Aditi Tandon in New Delhi
Former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh spoke exclusively to The Tribune on a variety of issues. Excerpts:
The term of the NDA government is drawing to a close. How do you rate PM Narendra Modi’s tenure?
India will be immensely relieved as the Modi government is shown the exit door. The sordid saga of uninterrupted trauma, disruptive policies and malgovernance, which the current government so notoriously embodies, shall hopefully end. Five years of the Modi government have created a sense of deep despair. Massive unemployment, rampant rural distress, soaring losses of our small and medium businesses, snatching the rights of our deprived sections and colossal corruption without accountability, coupled with incessant attack on our institutions, have been the miseries inflicted by this government.
Damaging our social fabric and silencing the voices of dissent by pasting them with ludicrous agenda-driven labels has been the modus operandi of the BJP. This is being propagated as the ‘New India’.
Grace and decorum have become things of the past. Nauseating noises, endless loud rhetoric and a crass narrative have unfortunately lowered the dignity of discourse. This is being primarily propagated right from the top echelons of power in this government. The office of the Prime Minister embodies gravitas and an onerous responsibility, making it an example for the others to emulate. Sadly, Modiji refuses to comprehend or understand the restraint and dignity the office enjoins. This is hurting India’s image as a vibrant democracy.
Event-driven propaganda has only ushered superfluous cosmetic change. Real issues of the people like unemployment, farm crisis, economic mismanagement, social empowerment remain untouched and unresolved. People have seen through this charade and will give a befitting reply.
You term Modi government’s tenure as devastating. Which decisions in your view caused devastation?
Multiple decisions have led to the current policy paralysis. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s motto used to be ‘Baatein kam, kaam zyada’. The biggest undoing of this government is the publicity blitz bereft of any concrete delivery.
The monumental failure of demonetisation alone has set the GDP back by close to 2%, causing a loss of Rs 3 lakh crore to the economy. It was a deliberate attack on the savings of small and medium businesses, informal sector, farmers and housewives. What did the nation gain? Neither was Rs 3 lakh crore black money confiscated as claimed before the Supreme Court on November 10, 2016, nor was fake currency checked.
The implementation of a flawed GST has proved to be a double whammy. The Congress had envisaged GST as a single, moderate, standard rate of tax on all goods and services. The BJP instead has pushed through a multiple taxation regime with numerous forms, making the entire compliance process complicated and cumbersome. The unending notifications and changes have also caused needless confusion. Farmers are also bearing the brunt of taxation of essential articles like pesticides, fertilisers and agricultural tools due to GST.
Also at a time when the economy has slowed down considerably despite favourable global macroeconomic conditions, the fear of tax terrorism has eroded the confidence of businesses to invest. Midnight knocks by the taxmen at the door of ordinary businessmen have become a norm. Fresh investments are at a 14-year low. Private Corporate Investments are at a seven-year low. Foreign Portfolio Investors (FPIs) have withdrawn almost Rs 1 lakh crore from our markets in 2018 alone. Even the manufacturing and vehicles sales are touching a new low pointing towards sluggishness in the consumer spending in particular and economic cycle at large.
All this has created an atmosphere of economic despair and hurt the livelihoods of vast majority of our people.
How will you describe Mr Modi, the politician and Mr Modi, the person?
I would not like to comment on Mr Modi, personally. Mr Modi, as a leader, has failed India. I believe the role of the leader is to listen to the pain as also the aspirations of the people and act to alleviate them. Consensus is the essence of democracy. If you force and inflict your whims and fancies unilaterally, and expect everyone to adhere submissively, there is bound to be chaos.
The PM has said there’s no proof of surgical strikes under UPA regime.
Description of the military prowess of our Indian Armed Forces as video games by Mr Modi is a grave insult to our nation. No amount of arrogance and self-glorification should blindside anyone to question the successive military operations by mocking our armed forces.
Our armed forces were always given a free hand to respond to any threat across the border. Many decisive military operations were undertaken during previous governments, including the Congress-UPA government. Former Chiefs of armed forces and other rank officers have revealed operational details of these strikes. The Congress has also set the record straight on previous surgical strikes. National security experts and those who follow the region know these facts very well and have even reported some of these military operations. There is an unwritten convention to maintain confidentiality on such issues. More often than not, it is a strategic decision.
But this convention was broken by the Modi government because they wanted to flaunt it as Modiji’s achievement rather than the success of our armed forces. Our esteemed armed forces protect the country, but the BJP is using the Indian soldiers to protect its political interests. This is unacceptable.
What is the dominant narrative in this election: Nationalism or development?
