Debating India

NDA

We adhered to Coalition Dharma: PM

Tuesday 13 April 2004

You have successfully headed a coalition government. Did you really expect the coalition experiment to last so long when the NDA was first formed?

In politics, as in life, failures teach you as much as - or perhaps more than - success. Our democracy had been grappling with coalitions ever since 1977. The Janta Party was also, in one sense, an experiment in multiple parties coming together to provide a stable government. It did not succeed. Thereafter, at different times, the Congress party wantonly destabilised the government of Chaudhary Charan Singh, Shri Chandrashekhar, Shri Deve Gowda and Shri I K Gujral on flimsy grounds. Shri V P Singh’s government also did not last long, because of its own many internal contradictions. Our own government in 1996 lasted only 13 days.

Given this backdrop, I had my doubts about how long the NDA government would last when it was first formed in 1998. My apprehensions were proved right when our first government became a victim of a destabilisation plot hatched by the Congress. You will remember that the Congress at the time had promised to form an alternative government within ’five minutes’. Instead, they had to sit in the Opposition for five years.

If the NDA government succeeded the second time around, it is principally because we anchored it in mutual trust, a commonly agreed programme from which there was no deviation, and a consensus approach to taking decisions. We worked with a team spirit, determined to take the country forward to fulfill the people’s aspirations. In short, we adhered to the principles of ’Coalition Dharma’. And this is what we pledge to continue over the nest five years.

How has this changed the BJP?

Every living and dynamic organisation adapts itself to the changing circumstances. this is the law of growth that sustains its dynamism. The BJP has always been open to experimentation. Circumstances have changed us, and, in turn, we have changed the circumstances. It is a two-way process.

Specifically, the NDA experiment has increased our understanding of, and made us more sensitive to, regional aspirations. We have also become more aware of the needs and problems of smaller social and ethnic groups, whose voice was not normally heard in the past.

In what way has your coalition impacted the political scene in terms of issues?

It is for history to judge and for political pundits to analyse. As far as we are concerned, we have tried to give due importance to every issue of concern to the people and the country, with priority focus on certain issues. For example, the major steps we have taken to strengthen India’s national security, addressing both its external and internal dimensions, mark a point of departure in politics and governance. We have blended our security initiatives, foreign policy initiatives and political initiatives to decisively address problems that had remained unresolved for decades, and which had been holding back India’s progress. Ongoing efforts to establish lasting peace with Pakistan are evidence of this. Similarly, the turnaround that is now seen in Jammu & Kashmir and in several parts of the North-East is proof of India’s ability, and determination, to resolve such issues through democratic means.

The other area where our government’s performance marks a departure from the past is that we have made governance development oriented. My travels across the country after becoming Prime Minister made me come to an important conclusion, namely, that even though hunger has been reduced, a new type of hunger is growing among all sections of our society. It is the hunger for development. It is especially acute among those who have been deprived of the fruits of development so far. Therefore, we decided that our mantra would be: ’Development, faster development, and more equitable development’.

We have shown our commitment to this by launching some of the biggest initiatives since Independence to remove infrastructure bottlenecks to growth. The National Highways Development Project, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, and the visible achievements in telecom services are just a few examples of this. We have also started some of the biggest ever social development programmes - be it the Serva Shiksha Abhiyan for universalising elementary education, which is the largest educational programme since Independence, the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, which is the largest food security programme in the world, or the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana, which is the largest-ever food-for-work programme. People have appreciated this single-minded pursuit of development. I can see it from the way they react to developmental issues in my election rallies.

What would you consider the turning points in the NDA journey?

I would say that the Congress party’s conspiracy to pull down our government in 1999 was certainly an important turning point. It succeeded in its immediate objective, but its ultimate outcome was the opposite of what the Congress had desired. It made the NDA stronger and the Congress party weaker. The dangerous game of destabilisation came to an end and actually led to stability at the Centre.

The decision to conduct Pokharan II has impacted India’s policies in the post-cold war world. How and when did you reach the decision to test after becoming PM in 1998?

Your question gives an impression that I reached a decision on this issue after becoming Prime Minister in 1998. The fact is, the BJP and earlier the Jana Sangh had always been of the opinion that India should become a nuclear weapons state, solely as a measure of self-defence. We have said so in all our election manifestoes, including the one that we presented to the people in the 12th Lok Sabha elections in 1998. This became a commitment of the NDA after our post-poll alliance issued its common manifesto. Therefore, Pokhran II was merely implementation of an oft-repeated public commitment.

Reforms have been a bad word in Indian politics. What persuaded you to rewrite the script?

