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Exclusive! 'Modi has taken his job seriously in letter and spirit'

Last updated on: August 22, 2014 13:26 IST

Union Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

'There is a climactic change in terms of economic performance.... The revival is taking its own time, but there is a restoration of hope.'

'Modi as the PM of the country has to take everybody on board and deliver on good governance. That is his responsibility. In that, talking alone won't help, he's working.'

Commerce Minister Dr Nirmala Sitharaman tells Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com how the Modi government plans to change India.

She joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2008 and got important organisational roles almost immediately. She became the party spokesperson in 2010. And in less than a decade of party work she is in the top echelons of government.

In competitive politics this is not a normal rise, but nobody is complaining because the perception is that the hardworking and meticulous Nirmala Sitharaman, left, deserves it.

Senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj discovered her talent when she was a member of the National Commission for Women and helped her join the BJP.

Born in Tamil Nadu on August 18, 1959, Dr Sitharaman did her graduation from Tiruchirapalli and her master's from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. She has a PhD in Indo-European textile trade within the GATT framework.

Her husband Parakala Prabhakar is an advisor to the Andhra Pradesh government. His father was a Congress minister in Andhra Pradesh in the 1970s.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi selected Dr Sitharaman to handle three departments (commerce and industry, finance, corporate affairs) because of her academic background and firm attitude. She has the poise Indian women are famous for and is understated in her behaviour.

BJP leaders Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari didn't hesitate in parting with major responsibilities to her. Her mature way of handling issues and her balance have given her tremendous success. Dr Sitharaman has been very busy in the commerce and industry ministry where she holds independent charge. She has been shuttling between finance and corporate affairs as well where she is minister of state, providing able support to senior minister Jaitley.

Her no-frills handshake with Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks volumes of her arrival on the national stage.

In an exclusive and animated discussion with Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com, Nirmala Sitharaman speaks on a range of issues, from India's stand on the Bali trade issue to her shock when Modi asked her to join the Union Council of Ministers.

The obviously trained and experienced political spin-master presents her case, her government's policy and her leader's emerging new image, forcefully.

The first of a two-part interview:

When you took over the ministry and you sat in your chair, tell me what was your first feeling?

That day I couldn't believe I was there. It was like as if I was floating in air. Because this is such a rapid unimaginable change in your life and therefore it takes a while for it to sink in. I suppose now I've found my feet, I can say. I am putting my best effort to make a difference.

From within the government you have a different view. You are at a vantage point from where you looking at the entire commerce of India and the finance ministry of India. And here lies the crux of Modi's hopes of success. Is the inside view any different?

Yes. The view which is heavy with responsibility that we have to perform, we have to deliver -- according to the standards which Modi has delivered in Gujarat. So we are at least... I am very conscious of that. That's the standard I am expected to perform. That is something with which I wake up every morning.

The interesting thing about you is, what many people may not tell you frankly, that even though you are a relative newcomer, your name was on the Union Council list. It was stunning news for many. Second, you have no experience. Third, you were not even an MP. Fourth, you have a JNU background in a right-wing party. It was a big surprise for many. So tell us how it happened?

It was a surprise to me also. On that day (May 26) I got a call at around 6.20 am. I was all alone at home. My daughter had gone away on vacation to Hyderabad.

The call said 'Come over to Gujarat Bhavan. And then said you'll take shapath (oath) this evening.' I wasn't sure I heard it right. But you obviously can't be questioning this. It's surreal. The line was repeated. I left it at that. I didn't for a minute think I heard it right.

I thought it was probably all sleeping alone and sitting at home dreaming. But later from his (Modi's) office, a confirmatory call came saying, 'Please be on time. Come over at 9 am. Be prompt.' Then I realised there is something happening. I didn't have anybody near me to share it with.

I called my daughter who didn't pick up the phone because she was sleeping. I called my mama (mother's brother) and told him and he took a minute to respond and he said 'God bless you.'

He has been my mentor and from childhood he's always been very close to me. He was full of joy. Then I called my daughter and husband. My daughter finally woke up and took the call and woke up her dad who was thrilled. And they came rushing to Delhi that afternoon.

So tell me, what is your background? Your upbringing, college, education and public life? What is helping you now, and how?

So many things are helping me -- my family, which has always driven me. In my maternal home, they've all been bureaucrats, bankers and so on. They've all been in public life. My father was in the railways. All of them have been in the railways on my father's side.

My uncle, who I am talking about, retired as chairman of a nationalised bank. So most of them have been in public life in that sense, but never in politics.

When was the first time you thought that someday you will become a minister?

Not till that morning (when the Council berth was mentioned).

Never?

Never. Pucca.

Not even at election time?

I was more in the party. I had given full time to my party and I was spokesperson and that's it. I was not even an MP, how could I think of becoming a minister? I know my limitations.

Which year did you join the party?

When the 33 per cent reservation for women issue came into politics in 2008. When Rajnath Singh announced that the BJP will follow 33 per cent reservation for women. It is because of that that I came into the BJP.

