In his first interview to Indian media since he assumed office, the PM speaks about his foreign policy, governance, economy and mixed results in state elections
New Delhi: The first 10 months of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s term have been eventful. They’ve been marked by high-profile international diplomacy—visits to India by US President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping, Modi’s own visits to the US and the G20 summit, and his efforts to reach out to the members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc).
At home, there have been stormy sessions in Parliament, the new government’s first full budget, and mixed results for his party in state and local body elections. Expectations from the Modi government have been running high and, in recent weeks, there have been rumblings of discontent, particularly from the business domain, about whether it has been able to deliver on its promise.
In his first interview to the Indian media after he became Prime Minister, Modi spoke to the Hindustan Times. Edited excerpts:
Ten months after coming to power, what would you consider your major achievements?
Achievements have to be seen with a reference to the past. In what situation did the people bring us to power? And what is the situation now? Is there policy paralysis anymore? No. Is there a transparency issue? No. Is there stagnancy in governance? No. Instead, there is dynamism.
It was even being said that the letter “I" might have to be dropped from Brics (the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Now, the faith has been restored—there is pace in governance, economic progress and global pride. You can see this.
Our vision and commitment is towards the country’s progress, its place in the world and the happiness of its people. We have taken a series of measures which have restored faith in our capacity to deliver with transparency, efficiency and speed. We are looking at the interest of the poor of the country and their empowerment. Initiatives like the Jan Dhan Yojana (the government’s financial inclusion campaign), Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission, Soil Health cards are aimed at giving more income and a better quality of life to the common man, and also transform perceptions about our country. Our focus on beti bachao (save the girl child) and on the generation of renewable energy is a demonstration of the fact that we not only care for the present but also for future generations. The direction of our government is reflected in the recent enabling Union budget, a futuristic railway budget, the pooling of gas for stranded power plants and for fertilizer plants. These show our firm commitment towards a prosperous and powerful India.
Good governance with good intentions is the hallmark of our government. Implementation with integrity is our core passion. We have converted certain adversities borne out of legacies into opportunities. The recent conclusion of auctions of coal and spectrum establishes that the curse of scam and corruption is avoidable and transparency possible if there is political will. Former prime ministers have been talking about leakage in subsidies. Our initiative of distribution of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) subsidy through direct bank transfer is a shining example of our concrete strategy for helping the poor and the marginalized. For the first time, we have come out with a sound social security umbrella for the weaker sections. The “Make in India" campaign has taken off and is backed with skill development. It is going to open new vistas for employment for the youth.
We have restored the global credibility of India in terms of its politics, governance and economy. This is because the growth of the economy has been restored. We have left behind countries like China in terms of our GDP (gross domestic product) growth. We have left behind the US in terms of steel production. The current account deficit has come down. Global institutions such as IMF (International Monetary Fund), OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and others are predicting even better growth potential in the coming months and years. India is back on the global radar.
After a month in office, you had said that you were new to Delhi and were struggling to convey your intentions and sincerity to bring a positive change in this country. Do you still face that challenge? Have you changed Delhi or has Delhi changed you?
When I said this, I meant the central government. I believe it is changing fast. Since I had come from a state, I had the sincerity and openness to look at the issues. I used the perspective of the common man of the country who had voted us to power. We have worked hard and sat together repeatedly and tried to remove the silos, barriers and bottlenecks. There is a very large Hindustan beyond Delhi. It did not take much effort to convey in Delhi that India lives in the villages and towns and the homes and cottages spread over the vast length and breadth of the nation. And that we stand and exist for them. The departments, their offices, their policies and procedures should all be oriented and geared to serve them. Also, now, the central and state governments are working together in the spirit of co-operation rather than as giver and taker. A true partnership for national development has emerged. We have succeeded to a large extent in changing the work culture, making it proactive and professional. My experience is that Delhi functions in the way defined by its leadership. I am hopeful of extraordinary outcomes, both towards changing Delhi (the central government) and towards changing the country through Delhi.