The BJP, and earlier the Jana Sangh, had always opposed the growth-hindering quota-permit-licence raj which the Congress had nurtured under the guise of socialism. Which is why, we supported the economic reforms initiated by the Narasimha Rao government. At the same time, during the 1998 election campaign I had also said, "We shall reform the reforms process, to make it people-oriented". This is what we have sincerely tried to do for the past six years. Take for example, the reforms we introduced in the flawed telecom policy that we inherited. The Congress and the communists attacked us on this and even made it their election issue in 1999. But look at the results. In five years, we have added three times the number of telephones that were installed in the previous 50 years. Telecom services not only improved, but also became affordable even for taxi drivers, carpenters and vegetable vendors. In the next five years, we shall increase the number of telephones from 7 crore to 30 crore, enabling every alternate Indian family to own one.

Similarly, there is no queue now for gas connections. Our government provided more gas connections in the past five years than were given in the previous 50 years. I remember how, in the past, people used to come to MPs for obtaining shifaarish for a mamooli telephone or a gas connection or a housing loan. It always made me ask myself. "Why should an ordinary Indian citizen suffer such harassment in getting his basic needs fulfilled?" All that is thing of the past now. In five short years, we have transformed the situation from an economy of shortages to that of surpluses. Now isn’t this a pro-people reform? If we reform our system in this manner, why won’t the people back such reforms?

Has shining India managed to convey some hope to the bottom 30 per cent of the population?

Of course. Hope and expectations have spread among all sections of our population. Rapid economic growth is reducing poverty at a faster rate than before. But I am not satisfied with what has been achieved so far. There is a lot to do to improve the quality of life of the have-nots. My dream is to see complete eradication of poverty within the next 10-15 years. The surest way of achieving this goal is to increase employment and livelihood opportunities, enhance the purchasing power of the poor people, and to further strengthen implementation of those welfare and empowerment schemes that are specifically designed to benefit the poor. The BJP’s Vision Document and the NDA’s manifesto have sketched out concrete strategies for achieving these ends.

For example, I mentioned the ’Antyodaya Anna Yojana’ in answering one of your earlier questions. For the first time since Independence, 2 crore poorest Indian families are now entitled to get 35 kg of foodgrains per month at the rate of wheat at Rs 2 a kg and rice at Rs 3 a kg. When we started this food security scheme in 2000, it covered one crore poorest families. In four years, we doubled its coverage. Over the next five years, we shall extend it to 5 crore families.

Was there a risk involved in taking bijli-sadak-paani issues in the December 2003 assembly elections? If you had failed, it would have attracted the charge that you have abandoned Hindutva?

How can there be any risk involved in taking up people’s burning issues in an election? A party that is committed to transforming the developmental profile of India will never hesitate to take up basic issues like bijli, sadak and paani. Of course, these issues came into sharper focus because of the abysmal record of the incumbent Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh. I would say that, rather than facing any risk, I see an opportunity for the NDA in making development the principal issue in this election. People have seen our performance and, therefore, believe in our promises for the future.

Now that the Ram Temple issue is in the NDA manifesto, is the BJP sailing in two boats - one of development and the other of Hindutva?

I must emphasise that the NDA manifesto does not in any way signify a shift in our approach to the Ayodhya issue. We have not said anything new or other than what we have repeatedly stated in the past five years. The issue has to be resolved early and amicably in the interest of national integration. And there are only two ways to achieve this end: negotiated settlement in an atmosphere of mutual trust and goodwill or through a judicial verdict that has to be accepted by all. Moreover, I have repeatedly stated that the Rample Temple or Hindutva are not election issues for us. Therefore, the question of ’sailing in two boats’, as you vividly put it, doesn’t arise at all. We sail in only one boat - that of Rashtravaad or Nation First. We are pursuing only one agenda - that of making India stronger, more prosperous and more integrally developed to give full play to our civilisational genius.

Some people might have felt that development is not an ’emotional’ issue, and that we need an emotional issue to win an election. I do not agree with this view. I believe that the concept of India becoming a Developed Nation and a Great Power is a highly patriotic thought. It is capable of unleashing the positive emotions and energies of our people, especially our youth, because the future belongs to them.

What will be the first thing you will do if voted back to power?

We have presented our priorities very clearly in the NDA’s Agenda for Development, Good Governance and Peace. In development, we are determined to deal with the challenge of water and electricity on a war footing. The launch of the Second Green Revolution will see many pathbreaking initiatives to revitalise our agriculture. The ’Connectivity Revolution’ will spread wider and faster. We will prepare action plans, within first six months, for consolidating our gains in the IT sector, and making India global manufacturing hub and global tourism destination.

