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Policy tunes play on vote hunt

Confident of a May 16 victory, Jaitley, the man billed as likely FM in a Modi govt, says a 'fast-track & reasonably liberal' policy drive is priority to get investment surging

Nivedita Mookerji 

Arun Jaitley
Arun Jaitley

Bikram Singh Majithia, revenue minister of Punjab from the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, referred on Tuesday to the Bharatiya Janata Party's star candidate in Amritsar, Arun Jaitley, as the to-be finance minister at a rally in Jayantipur, a village at one end of the constituency.

Asked about the talk around him being the next FM or the deputy PM, Jaitley, in an interview to Business Standard on his way to back-to-back rallies, said: "Within our party or structure, not even a thought has been given (to portfolios). I don't see anybody being appointed anything or speculation around it before the government is formed."

He makes it a point to bring up the subject of the importance of a government working around only one power centre - the prime minister. "We had a great disaster in terms of the (outgoing Congress-ruled) UPA because it didn't have a clear power centre."

While Jaitley refuses to also get into a hypothetical discussion on him being the FM, he goes at length to talk about the priority of the next government, as though he's on the job already. "I can only tell you for the next government there will be a priority on how to revive the investment cycle. The credibility of the Indian economy has taken a hit. People do not want to invest." So, a political change at this stage will send a good signal and that signal has to be exploited to the fullest, he said.

A minister (information and broadcasting, law, disinvestment, shipping and commerce) in the 1998-2004 NDA coalition's rule, Jaitley believes large policy measures have to be taken to send correct signals to both domestic and international investors. "In terms of policy, you will need to have a reasonably liberal approach, except in the areas where demands of the Indian economy are otherwise."

Clearly on a fast-track mission, the 61-year-old head of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha said easy clearances will open the floodgates. "All the projects that have been pending during UPA, if the NDA can clear in the matter of the next six months, that will put all of them on track and give a great signal." The signal to be sent across is, "there's no red tape but only a red carpet for investors". Infrastructure, real estate, 'smart' cities, low-cost manufacturing, skill development and creation of tourism circuits are thrust areas for job creation the party will look at if it comes to power.

"I'm looking at the national as well as Amritsar campaign." He plans to go to east UP, Uttarakhand, Himachal and Andhra Pradesh after his election is through on April 30.

Before he gives an assessment, Jaitley mentions how his cousins, around 40 of them living Amritsar, have turned their houses into campaign offices for him. Plus, other relatives and friends, all professionals, have come from across the country to help him with the campaign. Apart from the 10 to 12 rallies and meetings he has been doing daily for four and a half weeks here, his female relatives and friends have taken over the task of house-to- house campaigning.

Plus, there are select interactions organised by "important residences". There was one such at Rishabh Auto on Tuesday, where he enthused people on giving a better deal to people in the city and the state.

"Nationally, we are ahead of the Congress. We have a clear message, we are confining our campaign to issues of governance. We don't want to deviate," said Jaitley. "On leadership, we are absolutely clear, it's Narendra Modi. As far as the Congress is concerned, their messages are abstract, not clear."

An insider says Jaitley is like Chanakya. "He will be the troubleshooter for Modi."

Was Modi sending out a confusing signal that foreign direct investment (FDI) policy must be reviewed, while talking about placing a thrust on domestic manufacturing? Was he talking of revising the FDI caps? "No, no; FDI is an additionality." As an additionality of a resource or investment, you require it, Jaitley replied. "There are sectors, we have to be selective. As of retail, our stand is well-known, we are opposed to FDI in multi-brand retail now."

But hasn't Modi said in an interview that continuity will remain in policy, with reference to UK's retail chain Tesco's India venture with that Tatas? "If he has said so, he's the last word on the subject. I have nothing to add to it."

Does that mean there might not be a reversal of policy in multi-brand retail and a BJP-led government would only wait for the right climate to allow FDI in the sector? While the fear is that there would be large-scale job losses if retail FDI is allowed, Jaitley admits, "Our supporting constituency has serious reservation on this (FDI in multi-brand)." He's also not ready to commit long-term. "Before that long-term comes, India must be ready for low-cost manufacturing. If your own products cost more than products in multi-brand, you will be selling Chinese goods…"

Even as Jaitley, who appeared as counsel for multinational soft drink companies many years earlier, says FDI cap revision "is an ongoing process", he's open to looking at the defence sector rulebook. "I don't even mind looking at defence, where most of our goods are bought from foreign companies."

On relations with Pakistan, he's "in favour of confidence building measures on various accounts. But there is a condition." That, relation building will depend on the way the Pakistani state distances itself from any sort of insurgency being encouraged in India. "Pakistani soil can't be used for terrorism against India." But on trade, it's like a no-holds barred. "If we were to normalise relations, trade is always a win-win situation."

Back to politics. Jaitley calls the Aam Aadmi Party brand of politics "irresponsible populism and a governance nightmare, what we saw in Delhi". They probably lost their shine because of that and "I don't see them as a very relevant player in this election." For Delhi, his guess is "a near-clean sweep for BJP". And, the national tally? "I'm looking at bull's eye-272. I think BJP and allies should comfortably cross that," said the professional lawyer-turned-politician, with keen interest in cricket and its administration.

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First Published: Wed, April 23 2014. 00:32 IST