Vibha Sharma in New Delhi
The Union Steel Minister in the Narendra Modi government — Chaudhary Birender Singh — has been in active politics for 47 years now. The Cabinet minister from Haryana, who shifted to the BJP from the Congress on the eve of the 2014 elections, is the “oldest” member of Prime Minister Modi’s government. Speaking to The Tribune on issues ranging from Finance Minister Piyush Goyal’s interim Budget to Prime Minister Modi’s style of functioning, often under attack from Opposition leaders, Singh also talks of his stint with the Congress, the BJP’s prospects in the coming elections and the impact, or as he says the “non-impact”, of the entry of the newest Gandhi on the block — Priyanka Gandhi...
How do you think this Budget will impact the two most important constituents of India’s population — the farmers and the middleclass?
This is not a full-fledged Budget because the Lok Sabha elections are due shortly. This is why it should be categorised as a Vote on Account. But still I would say that the interim Budget presented by Piyush Goyal in the absence of Arun Jaitley has some distinct features which make it special. For example, it is for the first time that any government treated farmers and agriculture as two separate entities when it decided to give Rs 6,000 per annum to farmers. This money is being given so that farmers have the feeling, the confidence that whenever there is any difficulty, they have something to fall back on. With this single move, the government has helped generate confidence in them.
The second important part of the interim Budget is the defence allocation. This is for the first time the Defence Budget has crossed the Rs 3 lakh crore-mark for securing our borders and to maintain the preparedness of highest order in the country. Another important component is the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme, which, too, has been given a quantum jump. The OROP has been a longstanding demand of the Indian Armed forces for the past 40 years and the Centre has disbursed Rs 35,000 crore to veterans, which is commendable.
This Budget may not have been full-fledged but it still has been ambitious on providing funds for infrastructure development. If India has to make a headway and become a strong economy, it has to go for that transformation with speed and pace. In this area, not much effort was made during the Congress-led UPA governments.
As far as inflation is concerned, the average inflation between 2009-2014 was 10.1 per cent, while in the past four and a half years it has been brought down to 4.6 per cent, which is the lowest for any central government since the economic reforms began in 1991. This will help everyone. If we are able to contain inflation then the middle class becomes better in its process-building capacity. By controlling inflation directly, the government can provide an impetus to their efforts.
Will Rs 6,000 per annum under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) be sufficient to bridge the wide gaps in the distressed agriculture sector and improve the lives of famers?
This is a unique effort in the interim Budget to treat farmers separately from the agriculture sector. Every effort on the part of the government is aimed at improving agricultural productivity — better seeds, better irrigation, crop insurance and better minimum support price for produce. All these efforts are aimed at improving productivity. However, this particular move of the government to give cash, though given the name of Kisan Samman, to me it is different from the other efforts being made in the agriculture sector. It is a sincere recognition by the government of farmers as individuals. In a bad season this amount will be able to give them something to fall back upon. It is also an attempt by the government to give them an identity. A farmer’s identity has been recognised by the government by this one move. There are at least 200 million boys and girls from farmers’ families who need to come out of the agriculture profession because it is no longer a winning proposition. This will provide help in that. It establishes his identity as a farmer that should also be protected with a social security of sorts.
How will this the Budget affect projections of your party, struggling with perceptions related to jobless growth, failing economy, disgruntled youth and aspirations of the middle class?
The IT exemption limit has been raised to Rs 5 lakh, which, I think, is an important move. I have been in politics for 47 years now. There were times when people would say that Rs 1 lakh-exemption bar should be raised to Rs 1.20 lakh and this government, in one stroke, has raised it to Rs 5 lakh. Individuals with gross income up to Rs 6.5 lakh will not have to pay tax if they make requisite investments. This is the only instance where taxpayers’ aspirations have been fulfilled. It will not just give relief to the middle class, salaried people but also give confidence to them to be identified as honest tax payers. After the GST and demonetisation, there has been a jump in the number of people filing tax returns, which also shows that this government has simplified the direct tax system.
It has created confidence in people dealing in real estate, or having small businesses, or who do any kind of marketing, to turn their money into legitimate or white money. It has helped people become more positive which is how we have been able to spare funds for infrastructure projects. I may not be an economist but I can safely predict that if this system continues in the next two to three years, we will be presenting a Budget worth Rs 40 lakh crore. With all the steps that we are taking to strengthen our economy, we are already on the road to $10 trillion economy in the coming years. As Prime Minister Modi says this is only a trailer, the final Budget will be coming in July. In the interim Budget, the government has not been able to make full proposals that we would have liked to introduce in income tax.
The allegation against the Narendra Modi government is that it has ideas but these are not working. Already there is this talk of a great leap backwards on the employment front in India’s rural areas. What do you have to say?
It starts with the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna and then there is a series of schemes which have brought changes in lives and functioning of businesses and people across the country. With the ease of doing business, we have been able to create an impact in the world. In agri-production, we have been able to achieve higher growth in the past four years. In the FDI, we are at the top. Efforts like Startup India, Mudra, the GST and demonetisation have opened up the economy. The government has sanctioned 15.56 lakh loans amounting to Rs 7.23 lakh crore under the Mudra scheme. Of course, unemployment is one of the major issues but when economy opens up you will see self-employment becoming a major avenue for creating jobs. We have taken some important steps in this aspect and if someone is criticising the government for the sake of criticising it, so be it. Prime Minister Modi has promised to double the income of people living in villages by 2022 and you will see that it will happen. When we achieve that then the Indian GDP will always be in double digits.
