The now-defunct Planning Commission's former Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia says Congress leader Rahul Gandhi used "strong words" in 2013 while tearing up an ordinance on convicted lawmakers, but insisted then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did the right thing by not resigning.
In an exclusive interview, Ahluwalia said: “On hindsight, I think, Dr Singh took the right call.”
Giving his reasons, the former aide to Manmohan Singh said that had Rahul Gandhi been a member of the then Union Council of Ministers, things would have been different. “But he was the Vice President of a political party,” he pointed out.
When pointed out that Gandhi kept Dr Singh in the dark about his sudden move on the ordinance, he quoted former Congress Vice President (Gandhi) to suggest that his choice of words could have been better.
“You must realise, in a democracy, there is nothing wrong to have dissent within the party. I don’t think there’s much merit in running a party in a way in which everyone in a party simply endorses what the party leadership thinks. This is an example of democratic dissent surfacing (within the party). In my view, nothing wrong with it. Mr Gandhi himself, I think, said that may be the words he used were not very appropriate… I think he said ‘complete nonsense’, okay? Strong words! But the bottom line is, had he simply gone there and said ‘this has happened that I frankly have great doubts about’… I think there would not have been anything wrong with that. That’s what democracy is all about. People should freely express their views, and if you disagree with them, you discuss that. And that’s what they did,” Ahluwalia said.
Ahluwalia has mentioned this incident in great detail in his latest book “Backstage: The Story behind India’s High Growth Years”.
He said that after his brother wrote an article to advocate Dr Singh’s resignation, he showed the article to the then Prime Minister.
“The first thing I did was to take the text across to the PM’s suite because I wanted him to hear about it from me first. He read it in silence, and initially made no comment. Then, he suddenly asked me whether I thought he should resign. I thought about it for a while and said ‘I do not think a resignation on this issue is appropriate’.”
In 2013, after the Supreme Court ruled that sitting lawmakers convicted of crime would be immediately disqualified and not continue as MPs, MLAs or MLCs pending an appeal, the then United Progressive Alliance government sought to bring an ordinance to counter the verdict.
Rahul Gandhi appeared unannounced at an event to oppose his own party’s line and tore a copy of the ordinance, an act seen as undermining the Prime Minister’s authority while he was in the US.
At a time when Delhi and other cities are witnessing anti-CAA protests, Ahluwalia cautioned against labelling dissent as disloyalty.
Referring to the protests against Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the country’s once- foremost policymaker said: “There are many protests going on right now in the streets. I frequently hear, sort of, wherein dissent is equated with disloyalty. I think that’s completely wrong. Peaceful dissent is an essential part of the democratic process. If people feel that’s not happening, then I think the government should reassure them that, you know, they are under misapprehension and live up to those standards.”
Ahluwalia said: “I do feel that in a multi-identity, complex country (like India), expression of dissent is an essential part of democracy. To my knowledge, everyone recognises this. And if that’s not happening, then we should worry.”
His comments assume significance in the wake of a high-voltage and often acerbic campaigning in Delhi Assembly elections, including shouting of slogan “desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maro saalon ko” at a rally addressed by Union Minister Anurag Thakur.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, during the campaigning, “Earlier it was that the Congress used to feed biryani in Kashmir, now it is (Delhi Chief Minister Arvind) Kejriwal who is doing the same in Shaheen Bagh….”
Ahluwalia hit out at those who criticised the new quantifiables determined by the then top policy-making body in 2011 to bring down the number of families below the poverty line (BPL).
Ahluwalia asserted: “So, what I am saying about the drop in poverty relates to the new poverty line. You know, at that time, somehow there was unwillingness on part of the political class, not just within the Congress, but across the board… didn’t want to accept the fact that poverty had fallen.”
Back in 2011, the panel had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, stating that any person earning more than Rs 26 a day in rural areas and Rs 32 in urban areas must not be eligible for various anti-poverty schemes run by the Centre.
It created a political earthquake with not just the opposition parties, but even the Congress and UPA allies up in arms against Ahluwalia and the Planning Commission.
The all-powerful National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by Sonia Gandhi, went ballistic. Then NAC member NC Saxena had said: “On Rs 32 a day, you know only dogs and animals can live.”
Another NAC member Aruna Roy wrote an open letter to Ahluwalia: “If it cannot be explained then the affidavit should be withdrawn or else you should resign.”
All of this was happening under the watch of a furious Gandhi who, rumours have it, wanted to back Roy’s demands to make a public scapegoat of Ahluwalia and hence undo the political damage.
Under intense pressure, Ahluwalia had to go back on his stand. In a somersault, Ahluwalia said: “It needs to be emphasised that the Tendulkar poverty line is not meant to be an acceptable level of living for the aam aadmi. It is actually the standard of living of those at the poverty line in 1973-74.” It was widely seen as an effort by Ahluwalia to save his job and face for the government.
Nearly a decade later, Ahluwalia said: “Maybe, some of them thought that it looks as if we are understating the importance of poverty. That is not true. Because I had told myself that ‘look, all we are saying is that poverty has fallen. We are not saying that poverty has disappeared’.”
“I mean there was still a quite high percentage of the population below the poverty line — over 20 per cent — and that’s a very large number. But there’s no doubt that given a fixed poverty line, the percentage and absolute numbers below that line had fallen,” he added.
He recounted that probably the perception that going above the poverty line would disqualify people from getting benefits meant for the poor, like subsidised foodgrains, made it all the more controversial.
Asked if he was pressured by the NAC, the former top policy-maker answered in the negative.
“I don’t think they were running the government. But I think they were an active voice on some of the things that civil society is most concerned about,” he said of the NAC, which was considered as powerful as the PMO, if not more. (IANS)