28 Jan 2017 20:01 IST

When P Chidambaram and Sanjaya Baru spoke their mind

Frank views on issues ranging from Narasimha Rao to demonetisation marked their discussions

That politicians are more candid at literary meetings was proved recently at the Hindu Lit for Life festival. At a panel discussion moderated by N Ravi, Director of the Hindu Group of Publications, between former Finance Minister and senior Congress Party leader P Chidambaram and Sanjaya Baru — who wears several hats including that of a columnist, economist, author, and policy and strategic analyst — Chidambaram made some candid remarks on a number of issues which surprised many in the audience.

Asked about the Congress’ strategy of disrupting Parliament proceedings at the recently concluded winter session, Chidambaram was critical, albeit mildly, of his party and said he was all in favour of frank discussion and debate in Parliament. He said that by disrupting Parliament, Opposition parties were playing into the hands of the ruling party and it served little purpose.

Seeking debate

He said at the present juncture he felt completely unemployed sitting in Parliament. He lamented the fact that Parliament was being used for everything other than debate and went to the extent of saying that the government often does not want debate as that would expose them. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had once said that obstructing Parliament was legitimate tactics, remarked Chidambaram. And though Chidambaram disagreed with this argument, he was candid enough to admit that the Congress too had decided to adopt the same tactics.

“I would ask for debate, I would demand debate as it is through debate that you expose government,” said Chidambaram.

Baru also made an interesting remark on how one shouldn’t judge a political party by what it says when it is in Opposition. He gave the example of the economic reforms initiated by the Narasimha Rao government in 1991 and how every Opposition party — the BJP, Left Parties, Janata Dal — was vehemently opposed to it. But in due course of time, when these parties came to power, they all adopted the same policies. The Communist Party of India was, in fact, a part of the United Front government in which Chidambaram was the Finance Minister and presented his now famous ‘dream Budget’!

Baru also cheekily remarked that if Parliamentarians do not do their work by debating issues in Parliament how can they exhort their countrymen to work harder?

Narasimha Rao, the enigma

The discussion then shifted to Baru’s recent book on the 1991 reforms, and he said there was a willingness among the Chandrashekhar-Yashwant Sinha combine and the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo to think afresh. But he said the one difference between Chandrashekhar and Narasimha Rao was on the issue of industrial delicensing and ending of licence Raj and trade liberalisation. On these two crucial issues, Rao was on the side of the reformers and, in fact, many in his own Congress Party opposed him tooth and nail over this.

On why, despite his achievements, Narasimha Rao remains a forgotten and abandoned figure in the Congress history today, Chidambaram said Rao was undoubtedly the hero of 1991 and the credit for initiating reforms goes entirely to him. Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister provided the intellectual heft, but the Prime Minister’s support was crucial.

But Chidambaram said the Congress Party was not judging Narasimha Rao by what he did only in 1991. He laid the blame for the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid at Rao’s feet and taking the Congress Party down the hill.

But Chidambaram also recalled another interesting anecdote on Rao. Rao once remarked that he had neither moved to the Left or Right, he was standing where he always stood, it was the ground under his feet that had moved! Chidambaram lauded Rao for his remarkable insights on policy issues.

On the Babri Masjid demolition, Baru defended Rao by saying that he shouldn’t be blamed for it and said that the origins of the problem lay in Rajiv Gandhi and Arun Nehru allowing the Shilanyas to be conducted in 1989. He was also critical of how the Congress had virtually airbrushed Rao out of its history.

Sociology of demonetisation

On demonetisation, Chidambaram predictably tore into the government saying that the economy will take a straight hit of ₹1,50,000 crore and GDP growth will fall by one percentage point. He also spoke on the adverse impact of demonetisation on small and medium enterprises and daily wage-earners.

He said the objectives of putting an end to corruption, black money and fake currency, though laudable, will not be achieved by demonetisation.

Baru had a very interesting take on the issue. Though he agreed that demonetisation had caused serious pain and disruption in the economy he was astounded by the complete absence of protest against it. He said economic theory is based on two foundations — history and psychology. All economic theories are propounded on the basis of historical facts and how people have responded to them.

He said the recent demonetisation exercise in India had no historical precedence and was deeply sceptical of the assessments made by economists. He said the complete absence of protests, despite the history of bandhs, and rail and rasta rokos in our country, was a subject for the sociologists to explore as economists didn’t have much to say about it at the moment.

He wondered on what basis the economists were making their dire predictions on growth getting hit. He hoped demonetisation would spawn hundreds of sociology PhD dissertations, explaining the absolute lack of public disaffection despite the pain suffered. Both panellists were guarded over the political fallout of the note ban.

After Baru’s clarion call, the sociologists must now get into the act.

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