You were spokeswoman of your party. How did the transition to minister happen and how are you looking at the power that you hold?

I must say that my exposure and experience as a spokesperson really has come in handy. I think I have benefited immensely because when you are a spokesperson you go through great detail, pick out gaps and question them.

Therefore, today, being on other side, I am able to look at every issue, thinking that there is an Opposition spokesperson in front of me and they may ask me all the questions which are going to be very important. I have prepared myself with that exercise in mind already.

Being a minister most often I guess what the Opposition spokesperson could be asking me. So my homework becomes a bit less rigorous because I can see from both points.

The new government has come in and there are lots of expectations. Please share with our readers what is the new template of governance that is emerging. We have no clarity about it.

The new template, I think, is very positive. It is positive in the sense that we are not looking at what is all wrong, what is critical. We are very clear that systems will have to be re-energised.

We want to shake up some things which have probably become unknowingly -- I don't want to blame anybody -- lethargic. We want to spruce up the system in such a way that a lean, functioning machinery becomes part of the decision-making process.

The PM's suggestion has been cut down on the number of people who look at files and certainly keep a target on how soon you can clear it. That is one example.

Second is to look at inter-departmental synergy. Where two departments have some overlap, if there is a way in which, at the administrative level, official level, bureaucratic level, we're able to discuss and save time consumed to sort out issues.

What we have suggested is that on convergence aspects, the sooner consultations happen at the bureaucratic level, the better. Then the file moves to the Cabinet. Before moving, it wouldn't have to go another ministry as consultation would have been held already. So that is another way of speeding up decision-making.

Third is to look at ways in which newer thoughts can be put in. In terms of how to make decisions. In making decisions are you just going to be taking the trodden path, or are you going to be able to ask questions very differently from what is happening? So, these are the ways in which I suppose the governance module is itself being looked into critically.

To continue your narration, can you give me one or two good examples which will make interesting reading on how things can change and you made a decision faster because you applied this idea?

See, for every Cabinet note which comes from different ministries one consults with the other where there is a necessity. The movement of files being expedited means that you are giving quality time to a file, looking at its contents, and being able to quickly give your comments and send it.

For instance, between the commerce and finance ministries, quite a few issues are there in which you wonder where the clearance for the department of industries comes from and your own notes which are being prepared.

Instead of having to just go again there is (actual) discussion at the bureaucratic level where the notes are being compared. So what happens is that the final note is coming through, after post-inputs are taken. So instead of having to formally go physically, the file will go only for signature but not for detailed reading out, again. That exercise is already done before.

What are your top priorities in the commerce ministry?

To give importance to manufacturing. Looking at how best our exports can be increased, for which, of course, many of the traditionally export oriented goods, commodities or manufactured goods will have to be given a critical look. That's the second priority.

And third, I would want commerce to be the instrument through which countries can have greater diplomatic, strategic and political strengthening of relationships. Commerce should be before everything or commerce should lead diplomatic relations.

Do you agree that the decline in manufacturing capability is the crux of our problems?

Yes, absolutely. Of course, the mood in the country has impacted it. Lack of infrastructure, availability of power, these are all things which have added to the decline in manufacturing.

And in finance, what are your priorities?

First of all, I think the emphasis is to achieve the targets that have been set. From my side I will have to encourage customs and excise officers and staff, to make sure they are available where they are needed. For instance, customs should be available 24x7 at all ports, deep sea ports or airports. And businessmen who approach the country should not feel that they are made to wait 24 hours before they can even deal with a customs related matter.

We are trying to make sure that we have real time data collection. We should know what is happening at the ports at any given time.

But do you think this will help shape things down the line, really?

I think so because, for instance, the last one month, we've had several meetings with the income tax, customs and excise officers. Among themselves they had a lot of meetings. Arun Jaitley and I have attended their conferences which were held in Vigyan Bhavan.

I find they are very keen to give completely professionalised service and they also understand that simplified tax codes and simplified approaches to collection of revenue, and greater friendly interaction with tax payers will change the environment for tax payers and their feelings.

They should not feel they are being intruded upon by tax authorities. All these are concerns which they are very keen to work on. We want less intrusive tax collection. So there is a lot of work going on in customs and excise. Similarly with the income tax department also.

So there is a complete overhaul in the sense attitudes are changing. They've always been professional, now they are also becoming very tax payer friendly in the sense that they want to facilitate the tax payer, enable the tax payer, they are not here to suspect you or anything that you are doing. But we are here to facilitate you, give more attention to ensure timely payment of what is due from you. So I think there is a general willingness. There is a lot of computerisation, a lot of innovative practices which are being designed and replicated.

One way to judge is to ask have you taken things a step forward.

First thing that I will surely say is I have started looking at value addition. I am looking at the commodity boards. You have the tea board, coffee board, rubber board, spice board etc. I am very sure that they can do much better.

In fact, I am going to be holding transparent public meetings wherein all the stakeholders can come and give ideas and discuss. They could be growers, workers, plantation workers, exporters, in each one of them, whether it is tea or coffee or tobacco or even marine products, I am going public.

