Interview: Chidambaram on Modi, Rahul Gandhi and becoming PM

October 8, 2013

By John Chalmers, Frank Jack Daniel and Manoj Kumar

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P. Chidambaram, now in his third stint as finance minister, spoke to Reuters about Narendra Modi and the 2014 elections in an interview on Monday ahead of a trip to the United States. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

If Congress returns to power in the elections next year and Rahul Gandhi is the prime minister, do you see yourself as finance minister?
That’s a question you should put to the prime minister. I am glad you acknowledge Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi but that is a question you should put to him.

What about Narendra Modi and the momentum he appears to be gaining?
I don’t know if he is gaining any momentum. I concede that he has united the rank and file of the BJP. The rank and file of the BJP was divided, the leaders are still divided, the rank and file was equally divided. But he has been able to unite the rank and file. Perhaps he has gained some traction among urban youths but I think it would be a gross exaggeration to say that people are not worried about his positions, his policies, his past, his track record. It will be a gross exaggeration to say that he is sweeping the countryside. It’s a gross exaggeration to say that he will win in every state. All this is largely media created.

But doesn’t it worry you that opinion polls show that business leaders would prefer a Prime Minister Modi, that somehow Congress can’t convince the business community that Congress is the answer when Narendra Modi is there?
In 2004, nobody gave us a chance. They said Mr Vajpayee will roar back to power. I don’t think Narendra Modi is bigger than Vajpayee, either in terms of image or appeal or acceptability … I think don’t write us off so early. And we are not facing a Vajpayee today. We are facing a Mr Narendra Modi who’s got a very, very chequered track record. Gujarat, in terms of the Raghuram Rajan committee index of development, ranks only 12 in this country.

But you’re facing a much tougher fight than in 2009 given the economic slowdown, the series of corruption problems, the third term and you have a strong candidate, perhaps not Vajpayee …
I don’t think Narendra Modi is a stronger candidate than either Vajpayee or Advani.

But would you acknowledge you’re facing a tougher fight than in recent years?
There is a slowdown today but remember there was a slowdown in 2009 also. The economy had slowed down sharply from 9 percent to 6.7 percent, so there was a slowdown in 2009 also. And, in fact, we were in a decline in that year thanks to the global financial crisis. Yes, corruption is an issue. I am not denying that. But corruption is an issue in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat …

Can we envisage a possibility of a Prime Minister Chidambaram at some point in the future?
My party has made it clear that the next leader of my party — there is a prime minister today so let’s not say anything that will undermine his position. But the next leader of the party, my party has made it clear, will be Mr Rahul Gandhi and I am on record saying that the time has come for the torch to be passed on to a new and younger generation.

But if Rahul Gandhi chose to remain behind the scenes as his mother has, would you be happy to step in as prime minister?
There are too many ifs in your question. (Laughs) You should put these questions to people you have named in your question.

Do you rule out accepting prime ministership if offered?
As I said, my preference will be to travel, read and write. I think I have maybe another eight, 10 years of active life, a healthy life, and I would prefer to travel, read and write.

(Click here to read Chidambaram’s comments on India’s economy)

(Follow John on Twitter @reuterschalmers, Frank Jack @fjdnl, and Manoj @manojgulnar; Editing by Tony Tharakan and Aditya Kalra)

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