Nationalism is embedded in the hearts and minds of every Indian. The hardworking farmer who toils in the fields day and night to feed the country and was betrayed by the Modi government is a nationalist. The student who burnt midnight oil to become a professional but was denied employment is a nationalist. The housewife who saved money but bore the brunt of demonetisation is a nationalist. Everyone who contributes in building India everyday is a nationalist. How can one individual or party claim to be the sole flag-bearer of nationalism? In fact, those who are targeting the life and livelihood of toiling Indians, yet claiming to serve the country are nothing but pseudo-nationalists.
The only narrative in these elections is the issue of bread and butter. Rest is a fabricated illusion. How can anyone say that jobs or rural distress or livelihood issues are interchangeable with national security? Truth is that Modiji promised two crore jobs a year but his disruptive policies snatched over four crore jobs from the youth. Unemployment is at a 45-year high of 6.1%. It was 2.2% during the Congress-led UPA in 2011-12 (NSSO Report, 2017-18).
The BJP’s political distress stems from its failed track record of promising everything and delivering nothing. No wonder, Modiji had to search for a new narrative everyday in this election. This reflects the bankruptcy of a vision for the country.
Mumbai terror attacks killed over 170 people but the UPA government didn’t react with force. Did you as PM ever contemplate use of force against Pakistan at that time like the BJP government did after the Pulwama terror attack?
The dastardly attack in Mumbai was unpardonable. I disagree with the insinuation that we were not ready with military punitive actions. We were. We did contemplate the use of force, but the geo-political situation was evolving in our favour then. We responded diplomatically and swiftly in isolating Pakistan.
Our response was to isolate and diplomatically expose Pakistan as a terror hub besides rallying the international community for decisive action against terrorists. We succeeded too. Within 14 days of the Mumbai attacks, we got China to agree to declare Hafiz Saeed as a global terrorist under the UN 1267 Sanctions Committee. The Congress-led UPA ensured that a $10m bounty was placed on the head of the Mumbai attacks perpetrator and the founder of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) Hafiz Saeed by the US. Another mastermind David Headley was convicted to 35 years of prison during our government in 2013. Top LeT members involved in Mumbai attacks were kept under sanctions lists as terrorists by the UNSC due to our unrelenting diplomatic efforts. Result is that LeT per se has become ineffective today.
We made counter-terrorism cooperation in the international community against the LeT more effective. Countries like Saudi Arabia and even China co-operated to a great deal. Several terrorists were arrested and deported to India, as they travelled outside Pakistan. Sheikh Abdul Khwaja, handler of the 26/11 attack and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) chief of operations for India, was subsequently picked up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and brought to Hyderabad and formally arrested in January 2010. Zaibuddin Ansari (aka Abu Hamza/Abu Jundal) was arrested at the Delhi airport in June 2012 after he was deported from Saudi Arabia.
Post Mumbai 26/11 attacks, the Congress-UPA government strengthened coastal security and mooted a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) but then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi unequivocally opposed the idea. We also conceived the NATGRID, an integrated intelligence grid connecting databases of core security agencies of the Government of India to collect comprehensive patterns of intelligence that could be readily accessed. But the Modi government has put NCTC and NATGRID in cold storage.
In 2014, the BJP secured full majority after three decades. Do you think the era of coalitions is over?
Democracy is about cohesion, cooperation and cohabitation. Democracy entails building a consensus out of divergent viewpoints in national interest. Hence, democracy, per se, is a coalition of ideas.
We have had coalition governments in the past that have accelerated India’s growth trajectory that many absolute majority governments couldn’t. Under the Congress-UPA, the average GDP growth in 10 years was 8.1%. The BJP, despite its strong numbers in Parliament, could not achieve this robustgrowth in the past five years.
The social welfare and accountability measures of the Congress-UPA government like MGNREGA, Right to Information Act and Food Security Act were possible because opinions of a wide range of stakeholders were taken into consideration. This is missing now.
There are continuous checks and balances in a coalition government and decision making is more democratic and cautious. Under the present BJP government, it has been witnessed that even Cabinet Ministers are not informed about crucial decisions, let alone coalition partners or Opposition.
What is even more worrisome is that the institutional integrity of our long-cherished institutions like the Supreme Court, the RBI, Niti Aayog and others is being systematically eroded. This is dangerous for our democracy.
Your assessment of poll results on May 23?
I am hopeful that a progressive, liberal and truly democratic government at the Centre will assume the reins of power in which the Congress will play a leading role.
Congress manifesto says NYAY scheme will be rolled out through rationalisation of spending and only targeted subsidies will continue. Will all other subsidies discontinue?
Nearly 70% of Indians were poor when India attained Independence. With sound policies adopted by successive governments, poverty levels have declined to about 20% now. It is time to renew our pledge to wipe out the last remains of poverty by implementing NYAY — Nyuntam Aay Yojana.
