When I say something, I mean it because I feel it: FM Nirmala Sitharaman

Catch the entire exclusive conversation between Network18's MD and editor in chief Rahul Joshi and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

By  Storyboard18Feb 3, 2024 11:51 AM
When I say something, I mean it because I feel it: FM Nirmala Sitharaman
Network18's managing director and editor in chief Rahul Joshi in conversation with FM Nirmala Sitharaman.

Nirmala ji, thank you very much once again for giving us this exclusive, very special interview. Like every year after the Budget, through our News18 Network, through CNBC, CNBC Awaz, CNN-News18, you will be able to reach every nook and corner of the country, and investors are glued into moneycontrol.com tracking every twist and turn of the Budget. Thank you so much.

Q) My first question, a somewhat obvious question. No sops, no populist measures. Even in 2019 Interim Budget, the government had announced some sops like tax rebates, there were some announcements for the farmers, but none this time. Seems like a very confident Prime Minister going into 2024 elections. You've never looked more relaxed to me before. What was going on in your mind while drafting this?

A) Well, thank you for having me after the Budget, like every year. It's a great opportunity to talk to your viewers and also for others who are watching this programme, more with keenness to know about the Indian economy. Yes, the Budget yesterday did not have any sops announced. We treated it like a true vote on account, an Interim Budget before an election, and also, an Interim Budget, which is being presented with the clear understanding that the several programmes, which were launched with empowerment of citizens in mind over the last 10 years are reaching the ground, and the beneficiaries are already on their own speaking about it.

The power of word of mouth is very strong. So, when a beneficiary gets truly the benefit and without any middlemen playing a role in it, they really understand that the intent of the government is what they've said is what is getting executed. So, I place a lot of trust in the word of mouth, which has helped in schemes like PM Awas Yojana, PM Mudra Yojana, Svanidhi Yojana, all of which, have benefited small households and people who want to do their business and who don't have money to give for collateral; no properties to give. So, this government has actually, because of the vision with which the Prime Minister, is committed to serve this country, is actually serving the common people in letter and spirit, and that is recognised by the people themselves.

It's not as if you are saying and you are showing target numbers, you are showing achievement numbers. No, the people in the ground are saying about it, I've got it. And so is my neighbour. So, is the neighbour of that household and so on.

That is why I have used an expression, and I mean it when I said it, that this is secularism in action. This is where we have not shown any difference between members belonging to this community or that community, this religion or that religion or somebody's relative and not relative. No difference. The project reaches the ground for everybody who deserves to get it. And if they are eligible, they get it irrespective of who they are. And therefore, in every way, the principle of empowerment, the ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas’ has been executed in every way. And that is the sense of confidence that the blessings of the people are not just at the time when we gave promises, but the blessings are even now coming in abundantly to say, yes, you've kept up your word.

Q) It is what the Prime Minister has also been talking about, the forecasts, as he calls it, the poor, women, farmers, youth. So, I think that is the cornerstone of this speech. Nirmala ji, you've steered the economy in difficult times. If I look at your last five years, there has been the pandemic, right now, two wars are going on. Even then, we are projected to grow at 7.3%. Now, if I were to look at the nominal GDP, which has grown only 10.5%, considering an inflation of 4-4.5%. Do you think that 7% itself would be challenging? I mean, do you think it is realistic for us to grow on those lines?

A) The Chief Economic Advisor has also commented in his preface. He's elaborated on how 7% is not difficult to achieve. Globally also, there were various organisations, which look at economies of all countries, like IMF, for instance, has also enhanced their own assessment. So, upgrading our growth estimates is not just singularly our business. People are seeing that fundamentally a lot of activities are happening. The robustness of the economy has not slackened anywhere. It has maintained its buoyancy with which things are happening, not just revenue collection, when I'm talking of buoyancy. So, there is reason to believe, yes, it is possible. And the deflator, not just the inflation, but the deflator itself is constantly, meaning we are looking at controlling inflation. The other factors fall in place. So, the deflator itself then plays a role. And therefore we are confident that on one hand we'll be able to manage inflation and on the other, to keep the robustness in growth so that it is sustained growth. We have made every effort to look at both growth driving elements and inclusivity driving elements so that nobody is left out from this growth process. Both to contribute and to gain from.

