New Delhi: Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath spoke to Karan Thapar on 'Devil's Advocate' on various issues that the government has on its hands right now like the tainted AgustaWestland chopper deal, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde's clarification on Hindu terror remarks and Suryanelli gangrape case that has brought back Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien into the spotlight yet again.
Here's the transcript of the interview:
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate in a special interview with Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath as the Budget Session gets underway. Mr Nath, let's start with Mr Shinde's statement, how would you characterise it? Was it an apology or an expression of regret?
Kamal Nath: Well it's very clear, the language, is that he regrets. If anyone has been hurt by this, and I think drawing a fine line of distinction between regret and apology is really unnecessary because at the end of the day whatever statement was there was accepted by the BJP.
Karan Thapar: But you are making it very clear even though you are not saying it in many words that it was a regret not an apology.
Kamal Nath: Well it is regret, that's what the word used there, that means it is a regret. Now I can't change the language which was used.
Karan Thapar: The reason I asked is this, one can regret an inopportune or an indiscreet remark without apologising. Apologising means saying sorry, regret is falling well short of that.
Kamal Nath: You know I think we are trying to bisect it and dissect it. The point that statement is made, it has been accepted and it's over with. So saying that it is regret, why wasn't it this, why is it not spelt correctly, I don't think it is necessary.
Karan Thapar: Alright, let's move beyond the characterisation. Would you accept, whether it is an apology, whether it is a regret, in either case it is an embarrassing climb down for the home minister?
Kamal Nath: Well he clarified that what he was not while he was speaking. He did use the word BJP and he did clarify that he didn't mean any political organisation, that's the statement - 'I didn't mean any political organisation'. And that's it. So if it has inadvertently or advertently construed to mean that, he said 'I express regret over it'.
Karan Thapar: I tell you why this is an embarrassing climb down for the home minister, in 2010, his predecessor Mr Chidambaram had said pretty much the same thing but Mr Chidambaram stood by it, Mr Shinde had to clarify and express regret and clearly that shows he's not of the same stature.
Kamal Nath: No, the difference was that Mr Shinde used the word BJP and Mr Chidambaram had not used the word BJP.
Karan Thapar: So the use of the word BJP meant that Mr Shinde had to climbdown and the government couldn't defend Mr Shinde as they defended Mr Chidambaram?
Kamal Nath: No, it was that when he felt that the BJP was hurt and upset about it because certainly he was not implying that the BJP has terrorist training camps. He was not implying that, there is no case against the BJP for it. He said I regret that I said it.
Karan Thapar: There is a second reason why this is an embarrassing climbdown for Mr Shinde because Mr Shinde had to show his statement to the BJP and get that clearance issue, now many say that is not just embarrassing, that is demeaning.
Kamal Nath: I dont think, you know all these things are just talked - what kind of language can be used, what he should use, what they will accept. So that in common parlance that's done.
Karan Thapar: Expect for you know and I know that it's one thing for a man to apologise or express regret, it's another when the party concerned say we won't accept it unless it is in language that we approve of. Mr Shinde had to virtually get the BJP endorsing it.
Kamal Nath: No, no, I think you are going way beyond that, it was never as such. I was there, there was a discussion, some text was worked out and some text was discussed.
Karan Thapar: With the BJP?
Kamal Nath: Of course, I was there. And they said 'Well yeah, this is enough' and he said, 'Okay'. There was no test kind of putting a comma or a full stop and all that kind of thing, that's it.
Karan Thapar: But there was a clear attempt to get BJP's approval.
Kamal Nath: Because we did not want them to say that this is not this and this is not that and if they want something then Mr Shinde say that this is not this and this is not that. So the way to cut it short was to discuss it and sort it out.
Karan Thapar: So did the BJP leadership add or change the original statement prepared by Mr Shinde?
Kamal Nath: See there were several statements that were talked, there was no editing done by an A or a B, there were several statements.
Karan Thapar: There was a negotiation that went on in other words.
Kamal Nath: Well I was there, we discussed it. What is there, what should be there, what should be the words, fine that's it.
Karan Thapar: So they added, they subtracted and they got what they wanted in the end, the BJP.
Kamal Nath: You can put it like this that Mr Shinde got what he wanted in the end, you can put it in any way. So it all depends on how you want to frame it.
Karan Thapar: Let's look for a moment what Mr Shinde said in his statement, I want to quote, "I had no intention to link terrorism with any religion, there is no basis for suggestion that terrorism can be linked with the organisations mentioned in my brief speech in Jaipur." But the truth is, that is exactly Mr Shinde did do. So the conclusion is either the Home Minister doesn't know what he's saying or doesn't mean what he said. Neither of which are very nice conclusions.
Kamal Nath: It was not his intent to make a charge at any political party or any political organisation .
