Indian armed forces received a free hand to respond to external threats during the term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as well and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to gain electoral mileage from military operations are “shameful and unacceptable,” says former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “Multiple surgical strikes took place during our tenure, too. For us, military operations were meant for strategic deterrence and giving a befitting reply to anti-India forces than to be used for vote garnering exercises,” Singh, 86, said in an interview with Sunetra Choudhury of Hindustan Times.
Q. As we go into the final phases of elections 2019, the BJP is pitching PM Narendra Modi as one of the strongest PMs we have seen, and who gave a decisive response to terror attacks like the one at Pulwama. They say that only Modi is strong enough to protect India’s borders. Some compare him to Indira Gandhi and her role in creation of Bangladesh. How do you see this?
A. Compromise on India’s National Security is unacceptable. 40 of our brave CRPF soldiers were martyred in the Pulwama terror attack at the most secure National Highway in the country. This is a grave intelligence and national security failure. Since then, it has come out that CRPF and BSF were requesting for airlifting the soldiers but the Modi Government refused it.
Government also ignored solid intelligence inputs from J&K police about an IED attack, besides turning a blind eye to a video warning of a terrorist organization. In the past five years, Pakistan based terrorists have repeatedly targeted India’s military installations at Pampore, Uri, Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Sunjwan Army Camp, and even attacked the Amarnath Yatra.
Inviting ISI to investigate the Pathankot Air Base terror attack is the biggest strategic blunder committed by the Modi government. This demoralized our Armed Forces.
In the past five years, internal security situation in Jammu & Kashmir has rapidly deteriorated on account of an opportunist PDP-BJP government as also lack of a clear-cut Pakistan policy.
Let me remind you that our armed forces were always given a free hand to operationally respond to every threat. Multiple surgical strikes took place during our tenure too. For us, military operations were meant for strategic deterrence and giving a befitting reply to anti-India forces than to be used for vote garnering exercises. In the past 70 years, a government in power never had to hide behind the valour of our armed forces. Such attempts to politicize our forces are shameful and unacceptable.
All this is being done to draw the attention away from unpardonable failures of Modi Government on the economic front, on jobs, on rural distress, on MSMEs and the informal sector.
As far as the Bangladesh Liberation War and the political role of Smt. Indira Gandhi in 1971 or the 1965 War and the political role of Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri are concerned, these situations had a very large canvas of determined and decisive leadership. There cannot be any comparison between their greatness and the pettiness of the present regime. These leaders were appreciated for their towering diplomatic roles and for spearheading the reshaping the geography of the region. Neither Mrs Gandhi, nor her predecessor took away the credit of our armed forces in winning these wars.
Q. PM Modi’s supporters attack your government by saying that your response to 26/11 wasn’t strong enough. Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently?
A. In the absence of facts, everyone can re-judge history in hindsight. I disagree with the insinuation that we were not ready with military punitive actions. However, different geopolitical conditions require different responses. 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 attack, we got China to agree to declare Hafiz Saeed as a global terrorist under the 1267 Sanctions Committee of UN. Congress-UPA ensured that a $10m bounty was placed on the head of the Mumbai attack perpetrator and the founder of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hafiz Saeed by America. Another mastermind, David Headley was convicted to 35 years of prison during UPA-Congress Govt in 2013. The UN Security Council also put top LeT members involved in Mumbai attack on sanctions lists as terrorists. This has virtually rendered LeT ineffective today.
We made counterterrorism cooperation in the international community against 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 the 26/11 attack, the Congress-UPA Government strengthened coastal security and mooted the idea of a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), but the then Gujarat CM, Shri Narendra Modi unequivocally opposed the idea. We also conceived the NATGRID, which is 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 virtually put NCTC & NATGRID in cold storage.
Q. You have spoken about ‘maintaining taboo’ on nuclear weapons while the PM has said that they weren’t just meant for Diwali. Do you think his may resonate with the masses more?
A. Our nuclear capabilities are our strength and a security deterrent. Pandit Nehru laid the foundation of our nuclear capabilities. Indira Gandhi conducted our first nuclear test in Pokhran, in 1974. Since then, every Congress government has carried the resolve of strengthening and advancing our civil and military nuclear programme forward. As a result, our weapons capability was tested by the 13-day long Vajpayee Government. Nuclear deterrence and peaceful use of nuclear power are two time-tested responsible policies of our nation.
You would recollect that for harnessing nuclear energy for the nation, we had put at stake the very existence of UPA-Congress government. The entire nation remembers the no-confidence vote initiated by a hypocritical BJP on the issue of making India strong and independent in nuclear energy. Why did Mr. Narendra Modi and the BJP oppose it then? Yet, we never used the issue as a political prop. This is the gold standard of our resilience, restraint and sensitivity towards our nuclear capabilities. No Prime Minister has used the issue of our nuclear capabilities for political purposes. I suppose this reflects the political desperation in face of an imminent defeat.
