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'Congress should name PM candidate before polls'

February 10, 2014 15:31 IST

Milind Deora, minister of state for communication and information technology and shipping, is one of the Congress' young guns under Rahul Gandhi. He tells Kavita Chowdhury that the core problem for the United Progressive Alliance in its second term has been its inability to communicate effectively. Edited excerpts:

The Telangana issue predictably has put the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government on the back foot in the winter session of Parliament. It is threatening to derail the Congress' anti- corruption bills agenda before the general elections. Is the party willing to take this risk?

The Telangana issue has been in the oven for a long time, and the party is committed to it. There are bound to be political repercussions. As far as the other bills go, they are all important. We would like it if all of them happened simultaneously.

This session appears to be headed for another washout.

Unfortunately, the entire 15th Lok Sabha has been the most unproductive ever. It's not the issue of a particular bill like the Telangana, or one particular session, it's a larger malaise. The Opposition has been utterly irresponsible; there has been no Question Hour for a long time. In my 10-year political career, this has been one of the most disruptive Opposition. They debate issues outside but don't discuss them in the House. It's right to say that it is the government's responsibility to run the House, but the onus of weakening the institution of Parliamentary democracy is on the Opposition.

But the UPA's own actions seem to be half-baked; the much-touted Direct Benefits Transfer, which was coined as "aapka paisa aapke haath", was meant to be a game-changer in the polls. The DBT scheme for LPG subsidies has now been shelved amid reports of poor implementation and fears of an electoral backlash.

It has not been retracted, it's just been kept in abeyance for one particular scheme. After debating endlessly on effective methods of disbursement of subsidies, nobody's come up with a better idea than the DBT. We believe in it. It's an idea which will be there for the long run. In the information technology ministry, for instance, we are working on eliminating human interface and changing the way services are delivered on the ground through e-governance. These are radical ideas. They take time and are a work in progress. Our ministry has drafted the electronic service delivery Bill, which will change the way the public and the government interact.

Industry has been urging the government to reduce the subsidy burden and yet in another populist move the LPG cylinder cap has been raised from nine to 12.

We have to realise that there are still inflationary pressures in our economy, and although industry wants lower interest rates to encourage growth the Reserve Bank of India isn't doing it. Inflation is lower than in the past but we are passing through difficult times economically, and the government has decided to increase the LPG cap. This provides more relief to people.

In the telecom ministry, for instance, I can't get over the fact that one of the biggest consumers of diesel is mobile towers - there are 600,000 towers that use 8,000 litres of diesel on an average every year. Now, that's a humongous subsidy which doesn't go to the intended beneficiaries - to farmers or for public transportation. The debate needs to shift to better targeting of subsidies.

In my view, the issues in election debate need to change from "who did what" to issues such as these. Why doesn't Narendra Modi speak on structural reforms to deliver these schemes or on fundamental governance issues in our country? The tax-paying public needs to see their money being spent in a better way. As for industry, I believe they have to be a partner in redirecting and improved targeting of subsidies.

Rahul Gandhi talks about democratisation within the rank and file of the party. But there are still glaring examples of arbitrary selection of candidates, sons of political heavyweights being foisted on the party?

We are not denying that the distribution of tickets within the Congress now is any different from that in the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party, the National Congress Party and so on. But we are trying to be the first party to create a democratic system where the party cadre decides through primaries, who is the best candidate to win that constituency. The selection system today is a closed-door system. Even in the Aam Aadmi Party it happens after a closed-door interview. I would be happy as well if my constituency (south Mumbai) was put up for primaries. It is a unique experiment; it may work, it may not work.

But weren't these revolutionary ideas prompted after the emergence of AAP, after the assembly poll losses? They were not implemented in the past decade.

No. I know that Rahul Gandhi had this on his mind for a long time, almost seven to eight years. I am glad this is happening as a pilot project now. These big ideas can't be timed rightly. As for the Assembly poll losses, in 2003 also, except for Rajasthan, we lost most states but we belied expectations and won the 2004 elections.

What according to you has hampered the UPA's two terms?

If the Congress and the UPA were compared to the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance government, then the latter's ability to communicate effectively and far more aggressively than we do would have been the difference. Also, the way the BJP has spun the Gujarat economic story. Ultimately, people see through these things. But our opponents communicate far more aggressively. Frankly we haven't got credit for most of the things we have done.

But hasn't the unending list of scams, the 2G spectrum allocation, the coalgate, and inflation wrecked the UPA's record as you go into the elections?

Inflation is a reality. For me the biggest thing was our inability to communicate effectively. Whether it is the issue of corruption, or the 2G scam -- these are aberrations in the system. It was the doings of one minister, instead the whole party was painted with the same brush. It's largely the communication and messaging strategy we could have improved upon. On 2G or on coalgate, I don't think we communicated strongly enough that it was a policy we inherited. But that is not the perception that went out, and perception in politics is a reality. The party and the government in the past five years could have greatly improved their communication strategy. There is no substitute to regular communication - that is the lesson I take away from all this.

Would you have preferred Rahul Gandhi to have been named as the Congress' prime ministerial candidate?

I think, we, as a party, should evolve a system where naming the prime ministerial or even chief ministerial candidate should be done in advance. But in our party there is a tradition of the Congress Legislature Party electing the leader. I think I would have been happy if Gandhi had joined the government years ago, in 2009 maybe. He would have energised the government. Then he would have fixed the core problem of not communicating more effectively. We would also have had a good mix -- Manmohan Singh and him doing things together. If he had taken over a good portfolio then we would have had a good balance. Singh, who is good at governance, and him, [Gandhi] a young politician who can respond to the challenges of the day.

Image: Minister of state for communication and information technology and shipping Milind Deora