I have done a small thing, one that appears small from outside. I regularly interact with secretaries (bureaucrats) over tea; it is part of my working style… teams are made this way.
I told the secretaries to go back to the place where they had their first posting. They were from across the country. They had not been there in the last 25-30 years. I also asked them to go with their families and spend at least a night there and tell their children how it all started. Then think about how far they had come and where the place of their first posting was. They had to reflect why we moved forward and not the places. I am happy that almost everyone visited his or her first place of posting.
You have empowered the bureaucracy. You asked them to go to the states and assess the situation for themselves. Do you think the bureaucracy is delivering?
Look, it’s like the pace at which the media operates—a pace that can’t really be kept up with by the authorities. Let me explain: If there is a ditch on the road, the media has to just take a picture or video and put it up. That takes two minutes, but the person who has to fill it up and do the repairs will, at least, take 24 hours. The bureaucracy has to be given some breathing space. By and large, I am satisfied with their performance.
The business community is upset that not much has changed in terms of ease of doing business and with what they see as a spate of tax notices. Do you think your government has been able to make a difference?
First of all, you have to understand that my government is working for the common man. Our priority is the poor of the country. We want good governance through a dynamic and seamless government. Results are visible in all sectors. Industry has to come forward to take the benefits of the process we have set in motion.
I would request the media to counterpose two things together: the allegations our Congress friends level against us, and the complaints that businessmen have. The Congress says we are a government of industrialists and industrialists say we do nothing for them!
Our job is to run a policy-driven government. The absence of red tape does not mean it should not be there for Mukesh Ambani, but be there for a common man; that won’t do.
The government’s job is good governance for everybody. My government will make policies; if you fit into it, come on board, or stay where you are. My job is not to spoon-feed anyone. The private sector of the country is still stuck with legacy issues of governance—these include tax terrorism, duty inversion and selective exemption. That is why we tried to address many such issues during the budget of 2015-16 and to correct them across the board. We know that such steps are important for creating jobs and opportunities for millions of Indians. I repeat my assurance to all: if you take one step, we will walk two steps for you.
This session of Parliament saw severe competition among you and the Congress to look pro-poor.
In the 60-year rule of the Congress, the poor of this country have remained poor or have become poorer. Many countries of the world have surpassed us on all counts, including poverty alleviation. The Congress did incremental work so as to keep the issue relevant for the next elections. And then, they bring some dramatic legislation just when the elections are around, and project that they are pro-poor. When we take measures which take the country out of a historic problem, when we dedicate ourselves to eliminate poverty altogether in the very beginning of our five-year tenure, then they do not understand the meaning of pro-poor initiatives.
The coal and spectrum scandals did not benefit the poor. Nor did the Commonwealth Games fiasco and loot. Everyone knows who the beneficiaries were. The result of the Congress’ so-called pro-poor politics and governance of 60 years is that absolute poverty is still our biggest challenge. One-fourth of the families are without shelter. Health, education, water, electricity and roads are even bigger unrealized dreams for a large number of citizens of this country.
We rolled out a scheme like Jan Dhan (the financial inclusion programme) in the first five months. We opened more than 120 million bank accounts for financial inclusion. There were banks and there were people without bank accounts. What did they do all these years?
At the earlier pace, it would have taken another 50 years to complete the task of providing toilets in all schools. We took it up in the first four months and are going to complete this task in the next few months. Don’t the children of the poor study in these public schools?
The so-called pro-poor have been just repeating that there is leakage in subsidy. We used technology to ensure that LPG subsidy reaches the targeted person directly; we have launched MUDRA Bank for financing 60 million small vendors and businesses, 61% of whom are (from the) SCs (scheduled castes), STs (scheduled tribes), OBCs (other backward classes) and minorities. We have come out with a comprehensive social security scheme for the poor and marginalised, old and those with low-income levels. We have set up a skill development ministry to enhance employability of the youth, to whom we are committed to provide jobs through initiatives like Make in India. In the past, the country had witnessed jobless and low economic growth.