Karan Thapar: Except he did.
Kamal Nath: No, he said, 'It was not my intention'.
Karan Thapar: So in other words he says what he doesn't intend.
Kamal Nath: Now if anybody is hurt by that I express my regret.
Karan Thapar: But you know the conclusion is that Mr Shinde says what he doesn't intend to say. It's a very dangerous thing for a home minister.
Kamal Nath: No, if it got construed that way, he said you know, if I said something and if it got construed that way well I express my regret, so what's the problem with that?
Karan Thapar: Except it is not just the question of being misconstrued, his original words were and I am quoting, "Bhartiya Janata Party ho ya RSS ho unke jo training camps hain wo Hindu terrorism badhane ka kaam dekh rahe hain." There is no construction there, he clearly said it.
Kamal Nath: No, he said this. That's why I am saying that he said, 'My statement did not mean, I did not mean.' Though he said it, he did deny that he said it. He said this is not charge at any political organisation.
Karan Thapar: So in a sense you are proving my words, A - you're saying he said it and B - you're saying that he didn't mean what he said, so I am saying to you that you have a Home Minister who says things he didn't mean to say.
Kamal Nath: This is over and done with. What point are we trying to make? Really there is no point here.
Karan Thapar: The point I am trying to make is that it is very dangerous if the Home Minister of the day doesn't mean what he says or worst still doesn't know what he is saying.
Kamal Nath: No, that's not correct. Anybody in giving a speech sometimes says this or that and when the full import of that is understood, it can happen to you, it can happen to me, it can happen to so many political people who are speaking.
Karan Thapar: Let's for a moment accept that he did make a mistake and people make mistake even if they are home minister but why did it take almost a month for him to correct it, why didn't he immediately issue a clarification and say sorry I got it wrong?
Kamal Nath: Well there is timing for everything, there is a moment for everything and it happened and the fact that happened it is over. Why you should say why he issued it on a Friday not on a Thursday? There's no end to it.
Karan Thapar: I'll tell what you are saying when you say there is a timing for everything. Pressure had to be built to a point where Mr Shinde was forced concede. In other words he thought he was going to get away with it but he discovered that Parliament is going to suffer, his government was not standing behind him, so he had to do it.
Kamal Nath: I think the intention to correct it was always there and that point of time was chosen, finish.
Karan Thapar: If it was always, it took 30 days to happen.
Kamal Nath: So what if it took 30 days, it happened. What heaven has fallen that it has taken 30 days? It should be a BJP's point, not your point.
Karan Thapar: I'll tell you why I asked because I asked if this genuine contrition or is it a convenient statement made under pressure so that Parliament functions smoothly and looks very as if it's the latter not the former.
Kamal Nath: It could be either.
Karan Thapar: It could be either? You are saying so?
Kamal Nath: I am saying whichever way you want to construe please do so. The thing is that the subject is over and Parliament is functioning without this being an issue.
Karan Thapar: Well it is interesting that you say that A - it could be either and B - the matter is over because your own party official spokesperson Mr PC Chacko has said formerly to The Times of India on Friday that Mr Shinde's Hindu terror comment was not factually incorrect and then he adds, he was speaking on the basis of some facts. So this is doublespeak.
Kamal Nath: Well I think what Mr Chacko has said, what Mr Shinde has said are things of the past.
Karan Thapar: Mr Chacko spoke only on Friday.
Kamal Nath: Mr Chacko has given his own opinion, he has made that statement, fine, so be it. Why does it matter?
Karan Thapar: Except that he is your party's official spokesperson and he is saying something that the Home Minister has decided is no longer the case and Mr Chacko is contradicting him.
Kamal Nath: No, that's not correct. He is saying political organisation, the words used are political organisation, that's it.
Karan Thapar: So in other words you are backing from associating the BJP and the RSS with the terror training camps but you are not backing away from the phrase Hindu terror, that's clearly implicit of what Mr Chacko said.
Kamal Nath: No, the BJP was saying that this is an accusation against the BJP and he said it was not directed at the BJP, that's the substance of that statement.
Karan Thapar: But don't you think Mr Chacko has at the mildest muddied the water or the worst either he is contradicting the home minister or he is taunting the BJP.
Kamal Nath: I don't think because he is saying Mr Shinde said no political organisation, if they are hurt, I express regret. End of matter.
Karan Thapar: Alright here's another interpretation, the left hand of the Congress party doesn't know what the right hand is doing.
Kamal Nath: Every hand at the Congress party, the left knows what the right is doing and the right knows what the left is doing.
Karan Thapar: They just don't talk to each other.
Kamal Nath: Of course they talk to each other, but then it is not such a big deal.
Karan Thapar: Alright my last question on Mr Shinde, after his clarification and his expression of regret, is he a bigger man for admitting his mistake or has this incident has diminished the home minister?
