Will defend big businesses if treated unfairly, says Rahul Gandhi

File photo of Congress President Rahul Gandhi | PTI
On a flight from Delhi to Chandigarh to address a rally in Himachal Pradesh on the last day of the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign, Congress President Rahul Gandhi tells Archis Mohan he is not anti-business, but anti-crony capitalism. He says if his party comes to power, the middle class will not be additionally taxed to fund the NYAY scheme. Edited excerpts:

You have changed in the last five years, particularly after the Gujarat Assembly polls. One sees a more battle-hardened Rahul Gandhi, who is willing to give it a fight. Did something change in the last five years? 

Well, that is for you to judge. It is not for me to say what happened, what didn't happen. I tried to do my job. I tried to listen to people and I do not carry anger, I put it down. So that helps me navigate. But, since you asked about a specific moment, I would single out the electoral defeat of 2014 as a turning point for me. It taught me a lot about myself. 

Some years back in 2013, you said power was poison, and many people thought that you were not ruthless enough in the pursuit of power as one should be in politics. Have you re-thought that?

I am very ruthless in the pursuit of truth. But when I said power was poison, what I meant was, if not used properly, it would hurt you. The implication wasn’t that you don’t use it, but that you should be careful. It’s an interesting thing, because if Narendra Modi had heard my speech, he probably wouldn’t have found himself in the place where he is, because Mr Modi drank the entire poison. The day he became PM, he just took a big swig of it. And unfortunately, it destroyed him. Because he fell into the trap. The trap is in thinking that the power of the position you occupy belongs to you. But it doesn’t belong to you. Power always belongs only to the people. And that’s where Mr Modi has gone wrong. 

Let’s say you are prime minister tomorrow. How would you prevent that from happening to you?

By constantly attacking myself, by listening to the advice of even those who have harsh things to say about me. Your question has taken us on to a philosophical plane so I’m responding like that. Though this may not be what your business readers want to hear! 

For the last few years, the kind of positions you have taken on corporates and businesses, especially big business, has led to the perception that you are anti-business.

No, I am anti-crony capitalism. I am anti-Mr Anil Ambani getting the world's biggest defence contract, with no skill.

I am completely against that. If Mr Ambani had the skills to deliver the Rafale contract, the financial ability to deliver the contract, I wouldn’t be against him.

I think that there are some tremendous businesses in India, that should be world class, and are held back by our government. I think that there are some extremely super-efficient, super-honest people who own big businesses. I am not against any of them. My model is fairness.

So I look around and say “where is unfairness taking place?” It is taking place, for example, with the farmers, where their finances don’t work and they are being left to die. The day I see unfairness happening against big business, I will be there to defend them.

This is because I don’t see India as one or the other. I don’t see India as agriculture or big business. I believe India is a conversation and a compromise between many different stakeholders and forces. And I believe that the compromise can be worked out if you listen in detail to the voice of the people.

My simple question to your readers and the big business guys who read your paper is: How many of you did Mr Modi actually listen to, when he said “I’m going to blow your business to smithereens by passing a five-layered GST and a notebandi that is going to blast the Indian economy?” Did he come to you, our biggest assets, and say “I’m thinking of doing this”. Did he? He didn’t? He disrespected them all.

Rahul Gandhi would never do that. No, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress would never ever do that. We might come to you and say “what do you think of this, do you like it, not like it?” Can we tweak it? We will work with you and try and get an optimal solution.

We certainly won’t operate the way Mr Modi does.

What is the role of the private sector in the country?

It's the backbone of the country. India in its current form cannot exist without the private sector.

You have spoken frequently about the importance of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in generating jobs. Do you think some of the sectors should be reserved for MSMEs?

