Listening not high among this govt’s priorities

Business Standard, March 28, 2015

Rajeev 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 admire.

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 obstructed.

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 so on.

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.

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