These are just a few examples. Why were these things not done in past 60 years? Who prevented them? Moreover, had this been done by the Congress on the eve of elections, it would have been termed pro-poor. Since we have done it right in the beginning without calculating the “right time", it is not being noticed.
The worry of the Opposition, especially the Congress, is not that we are not pro-poor. Their worry is that they are being exposed. People are asking them, “If the Modi government can think and do this in six to nine months, why you could not think and do it in 60 years?" The reason is simple—they would have waited for an election for a fraction of each one of them.
What about the hurdles you have faced in the Rajya Sabha (where the BJP is in minority)? How do you think your government can find a solution to this bottleneck?
I thank the parties and the members of Parliament for four meaningful sessions of Parliament. In all, 36 bills have been passed by both Houses of Parliament. On the whole, the productivity of both the houses was good. The Lok Sabha has worked 123.45% of the scheduled time, while the productivity of the Rajya Sabha has been 106.79%.
Of the four sessions of Parliament that we have had since our assumption of office in May 2014, this budget session has been the most significant and rewarding on several counts. With the support of the parties and the members of Parliament, the government has demonstrated that we are moving towards open and policy-driven governance. One most singular and significant outcome of the budget session is the passing of the two bills to replace the ordinances in the coal and other mineral sectors. With this, the infamous “discretion of government" in allocating coal and non-coal minerals, leading to corruption and malpractice, has been put to an end. We are thankful to the parties for supporting our honest intentions.
These two legislations will prove to be landmarks in the evolution of transparent governance and efficient allocation of key natural resources, which is the need of the hour as the country aspires for quick economic development. The passing of the Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill was the next important outcome of this part of the session. Finally, this important legislation enabling a hike in foreign direct investment in the capital-starved insurance sector has been cleared after a long delay of seven years. The Undisclosed Foreign Income and Assets (Imposition of Tax) Bill, 2015, introduced in the Lok Sabha is again a historic initiative for curbing and retrieving black money. We believe in dialogue with both allies and opposition parties. I have myself appealed in Parliament that we are ready to discuss and accommodate any issues where political parties have a different view. I do hope that most of the parties would cooperate on issues of urgent national importance and adopt a bipartisan stance.
You are heading for France, Germany and Canada on Thursday, 9 April. What are your expectations from the visit?
I like to combine visits to more than one place when I go on my international tours in order to get more done. I’m from Ahmedabad where we have a saying, “single-fare, double journey". These three countries are major economies that have great relevance to our development process and growth. They can each contribute in terms of capital flows, technology and best practices. Canada is rich in hydrocarbons and other natural resources. An Indian Prime Minister would be visiting Canada after a long time. France and Germany have the manufacturing and skill base which is useful to us. France is our dependable strategic partner. In Germany, I am attending the prestigious Hannover Fair where India will be a partner country. I expect my visit to be helpful in advancing our “Make in India" initiative. The free-trade agreement talks are ongoing and would be reflected in my meetings.
You invited the Pakistani prime minister to your swearing-in ceremony. Indo-Pak relations have, however, gone downhill since then. When should we expect the resumption of bilateral dialogue? Will there be any pre-conditions?
We want peace and prosperity in South Asia; we want Saarc to flourish. This vision of regional cooperation and connectivity impelled me to invite the prime minister of Pakistan and other Saarc leaders to our swearing-in-ceremony. This remains a guiding factor in our foreign policy. The dividends are visible in the quantum leap in relations with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But peace cannot co-exist with terrorism, can it? Peace can only thrive when the climate is right. We remain open to bilateral dialogue with Pakistan on all outstanding issues in an environment free from terrorism and violence. The Shimla Agreement and Lahore Declaration have to be the basis for going forward.
Ahead of your visit to China, there is much hope of a possible breakthrough in border talks between the two countries. How realistic are these expectations?