It is a powerful idea to restart stalled economic activity. Under NYAY, the poorest 20% of Indian families will be given an annual income support of a uniform amount of Rs 72,000 for each family.
NYAY will ensure a basic level of dignity for every Indian family. The Congress is also committed to fiscal discipline. NYAY scheme will cost between 1.2% and 1.5% of the GDP at its peak. Our nearly $3 trillion economy has the fiscal capacity to absorb this expenditure. There will be no need for any new taxes on the middle class to finance NYAY. The economic stimulus that NYAY will provide will further help in fiscal discipline.
Just as we brought in a new paradigm for India’s development with the de-licensing regime in 1991, a rights-based approach to governance, including the Right to Work, I am confident a Congress-led government in 2019 will implement NYAY successfully and usher in a new model for social justice and prudent economics. I believe that NYAY has the potential to catapult India into the club of poverty-free nations and I hope to be able to live to see our nation achieve this historic milestone.
How do you rate economic growth under NDA?
The Modi government’s gross economic mismanagement has derailed India’s economic growth story. Institutions like the RBI, NSC, Planning Commission (Niti Aayog), which commanded autonomy, have been surreptitiously taken over by stealth and have been undermined. Serious questions about data have clouded India’s credibility in the global economic space. In the past 70 years, there has been no question mark on the credibility of India’s statistical institutions, but last few years have seen a global debate on the veracity of our data. How did it happen? Why are job surveys being brushed under the carpet?
Given the brute majority the Modi government enjoyed, it was expected that they would have accelerated the process of reforms, but they failed completely. The half-baked reforms implemented by this government have only complicated matters and have no proper vision or strategy behind it.
When the history of India’s economic progress would be written, the Modi government’s period would be counted as a dark spot marred by adhoc decision making, gross mismanagement and non-performance. The biggest failure of the Modi government is on the employment and agrarian fronts.
What in your view is the biggest foreign policy failure of this government?
Entire foreign policy paradigm of this government is centred on an individual instead of India’s strategic and economic interests. Foreign policy entails gravitas, a sense of diplomacy and restraint, sensitivity towards the concerns of the host nation and ultimately furthering the interests of India. Regrettably, this government’s foreign policy is founded upon anything but a mature comprehension of diplomacy.
I would give you one major example which speaks volumes of how the foreign policy under the present government has faltered and deviated from continuity. For the first time in 70 years, India’s time-tested ally Russia lifted the embargo on ‘sale of arms’ to Pakistan. Russia even sold Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan and signed a ‘military cooperation agreement’ with it besides participating in a joint naval exercise hosted by Pakistan in 2017.
There is absolute lack of clarity on our foreign policy, be it with our neighbours or with other important countries. Doklam impasse should easily be counted as one of the biggest foreign policy failures of this government. The turbulent relationship with our neighbours and lack of coherence in dealing with specific issues in international arena has marred the foreign policy of the present government.
What is Congress doing differently this time?
The Congress has fought these elections decisively and aggressively under the leadership of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. We recently formed liberal, progressive and inclusive governments in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, besides Punjab and Karnataka earlier.
We have laid down a solid, realistic and implementable vision for the country in our manifesto, which has been appreciated.
India is a developing country aspiring to be a middle-income country by 2030. Wealth creation and the welfare of our people are our two principal goals, which the Congress has presented for the people of India.
Congress has been accusing PM of corruption in Rafale but charges haven’t been proved. Is that not a setback to your strategy?
Rafale scam is perhaps the biggest defence scandal of recent times in which the topmost echelons of power in the current government are involved. There are several unanswered questions which the Congress has raised and hundreds of pages of documented material which prima facie prove the charges of wrongdoing, crony capitalism, violation of mandatory provisions of Defence Procurement Procedure, sacrificing national interests and even endangering national security. All this has been deliberated in the public domain.
We have demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe of the same since serious policy matters and issues requiring examination of documents and evidence are involved. But the Modi government sought to brazen it out. If there is nothing wrong, why is it scared of facing a JPC? Why are journalists being threatened with jail for exposing Rafale corruption? Why is government scared of clarifying the serious issues of impropriety? These fears of the government and attempts to stifle every person asking questions expose their guilt.
Sam Pitroda’s remarks on 1984 anti-Sikh riots have reopened old wounds. What do you say as the first Sikh PM of India?
His comments were completely unwarranted, unacceptable and hurtful. Congress President Rahul Gandhi himself has admonished him publicly.
You didn’t campaign in 2019 polls. Will you continue in public life?
I am in public life and as long as my health permits I would like to remain active so as to serve the country to the best of my ability and capacity.