Thapar: It is not just Moody's however that is questioning your 4.6 percent fiscal deficit achievement. Ashok Gulati, the chairperson of the commission for agricultural cost and prices says there is a further Rs 80000 crore rollover of fuel and fertilizer subsidies which you haven't admitted to. If he is correct then the fiscal deficit becomes not 4.6 percent but a lot closer to 5.2 or even 5.3 percent?

P. Chidambaram: This is the same argument you are making over the last three questions. People say the same thing year after year and when the revised estimates are presented then nobody has anything to say.

Karan Thapar: I have actually tried to analyse, investigate Mr. Gulati's claim. Is it not the case that the Food Corporation of India acting through its nominated agencies has in fact made procurements for nearly Rs 40000 crore above and beyond your Rs 92000 crore food subsidy. If that is the case then that Rs 40000 crore amounts to a rollover which you haven't acknowledged?

P. Chidambaram: I am only concerned about what the Budget, the treasury gives to A or B or C. We have provided for food subsidy for next year at Rs 1,15,000 crore and I think a strong firm hand on the wheel can keep the food subsidy to Rs 1,15,000 crore. What Food Corporation procures, how it finances it is a matter between the Food Corporation, the ministry of consumer affairs and the banks. I am talking about the fisc.

Karan Thapar: At the end of the day if the Food Corporation has done procurements of Rs 40000 crore above and beyond your Rs 92000 crore food subsidy then that has to be paid for by someone and when it is paid for it will be tantamount to a rollover of subsidy to the next .... (Interrupted)

P. Chidambaram: I don't know whether that number is correct. I don't know how they are financing it. I am only concerned about what the fisc provides for food subsidy.

Karan Thapar: I have also spoken to Satish Chandra the director general of the Fertilizer Association of India and he confirmed that the fertilizer ministry asked for a subsidy of Rs 1,05,000 crore, you have given an allocation of around Rs 68000 crore which leaves a short fall of about Rs 37000 crore and that is the second rollover that hasn't been admitted to in your Budget?

P. Chidambaram: Ministries will always ask for more. Last year also they asked for more but we gave them less and the revised estimates show that we are right. If we are wrong we are wrong by Rs 1000 or 2000 crore this way that way. Ministries always ask for more. We sit with ministries across the table, arrive at a number and proof of the pudding is the revised estimate.

Karan Thapar: You keep using last year to prove that if you were right last year you will be right this year but the truth is as the Business standard has revealed that last year you only admitted to a Rs 45000 crore rollover of fuel subsidies. Actually the paper claims the overall rollover for fuel food and fertilizer was well over Rs 100, 000 crore?

P. Chidambaram: I can't answer these claims. Somebody must tell me from the revised estimates and the accounts are audited by the C&AG where are these numbers they are talking about. I can only go by what I estimated last year at the beginning of the year or I am estimating at the end of the year and to say that my estimates are not wrong.

Karan Thapar: You are questioning both what Mr. Gulati has said in public as well as what Satish Chandra has said to me. You are also questioning Moody's but the truth is Business Standard, one of our more reputed pink papers, actually seems to agree with both Gulati and Chandra. On Wednesday the paper said that the food and fertilizer ministry will have to make up the shortfall of around Rs 80000 crore from "other avenues such as bonds and special banking arrangements". Today Thursday in their leader they have criticized you for placing these two ministries in an awkward and invidious and difficult position?

P. Chidambaram: I am not questioning anyone. They are questioning my numbers and I am answering them by saying I have a BE and I have an RE. I have a new BE, the RE numbers are there, the actuals will come in, the C&AG will audit it. Money can't be hidden in the government of India. Therefore the numbers prove that our estimates are broadly right. Our estimates may be wrong by 1 or 2 percent but that is what an estimate is. However the numbers that they are talking about are not correct and if I can go back 12 months they said more or less the same thing about last years numbers.

Karan Thapar: If your estimate may be wrong by 1 or 2 percent and your estimate of 4.6 percent is wrong by 1 or 2 percent you are talking about 5.6 to 6.6 percent?

P. Chidambaram: 4.6 percent won't be wrong by 1 or 2 percent. Last year I was right on two estimates so far. Since you seem to be going around the same question in six different ways all I am trying to tell you is for 2012-13 I had an RE. For 2013-14 I had a BE and a RE and nobody has been able to point out where those numbers are wrong.

Karan Thapar: The reason I am going about it as you say in six different ways is because I am quoting to you the views of six, seven different top authorities who are considered very credible and each of them has questioned the 4.6 percent?

