In this interview, Karan Thapar and former finance minister Yashwant Sinha discuss a wide variety of subjects: his overall assessment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the economy, Kashmir, relations with neighbours and the US, the undermining of institutions, the Karnataka crisis, the treatment of Muslims and Dalits, Modi’s lack of moral leadership, how the western press views Modi, how the Indian press treats Modi, whether a weak Rahul strengthens Modi and Sinha’s response to Amit Shah’s claim that the BJP would do even better in 2019 than it did 2014.
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to a special interview for The Wire.
Exactly in a weeks time, the Modi government will mark four years in office. What are the government’s successes during the four years, what are its failures and what is the impact on the state of the country? Those are the key issues I should discuss today with the former finance minister and former foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha.
Mr Sinha, before I come to specific questions about the performance of the Modi government, let me ask you for your broad overall assessment of how this government has functioned in the last four years.
Yashwant Sinha: Well, in terms of publicity, it has functioned marvellously well. They have spent over Rs 4,000 crore, the government – I am not talking of the party – they have spent over Rs 4,000 crore on publicity, and the publicity is personalised publicity, because no minister’s photograph can appear in newspapers according to a Supreme Court judgement. So it’s the prime minister all over the country. He created the Ujjwala Yojana, which entitles him to have his big photograph displayed on every petrol station in this country. So in terms of publicity, they have done extremely well. But in terms of actual work on the ground, I will say it’s very poor and they have not performed.
KT: And what about your overall assessment of Narendra Modi as prime minister during these four years?
YS: Well, you know, people, Karan, used to tell me about the Gujarat model and I must confess today before you that my reply was that a state model cannot be replicated at the all-India level. I was wrong. And today I realise that the Gujarat model has been fully implemented at the government of India level, in the sense that no minister counts for anything, even the more important and senior ministers. It is the PM and the PMO, as it was in Gujarat CM and CMO. And everything is controlled by them. The bureaucracy in the various ministries just waits for instructions from the PMO before they make any move.
KT: So you are saying he is authoritarian and he is undermining democratic cabinet functions?
YS: In the cabinet, as you know it’s the first amongst equals, the prime minister. But here he is far, far, far above all his cabinet colleagues.
KT: But in terms of his performance, has he been good, has he been mediocre, has he been wanting?
YS: I would like to tell you that this regime will be judged not by what UPA did in ten years, not by what Jawaharlal Nehru did or did not do, what Indira Gandhi did or did not do. They will be judged in 2019 by the promises that they had made and whether they had kept the promises or not. And if you judge them on the touchstone of the promises, then I can, as we go forward with this discussion, I will tell you how they have failed miserably over a number of areas.
KT: Let’s then at this point come to a subject-wise analysis of the government’s performance and let’s begin with the economy. This year, the economy is expected to grow: GDP is expected to grow at 6.5%, inflation is set to be 4.2%, the fiscal deficit 3.5% and the current account deficit 2%. Now, the Modi government is particularly proud of their macro-economic handling of the economy, but Dr Manmohan Singh has said the economy has been dismantled. He said it’s being mismanaged. As a former finance minister, what is your assessment of the handling of the economy?
YS: I would like to make 2-3 points. The first is that this government got a bonanza, like nobody else perhaps in our economy history. When this government came into power and UPA demitted office, the price of petroleum crude that we buy in the international market was $105 per barrel. Immediately after the government came into power, not because of anything that the prime minister did, but because of international factors, the prices started declining, so sharply that it touched a low of $26 per barrel and stayed below $30 for a long period of time.
So this was a bonanza and it helped the government claim macro-economic stability. It helped them cut fiscal deficit. Everything was hunky-dory. Today, the petroleum crude price has touched $80 and the government has come out and said we are not going to reduce our taxes on petroleum products, which they raised nine times to mop up the surplus which was accruing. They did not allow the oil companies to benefit. They did not allow the consumers to benefit. They mopped it up themselves by nine increases in excise duty. And you are aware of the fact that petroleum product prices, whether diesel or petrol or LPG, are at an all-time high. And people are reeling under the weight of this price increase. That’s point number one.
Now let’s see, I have heard the representatives of the government say that as far as the current account deficit is concerned, it is adversely impacted upon by rising crude prices and crude price rise might mean something like $25-50 billion more out-go in terms of foreign exchange. So that will have an impact on the current account deficit. As far as the fiscal deficit is concerned, they will continue to squeeze the consumers and try and maintain fiscal deficit. Otherwise, they will not be able to maintain even fiscal deficit. As far as the growth rate is concerned, I will say these figures are absolutely unbelievable.
KT: You mean false and fraudulent?
YS: They are not fraudulent.
KT: But false?
YS: They are not even forged. Because you will recall in 2015, early 2015, the government did two things. They changed the base year for calculation and second, they changed the formula for calculation of the GDP. And we don’t have comparative figures unfortunately. The only comparative figure that we have is for the last year of the UPA regime where the growth rate as a result of this formula went up by something like 180 basis points. So if they give the formula, comparative figures, then we will know what it is. But as somebody said, even if it’s growing at 6.5-7%, it doesn’t feel like that. We don’t see that.
KT: So you are not impressed by the macro-economic handling at all?
YS: No, I am not. I am not because we should have, given that bonanza on the fiscal front through the petroleum crude price decline, we should have done much much better.
KT: Are you also suggesting that [Arun] Jaitley has been inadequate, perhaps not up to the task as finance minister. How much of the responsibility rests with him rather than Modi?
YS: I will tell you only one thing. When I was finance minister and I was not corporate finance minister, I was just handling Ministry of Finance. Not even the department of disinvestment. And I had absolutely no time for anything. Because the workload in the Ministry of Finance is so heavy.
KT: Jaitley has been corporate affairs and frequently defence as well, and I&B briefly.
YS: And he has been handling other issues in the government. He has a finger in every pie. So what happens then is then you are not able to concentrate on the job in the finance ministry, the tasks which are with you and only finance minister can give guidance.