We have presented a comprehensive agenda for governance reforms, which includes administrative reforms, judicial reforms, police reforms, electoral reforms, and corporate governance reforms. Indeed, I consider these good governance reforms to be as important and urgently needed as the ongoing reforms in the economic sphere.

The third area of priority for us will be to intensify the dialogue process with Pakistan to achieve permanent peace and normalisation of bilateral relations.

You have been very firm in pursuing peace with Pakistan despite some disturbing statements from Pakistan after the January joint statement. What makes you so confident that Pakistan will be sincere about peace?

Did you listen to my speech at the recent rally in Amritsar, which was held to mark the end of the first phase of Advaniji’s yatra? In that speech, I dealt with the question you have raised. My confidence that we’ll succeed in our peace efforts with Pakistan stems from three factors - humanism, realism and India’s all-round strength.

Firstly, I have faith in the insaaniyat of people everywhere, including the people of Pakistan. To live in conditions of peace is universal aspiration. Secondly, there is realisation that fighting more wars is neither a solution nor even an option. Therefore, support for the peace option has grown at all levels. Thirdly, I have faith in India’s strength to deal with any situation that might arise in the future.

It is almost a year since you made an appeal for peace in Srinagar. can you now tell us whether this was pre-planned or you reacted to the mood in Srinagar?

You have put a difficult question, because I have myself wondered how exactly it happened. No doubt, the tremendous enthusiasm of Kashmiri people at that public meeting in Srinagar last year - the first such meeting addressed by an Indian Prime Minister after a gap of 18 years - struck an emotional cord in me. It reinforced my conviction that I was on the right track. Therefore, when I raised my hand during the course of the speech, something which I normally do, I spontaneously said, ’I am extending my hand of friendship to Pakistan’. It was not preplanned. But I cannot say that it was not premeditated. Peace and good neighbourly relations with Pakistan, without compromising India’s national interests, is a dream I have nurtured even before I became the External Affairs minister in 1977.

There was also a circumstantial factor. The US war in Iraq was going on when I visited Srinagar. I said in that meeting, and also in the press conference on the following day, that the war was a warning to all developing countries and we needed to resolve our disputes peacefully and speedily amongst ourselves. The number of people in Pakistan who think likewise is steadily growing.

There have been reports that the US had a role to play in bringing India and Pakistan to the negotiating table.

The US and other countries are keen that Indo-Pak relations should improve. But it is not true that they have in any way prompted us to start our peace initiative. This is entirely our own initiative.

Are you satisfied with the US role in stabilising Afghanistan? Can the US do more to pressure Pakistan to control extremist elements?

(Not answered)

In Guwahati you took up the issue of infiltration from Bangladesh. can we expect Bangladesh to do something about this issue?

We desire good neighbourly and cooperative relations with Bangladesh. Both India and Bangladesh have to be sensitive to each other’s concerns. I do hope that Dhaka understands our concern over the infiltration issue in the right perspective. At the same time, we are prepared to discuss how to streamline the movement of people and goods across our borders in well-regulated and mutually beneficial ways. I would like to see India and Bangladesh become partners in promoting each other’s prosperity and all-round development in the true spirit of SAARC.

Your critics have said that there has been a ’jobless growth’ despite better growth rates. What do your policies have to offer to the jobless, particularly those who do not live in rural areas?

The nature of employment is changing with the changing nature of the economy. This has happened due to induction of new technologies and pressures of competition in the era of globalisation. Jobs in government and organised capital-intensive enterprises are shrinking all over the world, and India is no exception. At the same time, and this is the other side of the current reality, employment and self-employment opportunities are growing steadily in services and in the informal sector.

Over the next five years, we’ll further strengthen our support to employment- intensive sectors of the economy. Promotion of agriculture, agro-processing and cottage industries will create more local employment in rural areas. This will also have a positive impact in urban areas, since many businessmen are linked to the rural economy. Housing creates large-scale employment in a wide variety of enterprises - from on-site construction to furniture to home appliances, etc. Direct and indirect employment in highway and rural roads construction will grow further. This will also lead to employment in transportation. The number of cars, trucks and other commercial vehicles on Indian roads has risen sharply, bringing new employment opportunities in its wake. We have decided to support the organised retail business in cities in a big way. Worldwide, it is a big generator of employment.

Our ambitious plan for tourism development aims to generate one crore additional employment opportunities. Lastly, I must mention the IT sector. Our vision is to make India the preferred service provider to the world. The call centre business and BPO enterprises are estimated to generate over ten lakh well-paying jobs in the next five years. Our ability to overcome the challenge of employment is closely linked to what kind of reforms we introduced in our educational system. Here our priority is to overhaul the system of education in our schools and colleges to make it more employment-oriented. It is a big challenge, and only a strong partnership between the government, educational establishment, businesses and voluntary organisations can help us surmount it.

