Debating India

PRESS CONFERENCE

’This Government Will Last Five Years’

Friday 21 May 2004

It was unscheduled, but in his first press-conference since becoming the Prime Minister designate, Manmohan Singh underlined once again why he is widely considered the best man for this job.

On Sonia Gandhi: There must be very few instances in the world history of such sacrifice and renunciation. The mandate was for Soniaji to become Prime Minister and she should have been here to address you instead of me. She said in a statement yesterday that she will not take any post (Prime Ministership) in the interest of the nation. However, I will sincerely serve the nation and try to fulfill the responsibility given to me by Soniaji and Congress.

On whether there would now be two power centres in Congress: There will be no problem. We need Soniaji’s guidance. She is Congress president. This is a coalition government but led by Congress. Therefore Congress has every right to provide guidance to the government. I have no problem on that score. I have no doubt about the stability of this government. I am sure all allies and supporting partners will strengthen our bonds and this government will last five years.

On his top priorities: Development will be key priority, the aim of reforms would be to remove poverty, increase employment through relief to decentralised sectors. Social and economic development would be targeted for benefit of all and not for a select few. Employment, agriculture and industrial growth and decentralisation are priority areas along with development of infrastructure facilities of "bijli, sadak aur pani." My government’s endeavour would be to create such an atmosphere in the country that instead of going and blossoming in the Silicon Valley the talent in the country should work in India to prove that we are unparalleled in the world. We have the third largest reservoir of Science and Technology talent in the world and the same would be utilised to ensure that 21st century belongs to India.

On NRIs: I compliment them on their success the world over and invite them to come forward even more and participate in the development of the country. My government will create an environment where our industrialists, both NRIs and domestic, can increase investments and create more wealth in the country.

On Disinvestment: Privatisation is not part of our ideology. PSUs like ONGC and GAIL will remain in the public sector. There is no intention to privatise them. Similarly, there are nationalised banks which will remain in public sector. These will not be privatised. If they can’t compete at equal footing with the private sector or become a drag on the exchequer, then by all means they will be allowed to raise resources from market through disinvestment.

We will not do anything which will throw large pool of workers jobless. While remaining as public enterprises, if the PSUs want to raise resources through disinvestment or through sale of equity, they are most welcome. Wherever public sector enterprises want to compete with private sector—domestic or foreign—there is no reason why they should not be allowed to go forward, he said.

On the government’s economic agenda: Details of the government’s economic agenda would be spelt out in the Common Minimum Programme which would be finalised in consultation with the allies in a day or two.

The main stress of reforms would be to provide education, health for all, improve environment, housing for millions of slum dwellers and increase agriculture production. This will be our new agenda. As Victor Hugo said, "no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come."

We have a long way to go and my government will provide a human face to economics reforms, which are certainly needed to take the country forward. The basis of reforms should be social safety and overall development.My government will endeavour to realise late Rajiv Gandhi’s dream to make 21st century as India’s century.

Our government worked sincerely to realise that dream when we were in power from 1991-1996. We achieved substantial success but it would be wrong on my part to say that the task is complete, the task is far from being complete.

On farmers: I salute the farmers of India. Reforms would also mean addressing the plight of the farmers. Lack of proper prices for crops, drought in various parts of the country and lack relief and rehabilitation measures are the major problems affecting farmers. My government will look after the farmers and the rural sector.

On Left Front: Our friends in the Left have a different perception of past economic policies but they are also great patriots and that patriotism and burning desire to make this century the Indian century is something I see common to all Indians.

On policy differences with the Left: Life is never free of contradictions. I am confident that our Common Minimum Programme will provide a basis that unites us. I don’t see any problems in working out a programme which is forward looking, progressive and growth- oriented. The mandate for strong, stable and secular government would keep allies and Left Parties united. We can’t go back on that... We want India free from war, want and exploitation. I seek the cooperation of all patriotic forces in the Dharm Yudh against chronic poverty, ignorance and diseases. There is the need to end communal divisions. We need to create an atmosphere to allow our youth and entrepreneurs to thrive because youth need jobs and industry wants to prove that the 21st century will be India’s.

On free power to farmers promised by the new AP government: Farmers in the state got a "raw deal" for many years because of drought and other policy variables. Therefore I think some amount of comfort was necessary but that does not mean there should be no user charges. This (not levying user charges) cannot become a norm for all public services. Wherever possible we must have the listed user charges. There is also scope for cross-subsidisation. So the recent decision probably is justified due to severe drought in the state and we will do it in a transparent manner. The state’s budgetary burden, as a result of the free power supply to the farmers, is manageable. These are practical issues which we will tackle as we go on.

On whether schemes like the Golden Quadrilateral etc would be scrapped: No.

The country needs a massive investment in roads mainly in rural areas. I assure you we are not out to dismantle the schemes of the previous government. We will make an assessment of the schemes. Roads are a national priority. We will strengthen the roads network programme especially the rural programme for which attention was not given in the past.

On who would be the finance minister: I have not yet given a thought to it.

Communal Harmony: Unity and communal harmony are a priority and my government will work to restore communal harmony. We cannot divide people on the basis of religion and race. We are an ancient civilisation and the most tolerant civilisation. The essence of Hinduism is that it talks of different paths but the goal is same.

There are a lot of challenges ahead of us. Communal harmony needs to be strengthened. If we are divided in the name of religion, the country is in danger. To strengthen development, we have to create an environment of peace.

I do not want to go into the past or the previous government, but divisive forces were allowed free play... In the long run this will be extremely injurious to orderly development and future of democracy.

We have to look forward, and remember, as Iqbal said, kuchh baat hai ki hastii miTtii nahiiN hamaarii/ sadiyoN rahaa hai dushman daur-e-zamaaN hamara

On Pakistan: We seek the most friendly relations with our neighbours, more so with Pakistan than with any other. We must find the ways and means to resolve all outstanding problems that have been a source of friction and the unfortunate history of our relations with Pakistan. It is our sincere hope that that should become a thing of the past. Both the countries should look to the future with hope. That is not impossibe. Who could have imagined that some 15 years ago the Berlin wall would melt, then the world saw what was impossible in international politics became a norm.

It will be our effort without sacrificing our national security imperative, to create an environment to move forward to improve our relations with Pakistan.

On Ayodhya: The matter is in the courts and the law of the land will prevail. But if there are any serious negotiations and a sensible solution which has the sanction of the court that will also be explored.

On Gujarat: Functioning of Judicial system in Gujarat, inordinate delay in court cases, these are all areas of concern... We will pay adequate attention to all these issues and ensure that communal riots do not happen in India.

On whether his government would impose President’s rule in Gujarat in the wake of Congress’ criticism that rule of law did not prevail in the state: This is too serious a matter to discuss in a press conference. Centre-state relations are too delicate an issue to discuss like this.

On compensation for 1984 riot-victims: What or who can compensate those who have lost their near and dear ones, whether it is in Gujarat or the anti-Sikh violence? Whatever possible will be done. I am deeply anguished over the riots.

On Jammu and Kashmir: As far as the Jammu and Kashmir policy is concerned, our party is in favour of discussion with all interested groups. We will explore all possible opportunities to bring peace and prosperity to this vital state.

P.S.

(With inputs from agencies)

OUTLOOK WEB BUREAU

in Outlook India, Thursday, May 20, 2004.

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