‘History won’t pardon us if political differences over national security are not buried’

As the country readies for the next Lok Sabha elections,BJP’s general secretary <B><font color="#cc000">Arun Jaitley</font></B> shoulders the responsibility of stitching alliances for his party. In his interaction with <B>The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief </B><B><font color="#cc000">SHEKHAR GUPTA</font></B> on NDTV 24x7’s Walk the Talk,Jaitley underlines that national security remains the key challenge before India and how the UPA Government is floundering on that front

Published: January 19, 2009 4:22 am

&#149;Hello and welcome to Walk the Talk. My guest this week is Arun Jaitley. Back on Walk the Talk after almost five years…

Yeah,thank you.

&#149;…In circumstances that are in some ways similar to election time and in some ways different. What’s exercising your mind and anybody’s at this time is a bit more complex,isn’t it?

Well,I think elections take place all the time now. This time it’s an occasion for the general elections,but at any given time in India if it’s not general elections it’s the next Assembly election.

&#149;And each one is called a mini-general election.

No,each one is called a semi-final. And I think in India now,we’ve gotten into the habit of playing a few 100 semi-finals by now. That’s the media phrase.

&#149;Collecting points… it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter,so I think,and the losing semi-finalist may actually win the final. It’s a strange semi-final. But I think barring elections,there are greater concerns at this moment,because elections will keep taking place…

&#149;And governments will change.

Governments will change or not change but the issues are national security and economy and I think for every Indian we can certainly see that things are not very happy on both fronts.

&#149;The economy is a more global issue but national security,the incident in Bombay,has sort of jolted us.

I think what happened pre-Bombay was that national security had become a political issue.

&#149;A politicised issue.

A politicised issue. And you thought that by being soft on a national security issue,you could link it with some kind of a votebank politics.

&#149;At the same time,if I may say so,your party had also politicised it.

No,I would slightly differ on that. You see,the BJP or the Jan Sangh from the very beginning has always had a pro-active,tougher,stronger approach as far as national security was concerned. Now the campaign against us when the NDA was in power was…

&#149;That you were beating up the Muslims and…

That your anti-security measures,whether it was POTA or arresting people,was really an anti-minority or an anti-Muslim campaign. Now we’ve said that an anti-terror law or an anti-terror step is a very secular campaign. You may actually end up arresting a Maoist or an ULFA activist or an LTTE activist who may belong to any religion; he need not necessarily belong to one religion. But that was the campaign,and I think that campaign did work for the UPA.

&#149;But the laws were also misused. A lot of Muslims were targeted.

In a given terror situation,people from one denomination are active. For example,during the Punjab anti-insurgency,you had a lot of Sikhs being arrested under TADA. You couldn’t then say that why Hindus or Christians were not being arrested in Punjab? At the same time,you will have POTA where a Maoist must also have been arrested and that was not a religious issue at all. This campaign did succeed as far as the UPA was concerned. And it convinced that you don’t need a strong anti-terror attitude and four-and-a half years got wasted in that.

&#149;Frankly it was not just a question of the laws,it was a question of what was being invested in the security agencies,how much empowerment was being given to intelligence because you know,as The Indian Express has shown,paramilitary forces or intelligence agencies were returning so much of their money unspent.

You see,it’s money unspent on equipment.

&#149;Equipment?

Where we lacked was the kind of coordination that was required among different kinds of intelligence agencies. Eventually, the person who has to tackle the situation must know the facts in advance and,therefore,he must be prepared. That seemed to be missing. One area that has always concerned me is that we’ve got into this national habit of throwing up allegations whenever the Army or the military agencies or the security agencies go and make bulk purchases of equipment. If you repeatedly have CVC,CAG,CBI being brought into this exercise…

&#149;All horrible three-lettered words.

No,these look very attractive. The CVC every time in a report,three years later or five years later,says that somebody must have made money. Which is why the bureaucrats,security officers and the Army officers are also playing safe. And that’s probably the reason why you have come to this conclusion that a lot of money,which should have been spent on national security,is going unspent.

&#149;Some people will now get up and say that look who’s talking. Because it was you who spearheaded the whole Bofors thing,which has now become a blood feud 22 years after it happened.

But in Bofors also,the main debate was not on quality but that are there admittedly middlemen with political linkages who are making money? And the indications which came had substance in them.

&#149;Because most participants in Bofors are actually dead now. Because the ghost hangs and that has led to a blood feud because of Bofors,Denel happened. And this can go on.

No,you don’t take it beyond a point. If there is a case of corruption,deal with it,but don’t allow national security considerations to suffer because of that.

&#149;Let me ask you a straighter question. On the question of special law against terror,on the question of many other counter-terror measures,on the question of how to deal with Pakistan in this situation,it looks like the political parties have buried their differences,at least for now.

I think two good things have happened as a result of Mumbai attacks. One,public opinion will not spare those who go soft. There’s also a change in the stance of the media,including some sections of it which perhaps thought that you could be a little lacklustre or soft on these issues.

&#149;A lot of the media is declaring war on terror.

The entire media which had declared war on us for going hard on terror,they are,I am glad ,declaring war on terror now.

&#149;Just as we buried our political differences over internal security,are we willing to bury our political differences or suspend them over external security over defence acquisitions?

Yes,I think on areas like defence acquisition,preparedness of our security forces,aggressive diplomacy and on not linking these issues essentially with domestic polity and votebanks. The country has to rise to this occasion. Otherwise,let me tell you,we may win the election,we may lose the election but history won’t pardon us.