The visit of President Xi to India has certainly given the relationship a new level of energy. I look forward to going to China fairly soon to further build our relationship. In so far as the border is concerned, the most important point right now is that peace and tranquillity must not be disturbed. That would create conditions for us to arrive at a mutually-acceptable solution. This is a complicated and old problem and needs to be addressed with care and with deliberation. President Xi also shares my optimism. The present priorities of both nations are the economic welfare of their people. We have taken a conscious decision not to allow confrontation to escalate into conflict. Leaderships in both countries are pragmatic and open-minded. Therefore, we do have realistic expectations.
Your personal chemistry with US President Barack Obama, as with many other world leaders, has been evident. Where do you think India figures in the US’ geo-strategic interest in Asia and have you noticed any shift in its approach?
This friendship is based on mutual respect and mutual interest. From my intimate discussions with President Obama, it is evident that India figures significantly in American geo-political, economic and strategic thinking. India is the largest democracy in the world. This strength, combined with our talented youth, has the potential of working together with the US, which is the oldest democracy and which respects human talent. Events of the recent past have further strengthened my belief, which is also shared by the US president. We are a rapidly growing economy and can do a lot for each other. The convergence in our interests is strong and will guide further development of our ties.
With unseasonal rains flattening grain and vegetable produce, the price situation is only worsening. How worried are you? What are the measures the government is considering to curb prices?
When we took charge, prices were already sky-rocketing. To make matters worse, there was a delay in the monsoon. Even then, we tried our best and succeeded in bringing down inflation. While we were witnessing a little relief on this front, the unseasonal rains have given another unfortunate jolt to agriculture. It is, of course, a matter of great concern to us in the government. I want to assure my brothers and sisters on our farms that my government will provide every help possible in this hour of need. Central ministers and officials have already gone out to assess requirements. I have also reviewed the situation through video-conference and during my visits in states. The government will do everything possible for ensuring satisfactory supply of foodgrain and other edible products. As of now, the supply side is satisfactory. However, there is serious issue of hoarding, exorbitant profits being realised by middle men and speculative behaviour. States have been requested to take stern action against hoarders and black-marketers. I am very confident that the joint efforts of the states and centre shall bear fruits.
You have urged well-off Indians to give up their LPG subsidies to help the government contain mounting expenses. Are you eventually looking at phasing out LPG subsidies for those who can afford as a matter of policy?
It is the responsibility of the government to take care of the poor. Thus, subsidy is and should be meant for those who really need it. It should reach the right people, at the right time and in the right proportion. It is a humanitarian issue and not just an economic issue. The culture of our country is that of giving; not of cornering something which belongs to others. Thus, I am appealing to people who are well-off. I reaffirm that the policy of the government is only to reduce leakages by efficient administration of subsidies. Towards this end, PAHAL, the world’s largest cash transfer programme in LPG, is showing encouraging results. The give-it-up movement is an effort to encourage well-off LPG consumers to voluntarily opt out of the LPG subsidy. The savings thereon will go towards the benefit of the poor. We will use it for meeting energy requirements of the kitchens of the poor, who still use wood fuel and suffer wood-smoke-related health hazards.
Industry in India, as well as globally, has been clamouring for more flexible labour laws in India. These obviously have social and political implications. How can India’s labour laws be reformed?
Unfortunately, in India, labour reforms have been viewed only with reference to industry. It is not a question of what industry needs. The labour reforms that we are undertaking are fundamentally aimed towards the benefit of the labour force itself. We have to ensure the welfare and security of the labour force. Moreover, we all want job creation. We need work for millions and millions of hands. We must, therefore, expand the job market. Thus, our labour reforms have these twin objectives.