P. Chidambaram: I am not going to question their intelligence or their ability. However I certainly don't agree that they can question the officials of the finance ministry and our experts intelligence and ability.

Karan Thapar: So, far I have talked to you about people who claim that they have knowledge of rollover of subsidies which you haven't admitted to in the Budget. Let me approach this matter one last time in a different way. Abheek Barua the chief economist at HDFC writing in the business standard has said that 4.6 percent of GDP means that in absolute terms the fiscal deficit is somewhere around Rs 524,000 crore. He says given that in the first 9 months of the year it had already reached Rs 516,000 crore, you have roughly Rs 8000-8100 crore for the last quarter. Let me come to the conclusion that Abheek Barua reaches, he says "fiscal deficit is therefore likely to be higher both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP". He is someone who is considered a reputed authority. Are you saying that his calculations and his assumptions are completely fallacious?

P. Chidambaram: Yes. I say that because they say it every year. Every year they say the same things. I have read many articles of people whom you have named, every year they say the same thing. We know how the fiscal deficit rises and then falls in the last two months. Are you suggesting that people who have made Budgets for so many years in the ministry of finance don't know how to make a Budget or don't know how to arrive at an estimate?

Karan Thapar: Oh, they know how to make the Budget, in fact they know so well how to hide things they want to not reveal and that is why people question you.

P. Chidambaram: I take serious exception to that statement; you have produced not a bit of evidence to show that anyone is fudging any numbers. I think you should move on.

Karan Thapar: Are you therefore saying to me that all these authorities that I have named, Moody's, Ashok Gulati, Abheek Barua, Satish Chandra that all of them are wrong and the finance minister and the finance ministry is right?

P. Chidambaram: Our estimates are right, we were right in revised estimate (RE) of 2012-13. We will be right in RE of 2013-14, nobody has found fault with RE of 2012-13 and nobody will be able to find fault with RE of 2013-14 and therefore the budget estimate (BE) of 2014-15 is right.

On Telangana Bill

Karan Thapar: Let us now come to some of the momentous political developments that have happened both today and will be happening hereafter between now and the next election— today Rajya Sabha has passed the Telangana Bill but it has happened amongst confusion, it has happened amongst disturbing visuals, not just in the Rajya Sabha but in the Lok Sabha of violence and disruption— as a senior politician are you depressed that something as important as this had to happen in this shoddy manner?

P. Chidambaram: Of course, all of us are depressed. In fact I am ashamed that this is the way Parliament has transacted business but then the alternative is even more undemocratic. If twelve members of Parliament can paralyze a house of 542 people and not allow a single piece of business to go forward that is the most undemocratic act that you can think of. Therefore, pushing through a Bill in din and bustle is much better than having twelve people paralyze Parliament for three weeks.

Karan Thapar: Except that you are undertaking a very far reaching change to the constitution and structure of India by creation of a new state.

P. Chidambaram: It is not structure of the constitution; the constitution has not been touched— we have created states in the past, we are creating one more state.

Karan Thapar: But not in this manner ever?

P. Chidambaram: But then times have changed. Have you ever come across in any earlier Parliament twelve members obstructing a 542 member house, when clearly in the house there is majority support for the Bill?

Karan Thapar: I accept the point you are making but the corollary or the opposite view is that this has ended up making a mockery not just of Parliamentary process but also of our constitution. This situation as you say has filled you with shame? Was there no better way?

P. Chidambaram: There is no better way. Is the better way to sit back and allow Parliament to be paralyzed? Is that more democratic?

Karan Thapar: What is the need to rush it through except the fact that you want to win votes in Telangana?

P. Chidambaram: I reject that argument, it was not rushed through. This announcement was made on December 9 2009. We are now four and half years down the road.

We had all party meeting; we had Sri Krishna Commission and they gave a very well argued report. We had discussions on the commissions report. We had emissaries asking both sides to sit down and find a way; Kiran Reddy was sworn in as chief minister with a specific mandate that he must try to find a way to bring both sides together. Yet after four and half years, if they have irreconcilable positions, some day or other the decision has to be implemented.

On the Functioning of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies

Karan Thapar: In fact there is a corollary to what you are saying and maybe it is even the obvious conclusion, is that people will say that there is something rotten at the very centre of the Indian system which means that even when you try for three years, you end up doing it amidst violence, you end up mocking the constitution and Parliamentary procedure and therefore the Indian system itself has something rotten at its core because it doesn't seem to function properly?

P. Chidambaram:  You are probably right.

Karan Thapar: You accept that?

