'You can't build consensus by being an introvert or if your leaders are sulking or if there is arrogance. You must talk'
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I'm outside Parliament and I'm trying to strike up a reasonable, constructive dialogue with Arun Jaitley, Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. It's a good thought, isn't it?
Of course, it's a good thought. Discussion in or outside Parliament is always very good. Though of course, disruptions...(in the) current session have overtaken discussion. My preference would always be for discussion. There will be disruptions in a vibrant democracy, people will raise issues in Parliament. And then...that should be really the rarest of the rare cases. Because in very rare cases, obstruction also becomes a part of a parliamentary tactic. But if it's too frequently done...
Now it looks like discussion is part of a parliamentary tactic.
No, for instance, (in the) monsoon session, I think we had some of the best quality debates. Even in this session, some of the discussions which have taken place in both Houses were of very high standard. But unfortunately, the first two weeks got lost because of the FDI stalemate. Occasionally, you have issues which do hold up Parliament. But then, Parliament has its own synergy, it goes on.
But you said, personally, you'd like this to continue. You're a parliamentarian.
Why I say I'd like this to continue is because even when we have issues on which tempers are high, the dialogue between the government and the Opposition is broken down. Discussions are not taking place, statements are not being made. The country is not being told certain facts and even when you have a lot of noise and disturbances, that serves its purpose because it sends a message to the government. But that should be rare. Even in the course of a discussion, for instance, we have a full facility for raising those very issues and if the government doesn't come out with a reply, the whole country would be watching. Therefore, I would rather have a Parliament bended in favour of discussions. And for disturbances, at times the tendency is to blame the Opposition, but I think the government has to share part of the blame itself. The last winter session is perhaps the only session in the history of Parliament where a whole session went as a part of disturbances. Had that disturbance not taken place, and that's when I say it's part of a parliamentary tactic, the telecom minister would have continued, the proceedings against him would not have started, the JPC would not have been constituted, bringing to the forefront the 2G issue, which was admittedly an issue of corruption, would not have happened. Now, what the government did after the session, if it had done on day one or day three, perhaps the whole session could have been saved.
What about this session? FDI is something that could have been discussed.
FDI could be discussed. And when we did get an opportunity, during the discussion on the supplementary grants in the Rajya Sabha, I put forward all the arguments of my party on the FDI issue. But then, the government also has to realise that when you announce such a move, Parliament is in session, your whole party is not on board, your UPA alliance is not on board, Parliament as a whole is not on board.
After Rahul Gandhi having spoken in favour of FDI, the party might have a different situation.
Well, I don't know why the relevant leaders of the Congress party, who should have spoken in the first instance, chose not to speak. But what did we say in Parliament? Let's have a motion with a vote. And Parliament was held up because the government did not want a motion with a vote because obviously some of the UPA allies were threatening to vote against them.
That's a slippery slope. Because if you come to power someday, every executive decision will be put to vote because the Congress will demand that.
The executive is entitled to take a decision, Parliament is entitled to censure that decision. That doesn't mean the decision will stay or go, that depends on the given situation.
But in the era of coalitions, if executive decisions get put to vote, the power of allies will become too high.
Well, the allies are a reality. And therefore, can a government take a decision that is opposed by the majority in Parliament? There is some political statesmanship which is required. Why were the first two weeks wasted? Because we wanted a vote on this policy. They were scared that the allies won't vote.
How could the government have handled this better?
The government could have handled this better by first discussing within their alliance in a transparent meeting, rather than in whispers. The government could have discussed with the Opposition, it could have discussed with various sections of the industry, taken an appropriate decision and certainly not taken this decision bang in the middle of a Parliament session. I don't think this was a clever political tactic or that it had adequate consultation. You had a huge national opposition, you had opposition from within the UPA. Now, must such a decision be taken when Parliament is in session? And then you choose to blame the Opposition for asking for a vote. All we did was to ask for a vote. And the government was not willing for a vote, so they allowed the stalemate to continue.
But one stalemate has led to another stalemate. Now, we have a stalemate about Chidambaram, for example. You, as a former lawyer, know that you might have had thousands of briefs in your legal career.