Another allegation against the government is that it launched several schemes but most of them did not make any real impact. Make in India, Skill India, Standup India and Startup India, all these projects seem to have no visible impact and these schemes were not thought through. Comment.
The impact of some of these schemes cannot be visible in a short time. These need time to show results and a few are bearing fruit. When we started Jan Dhan, there were 3.5 crore accounts and now there are more than 36 crore bank accounts. These are tangible figures that can be cross checked. As many as 73 per cent of these accounts are operational and there is more than Rs 83,000 crore money in them. This is how we have been able to unify the entire country through the banking system. The impact of some of these schemes may not be visible in one or two years but these are impacting the country, its people, and its youth. Even those who are not aligned to any political ideology, would like to give another chance to Prime Minister Modi because they recognise his sincere efforts.
What do you have to say about the NSSO figures, the joblessness among rural men in the 15-29 age group that is said to have tripled in 2017-18 as compared to that in 2011-12?
I don’t want to comment on data that is not finalised yet. But what I can say is that figures like these only indicate that agriculture is no longer a profession of profit. It is with the efforts of this government that farmers are getting C2 + 50 MSP as per the recommendations of the Swaminathan committee and will be able to get more than what they are getting now in the coming years. Only when the rural economy is strengthened will emerge the situation that we desire. If there is no profitability in the profession, it is natural that such figures will emerge. Agriculture is gradually becoming a profession of profit. This is why we are trying to give incentives that ensure value addition to farmers, not just at the level of market or business. For the landless labourers too, efforts are being made to find out how they can be benefited through an actionable scheme.
In urban areas too, job creation has taken a hit with the small and medium enterprises and real estate — sectors that employed unskilled youth — struggling to stay afloat.
People are benefiting through government schemes. It is through efforts like Mudra that economic activity is multiplying. And that would lead to creation of more jobs.
Are you happy about your own political journey, first with the Congress and now with the BJP, and the leap you took five years back?
I contested my first elections in 1972. I have had political allegiance with the Congress for more than four decades. It is not that easy to forget the 40 years spent with the party. But here in the BJP, in the past four and a half years I have worked under a prime minister who is a visionary, innovative and someone who gives full credit to his comrades. The kind of ideas and policy decisions he has taken like Make in India, point to the fact that here is a man who believes in deliverance. I can give many examples of how he has gone about doing that. We waited for the OROP for 40 years but it took him a few days to deliver that, then the bridge in Assam, the Bogibeel bridge, his passion for Swachh Bharat, development of smart cities, all these initiatives make me satisfied that I am part of a venture where economy is getting strengthened and India is becoming bigger as a global power.
How will the BJP fare in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
I do not believe in giving numbers but I am sure the BJP is coming back to power. It is now a pan-India party and you would see results coming in its favour from places like the Northeast that accounts for 26 Lok Sabha seats and West Bengal, which has 42 seats. Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala are the states where the BJP’s tally will be three times more than what it is now. I am talking about these states is because of this pan-India character that the BJP has been able to establish under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. No one can compete with his appeal in general masses. If you talk to people they say ‘uppar ki vote, badi vote (Lok Sabha) Modi ko hi denge’. That clarifies everything.
Will you be contesting the Lok Sabha elections from Haryana?
There are still three and a half years left of my tenure in the Rajya Sabha. However, it all depends upon the party.
After Jind by-poll which way do you see Haryana’s 10 Lok Sabha seats swinging?
Even before the Mayor’s elections three months back and the Jind byelection, which became a hot seat because some candidates were given the rank of heavyweights. Whether they were or not is another issue. I was sure the BJP will do well in Haryana. The BJP will better its performance in the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. (In 2014, the BJP won seven of the 10 seats there)
There are alliances happening in Haryana and elsewhere. What’s your take on them?
In today’s political situation, all political outfits, especially the regional ones, must make efforts to think beyond their personal interests so that the entire nation can benefit. It is the nation’s interest that needs to be made dearer rather than personal political interests. They have to think beyond their regions and with unified India in mind. Mahagathbandhan is only a temporary phenomenon and doesn’t strengthen the parliamentary democracy. Everyone has their personal egos, but they know they cannot fight Prime Minister Modi undivided, therefore they are coming together.
PM Modi is often accused of being a one-man show. What has been your experience working in his Cabinet?
Modiji’s Cabinet consists of 25 members and I am the oldest member in it. The kind of attention and respect I have been given, I am very satisfied. The man who has to take the decision must listen to others but ultimately it has to be his decision and everyone cannot on the same wavelength. The decision has to be taken by this one man and if he doesn’t follow this practice, India can never take policy decisions. Everyone is likely to put up some point but it does not mean that everyone’s opinion needs to be taken into account.
You are known for your political acumen. What do you have to say about Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics? Do you think the BJP has any reason to be worried?
Some 20 years ago, the Congress leaders were of the opinion that she must help her mother in her political activities. Somehow that could not materialise. I don’t know what prompted her to take the decision now but it is a decision taken 20 years late. There is also the Robert Vadra factor.
So, you are saying she will not have any impact now?
All I am saying is I don’t think the BJP needs to worry. It is a decision that will not give much dividend to the Congress.