P. Chidambaram: I said you are probably right.

Karan Thapar: I will tell you why people come to that conclusion because the din and confusion and violence in Parliament was also being reflected over the last few days with even worse scenes from the Jammu and Kashmir assembly and embarrassing scenes from the UP assembly— is there something wrong with the way Parliaments and legislatures function or with the attitude and behaviour of our MPs and MLAs?

P. Chidambaram: I said you are probably right. I cannot defend their conduct; I cannot defend what is happening in our Parliament and legislatures. I started by saying I feel very mortified by what is happening.

Karan Thapar: In fact you are doing something more— you are suggesting not just a deep sense of anguish but also a deep sense of helplessness. We just don't know what to do to put things right?

P. Chidambaram: Tell me, sitting in my place, what would you do?— We sit there; we try to talk to them before the session starts for the day, we try to talk to them at the end of the session, we talk to them throughout the day but if people simply won't accept minimum behaviour that is required in a Parliamentary democracy, what do you do?

Karan Thapar: Are the wrong sort of people being chosen as MPs and MLAs, people who without consideration, without care and concern act violently?

P. Chidambaram: I don't want to take names but there are some very well known names who what you would call the right sort of people, the right education, the right background, right credentials but their behaviour is no different from the so called wrong sort of people.

What is right sort, and wrong sort— all those images have been destroyed in the last few years.

Karan Thapar: The second corollary question— do our speakers need to be tougher, do they need to enforce discipline at the cost of suspending? Are our speakers and I am not taking names because I refer to speakers in legislative assemblies and Parliament— are they too soft and gentle? Are they too scared to be tough?

P. Chidambaram: The speaker only reflects the house. There are legislatures where the opposition is thrown out in the first half hour and business is transacted peacefully. I don't want to name legislatures but in this Parliament and in previous Parliaments, members have not agreed to vest that kind of power with the speaker or the chairman.

Karan Thapar: Should they now decide to do that— is that something they should consider?

P. Chidambaram: I think at some point of time it may become inevitable to vest more powers with the speaker and the chairman. I hope not, but if it becomes inevitable, for the sake of Parliamentary democracy, for the sake of a functioning legislative assembly and Parliament we may have to vest more powers with the speaker and the chairman to act without regard for what appears to be overwhelming opinion of the house as far as maintaining discipline is concerned.

On the Rajiv Gandhi's assassination Case

Karan Thapar: The second big political development today was the decision of the Supreme Court to stay the Jayalalithaa governments decision to remit the sentences of Rajiv Gandhi's assassins. How confident are you as a lawyer not just as a minister but as a leading lawyer that the stay granted today will be confirmed into a final order in March?

P. Chidambaram: I don't know the answer to that. I can't predict what the court will do. I have said before and I say it again that the basis of that judgement is not correct. The legal basis of the judgement which said that delay alone is sufficient to allow a petition..... (Interrupted)

Karan Thapar: Except that judgement was inordinate delay alone, not just minor delay but inordinate delay.

P. Chidambaram: It only puts it on delay. World over death row prisoners remain on the death row for 20-25 years. It is not easy to execute a death sentence.

Karan Thapar: If world over remaining on death row for 20 years doesn't lead to commutation of the death sentence then you are arguing as a lawyer it ought not to necessarily lead to it in India either?

P. Chidambaram: On that ground alone. If there are other grounds surely the death sentence can be commuted. If you put it only on delay then the perverse conclusion would be people will be executed immediately after the sentence is pronounced without even a reasonable opportunity to put forth a mercy petition.

Karan Thapar: That I fully understand. In fact you are now encouraging executives to execute immediately without waiting for time or pause. In fact today's decision by the Supreme Court had nothing to do with the judgement you are referring to, although I am happy to talk about it, today's decision was simply on the fact that procedures weren't followed by Jayalalithaa. Are you confident that stay will be extended?

P. Chidambaram: That is a question of law. The issue turns around interpreting a particular section of the criminal procedure code which defines appropriate government. There is a rival point of view, which is the appropriate government in this case? The Tamil Nadu government has taken the view that Tamil Nadu government is appropriate government. The central government has taken the view that it is the central government which is appropriate government. Prima facie it appears to me that the line taken by the central government may be the right line.

Karan Thapar: Yesterday in your interviews, that is to say Wednesday, when you were asked about the Supreme Court decision to commute the death sentences to life imprisonment your words were "I am not unhappy."