Q) Something has been commented enough, and you've got a lot of accolades for it in this Budget. If you look at the fiscal glide path, I think you've beaten estimates this year. You've projected 5.1% next year. So, that also looks promising. What is your message to the sovereign rating agencies? You're expecting an upgrade?

A) Well, I would think that they do their job, but, periodically, it's our business also to bring it to their notice that economy, particularly, emerging market economy like India, despite the odds, we are doing a lot of reforms, systemic reforms, which, actually, you see is bearing the results. Now, if only Prime Minister Modi hadn't pressed the pedal, let's say the revving pedal, the accelerator during Covid even as we are managing Covid, we will have to attend to reforms and continue doing the reforms – the Atmanirbhar Bharat announcements.

We are all infused with so much of reform measures. Otherwise, we wouldn't have eliminated more than 68,000 rules, which were just so archaic and were becoming instruments for rent seeking people. So, systemic reforms have continued, whether it was pre-Covid, GST and IBC, together, with very many other reforms like professionalising public sector banks and so on, the emphasis on reform has given us adequate rewards and we'll continue doing that. That is why, even in the Budget, we have emphasised on transparency, we have emphasised on getting everything on board the budget process itself, rather than keeping it outside of the Budget or underneath the carpet.

These are not small steps. And that has been consistently done in the last four-five years. And before that, as I said, IBC or banking reforms, the five major recognition, ours, as we say, of the problem, so to list it, there are so many, some small, some very big, the small ones having very big implications in making the economy much more cleaner and open and transparent. The bigger ones, which are bearing results in terms of the money that you collect in GST, these are not small steps.

Q) Glad you mentioned reforms. I think big message coming from you that the government will continue on the road for reforms. I've said this to you before that, you know, cutting the rich tax last year, in an election year, before that, cutting the corporate rate tax. I mean, you've taken some bold measures. What are the next level of reforms that we can expect from you? Broadly, I mean, directionally?

A) First of all, as I said, the system to become more transparent, more things will have to be done in order to make sure that we work together with states. It's one thing for the Union government to work on those areas, which are exclusively with the Central government, but where there are overlaps, there are some states, which have come about enthusiastically to say, yes, ‘we should benefit also from this vibrancy’, which results after such measures are taken. And therefore, when reforms are talked about, we normally always say three levels where it has to be carried out with the same vigour – the central government, the state government and then the local bodies. Now, working with the state governments has already started happening. In the last few years, you have seen very many areas where we are working together; the local body level, the municipal urban local bodies, the panchayats, we need to have greater interchange of ideas and working together with them also. That will also continue.

Q) Finance minister, if I were to ask you this one question, with the exception of Air India, no strategic privatisation has taken place, any significant. Whether it is IDBI, ConCor, SCI, banks, why has your government sort of repeatedly kind of underperformed on this disinvestment aspect? I mean, is the thinking changing within the government? Are you looking at sort of strategic sales and not may be offer to sell completely? Is there some shift in the thinking?

A) I would want you to first of all put that question into the frame that I have laid in the matter of public sector enterprise policy. If a policy framework has been announced, and in that we have said that there are only core strategic sectors, which government recognises where the government will be having a minimal presence and even in those sectors, private sector will be allowed to, or it will be completely open for them to participate in total, in the sense, there will not be any one sector inclusive of the core strategic sector, which will be exclusively reserved for public sector, whereby consolidation will have to happen to make them big enough for a big country like India. Efficiencies will have to be brought in, their values will have to be increased. So, this question of yours will have to fit into that frame.

I will not reverse any of the cabinet approved decisions, but at the same time, you should probably also have noticed that for each of them, we are working to make sure, we are not allowing them to remain there, till they are getting disinvested. Equally, we are working to make sure that their valuations are kept up. They are improved upon that. If you look at the public sector listing listed companies and their valuation in the market today, you see the kind of vibrancy which has been brought in into them. The share values have gone up, the dividends are even much better than earlier. So, disinvestment is one thing, but bring in value to them and make sure that the markets look at them absolutely favourably.

Q) In fact, the public sector companies have done really well and public markets are also where they are. Would you consider sort of diluting your stake maybe to 49% in some of the companies, thereby they are not government owned, but at the same time, you have best of both worlds and the valuations could go up even further.