Q. Would you agree that the BJP has been successful in making security and terror a major election issue instead of jobs and rural distress which Congress was pushing for?
A. Riding on empty rhetoric, the Modi Government has been an utter failure on the issue of national security. In the last five years, terror attacks in Jammu & Kashmir alone have gone up by 176% ; ceasefire violations at the border by Pakistan have increased by 1,000%. There have been 17 major terror attacks on our security installations. Defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP is lowest in the last 57 years. Does it not speak volumes about the performance and priorities of this government?
How can anyone say that jobs or rural distress or livelihood issues are interchangeable with internal security? Truth is that Modiji promised 20 million jobs per year, but his disruptive policies of demonetisation and a flawed GST have snatched over 40 million jobs from the youth. Joblessness and unemployment is at a 45-year high of 6.1%. It was 2.2% during the Congress-UPA in 2011-12 [NSSO Report, 2017-18].
The demonetisation disaster and a flawed GST have wreaked India’s growth story that UPA-Congress government built successfully. The monumental failure of demonetisation alone has set the GDP back by close to 2% and caused a loss of Rs 3 lakh crore to the economy. It decimated the informal sector as also thousands of small and medium businesses. Hard-earned savings of people of India were extinguished overnight. Should the government not be held accountable on these issues of livelihood?
Rampant rural distress has hit India’s farmers the hardest. BJP promised cost plus 50% profit on farm produce but farmers have not even got the declared MSP. No wonder, average agriculture growth rate under five years of this government is at an abysmally low 2.9%, compared to 4.2% under 10 years of the UPA. Even the PM Fasal Bima Yojana has become a profiteering tool for private insurance companies rather than providing succor to farmers. Rapidly falling agriculture exports and the increased imports of agri commodities have further aggravated the agrarian distress. Should India’s farmers not be part of the national narrative?
BJP’s political distress emanates from its failed track record. BJP is searching for new narratives everyday. This reflects the bankruptcy of a vision for the country.
Q. Speaking of rural distress, the Congress has come up with a minimum income guarantee scheme, NYAY. As an economist, don’t you think it will impact India’s fiscal health?
A. NYAY – Nyuntam Aay Yojana, is a powerful idea unveiled by the Congress President, Shri Rahul Gandhi, with dual objectives – to wipe out the last remnants of poverty and to restart stalled economic activity in our nation. 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. I am glad to note that the NYAY idea has been received with tremendous enthusiasm by people and discussed widely across the nation.
Post-independence, poverty levels have been reduced from 70% to 22% on account of the sound anti-poverty measures by successive governments. It is time to renew our pledge to wipe out the last remains of poverty. NYAY will ensure this. NYAY will help restart the economic engine that has come to a stop today. Money in the hands of the needy will stimulate demand in the economy which will lead to increased economic activity and job creation.
The Congress party is committed to fiscal discipline. NYAY scheme will cost between 1.2% – 1.5% of GDP at its peak. Our nearly $3 trillion economy has the fiscal capacity to absorb this expenditure. We are committed to not taxing the middle class to finance NYAY. The economic stimulus that NYAY will provide will further jump start the economy. NYAY has been conceptualized after much thought and consultations with experts.
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 under MGNREGA, I am confident that a Congress party led government in 2019 will implement NYAY successfully and usher in a new model for social justice and prudent economics. It is my sincere belief that NYAY has the potential to catapult India into the club of ‘poverty free’ nations in the world and I hope to be able to live to see our nation achieve this historic milestone.
Q. What about GST and demonetization? How do you propose to handle those?
A. The Congress promises to review and replace the current GST laws with the GST 2.0 regime that will truly reflect the intent and purpose of a non-cascading, value-added, indirect tax.
The GST 2.0 regime will be based on a single, moderate, standard rate of tax on all goods and services instead of multiple taxes, as is being implemented by this government. The rate will be revenue neutral to the current indirect tax revenues of the Central and State Governments and will take note of the potential of GST 2.0 to boost their tax revenues.
The GST implemented by the Congress party will be easy to administer, easy to understand by the taxpayer, and easy to comply with. We are confident that GST 2.0 will promote growth, new businesses and employment. The taxpayer will be required to file a simple, single quarterly return for his/her business and an annual return. Every tax payer will be subject to assessment by a single authority based upon turnover.
We have also proposed that the GST Council will be the policy-making body and will be served by a permanent secretariat of tax economists, tax policy experts and tax professionals so that political one-upmanship is minimized. Its minutes will be put in the public domain.