P. Chidambaram: You are quoting me wrongly. What I said was it is not a question of being happy or unhappy. I am neither happy nor unhappy. All I know is there is a Supreme Court judgement but I said the basis of the judgement is wrong.

Karan Thapar: Except that you didn't criticize specifically the Supreme Courts decision to commute those death sentences and it turned out that you were a lone voice in your party. Rahul Gandhi and several others have been sharply critical.

P. Chidambaram: I criticized the judgement more than anyone else. I was the home minister..... (Interrupted)

Karan Thapar: That judgement happened 15-20 days earlier. I am talking about the interpretation of that judgement to specifically commute ..... (Interrupted)

P. Chidambaram: That judgement came three days ago.

Karan Thapar: That was a 15 day earlier judgement in January whereby the Supreme Court decided that inordinate delay would lead to commutation. I am talking about the application of that judgement to Rajiv Gandhi.

P. Chidambaram: I said that the principle was laid down in earlier judgements. This judgement followed the earlier principle. I said the basis of the judgements is wrong. Mere delay or delay alone cannot lead to the conclusion that the sentence must be commuted. That is my position. I was the home minister who had to submit the mercy petition to the President. It had been recalled because it had been lying in the Presidents office for many years. I recommended that the mercy petition be rejected because this was a case of a terrorist act. The president accepted governments recommendations and rejected the mercy petition. It is against that the case was filed in the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court overturned the governments ..... (Interrupted)

Karan Thapar: Absolutely.

P. Chidambaram: Therefore very clearly we are very clear in our mind that this is the rarest of rare cases.

Karan Thapar: Yesterday when you said you were neither happy nor unhappy, which supports my initial question that you are not unhappy with it, people came to the conclusion that you have taken this view with one eye on Tamil public opinion. Your constituency Sivaganga is in Tamil Nadu. Were you a bit concerned that were you take a different stand point you might endanger your own electoral prospects?

P. Chidambaram: Complete rubbish. In the last election, in the earlier election, the Sri Lankan issue, the killing of Shri Rajiv Gandhi, the trial, the punishment, the mercy petition for Nalini all these were issues in the 2009 elections, they were issues in 2004 elections. The Congress parties consistent stand is this was a terrorist act, this was a rarest of rare case and the guilty if found guilty must suffer the maximum punishment.

On Opinion Polls and Prospects of the Congress

Karan Thapar: Let us talk a little about the Congress party. The opinion polls uniformly seem to suggest that you are heading towards your worst electoral performance ever. In fact India Today the magazine claims that your own internal polls are showing that you are going to end up in double digits. Will you today as a leading Congress politician accept that it looks almost certain as if the Congress party will not retain power?

P. Chidambaram: All that I know is I have the India Today poll of 2004 and 2009, in both polls please go back and verify, India Today predicted that in 2004 Vajpayee will return to power and in 2009 Dr Manmohan Singh's government will not return to power.

Karan Thapar: I was not talking about the India Today poll, I was saying India Today has revealed or claims that your internal polls, Congress party internal polls are showing you are just going to get double digit figures.

P. Chidambaram: I am not privy to any internal polls. So, I can't answer.

Karan Thapar: Even if you won't accept that it looks increasingly like you are not going to retain power, will you at least accept this that you go into the elections clearly as the underdog?

P. Chidambaram: You are taking words out of my mouth. I would rather go into an election as an underdog than on a triumphal note. I have said in Davos, I have said it here, I would rather go into an election as an underdog rather than on a triumphal note because I know what happened to parties which went into an election on a triumphal note in 2004 and 2009.

Karan Thapar: I know you would rather go in as an underdog. That is very different to admitting that you are going in as an underdog. I am asking you to admit the second.

P. Chidambaram: Why should I admit to anything I don't know.

Times Now Interview: Rahul Vs Modi

Karan Thapar: For many people the election that is about to happen is perceived as a battle between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. After his Times Now interview people say that Rahul Gandhi simply hasn't got the capacity to fight a man like Modi. Is that perception a problem for Congress?

P. Chidambaram: I don't think that is a perception shared by all. Secondly the answer to that is what you told me before the start of this interview that the only interview Narendra Modi gave was to you five years ago and we walked out of it abruptly in two and half minutes. What does that tell about that person?

Karan Thapar: As far as Rahul Gandhi is concerned he seems to have convinced people by his behaviour and his performance at that interview that he lacks both the intellectual capacity to be Prime Minister as well as the honesty to answer questions fully. Therefore he dismayed not just his critics but his admirers and supporters.

P. Chidambaram: I don't agree. That is your view. I don't have to answer, that is not a question that is a view of yours.