KT: He has spread himself so thinly, he hasn’t had adequate time for his prime concern.
YS: Yes. So you know that overall direction – just like your overall question – that over all direction and thrust which should have been given to the economy, under the leadership of the finance minister, that has been missing completely over the last four years.
The economy – farmers
KT: Let me ask you a couple of specific questions about the economy. The first one I want to ask you is about farmers, because they constitute the single biggest section of our population. Now in March we saw widespread protest in Maharashtra. Now starting June 1, ten or 110 different farmers’ organisations are launching a ten-day Bharat Bandh. What does this suggest about the situation that farmers face?
YS: There is terrible, terrible agrarian distress in our rural areas, and it’s only when you go and relate to the farmers that you realise the distress in which they are, which I have done over the last 12-18 months. And what is the problem? The problem is that this government promised, and that’s when I say they will be judged by the promises they made, they promised, we promised in our election manifesto, that we shall give 50% profit to the farmers over the cost of production.
KT: They claimed that they did that in the last budget.
YS: They have done it in the last budget. Now, in that last budget. In the last budget, what does the finance minister say? That we will introduce from rabi. Rabi is next year. We are going through the kharif phase. Rabi will be sown late this year and will be harvested…
KT: So, if it happens, it will happen 4-5 months before elections are due.
YS: And more interestingly, as many people have pointed out, the definition of cost. What is the definition of cost? The definition of cost is just your input cost plus the family’s labour. It’s not comprehensive cost.
KT: It’s not the Swaminathan committee definition cost.
KT: It’s a much lower one.
YS: Yes. And somebody has pointed out that there are many crops for which we give minimum support prices where these are already in existence.
KT: In other words, the support price is lower than the price that the farmer can get in the market.
YS: No, it’s not. The minimum support price, what has happened is minimum support price, according to this formula, already exists. So it’s no big deal that farmers are going to get, one. Two, as a result of various factors, farm prices have crashed. So, in the mandis when the farmer goes to sell his produce, he is getting a pittance, you know, and he has no choice because while the government declares the minimum support prices, they are not prepared to buy the farmer’s produce, and certainly not the entire produce.
KT: So it’s a theoretical price.
YS: So he is being oppressed from two sides. One is the rising cost of input and the second is complete crash of agricultural prices.
KT: So the acute farmers’ distress in the country is a direct result of what you would call mismanagement of the situation by the government, a failure to actually make available a proper minimum support price?
YS: They should have done it in the very first budget. And it should have been implemented honestly by now, and it should have been covering many more crops.
KT: In other words, you are saying they made a claim. But, the claim is not fulfilled and in fact it’s an attempt to pull the wool over eyes.
YS: They made a promise.
KT: But not fulfilled?
YS: The promise was not fulfilled. And they have not taken care of the increasing distress that the farmers face. This is the result of what the government has done. Therefore, when you said that farmers are going to protest. They have been protesting in various ways in various parts of the country. Now the farmers and 120 farmers’ organisations have decided that they will not take their produce for sale to the cities from June 1 to June 10.
KT: Which will have a huge impact on urban populations who are dependent on this.
YS: They are dependent on this. This will also not go.
KT: This could also create social unrest.
The economy – jobs
KT: Let me come to one of the promises that Modi government made, it’s is to do with jobs. Jobs is fundamental as a need and requirement in this country. The Modi government promised to create ten million jobs a year. Recently, two arms of this government have claimed – the vice chairman of Neeti Aayog and Surjit Bhalla, member of the prime minister’s economic advisory commission – that between six and 15 million jobs were created last year alone. But the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy has strenuously refuted that. In your opinion, is job creation one of the strengths of this government or is it in fact its Achilles heel?
YS: It is its Achilles heel. And there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that would actually support this. But I am not going to go into the details of that. I will make only one point to you. This government has a habit of changing the agency which collects figures if they are not up to the mark according to their expectation.
KT: They shop around for an agency that gives the best result?
YS: Yes. So in this particular case what has happened is that the labour bureau of the government of India used to collect statistics of employment generation after conducting a household survey on a quarterly basis. Now those figures were not flattering for the government.
KT: So they switched to EPFO instead.
YS: They have switched to EPFO, and EPFO figures, it is a very interesting arithmetical exercise that they have done. EPFO requires that if you employ 20 persons or more then you will have to register yourself with the EPFO. Now suppose if you have 19 employees, you are not registered. The moment you employee one more person, then you register yourself with EPFO, and the Bhalla formula and NITI Aayog formula will count 20 as fresh job creation.
KT: Whereas, in fact, 19 may be older jobs?
KT: So the basis on which either the NITI Aayog or Surjeet Bhalla have come to their conclusions is not just questionable, but it could be close to wrong and false.
YS: This is exactly what I am saying. That you take growth rate, you take employment, you take any figure, unless you go into the details and verify the veracity of the figure, they are not believable.
KT: So the first promise that mattered to people, the promise of ten million jobs per year, is one on which they haven’t delivered. Now they are in a sense concocting statistics or shopping around for agencies to try and suggest that they fulfilled it.
Economy – reforms
KT: Let’s come to a second promise they made. This government created the impression, Modi said in so many words, that he would undertake radical sweeping reforms. The face of the Indian economy was going to change. Now, when you ask the government, they say they have done it and these are the sort of things they cite: GST, demonetisation, the Bankruptcy Code, the Real Estate Regulation Act, the RBI’s Monetary Policy Committee, Jan Dhan Yojana, Ujjwal Yojana, free LPG for people below the poverty line and now, I presume, they will add allegedly electrification of the whole country. But, my question is simple – Does all of this amount to the sort of radical far-ranging reform that Mr Modi promised and people believed he would deliver or is this something different and perhaps a lot less?
YS: You know we must make a distinction between the welfare measures that a government adopts and the pure economic reforms. I will not confuse between the two and I will not count welfare measures as economic reforms. I mean then health, education everything will come in.
KT: Mr Modi in a sense is doing that when he claims these are real reforms.