You have taken up the foreign origin issue with regard to Congress President Smt Sonia Gandhi. What was the need to do so if the bijli-paani issues are working?

(Not answered)

You have defied the iron law of incumbency. Your predecessors slipped in popularity ratings at the end of their terms. You seem to be gaining in popularity. how do you explain this?

How can I answer this question? I have never done anything in politics to gain popularity. I have tried to be honest to myself and to pursue my ideals to the best of my abilities.

Your government has had its share of controversies. Nothing seems to stick to you. You have been called the teflon pm. how to read this?

It is not that attempts have not been made to hurl charges at me. If they have not stuck, it is because they were false and motivated. My political career is an open book. My integrity has been my asset. I have never compromised my principles for the sake of power.

How do you react to suggestions that there should be curbs on political advertising, opinion polls and exit polls? Is this healthy for democracy?

As a matter of principle, free communication is integral to a democracy. At the same time, all participants in the election campaign should adhere to a code of conduct that keeps out unhealthy practices and unfair advantages to anybody. As far a possible, this should be achieved through voluntary conduct of political parties.

India is growing younger. Opinion polls show that you enjoy a considerable comfort level with the youth. How do you manage to do that?

I have always remained young at heart. I have never had difficulty relating to young people. This phenomenon that you mentioned; "India is growing younger" - is something that makes me deeply happy. I seek tremendous potential in this Young India. Our young women and men today are far more ambitious than before. They want to be second to none in the world, and they want India to be second to none in the world. This desire to succeed, and the single-minded pursuit of this desire, is going to take India to great heights. I have no doubts about that.

Have you considered putting down your ringside view of politics in a book?

Right now, I am inside the ring. I have no time to think of anything else except the goal we have set for ourselves in this election.

You have been compared with Nehru who led Congress to three successive Lok Sabha victories. You may well equal this record.

No, it would not be correct to make a comparison with Nehru. Yes, one of the persons whose behaviour I was impressed with was Nehru. I did admire Nehru, most certainly his intellectual depth which had a blend of spirituality as well. In his Discovery of India, the description of Ganga, that can only be the work of a mahakavi. How the Ganga flows, how the waves appear which is borne witness by generation after generation.

Recently when you spoke at the release of the NDA manifesto, you said that any new revelations with regard to Bofors should be investigated by the CBI. The Congress has since demanded that you apologise for this statement.

Yes, they are asking me to apologise. In fact, they want me apologise for everything. What crime have I committed? When I was asked what I had to say about some new revelations on Bofors, what else could I have said? The matter is in the courts and if some new facts have come to light, then the CBI would naturally look into it.

Today it has become commonplace to see the use of the term ’brand Atal’ and this is seen to dominate the BJP poll discourse. How did this brand evolve?

No, I don’t agree with this (kind of branding). The media has done its bit in this. Again, when comparisons are made with Nehru, people forget that he was not alone. There were many tall leaders. Nehru often thought hard on the decisions he took. A man who has dilemma is one who wants to do well, thinks of the consequences of his actions. When the time came to send forces to Hyderabad, initially Nehru was not in full agreement with Sardar Patel. People have differing styles, (unlike Nehru) I don’t take too long in arriving at a decision.

Nonetheless brand Atal is a reality. Opinion polls indicate that you have bucked the law of incumbency...

Incumbency couldn’t really impact our government, keeping in mind the way it functioned. This is also a collective matter. If things worked well the Cabinet gets the praise for it. As for whether the Opposition could have been more effective? Well, then I think the question of what happened to the Opposition is best addressed to them.

What is the big issue in this election?

I would look at this in another manner. Perhaps this is the first election where without any tension, people are going to decide on issues. There is no desperate cut-throat competition.

You have had a long relationship with L K Advani. This is a relationship which has been intensely speculated upon in the media. What is the state of this relationship?

It is a 50 year-old relationship. Yes, there are differences. But it is not as if...sometime he has his way, sometimes I do.

Who has his way more often?

This depends on the issue at hand. But this is never personal.

Things have never got personal?

Let me give you an example. Talks with General Musharraf had begun. There was opposition within (the parivar). After Srinagar (when Vajpayee extended his ’hand of friendship’) the question was raised that after all, General Musharraf hasn’t accepted that there was terrorism in Kashmir. How then did I offer a proposal for talks? There was quite a bit of criticism. It was only Advaniji who said "you have done the right thing. Everyone is asking us why are we not talking to Pakistan." Not too many people know this; people tend to assume that Advaniji is very hard.