A) No, certainly that is not something which has been denied earlier, meaning, as a matter of policy. But in many ways we are already, you will see periodically, the Deepam department, which takes care of the disinvestment, has slowly, in trickles, released a lot of government share into the market so that private ownerships can come in and they can take hold of those shares. So, that is happening already, and we'll certainly like to make sure that greater participation of public ownership.

Q) In companies like, let’s say, SBI or ONGC, I mean, this could be another possibility.

A) Absolutely.

Q) One of the big ideas this budget, which struck to everyone as a big idea, has been the announcement of a corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore to provide interest free or low interest sort of loans for research and innovation. Can you elaborate a little bit on this? How will this work? Will there be a separate sort of entity managing this? How will it go forward?

A) Yes, certainly. I first of all would bring in a bit of a context to this. It's not as if we are doing it now for the first time. Earlier, too, there were several funds within different departments, like the science and technology. They had a CSIR. Its own funds were all over the place. You had them doing supportive activities for innovation, each from their own side.

Two years ago, I remember announcing the National Research Foundation which brought together all these thinly spread resources to one pool. And from there each of the department would claim whatever they would want to fund in terms of innovation supportive activities. But what we've now done is they may remain so, but the government would now bring in a kind of an institution or a vehicle, which can take this Rs 1 lakh crore which will be given to them next few years in total as an interest-free corpus amount. Using that, they can then identify innovation-related exercises which are happening in private sector and fund them.

I may give this interest-free 50-year loan to the corpus, but the managers of that fund will then decide to whom, at what cost should they give it. The cost may vary depending on the risk factors and the judgment of the professionals who manage it. But it's certainly a fund from where private innovation will be supported.

Q) I'm sure you'll be asked this question in future, but the allocation for capex at Rs 11.1 lakh crore, does it seem like a lofty goal considering that you could not even do Rs 10 lakh crore in this year?

A) No, but not really we've done only Rs 2 lakh, Rs 3 lakh. That's not the case. We are closer to Rs 10 lakh crore. It's also because absorption has its own limits. Whether it's the states or the departments within Government of India, when the capital expenditure is undertaken through the outlays given to them, it is only that much within 12 months that they can do and not beyond. So sometimes reaching the target, however ambitious it is, is to the last mile difficult within 12 months. Had we given them a few more months, they will probably even complete that. But the condition for these capital expenditure which I have announced since last 2-3 years, is that that amount should be utilized within the year.

So many of the state governments, which take the money which are very good in implementing, in fact I find states very enthusiastic in wanting to avail of this facility. The difficulty comes that if you restrict them to using it within 12 months and which is what we aim at, we want them to use it within 12 months. So I'm not saying restrict in that sense but within 12 months when you are expected to spend that money, there are times when completely utilizing it becomes difficult. They partly use it. That is why in 10 lakhs you might reach 9 or 9.2 and not touch 10. But achieving 9.2 within a matter of 12 months is I think good enough so to increase it to 11. I'm very hopeful it'll definitely get used and the amounts which are being given to the states are also having high utilization.

Q) Nirmala ji, if I'm right, we get a sense that there is an indication of tapering of government spending. I know we've discussed this in our last interview as well. You expect private sector also now to do some heavy lifting. So we are seeing some of the sectors looking up now. There are investments in steel, aviation, power, machinery, but are you happy with the level of private sector participation? You said that they are like Hanuman, and Hanuman has no idea of his own power. When do you think that this Hanuman will lift the economy mountain?

A) Well, I think, as you said, they are coming out. There is investment happening. The PLI scheme is also helping them. So investments in newer areas do have a slightly longer gestation period. It's not as if their brownfield projects are getting additional money. That also is happening. But the interest in the sunrise sector is really obvious now. People are taking a lot of interest and you're seeing them coming forward.

Q) That's heartening news. One more question on the stress that is being seen in the rural economy. Your higher allocation outlay to MGNREGA also is an indication of the stress on rural economy. If you look at the results of FMCG companies, consumer durable companies, even if you look at the Nielsen data, it shows that the rural volume growth has underperformed urban volume growth for almost seven quarters in a row now. So what is your prognosis of rural demand and how do you think we will deal with this going forward?