Kamal Nath: Well I think it is neither big nor small. These things happen, you don't become big or small, or you don't lose this or you gain that. That's the end of the matter now it depends on who wants to perceive it, everybody wants to perceive it differently. It depends in the eyes of the person perceiving it.
Karan Thapar: Has Mr Shinde's standing and utility shrunk in the eyes of his colleague in the Cabinet and the prime minister?
Kamal Nath: Certainly not.
Karan Thapar: You are sure of that?
Kamal Nath: Why should it? These things happen to all of us.
Karan Thapar: I can't think of a minister who had to apologise in the last eight years.
Kamal Nath: Well they have expressed regrets so many times.
Karan Thapar: Not after asking the person to whom he expresses regret to approve the regret before they do it.
Kamal Nath: No, no, it's not it. It's not that they approved it. You consult and you say okay what are the content you want.
Karan Thapar: When did Kamal Nath last had to say publicly I am sorry to the BJP?
Kamal Nath: I am not everybody and I may have not said so and I have not made such a comment and I have never had to say sorry or express regret.
Karan Thapar: Okay, lets come to another flashpoint on your Parliamentary horizon. The Left parties are demanding that Professor Kurien resigns as deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha because of questions that have revived regards his allegations of his involvement in the Suryanelli rape case, worst still Sitaram Yechury confirm to me Saturday morning that the Left will boycott any sitting of the Rajya Sabha presided over by Mr Kurien. How you are going to handle this?
Kamal Nath: What is the case, what year does it relate to? How many inquiries and investigations have exonerated him? You cannot play out Kerala politics in Parliament of India. This is 16 years old, am I right? Is it 16 years old?
Karan Thapar: It goes back to 1996.
Kamal Nath: It is 16 years old, 17 years according to you now. Suddenly 17 years later, when two investigation have been carried out by an opposing government, by the government of the Leftists who are now the accusers have exonerated and now they bring this up. Does this make any sense?
Karan Thapar: I hear what you are saying but the corollary is that you are also saying to me that 'I, Kamal Nath as Parliament Affairs Minister don't care about the Left party boycott of the Rajya Sabha presided by Mr Kurien'.
Kamal Nath: If any party says 'please remove this person because we want to break a 17 year old case where somebody has been exonerated', how many parties are there with the Leftists on this?
Karan Thapar: So you are happy with the Leftists' boycott of the presiding of the Rajya Sabha?
Kamal Nath: Anybody can boycott it on any issue. If I say I don't like Karan Thapar's face and he is going to come on television I am going to boycott Parliament, am I going to accept that?
Karan Thapar: So you are not going to accept the Left's demand?
Kamal Nath: I am not going to accept if they are going to boycott. If you want to boycott it's your House, it's not my House.
Karan Thapar: For many people the critical issue is this, is it fitting for Mr Kurien too who could any day face an FIR as well to preside in the Rajya Sabha over a debate on the government's proposed rape bill, wouldn't that be an embarrassment for Parliament?
Kamal Nath: After 17 years, somebody rakes this up when the high court have held it twice, two investigations by an opposing government have held it, what are you talking of?
Karan Thapar: I am no longer talking about the demand to resign, I am asking a different question. When the House, the Rajya Sabha, discusses the rape bill, should Mr Kurien rescue himself over presiding of the house?
Kamal Nath: Why should he when he has been exonerated? He is a classic case of having been exonerated.
Karan Thapar: So he will preside over the rape debate in the Rajya Sabha?
Kamal Nath: Well if he is in the Chair, he will preside. Why not?
Karan Thapar: You don't think this is an issue of ethics and propriety, you don't think this is an issue of sending a correct message to the women in India?
Kamal Nath: After 17 years if somebody comes with a charge like this where the investigations have been carried out, courts have pronounced judgments and you say is this not a right charge.
Karan Thapar: I put it like this, is Sonia Gandhi's party on the issue of ethics and propriety going to allow a man who is possibly charged with an FIR on rape.
Kamal Nath: This is not an issue of ethics and propriety. Please don't say that, it's completely I think wrong and inaccurate and false to say this is an issue of ethics and propriety.
Karan Thapar: So there is no compunction on this whatsoever?
Kamal Nath: When you have been exonerated, today all the people who have been exonerated in the last 17 years should we hold them up?
Karan Thapar: Minister, another big issue which could cause problem for you in Parliament is the AgustaWestland controversy. You offered any type of debate that the opposition wants, you even suggested that they can have a Joint Parliamentary Commission, but that hasn't impressed Arun Jaitley. So what more can you offer the BJP more so that they don't hold up Parliament?
