Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in conversation with Navika Kumar of Times Now at the Times Now Summit 2024. Sitharaman said: “ Real development politics happens and keeps happening. Nothing changes it. People are welcome to come to BJP. But the core work of the BJP, whether it is today, whether it is BJP of pre-2014, whether it is BJP of earlier or even Jana Sangh has continued. If people see work happening and they think as political representatives on the ground, a party is making a difference, they obviously would want to come and join. But the BJP’s value systems and the way in which the party runs under certain leadership continue. I do not think there is ever a compromise on that”.Right now, we are in the throes of the political session and elections have been announced. Many are saying, Char Sau Paar is now just kids’ play for the BJP simply because you are ‘taking’ leaders from other political parties, two chief ministers are in jail and accounts of the largest national opposition party have been frozen. At this rate, maybe 543, all to the BJP?
Nirmala Sitharaman: We are not ‘taking’ people. We are welcoming them. The doors are open. On the tax bit, if taxmen can ask you for payments from you, the claims which have been made, the assessee, you or I, will have to pay it. A political party has to file your assessments, you do not pay your tax. But they have not filed an assessment. It is not just overnight. It has been going on from 2021.

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They went to one court, the court said, pay it up. The second court said pay it up. Appeal court sais pay it up. No way have they said that I-T was wrong in coming to you. Then, you accept to pay some money. The entire amount which is levied on you, interest, penalty, all inclusive, you do not pay. You just pay a bit and again another bit, and then suddenly you think, oh! let me go to the court again. But suddenly elections are on, so you think best is to make political capital out of it. No. In fact, somebody made a joke.

One of the arguments which they put before the court and also in the media was, how are we to fight elections? All this money has been taken away. They should ask each one of their MLAs, whose houses are full of cash, did not ED go and raid some of them? They should actually give the money back. You can always say, oh! The finance minister is talking irresponsibly. Is she a political leader or a finance minister? The money which was taken from the party towards National Herald can be given back to the party. Use it. This is so frivolous, but for a national party which has governed this country, you want to spend time on this, pay up your due, get going with your work and set an example for the taxpayers of the country.

But this is not political vendetta?
Nirmala Sitharaman: Absolutely not. From 2021, three, four courts, the appeal court, the high court, the ITAT, everybody. None of the courts said there is no case being made out. The tax authority should step back. So, it is not just me. There is a case. They have to pay the tax.

So, let me ask you, when Hemant Soren is targeted as the opposition says, he steps down. Mr Arvind Kejriwal is tormented by the extortion directorate, as the enforcement directorate is being called, is not this undue pressure on political parties at the time of elections and does this necessarily encourage free and fair polls because you have an unfair advantage of being in the seat of power and putting everybody else on the back foot?
Nirmala Sitharaman: Navika, just as you say free and fair, would you please add law abiding? Eight summons. Eight summons. You have one or the other reason and there you did not tell me that this is political vendetta. You said, no, I have some other work. No, my assembly is on, Budget session is on. No, I have a campaign to go somewhere. At that time, political vendetta did not suit you. Now political vendetta, when even the court has said, go appear. Media should be asking meaningful questions rather than asking me a tongue in cheek.

Media is in a position where it gets beaten up regardless. If we ask you questions, you beat us up. If we do not ask you questions, the opposition beats us up. So, we are quite used to being beaten up.
Nirmala Sitharaman: Opposition beats you up? I do not. None of us do. Do we beat the media? No way. We have not touched the media, but the entire universe, all the brotherhood of journalism everywhere is talking about the freedom of speech in India. I one day sat down and looked at the list of government harassing journalists. Turns out they are all non-BJP governments. But the impression about India outside is because people now look at India, they look at the prime minister and therefore they think he is the one who is harassing. No. In India’s federal setup, journalists are getting thrashed in many of the states. And I do not thrash you. But you do not ask them. Hey, why are you thrashing me? Modi does not thrash me. Say it.

I am boycotted. Who do I say this to? But never mind. The question really is — two chief ministers are behind bars, every political party is on the back foot facing ED questions. You say, you welcome people, very soon people are saying at the rate people are joining the BJP, you will become the reserve political bank of India. You will have to lend candidates to other political parties to fight elections. Is that something that we will see soon?
Nirmala Sitharaman: Very interesting proposition. I think you should hold tonight’s nine o’clock debate on it.But honestly, people who you would not touch with a barge pole, people who you actually called icons of corruption are now suddenly in your party. Ashok Chavan is in your party. Ajit Pawar is in the BJP. Now he is the icon of development in Maharashtra. Where does politics of development begin and where does hypocrisy end?
Nirmala Sitharaman: Real development politics happens and keeps happening. Nothing changes it. People are welcome to come to BJP. But the core work of the BJP, whether it is today, whether it is BJP of pre-2014, whether it is BJP of earlier or even Jana Sangh has continued. I am not saying A is an opportunist or B is or C is not. If people see work happening and they think as political representatives on the ground, a party is making a difference, they obviously would want to come and join. But the BJP’s value systems and the way in which the party runs under certain leadership continue. I do not think there is ever a compromise on that.