A) I am not sure I'll be able to describe how I view what is happening in the rural areas. Let us recognize that there is a lot of shift in the way employment is panning out. Let us recognize that migration is now looking at redefining itself in a way. Many people who went back to their villages with some skills acquired are wondering if they can continue being there and utilizing and benefiting from the skills that they've acquired. Industries, too, today are allowing a lot of work from home, and many who are avoiding traveling are also staying back. So the shift will have to be recognized. But equally, that's not to say people are staying back home without work or staying back and working from there, with large companies being established everywhere else. So there is this transition happening undoubtedly.

Second, there's also this little savings which is coming through, which we are seeing from the various fixed deposits which are growing as different from small savings. You're also seeing some middle class looking at savings through the stock markets, DMAT accounts and so on. So the indicators with which we are looking at the rural economy may vary, and there are very many newer indicators which we may not want to miss out on. Yes, I agree FMCG market will also tell us that durable consumables are not being consumed as much as before. Well, I take that as one indicator. But equally, the kind of activities which are now happening in the rural areas because of better connectivity, because of other digitization, are also yet to be measured, I would think.

Q) One thing related to the job market, especially, if you look at the campus recruitment in engineering colleges and MBA colleges. So on one side, the economy is doing well, and all indicators point to that. But on the other hand, the campus recruitment this year has been muted. Salaries have been lower, many students have not got a job offer yet. How do you see this in relation to the overall big picture?

A) The question about employment, I am afraid we are repeatedly focusing only on those indicators pertaining to the formal economy, which is important. I'm not denying its role. So college recruitments, IIM-like campuses, are important, but equally the jobs that are getting created in the middle and lower order are not getting counted at all. I would look at the way in which banks and their credit is happening in small and medium businesses.

The new companies which have got registered, which is a data which I have put out from the MCA. The number of new companies which have started are certainly not people who are being recruited for jobs. They are people who are investing money, believing in their skills, registering a company and probably giving jobs for others. Why would new companies get registered in a bigger number than before if employment is not being offered? Companies cannot operate in vacuum without human beings in them. So I think a fairer open and an exhaustive picture of India's employment, both in the formal and non-formal areas, will have to have some kind of a wider base with which, and we need to bring in such data so that the discussion can be more informed.

Q) And some of the global slowdown is also having an impact on our jobs, especially, at the higher end, right? I mean, IIM campuses or engineering colleges, etc.

A) Equally, because of the way in which artificial intelligence is coming, the kind of job requirements that are expected of new recruits are also changing. So, the people with old skill sets are now expected to have additional newer skill sets for entering into a certain area, which till now did not exist. So, lots of calibrations are required in understanding this.

Q) Yesterday, in your budget speech, you were very appreciative of income taxpayers. In fact, the number of people paying income tax has gone up. Collections are up 2.4 times. You were quite appreciative. In fact, I thought you just stopped short of sort of giving them something back because it was a vote on account. My question is that salaried people are paying 30% today, whereas corporates pay 22% tax. In the longer term, directionally, corporates meaning as an entity. That's right. So I'm saying in the longer term, directionally. Do you think you would align this in some way or the other? I'm talking about the longer term.

A) Well, the direct taxation reforms are a steady job in the pipeline and some results come out and more work is happening. So, direct taxation is something on which we one ease of the taxpayers’ facilitation which has to be improved. And also one of the things happened yesterday, one of the ‘serving the customer better business in the taxation’ regime happened yesterday, but more work can always be done.

Q) Yes, salary can be more hopeful in the coming days...

A) But saying anything now?

Q) No, I know that. I mean directionally, over the long term. You managed inflation very well in the past few years. What about food inflation? That's really pinching the common man? Pulses are up 20%, vegetables 27%. Any plan to sort of rein in food inflation?

A) See, food inflation cannot be spoken as one basket or one item. It has so many different components. If pulses are becoming more expensive, we are import dependent to meet adequacy, in meeting their demand. In the sense we are not self-sufficient. We need to import to meet our demand. And when you depend on imports, the prices are determined by the supplier, not by us. So when it is pulse or dal, where the prices have to be controlled, so much has to be done well in advance.