Q. There was buzz about you and Amritsar elections which were then denied. But if Rahul Gandhi became PM, would you like to be in his cabinet?
A. I am fortunate to have served the country in different positions for over six decades. I am honoured to have led the country as Prime Minister for a decade. I have been in public life and would always serve. Time has come to pass the leadership mantle to the young. I have full faith in Shri Rahul Gandhi’s leadership and commitment to the nation.
Q. You made the transition from RBI to government, now there is talk that Raghuram Rajan may potentially play such a role in government (if the Congress comes to power). What kind of a minister do you think he would make?
A. Dr Raghuram Rajan is one of the finest economists I know. His expertise has guided us as also the present government. His immense contribution has been widely applauded. The question about any of his future roles can be answered best by him.
Q. Speaking of new entrants, what kind of difference do you think Priyanka Gandhi’s entry makes to Congress’ prospects?
A. Priyanka Gandhi has a natural connect to the Congress worker. Her understanding of grassroot issues and the honest desire to redress people’s pain have always endeared her to the masses. Her unassuming simplicity is her biggest virtue. I have full faith that she will galvanize the rank and file of the Congress party. She has a very challenging assignment right now in Uttar Pradesh. I see her touring everyday. Workers are feeling enthused. People have embraced her foray with open arms. I wish her well.
Q. On a personal front, the PM has said in recent interviews how he changed things in PMO by staying there till late night and not sleeping for more than 3-4 hours. His supporters also love him for his energetic campaigning hopping from one part of the country to another in a single day. Do you think it makes for a more efficient leadership?
A. Prime Minister’s Office carries with it an onerous responsibility and untiring hardwork in the service of people. There is no scope for complacency. Everyone, who has occupied the PM’s chair and has worked tirelessly, has not done any favour to the country. This is the bounden duty of the individual serving the nation. All Prime Ministers have maintained a high degree of dignity, discipline and work culture required for the post. Self-promoting advertisement of the job profile reflects a lack of gravitas on part of the present incumbent. By seeking to publicize the essential pre- requisites expected of the Prime Minister’s position, the dignity of the office he holds is being lowered.
Q. One major slogan of the BJP is ‘Hard work versus Harvard’. You are from Oxbridge and had many from Ivy league schools in your cabinet, what would you say about such a comparison?
A. Does the BJP feel that people who go to Harvard or IITs or IIMs or other institutions of excellence, in India or abroad, do not work hard? Education opens the door to knowledge and enlightenment. Education builds character and teaches the value of truth. Education is an enabler for people from the most humble backgrounds to achieve pioneering positions in every sphere of life.
Many public figures have risen from very humble backgrounds on account of their distinguished academic record. Can anybody undermine the contribution of Savitribai Phule, Dr B R Ambedkar, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Homi Jahangir Bhabha, Dr Hargobind Khurana, Dr K R Narayanan, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam and a galaxy of men and women that have led India in different walks of life and continue to do so. They did not brag about their hardships or their humble backgrounds. Despite being subjected to high degree of poverty and social discrimination, Dr B R Ambedkar went to United States on a scholarship and later studied in London School of Economics. Should we question these men and women’s hard work or contribution to the country?
If you have to draw comparisons, it should be founded upon your service to the nation, your commitment to alleviate poverty, your determination to eradicate agrarian distress, your capacity towards job creation for the young, and your adherence to the economic wellbeing of India. Attractive catch phrases can never replace indelible commitment to India’s prosperity.
Q. If there is a commonality between you and PM Modi, it is your modest beginnings. He as the tea seller and you as a migrant with no electricity in your village and walking a long distance to school. You once said that you don’t want the country to take pity on your humble background. But would you admit that it makes the masses identify more with you?
A. This is an ode to our founding fathers and framers of our Constitution led by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Dr B R Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and members of our Constituent Assembly. Our Constitution and rule of law is the biggest leveler between the haves and have nots.
However, one must not wear his humbleness as a tool for self-aggrandizement. Progress of the country and policies of the successive governments in last 70 years have played a definite role in creation of opportunities and empowerment. They played a role in making me what I am today, and they played their part in Mr. Modi’s life too. As I said earlier, there is a long list of men and women from humble backgrounds who reached the highest offices in India.
I believe the important issue is not where you come from, but the important issue is what have you contributed to pave the way for millions of others to achieve and aspire for a better future. My biggest satisfaction in 10 years as Prime Minister was to introduce the Rights based paradigm of MGNREGA, RTI, RTE, Forest Rights Act, Food Security Act as also to alleviate 140 million people out of the cycle of poverty. As each one of us comes to the end of our innings, we must ask whether our humble backgrounds enabled us to leave behind a legacy of compassion and cohesiveness as opposed to division and diversion. This is the real and the only test.
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