So, tainted leaders joining your party, no bar, everybody is welcome, even they are welcome with a red carpet rolled out for them?
Nirmala Sitharaman: As I said, the party is open, we welcome everybody.

Nirmala Sitharaman: Yes.

Even people who have nine CBI cases against them?
Nirmala Sitharaman: Party is welcoming everybody.

Let me also ask you, very recently a very well-known film star joined your party, I am talking about Kangana Ranaut. There were statements made by the social media chairperson of the Congress party, Supriya Shrinate, for which even the Election Commission of India has now issued a notice. I want to ask you, statements of this kind, how does that make you as a woman politician feel? Is this an easy statement to make about an actor or is this a bit of a mindset issue where women are at the receiving end?
Nirmala Sitharaman: It is a mindset issue. It is also readily thrown at people who come from the theatre or the film industry. And every time I hear it, I really feel awkward. Sometimes I come out openly, sometimes I do not, but I do feel awkward. And it is outrageous when people in similar fields, meaning today in politics, are the ones who come in to comment like this.

At least once you are in politics, you know you represent people’s aspirations. You serve that cause. You would be reticent, much before you come out with such comments. It does not come well or it does not go well with leaders who are in public life. Is it alright if somebody else does it? No, it is not all right. But this has an impact on so many people who watch you, who follow you, who are associated with the party, who think this is my leadership. We just cannot afford that kind of a statement.

I am not reserving this comment only because this person is a Congress person. Any party, I think it is high time in India immediately such a person is made to apologise unconditionally irrespective of party. I do not reserve it to some party and not to my party, wherever it comes from. It is abhorrent. We should reject it.

And what do you think about the explanation that has been given by Ms Supriya Shrinate, who incidentally in her previous profession was our colleague and a journalist covering the finance ministry. I do not know if you had the opportunity of interacting with her. How do you look at the explanation that she has given that there are many people who can access her social media handles and somebody has done that and she herself does not endorse this? Do you buy that?
Nirmala Sitharaman: It made the problem worse. It actually made the problem even worse for her. I do not think it helped the cause at all. A calm thinking head could have done something else differently, straightaway apologised, would have been a better solution. But I am no one to advise her, after all she has been a journalist earlier.

Let me ask you about this ab ki baar char sau paar. How realistic is this target?
Nirmala Sitharaman: It was the Honourable Prime Minister who put that target before us. When he said 370 for BJP, 400 for NDA, it was the prime minister speaking. Do you think it is said in a lighter vein? Not at all. You may take it as a target for us to work. We will have to strive for it. But he is confident that today in the country, people have seen what the last 10 years have given them. Stability, no internal major disturbances, no terrorist attack, no corruption, free food for people who deserve it.

The way in which many of the schemes have reached every citizen who deserves to get it and the way in which investments have been made to create some of the finest asset for the country which will last another 100 years. Highways, roadways, airports, seaports are being improved. Middle class citizen reaching his nearest Udan airport, which is not a big deal, just no frills, just take the aircraft and go when you want to see your children abroad.

Every section has visibly seen development happening. Also the way in which they respond to the prime minister. These are not mobilised crowds. The people who listen to his mann ki baat right back to him saying, you spoke about me, who is an unknown figure in my village, but today my village knows about it in spite of me having made the road between my village to the next cemetery because we were carrying our dead through mud holes and ups and downs of a river and the hillock.

So, identifying common citizens who deserve to be praised are measures which have reached the PM to the hearts of the citizens. So, he is confident, we are confident, all of us are confident that there is a resonance in the ground and therefore 370 is not just a dream. It is not just an aadesh for the BJP karyakarta. It is a realisable target. We are working for it. And the 10 years performance will speak on the ground.

Out of 130 seats in south India, how many will the BJP get this time?
Nirmala Sitharaman: I am not going to give you any number at the moment, the work is happening.

You are the finance minister, numbers is the game you play all day.
Nirmala Sitharaman: Yes, but that is money. This is constituency.

So, seats in Lok Sabha, you are not putting a bet on that?
Nirmala Sitharaman: Probably, a bit too early. I might do it a bit later.

