‘Cong has better plans for farmers & poor’

Aditi Tandon in New Delhi

Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram has called the NDA government’s pre-poll Budget announcements quite hollow. In an interview to The Tribune, Chidambaram, chairman of the Congress Lok Sabha Manifesto Committee, says the Minimum Income Guarantee scheme for the poor will be part of the party’s manifesto to be released in March. He also speaks on the impact of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s entry into politics and adds that the last word on anti-BJP alliances is not said until it is said.

Excerpts: 

PM Narendra Modi has called the Interim Budget a trailer of good things to come post-2019 LS elections. Do you agree?

Naturally, they will present it as a trailer. However, as people get to see the full picture, they will realise that most of these promises are hollow. For example, the promise of Rs 6,000 to a farmer works out to be Rs 17 per family per day. That’s certainly not a relief to the farmer who has been mulcted with increase in prices of fertilisers, seeds, diesel and other inputs.

Isn’t farm-income guarantee better than debt waivers?

The two are not antithetical to each other. Debt waiver is state specific and contextual. If a government has neglected the farm sector and farmers have sunk deep into debt, whatever you do at the structural side is not going to relieve them from debt. So a loan waiver becomes imperative. Having done a loan waiver doesn’t mean you do nothing else on structural reforms. So don’t debunk loan waivers. When the people of the state vote in favour of a loan waiver, an elected government is obliged to grant that waiver.

The BJP is billing its new contributory pension scheme for the unorganised sector as a game changer. What do you think?

They had announced a similar scheme  either last year or earlier. They have junked that scheme and replaced it with another. What does that mean? What’s the provision — Rs 500 crore? How would the scheme be funded?

How will Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s proposed Minimum Income Guarantee scheme work?

The minimum income guarantee that the Congress has proposed will be far more comprehensive. It will address both the farm and the non-farm poor. It will also address the rural and urban poor simultaneously. The idea is to bring every poor family to a minimum level of income. Please don’t compare our minimum income guarantee with the measly kisan programme of the BJP.

Will you redefine poverty for your scheme?

We will have to evolve the definition of poverty based on data. There is a lot of data available today after the Tendulkar report and there will be more data available in June 2019. We will put together all the data and get analysts to find out at which level we should define the poverty line and then all families falling below the poverty line will have to be brought up to a certain minimum level of income.

The Indian system already gives many subsidies and doles to the poor. Will you also restructure those?

That will depend upon the subsidy and the scheme. For example, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) is a subsidised scheme with specific objectives targeted at under-five children. Obviously, such a scheme has to continue because our minimum income guarantee may not target children. Schemes with specific objectives, valid and sound, will continue. But there are some schemes that have outlived their utility.

Interim FM Piyush Goyal said the BJP has given India a corruption-free government. Do you agree with his claim?

The BJP government is not free of the charge of corruption. We have identified several areas where there is grave suspicion. One example is Rafale. At this stage, I will say Rafale is a suspect deal. The government should come clean before any conclusion is drawn. Similarly, there are other cases which have been hinted at. How did Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and Vijay Mallya flee the country?  

Is the Supreme Court’s (SC) dismissal of Rafale petitions not enough to clear the deal?

Not at all. The SC made it clear it was not going into the question of pricing or why the number of aircraft was reduced to 36 from 126. The SC is not the forum to answer these issues. These are the issues to be decided by a parliamentary committee. What is the price of the aircraft? Why did you reduce the number from 126 to 36 when the IAF has been crying for a minimum of 126 aircraft? Why did you junk HAL as an offset partner?

The Interim FM blamed aggressive credit growth under the UPA for the rise in the NPAs saying the UPA was trying to hide these NPAs. What do you say about that?

We were not. I have asked them three questions which they will not answer. How many loans, given during the Vajpayee regime, have become non-performing assets (NPAs)? How many loans given by the UPA were ever-greened under the NDA? How many loans given after 2014 have become NPAs?

After Chanda Kochar and Nirav Modi episodes, what can be done to stem the rot in the banking sector?

How can I answer the question unless our party is in government and we look at the information? We are only going by scraps of information, available in the media.

When will the Congress manifesto be ready?

I expect it to be released in March.

You are for state-level anti-BJP alliances, but alliances are not happening in UP, Delhi, Telangana and Andhra.

That’s not correct. Why don’t you count the states where there are alliances: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Bihar. In the states that you mention, yes, at the moment it does not appear there is a state-level alliance of non-BJP parties, but who knows, things may change.

The BSP and the SP have called the Congress arrogant. Why is it so?

Don’t go by these statements. The last word is not said until the last word is said.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has entered politics. Will her entry impact the political scene, specifically in UP?

Certainly. She has been put in charge of a difficult state. The fact that she has taken up the challenge shows her commitment.

Can Priyanka reinvigorate the Congress cadres, especially in UP where you have not been in power for long?

From what I gather, the workers are very enthusiastic about the entry of Priyanka. We have contested the UP elections alone earlier as well. A national party like the Congress cannot withdraw from the UP election arena, even if it has to contest without any tie-up.

Will Priyanka contest the LS elections?

I don’t have the answer for that.

With Priyanka’s entry there are apprehensions of parallel power centres in the Congress.

All this is your imagination.

What is the Congress’ biggest challenge ahead of the LS elections?

To get the organisation fighting fit so as to ride the momentum which is now in favour of the non-BJP parties.

What do you think is the Congress’ weakest point ahead of LS polls?

We don’t have the resources to match, as the BJP has got massive resources. Even going by the published figures of electoral bonds, its resources are huge. We have to match those massive resources by a massive effort of our foot soldiers.