YS: Yes. So a lot of these reforms that you have mentioned fall in the category of welfare measures and they are good. Alright. But, let’s take two of the most important or three, I will concede that the Bankruptcy Code is a reform. But, it has a lot of operational problem which should have been thought of and they were not thought of. They are thinking in terms of amending the bankruptcy code. Demonetisation was not a reform at all. It is entirely wrong to call it an economic reform measure. The only other reform they have undertaken is GST, and GST has been so badly botched up that instead of bringing benefits to the consumer and to the country, it is creating humongous problems for them.
KT: In fact, critical measures that industrialists were hoping the Modi government would tackle, in terms of land acquisition, in terms of labour reform. It attempted one. Passed a couple of ordinances, gave up and has left both now – land acquisition and labour to states. One or two states have done something. Three or four in one instance, three or four more in another instance, but the government itself has shied away from this bullet.
YS: They have. They have completely.
KT: Is this lack of conviction?
YS: Karan, the point is that you have to look at the political situation in the country. This government and this prime minister started with a lot of strength. And it’s only perhaps a strong government which can tackle reforms like labour market reforms or other difficult reforms.
KT: And he’s failed to use his position of strength.
YS: He has failed to use his majority in parliament. He has failed to use the strength in his office that he has acquired for carrying out these reforms. And let me add because you have not mentioned it – the huge huge problem of banks NPAs. Banks are failing. Banks have been subjected to huge frauds. They have carried on with the frauds over the last four years while the government was sleeping. And today, bank after bank is going to fail unless the government gives taxpayers’ money to the banks to raise the capital.
KT: You are making a very interesting point. You are saying the Modi government had the opportunity, it had the strength to carry out far reaching reforms. No other government was in that lucky position as they were. But, they have allowed the opportunity to simply fritter away and they missed it.
YS: It has. It has. So on both occasions, the strength, the political strength that they had, the support of the people that they had and bonanza of oil prices..
KT: All wasted?
YS: All wasted. All wasted. Let me just make one more point. India needs something like 8-10% annual growth rate in order to tackle its problems. We are at 7-7.5%. This is not good enough.
KT: So, India’s future in a sense has been betrayed by this the failure of this government to use its strength and to use its popularity. It hasn’t and they have created a question mark about India’s future.
YS: On the other hand, they have used their strength to introduce measures like demonetisation, which has ruined the economy.
Economy – demonetisation and black money
KT: Let’s come to demonetisation because it’s clearly the most controversial economic decision that this government has taken. Initially, it was intended, the prime minister said, to tackle black money, counterfeit currency, terror funding. Subsequently, a few weeks later, he added it would also help reduce the dependence of the economy on cash. Looking at the outcome today, almost 18 months down the road, have these objectives been fulfilled and secondly, does that mean that this was a bad decision or was it a credible decision?
YS: You see, not one of the objectives that the prime minister mentioned in his famous November 8, 2016 speech has been fulfilled. Not one because all the money has come back. Why aren’t they disclosing the figures? The simplest thing in the world is for god’s sake, tell us how much money has come back. And RBI will not release those figures. They have said 99.8% has come back, whereas the District Cooperative Central Bank’s figure has not come back. The Indian currency, Nepal and other neighbouring countries, that has not come back. So, all the money has come back. Let me tell you, some people told the prime minister perhaps that if you do this, the government will have a bonanza of four lakh crore rupees.
KT: The AG said this specifically, told this to the Supreme Court, four-five lakh crore rupees would be extinguished and therefore, would come to the government.
YS: And that has not materialised.
KT: 16,000 crore is all that came back.
YS: So, there you are. So, this is where they failed and now…
KT: Can I interrupt there? The government claims that 18 lakhs and perhaps more bank accounts are under scrutiny. They believe when the scrutiny is complete, a huge amount of black money will be unearthed and there will be a tax bonanza. Do you accept that or are they misleading us with their claims and statistics?
YS: Anyone, let’s make this first point. Anyone who deposited any amount of money during those days would have been conscious that this would be inquired into. So they would have had their defence ready. Now, if you are aware of the income tax processes, then somebody will say this is not right, this is not your money, it is black money. So he will go and appeal to the appeal commissioner. Then he will go to the IT-AT or where ever he can go. Then he will go to high court, then he will go to the Supreme Court.
KT: So, it’s an unending legal process.
YS: It is unending. Thousands of crore of rupees are held up in such litigations in the Income Tax department. Thousand of crores.
KT: So, the claim that you are going to unearth black money and get a tax bonanza going into lakhs of crores is pure, forgive me, baloney.
YS: Absolute baloney. Absolutely. They have failed miserably and therefore counterfeit has come back, terror funding, you know what’s happened.
KT: And black money continues.
YS: And black money continues.
Economy – impact of note ban
KT: My last question on the economy. How much damage do you believe demonetisation did to the economy and secondly, is that phase of damage over or does it continue?
YS: You see, it has done enormous amount of damage. Ordinary people have lost a lot of money, which will never be made up. A farmer told me in Akola that he had an orange farm and he got two lakhs less than he would have because of demoentisation. Now who is going to give him two lakhs?
KT: He has lost that forever.
YS: Forever. So such instances are there in millions.
KT: And we don’t know about the impact of demonetisation on the informal sector where businesses could have collapsed, where jobs have been lost. We have no real assessment on what has happened there.
YS: No. Businesses have collapsed, jobs have been lost, people have been sent back home. And the only evidence, current evidence that we have is that the amount of money, budgetary allocation for MNREGA scheme has gone up from something like 40,000 crore to 55,000 crore and even that is insufficient.
KT: Which is clear proof that, in fact, it was needed because people were in distress.
YS: They went back from the industrial centres to their villages and are looking for jobs in their villages.
KT: Are we still paying the cost of demonetisation or is that phase of pain and cost now over?
YS: No, in course of time, just as this city of Delhi got out of Nadir Shah slaughter, someday we will get out of it.
KT: But, that day hasn’t necessarily come.
YS: Not yet.
KT: Let’s come to a second concern. This time not to do with the economy, to do with Kashmir, which is an issue which is on the front page of newspapers practically everyday at the moment. Since 2014, the number of terrorist incidents has increased by 160%, the number of Kashmiri people joining militancy has doubled. In fact, it is said that one Kashmiri boy joins a terrorist organisation every third day, and active militants have increased three fold. Many people say the Modi government’s so-called ‘muscular’ policy hasn’t improved harmony and law and order. It’s driven the state to the brink. You know Kashmir intimately. What’s your assessment of the government policy in the state?
YS: Well, I would say that the ‘muscular’ policy has only worsened the situation and led to much greater alienation than was there before. Second, you know we supported the government’s offer of suspension of operations, let’s not call it ceasefire during Ramzan and you know some of these organisations in Jammu and Kashmir have not responded positively. I hope they respond positively. This could perhaps be a beginning of a new policy in Kashmir. But, the government will have to change the policy completely, win the hearts of the people of Kashmir and reduce the alienation which exists there. Otherwise, we have no hope.
KT: Let me ask you specifically about what they call the Ramzan ceasefire, that you call secession of operation. Do you believe that this is a sensible way of reaching out to the alienated people of Kashmir or do you think it’s too little, too late and at the moment, inadequate.
YS: No, it is not adequate in itself. You know the government about a year ago appointed somebody.
KT: Dineshwar Sharma
YS: ..to talk to the Kashmiris. Whether he is an interlocutor or not is another doubt.
KT: They call him special represent.
YS: Ya. So, and what are his powers? What is the time limit? That’s also not defined and from my experience let me tell you that all the people in Kashmir that we have met and interacted with, they all say let us sit down and talk in a time-bound manner. So, say that by the December 31, 2018, we will reach a settlement. This way or that way. But, have a frank discussion then.
KT: But, at the moment, Dineshwar Sharma is reluctant or perhaps even refuses to talk to the Hurriyat. He refuses to talk to so-called distant organisations other than the Hurriyat. He is reluctant to talk to the militants. Has he made any impact on the ground at all?
YS: Not that I know of.
YS: None. He has met inconsequential organisations. Organisations that don’t carry any weight.
KT: So, he has made no impact at all?
KT: One other thing that has begun and has been noticed in the last six to eight months is that young Kashmiris, not just boys, but in particular young girls, often in their teens, have started throwing stones at security forces to stop them capturing militants and it is quite clear that these young teenagers, whether girls or boys, have no fear for their lives whatsoever. What does that tell you about the mood of Kashmir youth?
YS: The mood of the Kashmiri youth came starkly to us when, in one of our meetings in Shopian, which is the hub of terrorist activity, one young man said, ‘I have especially come to tell you in this meeting that we are very grateful to the government of India for one thing. And that is that they have removed the fear of death from our minds. So we don’t mind laying down our lives for the cause of Kashmir.’
KT: Have we emotionally lost the Kashmiri people?
YS: To a very, very large extent, there is still hope if we approach them in the right spirit. And as I said, tell them that we are here to solve the problems, and let’s have a very frank discussion with them, including everyone, the government of India says the stakeholders. So define the stakeholders, have the stakeholders been defined for the Dineshwar Sharma? No.
KT: So, the government creates an image through the Dineshwar Sharma that it’s wiling to talk, but the truth is he’s not talking to meaningful people, stakeholders that he should be talking to have not been defined. Meanwhile, young Kashmiris in their teens are emotionally lost to us.
YS: They are emotionally lost to us and let me tell you, you mention the numbers of Kashmiri youth who are taking up arms. That is not limited by the number of youth who are willing to join. It is limited by the number of arms which are available. We were told..
KT: There is no dearth of youth.
YS: There is no dearth of youth. In a village they will have three AK-47 rifles, then there will be a lottery and the three youth whose names will come out will receive those three weapons and then they will be taken round the village on the shoulders celebrating their coming martyrdom, and the the youth who will not receive it will be crest fallen. That is the reality of Kashmir.
KT: In other words, Kashmiri youths are vying with each other to be potential martyrs. They are not scared of losing their lives even though we are talking about 12, 13, 14-year-olds.
YS: Yes, including girls.
KT: The paradox is, you paint a situation which you have seen yourself at firsthand, which is deeply not just disturbing but also distressing. But the impression the Modi government gives is, it doesn’t care. It seems to be unconcerned about Kashmir. You don’t hear this government expressing any concern with the exception of the so-called ceasefire that they have just declared – and even that has caveats.
YS: Let me tell you very frankly, with the support of pliant media, especially TV channels in Delhi, which are running down people like me as peaceniks. “Where are those fellows?” they will shout in the evenings.”Where are those peaceniks?What has happened? A stone was thrown.”
KT: And this reinforces the Modi government’s utter lack of concern.
YS: Utter lack of concern. They are not bothered.
KT: Are you of the opinion that the BJP-PDP government is part of the problem and therefore, can’t be part of the solution and that the situation will only start to improve, some people say when the Mehbooba Mufti government is dispensed with and President’s rule is enforced under perhaps governor Vohra.
YS: Its a diarchy which has not worked. Its really a diarchy. You have a Jammu-based BJP and you have a Valley-based PDP. And the BJP ministers are concentrating in Jammu. They have no concern with the rest of the state and the PDP ministers are concentrating in the Valley.
KT: So, the time has come to get rid of this government.
YS: Well, I mean there are many people who are suggesting that we should have President’s rule or Governor’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir. I don’t really know, then the government of India will be right in front.
KT: That could be even worse.
YS: That could be even worse.
KT: In other words, what the government needs to do is to move away, perhaps completely reverse its so-called ‘muscular’ policy and instead find a way to reach out to the hearts of the people who at this moment are deeply alienated. You have to start talking even if its difficult and you don’t know whom to talk to, but you have to make that effort.