If you know your crop is only x and not what you need, then you pre-plan imports. You have to touch upon very many countries to get the imports and so on. And in that, of course, the role of the traders is very important. That is one thing. Second is you're looking at other seasonal vegetables, which can equally be affected by drought or excess rain. No import substitution or no import in the last minute can help us. If suddenly one particular crop, say of potatoes or onions or tomatoes, is lost, the last minute procurement from somewhere else is also fraught with difficulties.

So the treatment for controlling price for pulses and perishable crops, and let's say rice, which can be stored, are all very different. That is why there is a committee in the Government of India which looks into this and makes sure that periodically you're able to get those in time based on estimates. It's an ongoing job, it's not with a deadline. It has to keep happening. And I think largely the committee has been successful. Otherwise we couldn't have been closer to the policy range.

Q) I had interviewed the prime minister in 2016 as early as that, and he spoke about the white paper. He said that we should come out with the white paper because we inherited an economy which was in the fragile five. And that was early, just two years into the government, and what we had to really do to drag it out of the levels it had reached. You spoke similarly yesterday about a white paper, and you said it was a herculean task to bring the economy back from the brink. What is the idea behind the white paper? Why now? And will it be another stick to beat the opposition with?

A) See, you're right in pointing out that the honorable prime minister has spoken about it even in 2016. In your interview then, it was so many different sections of our society that had themselves suggested to us that you better bring a white paper out to say why the Indian economy has reached the fragile five. To say why our banks had become such a black hole, nothing could be restored of the banks. Banks were all in deep trouble. Look at the number of NPAs and the value of the NPAs, meaning what was the original value and to what extent? They had reached almost close to valueless position. So whether it was banks, whether it was the overall economy, whether it was defense procurement, whether it was a vital sector of telecom, why even minerals, every area was ridden with problems. Now, if you're talking of corruption, well, it's one thing, it goes to the court, people get punished, and then the monies are given back or not given back. Values are retrieved or not retrieved. That's one side of the story. But what impact it left on the economy? To restore your banks back to health, to make sure your country is safe, with adequate strategic equipment given to defense personnel, to make sure that your mines, which are wealth under the earth, meaning inside the earth under the soil, to use them for the benefit of the country, rather than to use them as one instrument through which you line your own pocket, what implications it had on the economy.

Banks not being healthy, mines being given to brothers and sisters who did not want to extract the mineral for the benefit of the country. Spectrum allocations. If it had happened in time, I didn't have to spend so much to restore BSNL, to have 2G or 4G in time. And what implication does it have on the country when 4G is not available in time? Whereas the whole world is talking about 5G.

So the kind of impact that it had, the mismanagement, it is not just talking about policy paralysis for a fragile five, it's talking about every one of these steps. Which one, which, number one morally was immoral in the sense, was not right, and equally the kind of positive effect, if it had happened very well in a transparent fashion, it would have had on the economy. We lost 10 glorious years. To restore it to that position back and then to pull it up to now, get closer to the world's third largest economy, is a herculean task, which I'm grateful this country had a prime minister like Modiji, who single-mindedly said, I will restore this economy back. It's my service to the nation, otherwise it wouldn't have happened.

So why the white paper now? Yes, we've had 10 years and prior to that there were 10 years where you saw all this happening. Policy paralysis, corruption, nation losing its endowments and so on. Ten years under Prime Minister Modi, what kind of course corrections had to happen, what kind of restoring confidence had to happen, what kind of pulling back from rut that had to happen. Equally making sure you're purchasing the equipment, removing BSNL from distress, you're making sure BSNL employees are given their dues, you're making sure the country gets 5G, not just 4G.

Look at the coverage India has to make sure that the investor confidence is not just intact, but is growing, that within a matter of eight years, I would say we've reached 596,000,000,000 U. S. Dollars as our foreign exchange reserve. Just compare that with the last 10 years, at least for the sake of the elected honorable representatives who are sitting in Parliament, they should know what was it then, what effort it took to restore it here and what we should not therefore ever imagine or dream of doing in personal interest, forgetting the nation.