Let all of them come and say what is worrying them. The tea industry is in a very big crisis. And it has a crisis of a different nature. These boards are statutory boards. They have very good people posted there. They are posted not just in India but also abroad -- for the promotion of that particular commodity.

But you find that there is a progressive decline in the exports of these commodities. I would want these commodities to be exported more and more. My fundamental question therefore is, what are these boards up to? The ministry should know what value addition it gets from them.

All these boards are going to have a thorough shake up so that they become lean and mean. They should bring value addition and in the process we get better exports and also quality products.

Recently I was very worried to read media reports saying tea has a high content of pesticides. What are we doing? We are drinking that almost like our national drink. Coffee is also equally a national drink. Every family starts their day with one of the drinks. So if you are going to have pesticide residue, these are very serious issues.

The second task is we are looking at why Special Economic Zones, which were established with great hope that it is going to be the zone from where manufacturing can send their products out, are languishing.

There are several reasons. And that review has happened and is almost coming to a conclusion. We need to take a call on how we are going to handle it further. Both finance and commerce will have to work on that.

Recently an article in The New York Times says hopes are dimming of a swift change in India.

Wait a minute. What is swift change? There is a climactic change in terms of economic performance even if it is a bit in terms of economy. The revival is taking its time, but there is a restoration of hope.

There is a lot of change in some sectors like the automotive sector, which has shown good growth. Monetary decisions are being made. House and legislative business is happening and swift decisions are being made.

See the way in which governmental machinery is functioning today. Once there was a complete paralysis, but now the government is up and running -- literally running to achieve targets. I do not want to believe that the kind of inferences which are being drawn are drawn on facts.

Do you agree that Modi spoke so much before the election, during the election and through the last two years, and suddenly we see him silent?

I'll tell you why. The Narendra Modiji you saw before the elections was a Modi who was running a campaign to bring out the facts about the failures of the earlier government and he spoke on the kind of agenda with which he will give a clean transparent administration and that was what his campaign was all about.

Now, Modi as the PM of the country has to take everybody on board and deliver on good governance. This is delivery, by which I mean every institution should be made to stand up, every institution must be made to perform and every institution should work for the welfare of the people. That is his responsibility. In that talking alone won't help, he is working.

You have always been in Delhi and he was in Gujarat as the CM. You have never worked with him directly. How do you see him as a leader now? Give us some new insight into the emerging brand of Prime Minister Modi.

Yes, when he was running the state of Gujarat, being the CM, I had only few things to do under him. During the Gujarat assembly elections of 2012 I had spent more than five months in Gujarat. I was managing the media.

And I had this wonderful opportunity of working directly with him and I will tell you it was a lesson for me -- on the perfection and meticulousness with which he works. And to meet his expectations at that time I tried my best and I am again very fortunate right now that I am working in his team.

What kind of an emerging brand is Prime Minister Modi?

You find a very responsible PM, who at this stage is keenly taking an interest in the details of every ministry and trying to understand what kind of change can be brought about in each of the ministries to make them more focused, purposeful and efficient.

And, therefore, here is a person who is going into the details of everything that is happening. At the same time making sure there is across the board coordination among all ministries. That is literally looking vertically downwards and also moving up horizontally.

So he is thinking both vertically and horizontally at the same time making sure that all these ministries are functioning together and as the first among equals in the Cabinet system, he has been wonderfully guiding all of us.

Therefore I think he has fashioned himself as a leader who has taken his job seriously in the letter and spirit.

People voted in the government because they wanted change. When the Cabinet meets under Modi's leadership, are you aware of this mandate and the pressure of it, always?

Of course, absolutely.

You may say yes, but...

Of course we are and it is a historic mandate. The expectations are sky high. People have only the feeling of magician Modi. He'll come and bring in change. We are all conscious and seized of that.

And that's where I am saying that judgments are all being made saying, 'Oh he has not brought in that change.' Sorry. Change has to be brought in and that kind of change, such kind of a change, which is sustainable which has to be brought in, and that requires a little time.

You know Sonia Gandhi says economists like Bibek Debroy, Arvind Panagariya, Surjit Bhalla have criticised Modi. They are saying that no big reforms are on.

No! I am sorry. This Budget is prepared within 45 days of the government coming in and the interim Budget had already made provisions. Three months into the financial year you are bringing in a Budget. And that Budget is going to be applicable only for the next eight months of which already two months have gone.

In such a situation I am sorry, but you have to be a bit more constructive in your criticism. Can you immediately make big announcements? We want change, we want good change, we want sustainable change but not hasty change.

But ideas like the rural employment guarantee scheme, as Sonia Gandhi says you are stealing their ideas and supporting their projects only.

If they are wonderful ideas, why couldn't they implement it in full? What a mess! We are only trying to clear up a lot of baggage and then implement them. So just for political reasons we don't need to reject an idea. But we know how to effectively and efficiently and transparently implement these ideas.

Part 2: 'I have never been kept down by the PM'

Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com