With that in mind, we have made lot of changes which ensure the safety, security and well-being of the labour force. I launched such initiatives as a package called Shramev Jayate. We have also brought about certain changes in this year’s Budget in the direction of giving flexibility in choosing between EPF (Employees’ Provident Fund) or New Pension Scheme and also between ESI (Employee’s State Insurance) and another health insurance scheme. We are addressing the issues involved in non-payment of EPF amounts to labourers. For more job creation, we have also eased out certain labour laws which were making business cumbersome without offering greater security to labour. We amended the Apprenticeship Act so as to induct more fresh talent in our workforce. Thus, we will and we are taking a holistic and balanced view in the matter.
India has a huge potential in the area of technology but, as of now, tech innovation is dominated by developed economies like the US. How can we bridge the tech and innovation gap?
Yes, this is an important task and we must bridge this gap. Our intention is to convert India into a knowledge society. We have to use the potential of our talented youth for betterment of our lives and development of the country. That is why, along with formation of my government we set up a new ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship. Going further, in the recent Budget, we have launched two schemes dedicated to innovation, incubation and facilitation programmes. They are the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) and Self-Employment and Talent Utilisation (SETU). It is hoped that academia would also get associated in a structured manner in these initiatives under the aegis of the NITI Aayog. In the coming days, they will take up programmes for encouraging innovation, R&D (research and development), incubation and entrepreneurship. I have already launched a programme for Digital India. We are also strengthening our IPR (intellectual property rights) regime. A task force is working on this front.
The BJP’s dream run ended on a disastrous note in the Delhi polls. Many analysts have interpreted it as the end of the “Modi wave". How would you respond to it?
This is a purely political question. We respect the verdict of the people of Delhi. However, I find it amusing to hear that those who did not talk about a “Modi wave" in the context of the outcome of the 2014 general elections are now engaged in intense discussion regarding the “Modi wave".
You have to respect the verdict of the people who have voted during all elections held after the Lok Sabha elections. Take the cases of the Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Haryana and J&K state elections or the local body elections in Assam, Punjab, MP and Rajasthan. It is all BJP. I can say with confidence that we fully enjoy the love and trust of the people of the country living in various states, cities and villages.
In less than a month since it took over, the PDP (People’s Democratic Party)-BJP government in Jammu and Kashmir has been mired in controversies. You said in the Lok Sabha that you were not even consulted about the release of Hurriyat leader Masarat Alam. Are you happy with the government in Srinagar?
These are teething troubles. We need to have patience. I myself and my party have made our stand very clear that any lenience towards anti-national elements and terrorists will not be acceptable. However, we should not forget the larger picture. The alliance in Jammu and Kashmir is one of the most important developments on the contemporary political scene. It has the potential to resolve one of our most difficult national problems through people’s participation and good governance.
During your poll campaign and thereafter, you said you want to bring the north-eastern region into the national mainstream. Do you think it is working?
Yes, I said this. I had also said that the eight states of the North-east are the Ashta Lakshmi for the country as they have huge potential. This region can contribute a lot in the development of the whole country. In the last 10 months, I have visited the North-east twice. In addition to being with the people of those regions on their important occasions, I have taken up infrastructure projects in various sectors which include water, energy, railways, etc. I am very keen on developing infrastructure and connectivity. Phase one of gauge conversion of the Lumding-Silchar railway line has been completed in the last eight months. The trial run is going on.
I have also appealed to the people of the country to accord respect to and ensure the security of the people belonging to the North-east. With this purpose, we organised the conference of DGs (director generals of police) in the North-east. This is just the beginning. I am confident that with our efforts, the northeastern region of our country will emerge as an active partner in the process of national development.
You recently observed the judiciary should not be influenced by “five-star activists". That has created questions in people’s minds. Do you think the judiciary is stepping in because the executive is leaving a vacuum in many cases?
I would not like to analyse the judiciary; the experts should look at it. There have been instances where the judiciary’s initiative has resulted in a good outcome and there have been instances when it has resulted in pain. At the same time, administrative lethargy has also hurt, while there have been quick decisions as well. We should not suspect someone’s intentions. Hindustan Times
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