Hand on your heart, do you think the way the agencies are being let loose on opposition leaders is really fair? I am not saying there is no corruption, there is no case, but the timing of it and the fact that it somehow or the other tries to put opposition leaders and opposition parties on the back foot. Is this a strategy for the BJP or will you say the very kosher “law must take its own course”?
Nirmala Sitharaman: No. Law must take its own course did not happen between 2004 and 2014. Every day there was a scandal happening. And there were people from the government then who said caged parrot CBI. It did nothing. None of the enforcement agencies did anything at all on the ground except of course going after Prime Minister Modi who was the chief minister in Gujarat. Except of course going after the home minister, now home minister, home minister then of Gujarat. So, the caged parrot is now allowed to do its job and that is when there is no scandal in the government. So, obviously the caged parrot will not come to me. It will go where the scandal is. And the scandal is galore there. Tell me one law enforcement visit which has happened to anybody and where they have come back khaali haath.

Kejriwal’s house. His wife Sunita Kejriwal has done a press conference and said ek bhi paisa nahi mila kahin se. It is a foisted case.
Nirmala Sitharaman: It is alright. What do you expect them to say? Liquor policy has been you, me, everybody…. The Congress party wrote letters after letter saying why is action not being taken on him. Liquor policy is open and shut case. Everybody knew what was happening. They had to change the policy afterwards. By then the damage was done. And it is that which is making all of them go in. So, there is nothing. Excuse me. Tell me one voice in this crowd which will tell me that there is nothing about the liquor policy. We are only following and asking the enforcement agencies to go and harass them. The liquor policy was leaking from everywhere. All of us knew about it. And it went so far as to involve even a southern state’s political leaders. And people are speaking like parrot, taking the names of people, that is getting reported in the media. So, what is not found in my house business?

But Mr Kejriwal says he has the right to run the government from the jail. He is not convicted yet and he is giving orders from the jail. He is still worried about the common people, the aam adami of Delhi.
Nirmala Sitharaman: If I say something, it will appear as though I am taking a vicarious pleasure in saying it. But let us be clear. Delhi and governance in Delhi is occurring now, sitting in the jail. Mohalla clinics were rotten. They are rotting. When the chief minister was out in Delhi, free to do what he wanted to govern, you had no visit to the mohalla clinic. You had no special session of the Delhi Assembly taking care of the mohallas clinics. Now suddenly, he has all the time sitting there.

So, you are saying that he should be in jail and continue to govern well?
Nirmala Sitharaman: No, I am not saying anything. It is for the citizens of Delhi to think about what next.

So, let me also ask you the BJP, if it was very confident and this is a question opposition asks very often, if you were so confident, why are you taking people left, right and centre from other political parties? Why are you breaking governments? Even in Himachal Pradesh, you have imported, nine MLAs – six from Congress, three independents. You are also now suddenly finding alliance partners when for ten years you did not have any need for them. Is BJP nervous?
Nirmala Sitharaman: I mean this cannot hold good, can it? BJP dar gayi hai, magar BJP bej rahi hai ED. Make up your mind. I cannot be dara hua and use CBI to go after you and equally invite political parties to come have alliance with me. So, these convenience arguments which are being cooked up by opposition parties are essentially telling me that we as a party are being efficient enough to keep our agenda moving forward and being alert about developments which are happening around us.

Now if MLAs have left the Himachal Assembly, resigned, they are going to face an election. In the by-election, if the people reject them, they are not going to win at all. So, if Congress is so sure that they have won on the Congress symbol and because they believed in the Congress dynastic politics, they should win again. Congress should win again against these people who have left the party and come over to BJP. The proof of the pudding is there.

So, no point in alleging us, saying, oh, independents have also gone to you, so and so. Aare people are choosing to say in Himachal Pradesh, I will not contest the election because it is not favourable. Has not the PCC president of Himachal Pradesh said that? She is a very senior hand. I respect her. Not for what she said, but I respect her even otherwise. She is a very senior Congress party’s leader. She has said sorry, I cannot contest because it is not favourable.

In Tamil Nadu, till yesterday, Congress could not find candidates to contest. And at the last minute, they thought of Mahila Congress chief and therefore put her in. If your priority was to give a woman leader, you should have put her in the first place, even on the first day. Five lists have come out and you are still thinking of who to place, beg X, beg Y, beg somebody else and every fellow says, no, leave me, I do not want to come and contest. And then you suddenly think, I can win the game by bringing the woman, whether she wins or not. If she wins, all right, we will claim, see, we also support women. And if she loses, we can always say, that is why we never choose women because winnability is zero.

In Gujarat, no congressman wants to be in the party. They are all leaving the Congress and going away. So, please get your house to order before you day in and day out talk about nyaya, jodo, you know, dilwado kuch kisi ke liye, skills ke liye I will give you right. Kahan bhai, have some coherence in your narrative.

I want to ask you, you said you respect the PCC chief in Himachal. Any other Congress people who you respect?
Nirmala Sitharaman: I respect a lot of them.

How many? Sonia Gandhi?
Nirmala Sitharaman: I do not know. I do respect her. Why not? Of course, she has been holding the party for some time. She has shown leadership. But, of course, today the environment for Congress is very different. People are not able to accept their leadership because it is all in a disarray. There are quite a lot of Congress people who I respect even today. There are very senior leaders at the state level who have also been for a very long time in Congress party and they have served the party. But unfortunately, today they are all listless because there is no leadership.

Rahul Gandhi, Bharat Jodo Nyaya Yatra 2.0, what do you think?
Nirmala Sitharaman: Where was it happening? When was it happening? It just media did not give it space. Leave me.

So, we gave it enough space every day.
Nirmala Sitharaman: No, no, no, not at all.

He spoke about caste census. He spoke about jati jangana, he spoke about so many issues. It was in the media. You cannot blame the media for everything.
Nirmala Sitharaman: Not the front page kind, irrespective of whatever they do, Congress party has a reserved front page slot. It did not fill that slot. You kept it alive. You kept it space.

So, what do you think about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership qualities? I seriously want to ask you, how do you see him as an opponent and in every election there is an incumbent party which fights against an opponent. There is Rahul Gandhi leading as the national political party, leading an alliance of other political parties consisting of Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, all of these parties. What do you think about the opposition and each of these leaders?
Nirmala Sitharaman: No, they each have their own strengths, no doubt and you asked me about Rahul Gandhi, I will also say this. He has got it in a platter. He has inherited the leadership in a platter. I am sure if he had contemplated on how he wants to take himself on, I am not here to advise him let me first put that before you. But if he wants to take his leadership along with the rest of them, there is a lot more to introspect. India wants a lot of opposition leaders who can be strong enough to put their voice across. Opposition is required in this country. There is no way anyone says, ah! it is all right. But they have to rise to the occasion.

What do you think about Mamata Banerjee?
Nirmala Sitharaman: Well, she has been winning in West Bengal. Can it be less of an achievement? She is a fighter, no doubt.

And she says that you have given her stepmotherly treatment, you do not give funds to states and this is something that comes from the DMK government in Tamil Nadu, it comes from Bengal, it comes from all states ruled by opposition parties that the centre, the finance ministry is not giving them funds that are due to them.
Nirmala Sitharaman: Well, not all states. Orissa does not tell you that, Andhra Pradesh does not tell you that.

Wo toh aap ke dost hai, alliance ho raha tha, nahi hua, ho jaiga, nahi hoga, matlab (They are your allies) they are on that…
Nirmala Sitharaman: Yes, but even then, there are also states which are…, I mean, they are ruled by their parties, not by BJP. We are not in open alliance with them, one. And second, I would want this to be proved by any state, all those you have listed out, saying I have denied them their due funds without legitimate reasons. You do not give me audited certificates. You do not give me utilisation certificate.

In West Bengal, particularly, teams, both of the centre and the state went together to the field to check if there has been any leakage. Together they have come back to say, yes, there has been leakage and this is the number. You would correct it and then come back to me to say, therefore, this much has got to be given and not that much which I claimed earlier. It was not just the central team. Simultaneously, together, you had the state team going together to village after village and proving they have given it to people who did not exist in the village. Now, because you are asking me so much in detail, let me tell you further and they did not find these people, but moneys have been paid.

It was required for them to get those moneys back and say, yes, money has been retrieved from non-existing individuals to whom it went, then send me a utilisation certificate, post which I will give them what is additionally due thereafter. You know what Bengal did? And I am sure many of you all will immediately see why that is unacceptable. The money was not retrieved from the ground, but the government’s treasury in West Bengal made up for that money, in other words a double whammy.

It goes to unknown people. You did not retrieve them in spite of these two teams officially going and identifying, saying no, this much of pilferage has happened, you do not retrieve the money. On the contrary, because you know you cannot retrieve it, you are filling it up with additional money, taxpayer’s money and saying, no, all right, you take this as retrieved. Where did it come from? From the treasury again.

Sowhen I say sorry, how will I give money now? You are doing it wrong. Your stepmotherly treatment to West Bengal. Somebody should stand up and ask these questions and when we ask these questions in the parliament, we are shouted down, they walk out, they refuse, they say Modi you are a dictator. You are filling the coffer with money which was supposed to have been retracted from wrong hands. You did not. Instead, you are putting the money again from that taxpayer’s treasury. How right is that? And when questions are asked on these, oh, stepmotherly treatment!


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