An Incomplete Panel: Two Parliamentarians on India’s Challenges and Aspirations

by Chaitanya Singhania

This Sunday afternoon, the South Asian Studies Council hosted a panel discussion with two prominent Indian politicians, Arun Jaitley and Nand Kishore Singh. Jaitley, a member of India’s chief right-wing Hindu Nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), is Leader of Opposition in the upper house of the Indian parliament. A former civil servant and career economist, Singh represents a regional party allied to the BJP in parliament. Professor Steven Wilkinson of the Political Science Department moderated the discussion.

Arun Jaitley of the Bharatiya Janta Party at the 2010 India Economic Summit. (Creative Commons/World Economic Forum)

The audience—a collection of fifty or so odd professors and graduate students, with a few excited freshman seated at the back—was visibly disappointed when Salman Khurshid, the current Minister of Law and Justice and Minister of Minority Rights, failed to appear. “Mr. Khurshid had to stay in Delhi for a cabinet reshuffle,” the introduction noted, setting Jaitley and Singh’s swinging in their chairs with laughter. The discussion, advertised as “A conversation with members of oppositional parities in the Indian Parliament,” thus became a one-sided lecture. As an audience member noted, “It’s unfortunate that Khurshid, a Muslim and a Congressperson…[is] not here.”

Professor Wilkinson began the discussion with a question about the ruling government’s controversial reforms that sought to permit Foreign Direct Investment in the Indian retail and aviation industries. Jaitley labeled these reforms a “knee-jerk” reaction to recent criticism of the Prime Minister. Questioning the government’s intentions, Jaitley said, “I don’t know whether [the Prime Minister] got his priorities right at this time”; he called the reforms an act of “image-correction.” Referring to a conversation with his “great friend Larry Summers,” Singh contended, “fiscal correction which was necessary…has not taken place.” He added that the reforms were “too late, too little.”

The topic of conversation soon switched to corruption, which Jaitley acknowledged as a “very large” problem. He named “the lack of a pattern of political funding” its single greatest cause, seeming to intentionally avoid elaboration. Jaitley proposed a two-step solution to this mammoth challenge. First, he called for the elimination of “all forms of discretions” to create a transparent, publically-moderated system. Second, he briefly mentioned the need for a strong, independent, bipartisan investigative agency. When asked his opinion, Singh blamed the current government, claiming that since it entered office, corruption has reached “a scale that the country has not seen in the last sixty years.” Khurshid’s absence left this claim uncontested.

N. K. Singh at the 2009 India Economic Summit. (Creative Commons/World Economic Forum)

Over the course of the afternoon, the panel sifted through a series of critical issues, ranging from migration to minority rights to parliamentary procedure. Particularly fascinating was Jaitley’s dismissal of a shift from caste-centric affirmative action to one based on socioeconomic factors; he cited “implementation issues” and the difficulty of defining poverty as justification. Both leaders sharply rejected claims regarding the rise of Indian socioeconomic inequality. Although the audience remained persistent in pressing the parliamentarians on corruption, India’s global image and the opposition’s obstructionist tactics, the two leaders often failed (perhaps deliberately) to provide concrete answers.

The discussion ended with Kashmir and Jaitley’s hopes for the upcoming elections. When asked if he would be his party’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Jaitley smiled and said, “we don’t announce that here.”

Chaitanya Singhania is a freshman in Trumbull College. Contact him at