Well, it's quite possible that this can happen. But then, there are unusual things. I've been seeing some of the documents which are in circulation. I've still not been able to understand: why should the withdrawal of an FIR require a home ministry clearance? Obviously, there is something more than what meets the eye. If the government feels or the Home Minister feels that he has no accountability in this and that he has done nothing wrong, instead of keeping quiet or the party going on the backfoot, they should bring all the papers, place them on the table of the House and say, 'let the MPs see whether I'm accountable or not'. Please place that file on the table of the House and we'll know what's the real story.
You and the Congress party now have a relationship which is a little bit on the bitter side. You know, it's not just a classical Opposition-ruling party relationship. But even in that situation, would this be better if the two of you were talking?
I can't agree with you more. I remember as law minister going to Opposition leaders. I remember Pranab Mukherjee, who was the chairman of the standing committee of the Home and the Law ministries, whenever he recommended a change, we took it very seriously and we normally accepted it. That's why lots of legislation were passed unanimously. I think last week there was a very important debate in the Rajya Sabha where I had started the debate and Mr Pranab Mukherjee replied. The theme of the debate was: how do you build consensus? You can't build consensus by being an introvert. You can't build consensus if your leaders are sulking. You can't build consensus if there is arrogance. You must talk. And when you talk, other antecedent facts must create an environment of consensus. We'll oppose each other on policy, we'll oppose each other on political issues but we don't go out implicating people. Tell me, the complainant MPs in cash-for-vote being jailed. Is it fair? Winning a parliamentary majority by bribery? Is it fair? Therefore, I had mentioned that the government must make sure that an atmosphere for consensus builds up. You talk to the Opposition. I'll tell you two-three textbook examples of how it happened. The Nuclear Liability law. It was being opposed by most Opposition parties, including us. We sounded our reservations. We had meetings with Mr Pranab Mukherjee, Mr Prithviraj Chavan and some of us went. Then, Mr Chavan and I used to work out minor details, Sushmaji used to participate in the discussions. Finally, the government and the NDA came out with an agreed text. It was passed like a shot. There was opposition from some other parties, it was agreed in part. Recently, the LIC amendment came. The BJP, in the Lok Sabha, suggested a change. The Finance Minister accepted it. The Opposition wanted to vote against it. We said no, we won't allow this vote to be defeated. In the Rajya Sabha, if we had gone with the others, the Bill would have been defeated. We abstained in order to enable it being passed. On both occasions, the government discussed with us. We made suggestions, they incorporated some suggestions which could be incorporated. Why can't it be done on every legislation?
Are you making a special target of your other lawyer counterpart, Kapil Sibal? Because none of his Bills seem to go anywhere?
Well, some of his Bills have been opposed in the recent past. And in every case, the opposition has started from within the Congress party. In one of them, Kapil is right when he says that he had a word with me. And prima facie, I have no objection to this Bill. But to my utter surprise, the Congress party MP stood up in the House, the Left MP stood up and some other NDA MP stood up. So ministers have to realise that parliamentary legislation is also an art of the possible.
Does it vary with the personality of the minister moving the Bill?
I think in politics, understatement, humility is always a virtue. And if ministers interacted with MPs across the board, various political parties, rather than only leaders, it'll be easier for them to get the Bills through. A recent Bill came...the Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath came to me with the text of the Bill, went to Sushmaji with the text of the Bill. We said yes. It was passed at the introduction stage with the entire House supporting it.
Do you get the sense sometimes that this government sees, as Advani says, the BJP as an enemy or as an untouchable?
I think they saw us as an enemy not to be spoken to but the BJP is a reality, it's the largest party in the Opposition. And therefore, I think the government must make an effort, not only with the BJP or the NDA but the entire House. The Left parties are also important. We must speak to each other. After all, what's wrong? And a lot of legislation is non-ideological. We can split on ideological issues.
So is Pranab Mukherjee making any headway with you on his Pension Bill?
I think in the Lok Sabha, our leaders have spoken to him. We've conveyed some suggestions to him, even on the Pension Bill, and I complimented Sushmaji for it.
Your party started it.
