Listening not high among this govt's priorities
March 28, 2015
Chandrasekhar, a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament, describes the
perils - and the advantages - of being independent. Edited
excerpts from an interview with Aditi Phadnis:
You are an anachronism of our times, an independent MP. What
is life like for an independent MP?
It has its moments, but I cannot deny there's a downside as
well. The advantage is that you are not easily defined and bound
down by traditional ideologies. You are free to choose between
right and wrong, free to choose the people you follow and
I have been an MP for eight years. This is my second term. For
the best part of my last term, I was in the Opposition - to the
Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). In 2007,
when the 2G spectrum scam started, I was the first to point out
the errors in what the government was doing. It was the fact
that I was an independent MP that allowed me to point out how
cronyism had beset the government. In an open letter to the
chairman of Tata, a group that I otherwise admire, I said that
they, too, had gained from the government because by using an
illegal and arbitrary cut-off date, then Telecom Minister A Raja
made it easier to award spectrum to the Tatas. I could not have
done that if I had been a member of a political party.
But the real endorsement was of Narendra Modi. It was more an
endorsement of him as an individual than of a deeper, broader
party ideology. This is the advantage of being independent.
But beyond this advantage... you are alone. When it suits
people, you are part of a group. When it doesn't, you find
yourself alone. That happens a lot.
The advantage of being in a party is that when the leader of the
party is someone you admire, then you feel motivated to work. If
the leader is uninspiring, then the party can become a stifling
institution that you just have to suffer, as many members of a
party are experiencing today.
Do you find this government more ready to reach out to you
than the previous one, considering that you represent one Rajya
Sabha vote in a house where the National Democratic Alliance
doesn't have a majority? Was the previous government more
anxious to build consensus?
In my speech in Parliament after the 2009 elections, I had said
that the onus of creating consensus lies with the government,
regardless of the size of majority, because what is good for the
country should be the motivating principle of governance. You
can read my 2009 speech where I urged Manmohan Singh to reach
out and create a consensus.
In 2014, I found myself saying the same thing. In my Budget
speech, I said: "I hope that regardless of the majority or
strength in Parliament, the Government adopts an approach of
consensus and is sensitive to all sensible opinions made by
Parliamentarians - big or small. Humility and consensus are more
consistent with the notion of public service that Prime Minister
Modi has described politics to be. This, in itself, would be a
big departure from the arrogance of the past, where it seemed
that opinions of small parties and individual MPs didn't matter
in any discourse."
I know, as an independent MP, the value of persuasion. When we
take up issues you have to go out, explain your position, create
agreement - to get support for your position.
Initially, this government did not do enough in the
consensus-building department. Things are changing - on the
issue of the ordinances, land acquisition, coal and mines. There
was an attempt to sit down and listen to what others were
saying. For instance, it was only after the Biju Janata Dal was
convinced that Odisha would get Rs 40,000 crore as royalty in
mining auctions that it came on board on the mining Bill.
But the government should continue to listen. For example, the
select committee on coal had raised some important questions on
the rights of labour in coal mines that go through an auction -
namely, once the ownership of a mine changes hands through an
auction, how do the new owners address the labour that the
previous owner might have hired? If no explicit provision is
made for these people, they could just lose their jobs.
We are seeing some moves by the government to amend the land
acquisition Bill as well. This is very important. The government
has to do a lot of listening - not just to its own MPs but also
to Opposition MPs.
Going forward, what future do you see for economic reform via
the legislature, given that the government is unlikely to get a
majority in the Rajya Sabha anytime soon?
The government and Treasury will need to do constructive
consensus building as many realists in the government have
realised. There will always be politics, masquerading as
'causes'. This government has a significant popular mandate and
legitimately call a joint session of Parliament if deliberately
For example, the clause in the coal law that gives the
government the option of commercial mining of coal. This clause
is part of the ideology of the government. If the Congress and
Left parties oppose this, the government is within its right to
give up efforts at a consensus, force the issue through a joint
session and implement its popular mandate.
But if Opposition parties say the auction route or mineral and
coal mines should be opposed because prices will go up,
end-users will have to pay more; power, steel, everything will
become costlier. The government has to explain to MPs that this
is not the case. We have seen in the spectrum case how the
people of India were robbed of Rs 2 lakh crore by allowing just
a few to participate in the auctions. Competitiveness determines
the prices. Nowhere in the world is monopoly good for the
people. Wherever there has been a monopoly - whether of the
government or private business - it got dismantled through
competition. The question is: who benefits. You can only explain
this by creating debate and consensus.
I have to say, in the last eight months, listening has not been
high among the priorities of this government. I have personally
experienced a situation when trying to explain the flaws in a
Bill, the new minister concerned brushed my views off by saying:
"You don't understand". The same minister is now grappling with
the issues I had warned him about. But reaching a consensus has
not been a strong point of those that come to power, it seems.
The government will have to start talking to people a lot more
and selling its reform agenda. Narendra Modi's economic
philosophy is a departure from the conventional garibi hatao
(remove poverty) framework. The Congress' spend-spend-spend
profligacy had as its basis, the belief that if you give people
sops - free spectrum, free mobiles, free everything - you keep
them happy. And you give these deals to corporates and that
effect will trickle down and will create growth.
What do you make of Modi's economic philosophy?
At the core of Modi's plan is more fiscal responsibility and
innovative fiscal instruments that will drive fiscal inclusion
and eventually bring more people into the state's revenue
framework. So, the government is not withdrawing welfare
handouts but is rewarding entrepreneurship. The most important
structural moves are the creation of a social security net via
pension and insurance, and the MUDRA bank that will also bring
the bottom of pyramid into the economy.
So, it is growth via the kirana shop owner, the bicycle repair
shop owner, the tiny and small business owner. These people are
at the bottom of the tax pyramid. If you help them grow and at
the same time, nudge them towards taxation, in the long term,
you create growth in government revenues to do the things you
are supposed to do - like building roads, ports, hospitals and
The Congress and the Left can see their fundamental ideological
tenets being questioned. But other parties could be open to
persuasion. It is that pool that the government has to tap if it
wants to get its agenda through.
You won a major victory on Section 66A of the information
technology Act. What does this victory mean to you?
I am very happy. There are two issues that I extensively
discussed in Parliament and with the then UPA government - one
was voting rights for armed forces personnel and families that
were being restricted by strange rules, and the other, the issue
of free speech online being restricted by Section 66A. Both the
issues dealt with constitutional rights - one to vote and one to
speak. Despite much effort, the government refused to do the
right thing and unusually for an MP, I filed a petition in the
Supreme Court through two separate public interest litigations.
In March 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that armed forces could
freely vote and now this: very satisfying.
This news can also be viewed at: