In Devil's Advocate this week, Karan Thapar speaks to Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid and asks him if the government made serious mistakes in their handling of Anna Hazare and his protest against corruption.
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate. How does the government defend itself against what many consider the gross mishandling of Anna Hazare? That's the key issue I shall explore today with Law Minister Salman Khurshid. Salman Khurshid, Pranab Mukherjee has already admitted that the government may have bungled. Most people much go stronger than that. They say this a debacle, possibly a disaster. Can you this morning accept that the government made serious mistakes?
Salman Khurshid: See, please don't pick words out of context. Pranabda was speaking to the House and in the House repartee; you want to put an end to…
Karan Thapar: One moment, are you trying to say that outside the House he would say something else?
Salman Khurshid: In House repartee you have to call an end to issues that become irrelevant, when you want to get to the core, and he wanted to get to the core and he essentially was saying let's not argue about your point of view, let us now get to the point.
Karan Thapar: Salman, let me interrupt you and put this to you. Probably 90 per cent of India today is convinced that your government seriously mishandled the Anna situation. Can you today, as an honest minister accept that serious mistakes were made?
Salman Khurshid: I'm saying that everything you do doesn't necessarily give you those returns that you expect when you do it. You have to stand back and look at what steps you took, what by hindsight you may not have taken. But I don't think this is a blame game or an acceptance of a postmortem.
Karan Thapar: Forgive me, you're sounding like Lehman Brothers claiming that subprime motives wasn't a crime. You've actually been negligent, you've allowed a crisis to develop. India has been traumatised for 13 days, and when asked, a member of the government hasn't got the capacity to say that his government made serious mistakes?.
Salman Khurshid: No, I don't believe we made serious mistakes, I do believe that it was a unique experience. I do believe that it was important not just for us to act alone, but to get every big political party, the major political parties on board, and I think at the end of the day that's what we achieved and it's the result that should matter.
Karan Thapar: What you've achieved in fact is a monumental mess that lasted for 13 days traumatising India. But let's leave that aside, I'll come to that in a moment's time. Let me repeat my question. Are you saying to me that your government made no mistakes handling Anna Hazare?
Salman Khurshid: I'm saying that they made no mistakes. I'm saying that the outcome of what we did…
Karan Thapar: I'm interrupting you. Do you want to really say that you made no mistake?
Salman Khurshid: Yes, I'm saying the outcome of what we did, it depends on how you define a mistake. A mistake is to do something that you should not be doing.
Karan Thapar: Aren't you quibbling with words?
Salman Khurshid: I'm not quibbling with words, I think this is a very sensitive, complicated and a difficult situation that has just unfolded into a mutual resolution.
Karan Thapar: This pride, is this bravado that you cannot admit you made mistakes?
Salman Khurshid: No, no, it's faith, it's confidence and belief that we don't want the government to be kicked around by people who have…
Karan Thapar: But the government was. The government was not just kicked around, you became a football.
Salman Khurshid: I don't think government was. I think it's the best possible resolution Parliament could have got and if you look at what we have done, the manner in which we have done, I don't think you can quibble with it.
Karan Thapar: I am going to give you once last opportunity to answer this question, I'm asking it perhaps for the fifth time. Are you seriously saying you made no mistakes?
Salman Khurshid:Ask me for a 100 times, we made no mistakes. What we did may not have turned out to be as it would, maybe our anticipation and calculation turned out to be not what we thought it would be, but I'm not prepared to admit that we made mistakes. We very carefully step by step tried to understand the complicated situation and the fact that what we did may not have given us positive results, is not to be treated as ‘you made a mistake'.
Karan Thapar: Alright, I let you answer that in full without interrupting you because I thought it was fair that you should be able to explain to the people why you think you didn't make a mistake.
Salman Khurshid:That's only fair for the media to behave like that always.
Karan Thapar: Let's not quibble about that.
Salman Khurshid: I'm asserting. I'm not quibbling.
Karan Thapar: Let's come to the consequences of what happened. To begin with, your government today in the eyes of many Indians stands discredited, its authority is dented, many people are losing faith in your government.
Salman Khurshid: I don't think that's the impression we have. First time, after years, certainly in my life, to have a unanimous resolution by popular acclaimed in the House led by the leader of the House,
Karan Thapar: That acclaimed in the House was not for the government. In fact the truth is that two of your most senior ministers Kapil Sibal and P Chidambaram are discredited. Arvind Kejriwal refused to speak with them, at Ramlila Maidan they became hate figures.
Salman Khurshid:I will question that. They were involved…
Karan Thapar: On what basis can you question that?
Salman Khurshid: I will tell you why. They were involved at a very difficult stage, they were involved when they had to take calls that were difficult calls, they were involved when there was intransigence on both sides.
Karan Thapar: And they messed up, which is why Arvind Kejriwal refused to speak to them, which is why they were withdrawn as interlocutors and you replaced them.
Salman Khurshid: No, no, they were never withdrawn. Nobody was withdrawn.
Karan Thapar: But they disappeared from sight.
Salman Khurshid: I'm sorry, they remained there constantly, they did what they were required to do and they helped us all the way. I didn't go to the Ramlila Ground, it was Mr Deshmukh who went.
Karan Thapar: Alright you may dispute that your colleagues were discredited.
Salman Khurshid: I'm not prepared to accept. You may be popular or unpopular with the crowd on a particular moment for a particular event, but I'm not prepared to accept that they are discredited.
Karan Thapar: Alright let's come to the impression of the Prime Minister. Today many Indians are questioning his leadership, they believe that he wasn't in control during this crisis, worst of all in the eyes of many people he's losing the respect he had in 2009. For the Prime Minister, this has been a serious debacle.
Salman Khurshid: I don't think that you have studied what happened. How every step was led by him, how every decision was done by him, for four days, the Prime Minister just sat there almost as though he was in a control room monitoring every step that we took and every word that we spoke, and I'm sorry that if someone thinks that the Prime Minister was not in control, then they don't understand what happened.
Karan Thapar: Alright, but the impression has gone across the whole country, very widely that the government is discredited, people are losing trust, the Prime Minister's authority is diminished, people are losing faith in him. That's the problem you face today.
Salman Khurshid: I'm not prepared to accept that, but I certainly will display that the space that has been taken by contending people, we will need to get that space back.
Karan Thapar: There's an awful lot of space that you need to get back. An ocean has also opened between you and the people.
Salman Khurshid: It happens in a democracy and when oceans open they also split to give you a part that happened with Moses.
Karan Thapar: You're not Moses. You have lost the capacity to lead the people to the future land, that's the problem.
Salman Khurshid: We may not be Moses, but we're not against Gandhi either. Gandhi is on our side.
Karan Thapar: You didn't fulfill his principals. The Gandhi mantle descended on Anna Hazare, you looked like the British colonialists and imperialists and like them you stand discredited.
Salman Khurshid: That is your view and I don't want to contradict it again and again, but I'm telling you the bottomline is that whenever these kinds of things happen, there are gives and takes, there are improvements and falling in popularity stakes, we know what we're doing, we know where we're going and we know the time that we have.
Karan Thapar: Let's then come to the serious mistakes you made, which of course, you say you didn't make at all, but the people widely believe you did. Given that you knew from April that Anna Hazare intended to start a second fast unto death in August, why did you not hold the special session you held on Saturday, pass a resolution you passed on Saturday, earlier so that you could prevent this?
Salman Khurshid: We didn't hold a special session on Saturday.
Karan Thapar: But you held a special day of debate. why didn't you do it earlier?
Salman Khurshid: We were to do it for other legislation but when we found that there as a criticality involved in the health of Anna Hazare. We assumed we could not wait till Monday.
Karan Thapar: How come you didn't realise and appreciate that the situation would become critical. You had warnings from April, that's what I'm saying. Instead of understanding it is a political crisis, you treated it as law and order, that's the error you made to begin with.
Salman Khurshid: World over, why do peace talks happen, when they happen?
Karan Thapar: Because a crisis develops, but do you have to let a crisis develop?
Salman Khurshid: You should not have a crisis. Why do you go to a doctor when a crisis develops? Don't allow your crisis to develop.
Karan Thapar: Isn't prevention better than cure? You failed to prevent.
Salman Khurshid: Of course it is. But you can't always prevent and sometimes you have to cure.
Karan Thapar: You had a warning from April of a hunger strike and you couldn't prevent the crisis developing?
Salman Khurshid: We tried our best.
Karan Thapar: You didn't, that's what I'm saying. You treated it as law and order.
Salman Khurshid: It's your assessment. No we didn't treat it as a law and order problem. There were two parallel lines working. One was the line of negotiation, one was the line of trying to understand what was the give and take available, the other was a line which automatically had to be applied which was the law and order line.
Karan Thapar: Hang on a second. You said there was a line of negotiations and yet 48 hours before Anna Hazare's hunger strike began, Manish Tewari was calling him corrupt saying he was corrupt from head to toe, at that point, you should have been reaching out, you instead offended him, and offending frantically everyone in the country as well.
Salman Khurshid: I think we've talked about this in an earlier programme, Manish Tewari had an answer then, he had drawn a line, it was a position that a young man took upset by the fact that the Prime Minister had been sent a very distressing message. He took that position but he did realise that it was a tougher position to take.
Karan Thapar: He realised 10 to 12 days later. It was a monumental mistake of judgement and are you really blaming it on Manish rather than the officials of the Congress?
Salman Khurshid: I'm not blaming anyone, I'm just explaining Manish's emotions, I'm not blaming him.
Karan Thapar: Strange explanation that a spokesman could make such a disastrous mistake as to offend the one man you want to try and win.
Salman Khurshid: There were many other contact points which were positive, which were creative and constructive and I think that's what worked in the end. Please give us credit for what we have done yesterday, instead of running us down on everything.
Karan Thapar: One can virtually give you credit for having dug yourself out out of a grave with the help of others around you, wouldn't choose to become your burial partners. That's the only thing I want to give you credit for. Let me point out a second mistake. When Anna had announced that he wanted to protest, why did you impose undemocratic condition restricting the protest. You forced him to bring people out in the street in defiance of your unfair and undemocratic restrictions. You created that protest.
Salman Khurshid: You sound as though this is the first time law of the land has been imposed. The law of the land is for everyone, its no different for me, its no different for Anna.
Karan Thapar: Do you not see this undemocratic, high handed and arrogant fashion?
Salman Khurshid: No, it was not an arrogant faction, I must pay tribute to the Delhi Police for the manner in which the last 10 days have been handled, I think it's the most remarkable conduct and behaviour and I've had this from Anna's side himself.
Karan Thapar: I'm very happy that you should pay tribute to the Delhi Police but I don't hold them, the country doesn't hold them responsible for the faults that happened. It's the politicians who are their master, i.e., your government, that is at fault. Your second mistake was that on August 16, before he had committed any fault, you swept down on his home and preventively detained him at 7 am in the morning. It was offensive, it annoyed people of the country.
Salman Khurshid: It may have annoyed, but I can't understand one thing. It's happened to me six times, when I was UPCC president, you didn't ask anybody why that was done to me.
Karan Thapar: Because you're a politician…
Salman Khurshid: Because I'm a small man. And I don't have media partnerships.
Karan Thapar: This is an icon who had hundreds and thousands of people behind him. you provoked the people. No one gets provoked when a Salman Khurshid is preventively detained.
Salman Khurshid:I'm sorry they were. It's just that you don't know. The world doesn't end with the media box. The world is much larger. The world certainly starts and ends with Anna Hazare. Anna Hazare is a very important icon. Anna Hazare is someone to whom not only our Prime Minister has saluted, but paid tribute. Today, we are pleased and happy that he is in a hospital, that his health will be secure. But, we're not folding up and going away, not because you think so, we're here and we will be here.
Karan Thapar: Whether you're folding up or whether you're retreating because you've been pushed on the backfoot and you're stumbling, perhaps over the wicket, we leave that to the people to judge.
Salman Khurshid: Just as we will leave it to the people, the role that you in the media are playing.
Karan Thapar: Absolutely, and it's only right that the people should have criticism if they believe it's the case of people like me. Let's come back to you because I'm questioning you.
Salman Khurshid: I'm questioning you as well. I'm not here just to answer.
Karan Thapar: You say you treat Anna as an icon. How come that a man was considered not just by the people, but by you as an icon of the fight against corruption, went detained, and he hadn't even at that point been formally arrested, was actually put in Tihar Jail alongside Kalmadi and Raja, that created so much anguish that perhaps a million people all over India in the next 10 days came out progressively in protest. Can't you accept today that that was a terrible error of judgement?
Salman Khurshid:Let me tell you, it wasn't a million.
Karan Thapar: Altogether in 10 days?
Salman Khurshid: You go on for six months, it'll be even more. I'm not even talking about numbers. Please don't exaggerate and please don't build an emotional picture that's unacceptable.
Karan Thapar: But you're not answering my question.
Salman Khurshid: Let us be scientific, if there was micromanagement, I would imagine that our colleagues if at all they were involved, would have made alternate arrangements. If you're asking me, at the end of the day, did it look good cosmetically? My answer is no, it didn't.
Karan Thapar: So are you accepting in that euphemistic language that it was a mistake?
Salman Khurshid: I have said to you that he was sent by the order of the Magistrate.
Karan Thapar: Whoever's order it was, you could have told him to …
Salman Khurshid: I can't question a judge in this country, I'm not going to be on your provocation questioning a judge of the country. But I have said to you, whatever may have happened, whatever we may have done, the consequences of that may not have been what we would have desired. I'm prepared to accept that, and if I don't accept that.
Karan Thapar: That is euphemism.
Salman Khurshid: I don't know how many of your viewers are going to understand what euphemism means.
Karan Thapar: Well lets assume the viewers do and let's not question their intelligence.
Salman Khurshid: I'm not questioning their intelligence, I'm questioning your vocabulary not their intelligence.
Karan Thapar: I think they can follow the vocabulary of words. What I'm saying to you is this, a progression of mistakes by your government from April to…
Salman Khurshid: You can't.
Karan Thapar: Don't you want to answer questions that are difficult?
Salman Khurshid: If I wanted to stay away from difficult questions, I wouldn't have come to your programme. But please don't try to slip in the word mistake repeatedly by left to the right. I'm not going to accept that.
Karan Thapar: A series of decisions that many consider questionable ensured that hundreds and thousands came out, you converted through your decisions a protest into a mass movement, you created the problem that lasted for 13 days and traumatised India. Today with hindsight I'm asking you with good grace, can you not accept that your decisions were wrong?
Salman Khurshid: I said the consequences may not have been what we wanted them to be. If you want to use the word wrong, please go ahead, but certainly, I don't believe that everything that has happened in these days has been negative, I think some positive things have happened, we have gained something out of those positive things. I think for the future we can say that this will add to our understanding and knowledge of mass movements of the kind that we get in the 21st century.
Karan Thapar: And god what a lesson it's been. But let me put this to you, the country has been traumatised for 13 days, the country believes the government and senior ministers, will heads roll, will anyone in your government accept responsibility for the trauma India has been put through?
Salman Khurshid: I am prepared to accept if you think that something…
Karan Thapar: Are you offering your resignation on television?
Salman Khurshid: I'm not offering my resignation, I'm accepting responsibility. This is the problem. I don't accept, our government doesn't accept and Parliament doesn't accept that you should be sitting on channels deciding how government should function. You can advice, you can comment, but please don't tell us how government is to function.
Karan Thapar: I am not telling you how the government should function. I am pointing out mistakes that people believe you made which you deny. I am pointing out errors that lead to a nation wide movement that could have been restrained as a protest. Again you will deny
Salman Khurshid: Please understand. Let me give you words
Karan Thapar: Will anyone take responsibility and resign?
Salman Khurshid: Please ask the Prime Minister. You're not going to ask me - ‘is the Prime Minister happy with my work?', ‘Is the Prime Minister happy with someone else's work?', ‘Is the Prime Minister happy with our collective contribution?' The Prime Minister will be able to tell you.
Karan Thapar: You know what that sounds like - if the Prime Minister wants to sack someone so be it but no minister will accept that he or she was responsible and honourably offer to resign.
Salman Khurshid: I don't know. I cannot speak for anybody. I can only speak for myself. You are not interviewing the Cabinet, you are interviewing one minister. And I can only speak for myself. If errors of judgement have been made, errors of judgement are made whenever you are involved in a difficult situation. Error of judgements are not mistakes, please understand. I have a very clear understanding of this.
Karan Thapar: Error of judgements are mistakes that's only a equable to say they are not.
Salman Khurshid: They are not equable. Why would they have different words and different phrases if everything meant the same thing?
Karan Thapar: You know Churchill said a lie could be called a terminologically inexactitude. It is actually the same thing. Whether you call it an error of judgement or a mistake, it's the same thing.
Salman Khurshid: I am sorry.
Karan Thapar: Why the euphemism for the other?
Salman Khurshid: I am sorry, I am not prepared to accept that.
Karan Thapar: Okay my last question. The country has been through trauma, I've heard you defiantly refusing to accept you've made mistakes, no doubt you put up an extremely valiant defence for the government, your colleagues and cabinet would be extremely pleased and happy. But, for a moment, the people of India wanting a democratic accountability might be deeply dismayed. They might say ‘he's a brave minister, he faced up to tough questioning which perhaps his other colleagues aren't prepared to do but at the end of the day when he was asked a simple question - can you accept you made a mistake - pride and arrogance came before speaking the truth'.
Salman Khurshid: You use the word arrogance too often, I don't like it. I told you courage of conviction it is, faith in yourself. We are not pushovers. We might have made errors of judgement, and as I said we may have lost ground somewhere, but we are determined to get that ground back. We have, I believe, we have reached out to a remarkable man in a remarkable movement and we do want that movement to go forward and give India a much better scheme of things. We are determined it will happen.
Karan Thapar: Salman Khurshid, thank you very much for facing a hostile interview.
Salman Khurshid: Thank you.