Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley says the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not a party to indulge in vote-bank politics. He tells Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN's Devil's Advocate programme that BJP does not have religion-based reservations and will not go that way. Edited excerpts:
If BJP wins the elections, what will be the key policies it will pursue to tackle the serious problems the country faces? Let's start with the apprehensions the minority communities have about a future BJP government under Narendra Modi. Do you believe that is an issue your government needs to address?
We are conscious that our support among a particular section of the minority community has conventionally been a little less. So, we are going to be second to none in making sure we instil a level of confidence in every section of society.
What about Muslims?
As far as Muslims are concerned, there are three factors we are very careful about. You need security, you need equality and you need economic progress. But, if you expect BJP to get into vote-bank politics, saying we will have religion-based reservations and so on, BJP is not a party to go on that track. But, certainly, as far as our three underlined convictions are concerned, we will go full length to implement those.
The second problem you might face if you come to power is the economy. What steps will you take to revive animal spirits and push investment?
I'll go a step further. There is a loss of confidence in the Indian economy. We are no longer the best investment destination, the international investors are not looking at us and the domestic investors think India is not even the best place to do business. So, I think a political change itself is a confidence-building measure.
A new man will make a big difference?
It will be the starting point of a difference.
And beyond that you have to take a series of steps that are business-friendly. Your overall prospective will be to work for enlarged economic activities, you have to facilitate business, the ease of doing business in India. Your policies will have to be in that direction. At the same time, you keep you poverty alleviation programmes because the weaker section must also benefit.
For industrialists and investors, the details are the key. Industrialists complain environment clearances not only hold up projects but stall investments. What steps will you take to resolve this?
You will have to balance the needs of ecology with the economy. You can't have the environment ministry becoming the new licensing regime. You can't have the ministry targeting some states in particular. And, we all know some states in particular were targeted for ecological clearances.
So you will ensure the economic clearance (a) happens faster (b) there is a better balance between growth and ecological concerns?
And there is coordination between the chief ministers, irrespective of parties they belong to.
You believe this will remove the impediments industrialists complain about?
If you had seven trillion projects that were pending for years. The UPA started clearing it towards the fag end (of its government).
A second concern industrialists is the number of reforms stalled in Parliament. Issues like goods & services tax (GST), direct taxes code (DTC) and insurance have been stuck for years. Are these all priority for you?
As far as GST is concerned, you will have to put the entire infrastructure in place. Personally, I have always said I am a great supporter of the GST idea. It's going to be helpful. But, to implement it, in addition to infra, a point that Mr Modi had made, I think you need to instil confidence in states... that if they allow the Centre to do the collection and then transfer to them, there will be a comfort level with the Centre being fair to them.
Will you be better in giving states that confidence than UPA?
I think so. In the earlier NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government, the relation between the states and the Centre were much better, and I think it was that lack of confidence that really held up the GST during the UPA regime.
Will you also push through things like (FDI in) insurance? Or your party has diverged its views incidentally?
You see, initially, when insurance was planned during the NDA government...
You were in favour of 49 and Congress was for 26...
So the roles were partly revised. We have actually gone through a series of meetings - Yashwant Sinha, Sushma Swaraj and I, along with P Chidambaram - and we have worked out various alternatives. Unfortunately, it was too close to the elections and, therefore, it could not be held. But I would put it as a proposal on the drawing board.
In Opposition during the 10 years, you have been staunchly against FDI in retail, but when Mr Modi was addressing traders he said "don't be scared of challenge in retail, use the opportunities of e-commerce". People reading between the lines thought this might indicate a shift of stance on retail FDI.
As far as FDI in retail are concerned, BJP has genuine concerns against this, and I don't think it's likely that policy is going to be changed.
So that door stays closed?
For the present. I don't know what happens when you implement manufacturing sector reforms and Indian products and low-cost products are available, those policies are policies for the next 100 years. As far as present is concerned, I think it is quite unlikely.
Let me then come to foreign investment. Mr Modi on Thursday said he welcomed it... it should be looked upon as an opportunity, not a sin. But you know the UPA government's handling of the Vodafone taxation issue has sent bad messages to investors abroad. Are you capable of cutting that grudge?
I don't know whether the past can be reversed, because you already have legislation that were brought in by the UPA government but, ordinarily, you don't make retrospective legislation to create new liabilities.
So what will you do to tackle this problem?
This principle can be a good guide for the future... how challenging it is to correct what's happened in the past; it's quite difficult. And, this is some of the backlog the UPA is going to leave behind. I don't know what it is going to be to tackle those issues.
Now one of the things that both you and Mr Modi stress is the need to boost India's manufacturing but investors and industrialists say that unless you are prepared to make labour laws more flexible, it won't happen. Are you prepared to bite a contentious bullet?
Economic reforms are the art of the possible. And, therefore, never take up the most difficult reform first. When you take up the most difficult reform first, the door closes immediately.
But down the road you have...
Therefore, you must start. If you want to make India a manufacturing hub, India should also necessarily become low-cost manufacturing hub... because that's how the global competition is moving. You have to create an environment of profitability. Profitability is a good word in today's economy; it's not in the bad word, because people won't invest.
Part of that environment is giving them the confidence that if they set up an outfit that fails, they can close it.
What about easier steps, competitive interest rates, the cost of capital, cost of utilities, infrastructural improvements, trade facilitations?