EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
Does the rise of Narendra Modi discomfit you in any way?
As a political party, we can’t ignore him because the principal Opposition party has put him up as challenger. However, as an individual, I am very concerned about his ideology, his philosophy. I am also very concerned about the kind of language he uses. So far he’s been extremely opaque. He has not spoken about any major issues that confront the country.
But, doesn’t the same apply to your own leadership?
That’s not correct. I have spoken to you about the economy, about what needs to be done. The prime minister speaks on various issues. He may not speak in an election rally, he may not give as many interviews as perhaps one would like him to give. But he does address audiences and there are written texts of his speeches.
What about Rahul Gandhi and the fact that we don’t know what he stands for at all?
Rahul Gandhi is the Vice-President of the party. He is addressing election rallies and party workers. I agree, he has not expressed his views on many issues. If I were advising him, I would certainly advise him to spell out his views on major issues in great detail.
The BJP faced a very bruising change of leadership. Would you say that the Congress is also going through a similar phase?
No. From what I’m able to assess, the rank and file seems to think that if the party is voted back to power, Rahul Gandhi should be the leader of the party and the leader of the government. Ultimately, who the party will name as the leader if it is voted back to power, I can’t say.
There is a sense today that the economy is in a mess. In your own analysis, in terms of vision, have mistakes been made?
I don’t think we are in a period of stress. But, every country in the world is going through a period of stress. The world economy hasn’t recovered from the Lehman crisis of September 2008. I believe that if we do the right things, we will be back to our potential growth rate. Yes, we may have made some mistakes, but I’m not at all pessimistic.
Could you spell out some of the right things we need to do?
The fiscal deficit must be contained; we should not allow it to breach the universally accepted norm of 3 percent. We must contain the current account deficit (CAD) to a level where we can finance it. We have to moderate expenditure so that it does not trigger high inflation. We have to be open to domestic and foreign investment. The internationalisation of the rupee is inevitable, so we have to liberalise the markets. We have to target long-term funds, insurance funds, pension funds. We have to re-capitalise our banks, make them strong. In the past 15 months, we have done many of these things.
The corporate community feels it’s a very hostile environment for them because they have to take so many permissions, that, in effect, the Raj State has not been dismantled.
The licence Raj has been substantially dismantled but I thought there is a demand that there must be regulation. Only sometime ago, on this same stage, I heard there must be more consultation, more conversations, more regulation. Now when you want regulation in all these matters, obviously, it will require a regulator, it will require obtaining an approval. I mean, you can’t have it both ways. We’re not a laissez faire state: ‘we want less controls, but more regulation’.
Is the paralysis we are seeing the case of a congenital design defect then? Is it that in the very planning of these projects you are not being able to synthesise different aspects of this country?
See, I believe that, there is nothing more important than to remove poverty. Therefore, I take a very suspicious view of people who stop power plants, people who stop coal mining, people who stop small dams, big dams. At the end of the day, I only have one question: does this leave the people whom you are fighting for in the same state of poverty they were before you started the fight? Or does it make them less poor? If they remain in the same state of poverty, I would reject that model or that argument.
In 2009, the UPA was voted to power almost on a crashing mandate. Why is there a lack of credibility, lack of hope around your government today? Do you think Manmohan Singh has been singularly lacking in leadership?
I can’t remain in government and comment on the prime minister, that’s not proper and I won’t do it. In 2009, every opinion poll predicted the UPA-1 would lose. But the people thought differently. They gave us 61 more seats and they reduced the representation for the principal Opposition party. I think you have to give credit to us for that. That’s five out of our 10 years. In the next five years, yes, I can sense that the vote is negative. I mean, I’d be blind if I didn’t see that. The reasons are slowdown in economic growth, dysfunction of the executive, cases or allegations of corruption, inflation and a slowdown in job creation. This potent mix of factors has brought about a high degree of negativity.
Now, it’s possible we may be able to get over it, it is also possible we don’t, but that’s a verdict we have to leave to the people. But even in the slowdown in the past nine years, average growth has been 7.5 percent. It’s sad that at the end of a 10-year term, growth has slowed down. I’d have wished it was the other way around. That the first couple of years we had slow growth and then we grow step by step. I’m doing my best to see that there is an upturn before we go to polls.