I don’t immediately jump to the idea that spaces need to be reserved for MSMEs. I look to see if we can create structures that support them. Can we make them competitive? Can we help them develop their businesses? One very good idea that we have got in our manifesto is that youngsters who want to start their businesses have to take no permission from anybody. Where did that idea come from? That didn't come from my mind. We spoke to them and they said listen “it's a great thing, can you do it?” So it comes from a conversation and my guarantee is that there will be an ongoing conversation, it will not stop. But when we talk about unfairness: There are Rs 5,55,000 crore NPAs that have been forgiven, how many rupees have been forgiven of smaller businesses? I'll answer that question — zero, not a rupee!

So my question is, the same question I asked for the farmers: If you are going to forgive Rs 5,55,000 crore NPAs for these guys, why are we not ready to forgive our small and medium businesses? Why are we not ready to forgive our farmers? I am posing a question of fairness. If you give me a logical answer to that question, I will listen.

Should the public sector exit certain sectors?

There are certain strategic sectors where I think the public sector is very important. From non-strategic sectors, the public sector could exit.

But aviation is fine?

I would be open to the privatisation of Air India though it would not be something that I would jump on. I would have a completely different view if you ask me to privatise ONGC, for example.

You have spoken about GST 2.0. Do you really think it's possible?

No, it's actually only GST 1.0, because right now it’s Gabbar Singh tax, not GST! It's not only possible, it will be done because it's causing a huge amount of pain. It's not fair to the businesses to impose this tax on them.

On NYAY, it would cost around Rs 3.6 trillion, or 13 per cent of the total government expenditure in the 2019-20 budget. Where will this money come from, considering that existing subsidies would not be pruned?

We have said that strategic subsidies will not be touched. So the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), for example, will not be touched. We will also look towards a better monetisation of government assets, less wastage and improved efficiencies. The money is there. We have done the math.

There are two key ideas behind NYAY. One is to root out poverty. The second is actually to undo the damage that Mr Modi has done to the economy with the Gabbar Singh tax and demonetisation.

If you have a detailed chat with Dr Manmohan Singh, he will tell you how small and informal businesses have been destroyed by those twin blows that sucked cash out of the system. So NYAY is also a financial injection into the Indian economy. Simply put, when Mr Modi took money out of people's pockets he killed demand. Businesses got badly hit as a result and with it came massive unemployment. We now need to jump-start our economy. So our plan is to inject 50 million of the poorest families’ bank accounts with Rs 72,000 per year. That will get demand going and help businesses and the economy fire again, resulting in increased tax revenues and employment. And again for your readers: Not a single rupee of NYAY, and that's my personal guarantee, is going to come by taxing the middle class.

How will NYAY be rolled out?

Look, we are not in the business of crippling our economy. We have the best economic record over the last 30 years. We understand how to do this; we have the strength to do this and we have the skills to do this. We have worked on NYAY for six months, we have spoken to many of the world's best economists. We have done the numbers and we are not going to roll this out like notebandi or like Gabbar Singh tax with fire crackers at midnight! This is going to be piloted, tested and then rolled out in phases. 

The Congress at one point represented the poor and downtrodden. After 1991, the Congress began to represent big money and businesses. Did the undoing of the Nehruvian economic model provide the BJP-RSS the space to rise?

When you say Nehruvian ideas, you divorce him from the time he lived in. I guarantee that if Jawaharlal Nehru had been alive in the 1990s he would have liberalised the economy. Similarly, when people criticise a Gandhiji, they divorce him from the times he lived in. What has survived the test of time is that the Congress is the voice of the country and this county has multiple stakeholders.

So essentially what the Congress does is that it tries to protect the interests of all stakeholders, so when people say ‘Rahul is anti-business’, that’s just a dumb idea. I can’t possibly be anti-business.

Why not?

Because India would die without business. India wouldn’t be able to exist in its current form without private businesses.

Is there a first 100-day agenda if you form the government?

If you read our manifesto, the blueprint of what we are going to do is set down there. But step number 1 is, I want a conversation between the stakeholders of this country — big businesses, small and medium businesses, farmers and others. I want a conversation, a process of bringing this country back together because this country has been torn apart in the last five years by Mr Modi by the hatred that he has generated. 