Why now? Parliament should know, too. At that time, had Prime Minister Modi not taken the call that in the interest of our nation, I would not bring it out... He didn't bring the white paper then, because you put the nation first, you say, if I do it now, I can be happy. But the confidence in our country would have been lost. Investors wouldn't have come. Our own people would have lost faith in the systems. They would say, oh, my God, this government will come, eat away and go. That next government can come, it'll do its own. But we are all languishing. The faith in institutions, in government, in leaders, in politics, would have been lost in the minds of people. I am so grateful that the prime minister didn't do it. Then he restored it all, put India on such a wonderful track towards becoming the third largest economy, so that all of us know what it took and what we shouldn't do in the future, this paper.

Q) So, when do you table it?

A) Well, sooner.

Q) When it comes to the markets, Nirmala Sitharaman can do no wrong. Last two to three years, markets have been on a roll. Can you assure the markets and its participants that there will be stability in the capital gains tax regime? Last year, you had tweaked the debt mutual funds in your budget speech. So, is there stability around the corner?

A) In the foreseeable future, policy stability is the one thing that the prime minister (Narendra Modi) really lays emphasis on. He doesn't like periodic tweaking, he will tell you that it's only two years or three years, let it play out, settle down, and so on. He's never in favour of quick twists and turns, and this is not me saying it. People who have observed him during his tenure as chief minister will know that the biggest strength under Prime Minister Modi is stability in policy.

Q) The RBI has imposed restrictions on the operations of PayTM Payments bank. I don't want to go into the details, but what is your message to the fintech industry? Is there more than meets the eye in this case, or are we going to be cautious when it comes to the sector?

A) I won’t want to comment on any one particular company. But, fintech is an area all of us are very enthusiastic about. India has contributed a lot in this sector, which has been globally recognised. Today, if people are looking at solutions, especially fintech solutions, they are looking towards India. Our youth has contributed a lot; this is an area where we'll certainly like to work and encourage. I'm not commenting on any one company.

Q) You have been tightening things around. Would you think that the RBI should loosen up now?

A) Well, the RBI does take its own call but I will appreciate it if we work together with stakeholders and they take a call keeping growth in mind; they've been steady. I suppose they'll continue to be steady, is my expectation and hope.

Q) We are seeing a different side of Nirmala Sitharaman. In the last few weeks, you've also been seen as an aggressive politician and have turned the heat on your rivals in Tamil Nadu. You called (MK) Stalin's DMK an anti-Hindu party and said they forbade the live telecast of the Ram Mandir ‘pran pratishtha’. What do you have to say to that?

A) I have not said a loose word. I did mean what I said and I do truly believe that repeatedly. The attack on Hindus in Tamil Nadu (in layers) has been felt for a long time. I speak about Tamil Nadu with lived experience and, therefore, I don't talk too soon nor do I speak too indiscreetly. So, when I say something, I mean it because I feel it. Also, I corroborate it with data, with actual ground activity and only then do I comment. Unfortunately, if that is the politics of a state party that has extended a lot of ideological support to separatist politicians of years gone by; whether they support it even today, I do not know. But there are periodic voices that come out, which are very separatist in tone and tenor.

My grief is that a national party like the Congress has been decimated in Tamil Nadu. And today, till date, they are not in a position to win an election, even a couple of seats on their own without being in alliance with one of these parties. The BJP is of course a beginner there; it's been there since the Jana Sangh days and it's gaining in strength.

We'll continue to work with the people, but the grief that I want to express is that a national party like the Congress also joins that anti-Hindu voice. It does not condemn the anti-Hindu voice of the DMK and, even worse, goes out in support of such voices. And today, not just in Tamil Nadu, a Congress leader in the Lok Sabha (I mean he's a sitting Lok Sabha MP and the brother of the deputy chief minister of Karnataka) also speaks in a separatist voice. So, anti-Hindu is one, anti-Hindu activity is another, which also is happening in Karnataka. Incidentally, the Congress in Tamil Nadu supports these kinds of anti-Hindu or separatist voices. And today, that is a spirit with which the Congress is also aligning. This I find utterly shocking.

Q) Is there an attempt to paint the Bharatiya Janta Party as a north Indian party? And, you know, this north-south divide, encouraging that...

A) They have always called Bharatiya Janta Party two things. It is a Brahmin-Bania party. And it's a Hindi party. Today, the kind of support BJP receives in south India disproves all this. And I don't want to name individuals and say, oh, he or she belongs to this caste. We've promoted this caste. And therefore, more than BJP, I can challenge today, is there any one party in India which has worked for the betterment of tribals in India, which has worked for the betterment of the Dalit, Scheduled Caste in India, which has recalled some of the best iconic leaders coming from those communities, but attaining national stature.