We started it. When that Bill was introduced, at that given point, the Opposition had more numbers in Parliament, in the Lok Sabha. The Left wanted the Bill to be rejected at the admissibility stage itself. Suddenly, Sushmaji got up and said, "No, this was a Bill which we had started and we will vote in favour of the admissibility". The standing committee now, unanimously, has made some suggestions.
And the Banking Reform Bill?
Well, I've not read the full standing committee report. These are concepts which are doable. Therefore, in the process of being doable, one has to be a little pragmatic, one has to be open-minded.
So we should not see these two Bills as write-offs just now.
Well, I don't think we should see anything as a write-off. I've given you the example of LIC and Nuclear Liability. They were considered write-offs and eventually those Bills were passed as a process of discussion.
So tell me, are the two of you, the BJP and the Congress, seriously talking of the Lokpal Bill?
We made our positions very clear on the Lokpal Bill. We are not for destruction of parliamentary authority or government. There are certain aspects, like independent selection process, like the autonomy and independence of the investigating agency...the CBI in this case. These are areas which you can't allow to be watered down. Incidental provisions of the Bill, words being changed here or there, provisions being altered are all an art of the possible. We've spoken in the all-party meeting, we've put our stands in writing, our MPs have given it as a note of dissent, the government has both of them. The government will now come out with their draft proposals.
So when you talk to the government on this, do you find them open-minded?
There are Bills on which I found individual ministers and the government to be open, there are Bills on which they are very rigid. On Lokpal, they will get our help provided they go in for the creation of a good institution. If they want us to compromise on our position, it may be a little difficult. I can tell you what dissent our MPs have given, it's a very responsible dissent. From the newspaper reports, I gather that some of those suggestions are being incorporated, some are not being incorporated. When we had a dialogue with Team Anna, we told them the areas where we agree and where we don't agree.
So the BJP is not becoming the 'B' team of Team Anna?
No. Theirs is a citizens' movement, it's not a BJP movement. Whatever they have discussed with us is only contents of the Bill and not their movement. We have nothing much to do with their movement, we have something to do in our discussions as regards the content of the Bill.
Is there anything about that movement that ever worries you?
We must not build an anti-Parliament, anti-politician, anti-political party mood in the country. Indian democracy is very sound. Even when you initially mentioned disturbances, I always say: have you considered that even the quality of debate in Parliament is going up? Why is it that every news channel switches off its programme, then switches on to the good debates? People want to see the good debates. That means we do have good debates. Therefore, we are a parliamentary democracy. Political parties are the sheet anchors of that parliamentary democracy. Therefore, let's not damage it beyond a point.
Some of that has been done or is being done.
Some of that has been damaged because of propaganda, also because of the conduct of some of us.
That's true. But what about this idea now of making Bills on the streets?
Frankly, that's propaganda. Team Anna wants to discuss Bills on the streets. They want to discuss Bills at seminars and public meetings and rallies. In a democracy, that is bound to happen. But eventually, they will also realise that Bills are only going to be passed in Parliament, and that's why they come to us.
This is an example of balance being restored a little bit.
Balance being restored but they're mobillising public opinion in support of their viewpoints. A lot of which we agree with, some of which we don't agree with.
And which are the ones you don't agree with?
For example, I've told them that I don't agree with this whole concept that Lokpal or Lokayukta should be empowered to bug telephones. You're putting the Prime Minister under the Lokpal. You don't want a state where the Prime Minister's phones (are bugged). The Prime Minister doesn't talk only corruption on the phone, he talks a lot of serious stuff. Ministers talk a lot of serious stuff. Therefore, let there be some existing safeguards. Then for instance, they wanted Prime Minister unconditionally to come in. We said no. You'll have to put in a lot of conditions and safeguards so that people don't keep harassing the Prime Minister. They wanted the judiciary to come in. Now the Lokpal, essentially, is not a judicial institution. It's an executive institution. You can't put judiciary under the executive.
But in one of your states—Uttarakhand—that's been done.
It has been done. And I'm sure somebody will test it, whether that's possible or not. My own view is that for the judiciary, you need the National Judicial Commission. That's the need of the hour.
Transcribed by Rajkrishnan Menon