Karan Thapar: Given that many people are dismayed, disappointed, even dejected by that interview how should Rahul Gandhi handle the poor impression that interview has created because that is something as a politician I presume he needs to tackle?

P. Chidambaram: I am not advising him on these matters. What I know of him is that he is not dogmatic, he doesn't believe he has all the answers, he is well read, he is well informed, he is wiling to learn, he is willing to listen and those are good qualities that I would look for in a young leader.

Karan Thapar: At the time he did the Times Now interview the Congress party was letting it be know that he would do several more. Since then almost a month has lapsed but he seems to have retreated into a shell. Is it wise for him to retreat into a shell just because one interview went bad? Should he not instead be out there battling to change the impression of that one interview?

P. Chidambaram: These are questions you should put to him. I can't answer on his behalf.

Karan Thapar: You are a leading member of the party.

P. Chidambaram: There are several leading members in the party. I am perhaps one of the least leading members of the party. You should ask me my views.

Karan Thapar: I am asking you your views. I am asking you how Rahul Gandhi should behave?

P. Chidambaram: I don't need to take a view on that. You should ask him and he will give you the view.

Karan Thapar: I will tell you why you should have a view on that because he is the Vice-President of your party. He could be the Prime Minister whenever Congress returns to power. So, aren't you concerned about a bad image he gets?

P. Chidambaram: Why should I have a view? I don't know whether he promised more interviews. I don't know what his schedule is. I don't have to have a view on that. I have to have a view on policies, programmes, issues, I have to have a view on those things.

On Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi

Karan Thapar: Given that it is clear to everyone, although Congress hasn't publicly accepted it, internally I am sure they have, that whenever Congress returns to power Rahul Gandhi will be Prime Minister. Should he therefore have served in the Manmohan Singh cabinet to gain valuable experience of governance?

P. Chidambaram: That is a point of view. I can't say that is not a legitimate point of view. However we have had examples of people being appointed Prime Minister without having served in a cabinet. We have had examples of people being appointed chief minister without serving the cabinet. I don't think that is a necessary prequalification. However if the circumstances had been different and he had served as a member of the cabinet it certainly would have been useful.

Karan Thapar: Given that the election that is going to happen in April-May look so critical to the Congress party do you think Priyanka Gandhi should play a more significant role to change the public perception of the Congress party at this critical juncture?

P. Chidambaram: I can't speak for others. I can't have a view on those matters. Each one is a person, each one has a family, each one has a life, each one has certain goals. It is for that person to decide what role they will play if at all in politics.

Karan Thapar: Would you like her to play a greater role as a Congress person who realizes that there are  very substantial odds that you have to battle against?

P. Chidambaram: I don't accept the second part of your assumption. If Priyanka wants to play a role I will be quite happy.

Karan Thapar: You won't encourage her or request an offer?

P. Chidambaram: I am not their advisor. I am just a member of the government and a member of the party. I don't advice them. May be you advise a lot of politicians.

On Narendra Modi as PM

Karan Thapar: Do you believe that Narendra Modi if he becomes Prime Minister would be bad for India for reasons beyond just party politics? Reasons with which you can perhaps convince an audience.

P. Chidambaram: I have. I have said it in many statements. I think the undercurrent of Narendra Modi's political philosophy is majoritarianism. Another streak which I noticed from his speeches is I, me, mine. Look at his speeches, 'Give me power I will give you Swaraj'. ' Give me power I will give you 24x7 electricity.' ' Give me power I will get the black money and give you a share of it.' Today in Parliament a member of Parliament made an astounding statement:  'A Narendra Modi government will give Rs 28000 crore to Bengal, will give an equally big package to Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.' Somebody said what about Bihar? He said we will give an equally big package to Bihar.

Karan Thapar: That is either irresponsible or dictatorial?

P. Chidambaram: Are they serious? We are running a Parliamentary democracy where the Prime Minister or the chief minister is more than first among equals but it is team work. People have to pull together. You will have to reconcile different strands of thoughts and views and policies.

Karan Thapar: Modi, you are suggesting, will bulldoze his way?

P. Chidambaram: I have heard about the way he runs the Gujarat cabinet. I think that will be disaster to run an Indian cabinet. I don't think any one person in this complex world of government, and the world is not as simple as people think it was in the 50s and 60s, the world is a complex world, I don't think anybody can run India on the principle of majoritarianism or on the theme of I, me and mine.

Karan Thapar: Mr. Chidambaram, thank you very much.

Transcript courtesy: Karan Thapar

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