This softness does not seem to percolate onto the public stage.

For this you (media) are responsible.

You have spoken of resolution of the dispute over Kashmir and have said that this could be done within the "daira of insaniyat" (bounds of humanity). Almost exactly a year ago, in Srinagar, you made an offer for talks and peace. Why did you feel the time was right?

Jammu and Kashmir was being subjected to injustice. And Congress leaders have been responsible for this. I have always had this feeling. This is the manner in which the leaders of Kashmir were treated, they felt that their importance would never be understood by India.

When you saw the crowd that had come to hear you despite terrorist threats...

There had been elections, there was need to start a new chapter. Then the question of Iraq was also on my mind. So I did mention that as well, that we need to see how issues are being sorted out in the world and draw our lessons from that.

What has been the US role in India’s engagement with Pakistan?

A: People feel that talks have begun after pressure from the US. At the time (when I took the initiative) there was no pressure. Of course, whenever they met us, they said that we should talk. This time there was pressure, they did not even know that some talks have begun.

The process that you began saw you travel to Pakistan and that resulted in a joint statement. This has led to an opinion that that Operation Parakram of 2002 (when troops were mobilised along the border) was not needed.

No, it was needed. Very much so. It was necessary to convey the clear message to Pakistan that if things did not change, there could be a conflict. That saw some change in the behaviour of Pakistan. It also saw international pressure being brought to bear on Pakistan. International opinion felt that the situation could, indeed, slip into conflict. It was necessary to convey that we would not tolerate things silently as we had in the past.

BJP seems to have adopted a new position on Article 370, what is the message that can be drawn from it?

This is a dynamic situation, things will change slowly. They are changing. Economic integration with the rest of the country is increasing.

On the question of hardliners in the Sangh Parivar like VHP, how do you deal with them on such issues?

(Laughs) Well I don’t.

You would recall that often you have been referred to as a "good man in the wrong party." How do you react to this?

They seem to think that ’good’ means someone who uses the language and expression that I do.

Perhaps it is about moderation as well?

Well, there has to be moderation. But wrong party?

The rhetoric does get sharp during elections...

I have never taken recourse to abuse. Earlier people felt that they should not target me in a certain manner. But now they feel that Vajpayee must be the target and only then will the others become vulnerable...It is an attempt to spoil the image.

If we can turn to a few personal issues, your father was a teacher. Today you are leader of a great democracy. Is it luck, personal beliefs or democracy that brought you here?

The influence of my family was considerable. Baba, my grandfather, was a learned person, a big pandit. He never allowed us to worry about money and profits.

Yet the more common option would have been government service?

In fact, I wanted to become a journalist. One can’t write poetry every day. There was also the thrill of seeing one’s name in print.

If one where look for the ingredients that have gone into making your coalition a success, what would they be?

I don’t do chalaki with anyone. I don’t let down people. I don’t indulge in ustadgiri. People feel that this man will keep our interests in mind. All the parties felt that...that this man will stand by us.

Did this help in running the coalition?

Earlier, coalitions have often had a limited purpose, of being in power, keep things going for a while. When we were looking to come to power, we had this in mind. We knew that to run such a big country, a coalition will be necessary. And that we shouldn’t let ideology get in the way. If the coalition functions well, it will make the concept more powerful. Strong regional traditions will feel that they have a voice at the Centre. We are definitely moving to a federal polity.

The BJP’s journey to political centrestage has also seen an attempt to recast the debate on the nature of secularism and national identity. How far has the BJP managed to actually do so?

There should be insistence. Now, Hindutva and Bharatiyata have the same meaning. But would prefer to say bharatiyata. There also the Hindutva people.

Your emphasis on bharatiyata. Does the BJP vision document 2004 reflect this?

It has started to seep in.

The common image about you earlier was that you were more at home with foreign policy than economics. How did you embrace reforms?

Slowly I understood that one has to take a total view of things. We cannot see things in compartments.

What would you say are the breakthrough areas?

I will say that making the National Development Council effective, where different parties are represented. Where many chief ministers initially came with suspicions.

But it had been said that good economics is bad politics?

There is simply no other way.

There is always the need to be pro-people.

It will always be necessary to keep public opinion with us.

If you form the government, what would be top priority?

The economy and the foreign policy.

On Ayodhya?

Very simply it will be either a judicial verdict or through negotiations.

See online : The Times of India

P.S.

in The Times of India, Tuesday, April 13, 2004.

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