Whether it is Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Whether it is Guruji and considered like God himself, Birsa Munda. Whether it is the sons of the, Sahebzade, Sikh gurus, who gave their lives in their teenage for the sake of our country. So in any one of these, I want to ask is there any one party in this country which has as much served as the BJP? So what is Hindi party? When the prime minister of India is talking about all languages, he quotes Thiruvaluvar. He quotes from Purananuru. Every given opportunity he takes the languages even to the UN. So Tamil Nadu's politics, speaking of these kinds of things, has happily kept the Hindi-speaking parts of the country even if they are in alliance with them, away from the separatist rhetoric. So you think, oh, we are in alliance with that party. They cannot do any wrong. But they've been speaking all this separatist earlier, they've been speaking anti-Hindu earlier, only because of the language gap. Just as they didn't want to learn Hindi, many of the north Indians didn't want to learn Tamil. So there's never been an understanding, a comprehensive, complete understanding of what's developed in Tamil Nadu.

Q) So are you hopeful that the BJP will do better this time in south India? I mean, how many seats do you see them getting out of 131 seats?

A) It's difficult to talk about the number of seats, but I'm sure, the efforts which are being made by the Tamil Nadu BJP unit, you're..

Q) Are you likely to open your account in these states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala?

A) We have certainly worked for the people and hope to have their blessings.

Q) Tamil Nadu?

A) Whether it's Kerala, whether it's Tamil Nadu, lots of work is happening and people are responding as well.

Q) Are you likely to contest the elections?

A) I don't think, no, it's my party's decision.

Q) One last question. On 2024, what is your assessment? How many seats do you think that the BJP gets?

A) I'm not sure. I'll again not speculate on the number of seats.

Q) Better than last time? Much better than last time?

A) I think people will see the truth and commitment and dedication with which the honourable prime minister has been working. They are blessing him. They are seeing his earnestness. They are seeing how nonstop he puts the people of India and the nation first among everything else. So I am confident.

Q) The opposition has constantly been crying themselves hoarse about the use of intelligence agencies. So whether it is Kejriwal or Mamta Banerjee's leaders in West Bengal or Soren more recently, they complain that there is harassment by central investigating agencies and if the leaders jump onto the other side and join the BJP then they are let go scot-free. What do you have to say?

A) First of all many of the cases in which the CBI or the Enforcement Directorate or the income tax pursue cases cannot come to the level of asking for custodial or asking for interrogation or arrest can happen overnight. You will be surprised in many of these cases, the cases were originally filed during UPA times. Many of these cases belong to that era. You know the Indian system, the level and the time consumed for each stage to mature and to reach a stage where summons are being served, it consumes a lot of time. Many of these are from that era cases. So it's not as if we've done it. Second, a survey or a search happens. Tell me if they've come empty-handed. Rooms full of cash. Equally, when we are talking about a common man adapting to technology doing digital payment, you have people sitting with tonnes of currency notes in their homes. Nowadays everything is videographed. I can't sit here and say I found so much cash in your house without proof. The video shows in the bathroom, in the bedroom, in lockers, tonnes of cash being kept. What explains that? So it's very well to use that as a whip to hit at the ruling party to say you're using the Enforcement Directorate or CBI. These are professional agencies. They take huge time to make their cases compact and ready because everything is now monitored by the court, once the charge sheet is filed. And you have to submit the documents to the court, you can't just go there and say I found this, I found that. Records prove it. So the era is changing. People don't like to have corrupt leaders. So when the Enforcement Directorate goes and knocks at the doors and comes out with such pictures, common people are seeing it. You may cry hoarse and say it is being politically used. I'm sorry. It is something which was the case from your era. You filed a case against your own ally. There are partners in crime and then there are partners and enemies also.

Nirmala ji, thank you so much for answering all our questions. You answer economic questions and political questions with equal felicity and passion. It's always such a pleasure to speak to you. Thank you so much.

Thank you very much, Rahul.

First Published on Feb 2, 2024 8:33 PM

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