YS: You have to. They will tell you, ‘Get lost’. You will have to persevere and talk to them, engage with them. You will have to face humiliation, Karan, when you are out there talking to them. Be prepared to face those humiliations and persevere. For god’s sake persevere.
KT: That’s the answer. It wont be easy but persevere.
YS: And I mean, just to give you an example of the diarchy, the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir opposed this suspension of operations. Mehbooba supported this and asked the government of India to implement it, all the other critical parties did it but following the ‘muscular’ policy, the BJP said: ‘Don’t do it’.
KT: In fact, the new chief minister opposed it. People believe that Nirmala Sitharaman, in her interview, has opposed it. Many people believe that the army chief is not in favour of it. Some people have said that he has actually had to be persuaded but perhaps he isn’t fully persuaded. So, it seems this so-called ceasefire, which you questioned – you called it a secession of hostilities instead – is not being whole-heartedly implemented. The home ministry may be behind it but there are question marks about the extent to which the rest of the establishment is behind it.
YS: No, the rest of the system or establishment is not mentally with it, not emotionally with it and perhaps they will break it at the first opportunity.
India’s relations with its neighbours
KT: A third area of concern at the moment is India’s relation with its neighbours. The relationship is at its lowest ebb since Kargil. Do you believe the Modi’s government policy to Pakistan that no talks are possible whilst the threat of terror continues is still the right policy or does it needs to be revised and re-thought?
YS: I think the time has come when we should re-look at this policy. I was, you will remember in my conversations with you, had also advocated that there could not be talks when terror is going on, but now that the army chief of Pakistan has made some very welcome noises and it appears as if Pakistan will be willing to discuss, to begin with even on terror, I think the time has come where we should engage with Pakistan and the first thing that we should take up with them is ceasefire on the LoC and the international border Jammu and Kashmir, going on to terrorism and then going on to others.
KT: So, the Pakistan army chief is suggesting that he is willing to reach out. And The Hindu reported this on its first page. Several Pakistani papers have reported what the army chief has said, then we should find a way of responding.
YS: We should.
KT: And if this government doesn’t, and sticks by its no-talk policy, that would be a mistake.
YS: We have to go about it very, very carefully. And my first prescription or advice will be, don’t immediately have a summit, you know, let’s start talks at the joint secretary level.
KT: But, find a way of starting.
YS: Find a way and let there be back-channeled diplomacy in full swing during this period. But you know the penchant here is our habit is to immediately raise it, where will Modi get the publicity? So let it… let’s have a summit.
KT: That would be a terrible mistake?
YS: That would be a terrible mistake.
KT: A second troubled relationship at the moment is the relationship with China. Do you believe the Wuhan summit was an imaginative way of restoring some balance in that relationship? Or do you agree with critics who say, that the Wuhan summit is simply the most recent of India unwarranted concession. It’s more a sign of India’s weakness than strength.
YS: I will tend to agree with the latter. You know, and the evidence of that came about a month before the Wuhan summit when we humiliated the Dalai Lama and said, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that, and you can’t even hold your ‘Thank You, India programme’ in Delhi’. He was compelled to hold it in Dharamshala. That was the first concession that we made to the Chinese, to pave the way to the Wuhan summit. Now that in my mind, the way of dealing with China, China is strong, it is a bully and you have to call their bluff. The problem with us has been that we have always submitted to the Chinese will and take their statement, take our statement after the Wuhan summit and notice the difference.
KT: So, you’re saying, despite the fact that Mr Modi is so proud of being a strong leader, despite the fact they refer to him in the party as a 56-inch chest man, when it comes to standing up to China’s bullying, he doesn’t do it?
YS: The best example of that is not Wuhan, it is the Maldives. Have you been able to even persuade the Chinese to withdraw even one inch in the Maldives? And the Maldives regime is challenging India every odd week, and we are not able to do it.
KT: You know Mr Sinha, it’s not just in the Maldives, that China seems to be stepping consciously and deliberately and continuously on India’s toes. That’s also happening in Sri Lanka, that’s also happening in Nepal. Those are three other countries where our present relationship is troubled. And then there are some who say that the Doklam issue is also rankling in a way with Bhutan, and although Bhutan doesn’t make so much noise about it, and yet when Mr Modi came to power four years ago, all the heads of government of our neighbours were invited. There was great hope and euphoria. Has that hope now dispelled? Has that promise been dissipated?
YS: It is. And you’re right, absolutely right. Sri Lanka, where we had a very friendly relation they’re not as friendly, as they were to begin with. The Maldives, then even Chabahar in Iran. Two things about Chabahar, one is that we have reduced as some television channel was showing 1500 crore, which was allocated for the development of Chabahar Port to only 10 lakhs or something, that’s the budgetary reallocation. Second is that we claim that we are owners of the port along with Iran. We are not. Iran has gone ahead and invited Pakistan and China to participate in it. So, you take Sri Lanka, you take the Maldives, you take Iran, our neighbour, you take Nepal, everywhere, it’s just failure and nothing else.
India’s relationship with the US
KT: What about – and this perhaps is the last foreign policy issue I will raise with you – India relationship with the United States. Mr Modi makes a great display of his closeness, his alleged friendship with Donald Trump and let’s be honest. Donald Trump in the last year-and-a-half has on several occasions spoken in glowing terms about India. How much credit do you give Mr Modi for this specific relationship?
YS: Not very much. You know, I mean you and I and everybody else who is concerned with foreign policy should realise one thing –personal relationships apart, no country in the world will compromise on its national interest only because the heads of governments have hugged each other. So, when it comes to hard negotiations, no country is going to give in.
KT: So Modi’s hugs are not going to change Donald Trump’s attitude to it.
YS: Nothing at all, nothing at all.
KT: We mislead ourselves if we believe that because he hugged Mr Trump three times or four times during the visit last year, this means that, in fact, the relationship is very Indian, pro-Indian, very close to us.
YS: I’ll just remind you here, you remember the first visit that Mr Modi made as prime minister to the UN General Assembly in 2014, and the euphoria which was created in this country? ‘Oh my god,’ they said, ‘we, India is going to become the permanent member of the UN Security Council early next year. It’s going to be as fast because of the fantastic diplomacy that Modi has employed in New York’. Where is that membership?
KT: In other words, we fool ourselves too easily.
YS: We fool ourselves, again, I make that point because the media goes completely gung-ho. It’s a euphoria which media creates. The Congress government, UPA government had attended one meeting of the G4 Summit, which is India, Germany, Japan and Brazil. Because all these four are hopeful for the permanent membership of the Security Council. And I had a opposed it then, and I said, they don’t bring any advantage, but you have to carry their baggage if you join this group, Modi went to New York, he held a meeting of G4 and oh my god, what euphoria was created. And then the worst thing is nobody remembers after that and everyone forgets.
KT: We fall into traps, of our own making.
YS: But the only thing which survives is this 56-inch chest.
KT: Let’s take a break and when I come back in part two of this interview, I want to talk about the internal situation of the country after four years of Modi’s government. I want to talk to you about, what’s happened to institutions. I want to talk to about the situation facing Muslims and Dalits. I want to talk to about the big question I raised about Mr Modi’s alleged lack of moral leadership. And then finally, I want to talk to about the Indian media and Rahul Gandhi is one reason why Mr Modi looks secure, because the opponents he faces is so weak. All of that in part two. See you in part two of the second half of this critical interview with Yashwant Sinha.
Part II: Internal situation
KT: Welcome back to part two of this critical interview with Yashwant Sinha, former foreign minister and former finance minister on four years of the Modi government. In part one, we talked about the economy, about Kashmir and about India’s relationship with his neighbours, particularly Pakistan and China. Now, I should talk to Mr Yashwant Sinha about the internal situation in the country after four years of Mr Modi government.
Mr Sinha, let’s start with the internal situation in the country. There are many people who say that critical constitutional institutions have been undermined by this government. To begin with, they talk about the cavalier dismissal of the Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh governments. They talk about the way allegedly the opposition has been throttled in parliament. The way appointments to the judiciary have been held back by the government or even the so-called politicisation of the election commission. But you know and I know the truth is much the same as of earlier Congress governments, particularly Indira Gandhi. So, is Mr Modi’s government worse than its predecessors or is just continuing a very unhappy Indian tradition?
YS: Let me begin by saying that one wrong does not make a right. Is that the saying?
KT: It is absolutely right.
YS: So, if somebody has done wrong, does it not give you the liberty to repeat that wrong? Second is that, did you notice that when Mr Vajpayee was the prime minister, that we were making this claim that you did this and therefore we are justified in doing this? We are different. BJP always claimed that we are a party with a difference, always assumed a high moral ground. Now, are we living up to it? You started talking about the institutions of democracy. Let’s start with the parliament, Lok Sabha. The first and foremost duty of Lok Sabha is to decide whether the government of the day is in the majority or not. Now, votes of no-confidence have been tabled and they’re not taken over days and the session ends, and without taking up the vote of no-confidence. Second, you have shorter and shorter sessions of Lok Sabha. I have never seen a shorter session of Lok Sabha for the budget session as the last one. Then this is how parliament is functioning. Are you aware of even a single overture step that Mr Modi as prime minister to call the leaders of the opposition party and talk to them about this?
KT: There have been all-party meetings?
YS: No. No. All party meetings are separate. The prime minister has to reach out. Vajpayee used to reach out. So, he does not do so because he enjoys the parliament being disrupted and I am saying this with responsibility. Now, this is one, the second Supreme Court. Now, have you ever heard of four senior-most judges of Supreme Court coming out in the public domain, facing the media and saying democracy is in danger and even benches of Supreme Court are fixed? This is the charge that the four senior-most judges of Supreme Court made. So where are we? Then, take the Election Commission that you mention, let the Election Commission just explain two things. One, why there was a six-week gap between the elections in Himachal Pradesh and the Gujarat assembly elections, why, when the counting was on the same day? Let the Election Commission explain why they disqualified 20 Aam Aadmi Party MLAs without giving them a hearing? And then the whole thing was refered back to them now.
KT: And reversed.
YS: ..and reversed. See, so this the Election Commission. Then you take the media. We will perhaps talk about it a little later.
KT: Let’s come to something that’s in the news in a big way as we talk. Karnataka. The crisis in that state. Do you to some extent see the hand of either Narendra Modi or Amit Shah behind what’s happening in Karnataka?
YS: Absolutely, do you have any doubts about it? Nobody in the BJP in Karnataka will move an inch without a direction from Delhi. And what is happening in Karnataka is immoral in the extreme, and we cannot justify it. I’m repeating, we cannot justify it by saying Congress did the same.
KT: Karnataka, therefore, is a permanent indelible black mark on the BJP’s claim that they are morally different and better than other parties.
YS: Absolutely, absolutely. Now, we are worse than the other parties which have been immoral, and particularly the Congress party.
KT: Historically, in India state governments, the mandates of people who claim to be chief ministers have been treated cavalierly. There’s the famous Indira Gandhi instance where N.T. Rama Rao was dismissed from office even though he had majority and the whole thing had to be reversed and there are countless other ones. In comparison, would you say that was a low point for the BJP that this behaviour in Karnataka, not just reverses historical precedents that of applied in Meghalaya, Goa or Manipur, but it is for the BJP, a problem that the party will never live down.
YS: I would say that there have been many lows in the past which have gone unnoticed, where we were not the single largest party, but we cobbled up a majority. The governors were old BJP hands. Therefore, we got the invitation from Raj Bhavan and formed the government. Karnataka was the litmus test, and we have failed in Karnataka, even if we succeed in getting a majority in the assembly today, I would say we have failed miserably on the moral standards count.
KT: In other words, the party with a difference is now no better than any other party.
YS: It is no better. It is, in fact, worse. And, the only lesson that one can learn from this is whatever the election results, whatever the numbers which are thrown up, it always is the BJP which will from the government and nobody else.
Attacks on Dalits, Muslims
KT: Let’s now come to the mood in the country and in particular impact on India, Dalit’s and Muslims. In the last four years, we’ve had ghar wapsi, Love Jihad, Bharat Mata ki Jai, beef bans and gau rakhshaks, attacks on Dalits and the namaz controversy. And then, in UP particularly, you had a whole spate and continuing police encounters, as well as anti-romeo squads. Are these signs that were becoming a majoritarian and intolerant country where nationalism trumps any belief and commitment we have to liberal values.
YS: I absolutely agree with you and I’ll say that this is the most worrisome aspect of the NDA rule of the last four years, this division of society into sections. This is the most worrisome phase. It has resulted in violence in various parts, and it has certainly resulted in a great deal of disaffection amongst the community.
KT: Has this threatened the fragile fabric of India’s harmony and unity?
YS: India’s fabric of unity has been fragile at times, but also very strong. And we have withstood many crises. It has affected the fabric, it has torn at many places, but I still believe in the people of India and in their wisdom, just as in the past, they have restored sanity, I’m sure they’ll do it again.
KT: How concerned are you about the way Muslims and Dalits are taunted and targeted these days by institutions and organisations that are very close to the government or the RSS? I’m referring to the way and what happened to Muslims in Alwar and Kasganj, or on suburban train between Delhi and Faridabad, I am talking about the way Dalits are not allowed to grow moustaches or ride hoses, or even sometimes in Gujarat, not allowed to participate or even witness dandiya festivities. How do you respond to all this?
YS: And what happened in Gurgaon, with respect to namaz. So it is new kind of vigilantism which has overtaken members of a certain community, and they feel that they’re doing a great national duty by suppressing the others, whether it’s Dalits or Muslims, that is the feeling that ‘I’m doing a great national duty’.
KT: The worst thing is the sort of things BJP leaders say about Muslims. I will give you a selection of some of the most recent: In January, a BJP MLA in Rajasthan said the way Muslims population is increasing, the existence of Hindus is in danger; in February, a BJP MLA from UP said Muslims got India divided, what is the need for them to live in India, they should either go to Pakistan or Bangladesh, what business have they being here? And then in April, a BJP MLA from Karnataka said, this is a Hindu rashtra. We want to build the Ram temple. Who ever wants Babri Masjid or Tipu Jayanti, they should go away, they should vote for Congress. And I’ve only given you three examples that, but the truth is Mr Sinha, that every month, there are BJP MPs, sometimes even cabinet ministers who speak in identical terms. What do you make of this?
YS: This is a very simple. And it a very well thought out plan. Let’s not take them as isolated statements of some odd leader of the BJP. What the BJP is now trying to do is to create a fear of the minorities in the mind of the majority community. It’s the majority community which is feeling insecure. And if the majority community starts feeling insecure, then they’ll start voting for the BJP. And generally, it is in every society, that it is the minority communities which feel insecure. Here we are creating a situation where the majority community will start feeling insecure.
KT: And it all being done purely for BJP’s political gain?
YS: Absolutely. And they don’t count the damage it is doing to our social fabric and the future of this country.
KT: As long as they feel this will bring them votes. They don’t care.
YS: They don’t care.
KT: The saddest part is that when Muslims or Dalits are targeted, when BJP MLA, ministers taunt them or even when the most horrific rapes happen in India, the prime minister is completely silent and on the odd occasion, when he does speak up, most people feel it’s being virtually dragged out of him. In fact, when Gauri Lankesh was assassinated, it was discovered that the prime minister was following on Twitter people who are actually applauding her assassins, including one gentleman, who forgive me, on Twitter actually referred to her as a kutiya. And when there was a protest in the country, Mr Modi despite that protest did not dissociate from these people. And his party issued official statements defending his right to follow who he wants. My question is simple, does Mr Modi lack moral leadership or is he simply reluctant to exercise it?
YS: No, he lacks model leadership and he’s afraid to face inconvenient questions. So if an inconvenient situation arises, he does not respond. And by the same logic, he has not addressed a single press conference in the four years that he’s been in office.
KT: How important in a country like India is the moral leadership of the prime minister? How important is it that when we are anguished or troubled, he should issue a rallying cry, the nation can rally around. He doesn’t do that. He doesn’t even seem to feel the need to do that. How much of a vacuum does this create?
YS: Well, it is a huge, huge vacuum. There’s no doubt about it because we have had leaders in the past who’s moral authority, has been completely accepted by the people of this country. Every section of the country and every section of the country has responded to their call. That is the job of the prime minister of India. He must be regarded as the great moral leader and anything coming from him should be accepted by the people.
KT: And Mr Modi is not a moral leader?
YS: He fails that test.
Modi in the media
KT: Let me quote to you from two of the Western world’s most highly respected and highly regarded newspapers. On April 16, the New York Times said of Mr Modi, he has exhibited a patent of silence and deflection that is deeply worrying to anybody who cares about the health of the world’s largest democracy. Literally seven days later, on April 23, London Times said he has been complicit in a culture that minimises the very existence of these crimes. The crimes being, the rapes that were happening. Should Mr Modi and the BJP care about what the Western media say, or is the Western media irrelevant?
YS: No BJP, cares for the Western media when it’s favourable, flattering. Then they’ll go hammer and tongs and publicise it all over the country. Such criticisms will be completely subdued. Even the Indian media will not carry these remarks of the foreign media. So, to begin with, Modi was very fond of foreign media because they were praising him at that time. Now that they have discovered who he is, he has no use for them.
KT: So he ignores them completely?
YS: He ignores them completely and such, as I’m saying, what you have quoted would normally have been quoted by some section of the media in this country. I have not come across anyone mentioning, having any mention of this.
KT: Which brings me to the Indian media coverage of the Modi government of the last four years. Many people believe that the Indian media, deliberately censors itself, others believe with specific reference to one or two channels that they actually deliberately put out propaganda to support the government and on the odd occasion or the rare occasion if Mr. Modi is available for interviews, people say those interviews are done like servile courtiers. Is that a fair analysis and description of the Indian media or I am being unfair?
YS: No, you are absolutely being fair. And let me tell you, when I was coming here to meet you, I was talking to your assistant and we were discussing exactly the same thing, and we recalled Advaniji‘s famous saying, during the Emergency, that when they were asked to bend, they crawled. Today, nobody is asking them to even bend, but they are crawling.
KT: And that is your honest opinion of the Indian media?
YS: Yes, that is my honest opinion. I mean large sections of it. There is still some exceptions.
KT: But at a moment, when the media’s voice should have been loud and resolute, it’s either silenced or worse still… it simply cannot be heard.
YS: No, it is, media has become the mouthpiece of the government, you know, both the visual and the print media is only promoting the government.
KT: It’s failing to do its own job?
YS: They’re just not being fair. Can you imagine a situation and a democracy where the media is going hammer and tongs at the opposition and not at the government at all. The see no wrong in this government.
KT: It’s a complete reversal of what the media should be doing.
YS: All the time they are targeting the opposition.
KT: So you are deeply disillusioned with the Indian media today?
YS: Absolutely, at the moment, yes.
KT: You feel India has been let down?
YS: I feel India has been let down.
Looking to 2019
KT: Let me now come to a last issue with you. There is the view that at the end of the day, Narendra Modi is saved by the fact that his leading political opponent is Rahul Gandhi. People are either so unimpressed by Mr Gandhi or there are some who actually believe he simply doesn’t have the qualities to be prime minister that Mr Modi ends up being the beneficiary of a huge TINA factor. Would you agree with it?
YS: Well, in our country, we are very fond of talking about the TINA factor, and it started with Pandit Nehru. The much-maligned Pandit Nehru today. It’s been after Nehru who after Indira Gandhi, this who after that, who would have thought in let’s say 2011, that Mr Modi will be the prime minister of India in 2014?
KT: So who knows what would happen in 2019!
YS: And did anybody judge his abilities at that point of time? No. So it all depends on how the people look at you. And it all depends on what they think of you, and they let me tell you, despite all the control that you might exercise over the media, the people will come to their own conclusion.
KT: So you’re not dismissing or writing off Rahul Gandhi and you don’t share the view that he’s just a, forgive my language, a pappu. You don’t share that?
YS: No, I don’t agree with that. And I also don’t share the view that he’s no opponent to Modi. Let’s wait and watch. The Congress vote percentage in Karnataka has actually gone up.
KT: And it’s also higher than the BJP’s. It’s, it all went up and it’s higher than of the BJP’s, and you say, therefore, that these are signs, including perhaps the by-elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, including the outcome in Gujarat. There are signs that Rahul Gandhi is getting his act together and you never know when a man who was once dismissed as pappu becomes popular and the people make him a leader in his own right.
YS: You know, as somebody said, let’s not look at who is the alternative to Modi in 2019. He said, the people of India are the alternative to Modi. Who was alternative to Mrs Gandhi in 1977? We had a V.P. Singh in 1989, but in 1977, we had a large number of very eminent leaders, but not one person who was considered to be an alternative. But still see what happened.
KT: That could happen again in 2019.
YS: I will not rule it out. That could happen, that could well happen in 2019. What is the… you talked about this, the state of the nation and the mind of the nation, I will sum it up by saying that there is a great deal of disappointment and frustration among the farmers, among the youth, among the women and among the small businessman.
KT: Muslims and Dalits.
YS: Muslims and Dalits. It has not turned into anger. The day it turns into anger, will be the day of reckoning.
KT: Now, elections are just a year away, some people believe they could happen even earlier, perhaps possibly in December this year. What are your apprehensions over the next 365 days, if it is so clear and obvious, the credible and critical sections of the Indian population feel let down feel, feel betrayed, and it’s only as a moment of time before this turns to anger and therefore, the BJP faces this potential threat. What are your apprehensions over the next 365 days?
YS: My apprehension is that the BJP will bend over backwards to create a situation where the opposition does not unite
KT: Split them at any cost?
YS: Yes. And the opposition has to unite in order to defeat the BJP. Otherwise, they have no chance. In the meanwhile, the government will come out with its huge publicity blitz to tell the people what it has achieved, which in fact, it has not, but people will just feel good that these things are happening and it is, therefore, it’s not an easy struggle. A lot of people will have to go out and tell the people what the reality is
KT: Not so long ago, you spoke about how the BJP was deliberately fostering fear in the majority, fear of the minorities and polarising because it believes this is to its benefit. Do you see more of that happening over the next 365 days?
YS: Yes, yes I do.
KT: So the threats to our unity and harmony will increase perhaps multi fold?
YS: They will increase multi-fold and whatever instrument can be misused, will be misused. We talked about the institutions of democracy. We talked about the agencies of the government, like income tax, CBI. They will let lose and they’ll try and subdue people, suppress people who will raise their voice against the government.
KT: So the next year could be a very frightening year for India?
YS: It will be, it will be. Absolutely, we will have to face all kinds of situations even in our personal lives. And I don’t rule out anything and absolutely anything happening.
KT: There are some people, and perhaps this is a growing number of people who say that Mr Modi and the BJP simply cannot get a majority again, in 2019. They will not cross the critical 272 number. On the other hand, Amit Shah has gone public and said that not only will Mr Modi and the BJP do better in 2019 than they did in 2014, but additionally, the BJP will also get a 50% vote share, something that even Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 could not manage. Do you believe that?
YS: Mr Amit Shah, Karan, had said that they were going to get 150 seats in Gujarat. We got less than 100. He said, we were going to get 130 seats in Karnataka, we got 104. So that is the credibility of Mr Amit Shah.
KT: In other words, you take him not just with a pinch but a bag full of salt.
KT: Yashwant Sinha, for a comprehensive interview, I’m deeply grateful.
YS: Thank you, thank you Karan.