On Rafale while I am not getting into the scam... 

Why not? Look, I am surprised to say that with the amount of evidence, there is in Rafale it shocks me that every newspaper or TV channel is not after Mr Modi. I understand that there is pressure that comes out from Mr Modi's system. In Rafale, the (former) French president has said that in his meeting the prime minister of India told him that the contract needed to go to Anil Ambani. Mr Ambani was also given a Rs 1,200 crore tax write-off by the French government. Strange investments were made in his airports company. Then Mr Parrikar, the former Raksha Mantri, said that “I know nothing about the new Rafale contract”, please ask Mr Modi. A completely new contract was signed while the old contract was still in operation. Defence ministry officials have clearly written in their documents that Mr Modi has bypassed the negotiating team and is holding parallel negotiations with the government of France. Why are our journalists so scared when there's so much evidence out there? 

Nitin Gadkari says the government didn't have the money, that's why they didn't buy 126.

Mr Gadkari should get his maths right. Mr Modi paid the French the same amount for 36 Rafale jets that the UPA was paying for 126! So what's he talking about?

There is a view that Rahul Gandhi has spoken too much in this election about Rafale and that he should have focused on jobs and farmers’ distress. Your comments? 

Mr Modi came, in his own words, as a chowkidar. Go anywhere today in India and say the word “chowkidar”. And it will be responded to by “chor hai”. The chowkidar has become a thief and that is because of Rafale and that's just the tip of the iceberg. He has done this across the board. No one anymore believes that corruption didn't take place in Rafale. People in the BJP may not be able to say it, but that one issue has destroyed Mr Modi's image as an incorruptible crusader against corruption.

Do you think your raising Rafale is because your father was accused, perhaps unfairly, of corruption?

My father was acquitted of all the false charges made against him. No court or enquiry commission found him guilty of any wrongdoing. My father was maligned. And that's the truth. 

You have spoken of the RSS capture of institutions. How would you deal with the situation if you are in the government?

The Congress believes in allowing institutions to function. It doesn't believe in crushing the voice of institutions. I don't think you have ever seen a Congress government that has forced Supreme Court judges to come out and say "we are not being allowed to function". So we believe in independent institutions and we intend to allow those institutions to work. We have zero interest in capturing or controlling any institution. 

Is there now two distinct competing ideologies that comprise our polity — one the Congress represents and another represented by the RSS?

No, this election is going to show you that India has one ideology and that ideology is love and affection for all. India periodically gets angry, which is fine, but the normal state of this country is love and affection for all Indians. India has been successful because it has worked together and India is going to work together in the future also.

I understand there has been some malicious propaganda against your family, but the comment about your being a janeudhari Brahmin did not go down well with many who think of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to be beyond caste.

No, that was not my comment at all. I do not believe in caste. 

What do you think BJP candidate Pragya Thakur’s statement on Mahatma Gandhi and the BJP’s reaction?

Pragya Thakur's comments reflect Narendra Modi's and the RSS mindset. She was handpicked by them for the Bhopal seat. She was put there for a reason because they want that voice to be heard. It's their voice. Pragya Thakur is irrelevant. Mr Modi believes the same nonsense she spouts. Frankly, I am sure Mr Modi too believes that Mahatma Gandhi's killers are patriots. He may not be able to say it for political reasons.

Ghulam Nabi Azad has said that the Congress would be okay with a non-Congress prime minister leading a (non-NDA) coalition government.

I have made it very clear that till May 23, when the people of India make a decision, it is not right for anybody, at least from our party, to comment on these issues. I am not going to be prejudging what the people of India are going to decide. Whatever they decide we will respect.

Lastly, what do you think about the India Against Corruption movement?

It was the strategy of the RSS/ BJP and the platform was used by them for their own political benefit.

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