‘To write a criticism of the finance minister’s performance without having included the PM’s role is deliberate. It is not difficult to see why Jaitley interpreted it as being Sinha’s way of sucking up to Modi because that is what it comes across as,’ says Aakar Patel.
A few days ago, I spent some time with NDTV founder Prannoy Roy, a wonderful man who is being harassed because of his dedication and professionalism.
Among other things we were speaking about, he referred to a particular politician, from the Congress, and we were both agreed that the individual was unbearably arrogant.
Older journalists (who remember the Indira period) will know that the Congress elite was intolerably thuggish and uncouth. Their ministers behaved like rulers rather than politicians.
That may have changed in some way in the last couple of decades but it hasn’t entirely disappeared even though the glory days are gone.
Today, we can see that much of that arrogance has unfortunately come to the Bharatiya Janata Party. This was on display during the recent attack by former finance minister Yashwant Sinha against current finance minister Arun Jaitley. Both sides are to blame here, no matter what the content of the attack is.
The squabble began after Sinha wrote a column (external link) in which he sneeringly refers to Jaitley as a ‘superman’ for having been given four ministries by Modi but failing in his task as finance minister.
Sinha lists the various problems with the economy, making the astonishing argument that the current rate of GDP growth could be 3.7% for the quarter, according to the old series of calculating GDP that the Modi government abandoned.
And he then ends the column with the words: ‘The prime minister claims that he has seen poverty from close quarters. His finance minister is working over-time to make sure that all Indians see it from equally close quarters.’
I have a problem with what Sinha said and I shall come there later, but first let’s have a look at Jaitley’s reaction. He said that Sinha was a “job applicant” at the age of 80.
Jaitley then said that Sinha’s own performance as finance minister was not particularly good, and he listed all the things that he thought had gone wrong in that period of 1998-2002.
He was then quoted as saying that he remembered LK Advani’s advice of attacking issues and not people, “because speaking on persons and then bypassing the issues is something which is very easily done.”
I find it astonishing that he should say that because Jaitley has clearly learned nothing from Advani. Attacking the person, by referring to Sinha as old and job-seeking, was exactly was Jaitley did.
What he should have done, if he wanted to engage with the issue at all, was to address the things that Sinha was raising. Was it not true that under Jaitley’s watch the GDP growth has fallen for six successive quarters?
Perhaps that had happened for a good reason, but if so, it was up to Jaitley to explain why. I don’t think Sinha was right in saying that according to the old series, growth would have been only 3.7%.
This would have been a good issue for Jaitley to raise, because though others, like Bank of America, agree that according to the old series our current GDP growth is lower, it was still pegged at about 5% and not 3.7%.
But what the finance minister chose to do instead was to say those things about Sinha that were not called for.
So far as Sinha goes, I think it was in bad taste for him to present the problem in the way that he did. Also, it is apparent that his attack on Jaitley excludes the prime minister of responsibility for major policy decisions that were taken by Modi.
I know on authority that demonetisation was not something that Jaitley decided on, or was even informed about till the last moment. I am quite sure Sinha knows that as well.
To write a criticism of the finance minister’s performance without having included the PM’s role is deliberate. It is not difficult to see why Jaitley interpreted it as being Sinha’s way of sucking up to Modi because that it what it comes across as being.
The larger point I am making is this. We have had a long period when ministers and politicians behaved like they did not owe any explanations for their performance, either to the public or even to their own party. We need to move away from that.
Indians, like every other people around the world, can look at the facts and understand them. If there is a mild complexity about something, we can understand that also. It is insulting to us to be told that somebody’s criticism should be ignored because he or she is 80 years old.
The only thing that should matter when one is responding to an issue in the public domain is the facts.
There is no need to put on display arrogance and personal animosity and hostility of the sort that both Sinha and Jaitley have shown.
Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, during the launch of the Jan Dhan Yojana in New Delhi, August 2014. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters.
Aakar Patel is Executive Director, Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are his own.
- You can read Aakar's earlier columns here.