Kamal Nath: I have offered any kind of inquiry or investigation which also includes the JPC. I said as long we can arrive at a political consensus. Today it's not just the BJP who is in Parliament, let's recognise that. You have the Samajwadi Party, you have the BSP, you have the Leftists, you have so many parties. Now, I have said so in my meeting with them, I have said so publicly that we are willing to have any inquiry which you want.
Karan Thapar: Except for the fact that Arun Jaitley has turned around and said publicly that what he wants to government to do is to take credible, visible steps to identify the bribe takers. How do you handle that?
Kamal Nath: We are doing that, we have the CBI, you are saying that the CBI is not enough, then please suggest how should we do it.
Karan Thapar: I will tell you why the steps that you are taking don't look credible to the BJP because although the Defence Ministry in its statement has indicated that they instituted an inquiry within 24 hours of the first reports of the alleged bribery, the credible steps like issuing show cause notices to AgustaWestland didn't happen for a whole year. So all the measures that the ministry took were unconvincing and weak.
Kamal Nath: Absolutely false. There has to be a cause of action, there has to be facts, there has to be evidence. The moment this came to light the government acted, gave it to the CBI. The CBI team is there - what more can you do? I would like to know what more can we do?
Karan Thapar: I will tell you, even though you say the CBI team is there, even though Finmeccanica itself has assured the government of cooperation. The Italian government is refusing to meet the CBI team and they have made it crystal clear that they will not share any documents with India until their legal process is over, so as far as government is concerned you have hit a wall.
Kamal Nath: They have their Italian laws, number two they want to make sure that in anyway the information they give doesn't scuttle their own investigation.
Karan Thapar: Which is why Arun Jaitley is unhappy...
Kamal Nath: So what should we do?
Karan Thapar: Well, you have to meet him and ask him what he wants.
Kamal Nath: I have asked them and we are going to discuss it in the floor of Parliament and it is going to be discussed publicly.
Karan Thapar: So you are saying to me that Arun Jaitley has come around to believing that you have done everything you could.
Kamal Nath: I don't know. When it is discussed in Parliament I want everybody to say.
Karan Thapar: So you are confident that it will be discussed in parliament and that the BJP will permit the House to function.
Kamal Nath: I have offered a discussion when they want, for how long they want. I have offered an inquiry of any kind, what more can you do.
Karan Thapar: You are saying you have done everything you can do. You don't think this should be a stumbling block.
Kamal Nath: When there is consensus, when we both are talking the same thing.
Karan Thapar: Alright. You may be right, time alone will tell whether BJP accepts your position or they are going to keep up bluff till the last moment. Let's come to a second issue, the government needs to get its rape ordinance converted into a rape bill and parliamentary procedures requires that it happens within six weeks of the start of Parliament session, but because Parliament is going to go into recess from March 22, you actually have four weeks. Is that too short for you to get rape law passed in both Houses?
Kamal Nath: I don't think so, this is decided by the business advisory committee which consists of all political parties and every political party is attaching highest importance to this.
Karan Thapar: Except for the fact that several parties and many from within the BJP are demanding that the bill should be send to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, if that happens the bill will be delayed and the ordinance laps.
Kamal Nath: I can only follow the rules and directions of the Speaker. There are rules what will go the standing committee, now if the Speaker gets the sense of the House that this need not go the standing committee, it won't go. I think all political parties must arrive at a consensus that it shouldn't go to any committee.
Karan Thapar: Are you Kamal Nath as Parliamentary Affairs Minister trying to achieve that consensus?
Kamal Nath: I am. I have said this and I am saying this again we should pass this bill as soon as we can.
Karan Thapar: Are you confident that BJP will support that because that is the critical party when it comes to creating a senses in the House.
Kamal Nath: Well that's what they have told me.
Karan Thapar: They have told you. The BJP has actually assured you that they are happy for the rape bill not to go the Parliamentary Standing Committee?
Kamal Nath: They have said we want to pass it as fast as possible and we should try and arrive at a consensus that it doesn't go to any standing committee.
Karan Thapar: Alright. One last question, you have 72 bills according to the papers waiting to be passed. I want to ask you just about two, pension and insurance, they have been hanging for years - will they be passed this time around?
Kamal Nath: My effort is to have them passed, I think we are heading towards conversions, when we arrive at those conversions, we will have them passed.
Karan Thapar: You said something very similar when I interviewed you before the start of the winter session, you were confident them too and it didn't happen. So let me repeat, are you really confident that pension and insurance will be passed, or you are simply saying this because you have to.
Kamal Nath: I am confident that we are heading towards conversions. Now there must be conversions for it to pass. For me to imagine, or force a conversion is not possible.
Karan Thapar: Suddenly the minister in front of me has become a diplomat. We are heading towards conversions, beautifully chosen language that could beat anything. I will let you have the last word. A pleasure talking to you.