&#149;Absolutely. Can then people who are now involved in acquisitions work with some peace of mind,that not everything they buy now will not become a football in national politics?

I think you must start trusting some people who are in charge of security. And,therefore,we can’t perpetually live under some element of suspicion. Keep them under a limit of suspicion. And the three great agencies which I mentioned,must also find out that going on a witch hunt every time a government changes or every time an acquisition takes place…

&#149;It’s not the agencies who go on a witch hunt,it’s the political leaders.

It’s the political leaders who push them into it.

&#149;Because you know it’s a blood feud. It started with Bofors,it’s a North West Frontier thing,your grandfather did this to my grandfather,so I must.

But let’s not paint every case with one brush. If it’s a case of political corruption,then that’s a separate area. And if these are routine acquisitions with only marginal difference of opinions,which the CVC or the CAG may make,then I think the country is strong enough to live with them.

&#149;Will you now appeal to the Congress or will you say this in any way that it’s time that at least the two main parties to forget these differences?

I would say three things. The Congress has come up with some special laws,negating its four-and-a-half years. They are not still strong enough; let’s wait for an experiment for the next few months or a year or two. If further strengthening is required,I think the political process must come together. Two,on preparedness of other institutions,there must be greater consultation within the political system itself. The present environment of distrust between political groups,government and the Opposition must also take a backseat. And thirdly,there must be a national consensus that those from outside who engineer this must pay the political cost involved in this.

&#149;For that to happen,India has to invest a lot more in its conventional deterrence. Our defence budget has gone down from 4.2 per cent of our GDP to 1.9 per cent. There is also the money is being returned unspent.

This is happening when you can actually have terrorist invasions in the country. And you are a country that,in the last 60 years,has almost fought four wars and you have neighbours with whom you have an uncomfortable relationship.

&#149;So,it’s time for the political system to get its act together?

I think these are issues on which history provides the politician with an opportunity to rise above domestic differences,there are a huge number of issues on which we can fight each other.

&#149;And when you say that,you apply this to politicians in the BJP as well as in the Congress?

I apply it across them all. For example,post-Mumbai strikes we offered support to the government. I had personally met the Home Minister and discussed each and every amendment to the laws with him. Barring a few areas where we didn’t agree,there were some areas of agreement and we supported them in both Houses as the principal Opposition.

In fact at one stage,I felt the government was apologetic about bringing this law and we were more enthusiastic than the government about supporting this law.

&#149;That’s understandable. But now after two months of diplomatic work on this,we are beginning to see a few glitches. It seemed to be going all right.

Well,I am a little disappointed now for two reasons. A diplomatic offensive is good enough. Convince the rest of the world and put pressure on Pakistan,get it to act. In the early part of this decade,when the NDA was in power we could see some element of pressure on them. Unfortunately this time,particularly in the last week or 10 days,Pakistan continues to live in denial even though some minor talk is taking place. We’ll try them (the accused) within Pakistan,it says. I can understand if Pakistan tries only the extradition proceedings in Pakistan because extradition proceedings are to be held in the country. But then if you are found guilty,I don’t think Pakistan’s judicial system or their investigation is my object of envy,that I can really trust them to an extent that they are going to be very fair in dealing with people. The present President of Pakistan must realise that it is the same Pakistani judiciary which inflicted a death sentence on his father-in-law. They must realise that he didn’t trust these investigators when it came to his own wife’s assassination. They had to ask the Scotland Yard to intervene.

And a country which,till pushed to a corner,kept denying that Kasab is its citizen. And therefore to accept those systems,as I put it,the targets of investigation can’t be the investigators. That’s the essence of an honest investigation.

&#149;But we’ve also begun to see some kind of an equivocation creeping in,also in the Western interlocutor’s speech now

Well,I am extremely disappointed,particularly with the British attitude. (British Foreign Secretary) David Miliband came here and I think it was a diplomatic failure on India’s part to give the kind of hype it gave to his visit,taking him to Amethi as if he was a great friend (of India). I think the most objectionable part was the statement linking terrorism with the resolution of the Kashmir issue. And this was really an acceptance of the fact which the West has always rejected,particularly after 9/11. It doesn’t accept the root cause theory as responsible for terror.

&#149;Any justification for terror?

So you can say that 9/11 will take place if Palestine is not solved or the Afghan problem isn’t solved. This is not what the West has always accepted. And the Agra talks broke down with Musharraf,precisely on the question that cross-border terrorism won’t end until Kashmir is resolved. And if Miliband speaks this kind of a language,then I am afraid whether this is conventional British democracy or there is a new twist coming to it.

&#149;But don’t you think it is a little bit of the 60s’ Labour position on Kashmir

The left of Labour has this kind of an attitude but I was reasonably certain that Britain as a nation never accepted this as its mainstream philosophy. This was also stated on this visit but then you go to Pakistan and say that “even on Indian soil,I did suggest that the trials must be held in Pakistan”. Would Britain have followed the same principle?

&#149;Right.

Let’s say,for the attacks on the tube stations,the trials are held in some other country. Would British jurisprudence accept that?

&#149;You talked about future leadership of the Congress party. We can’t conclude this without a little chat on the future leadership of your party. What’s going on,the older your party leaders,the more they see themselves as future leaders. What’s happened with Mr Shekhawat?

Well,all I can say is we’ve grown up in the party and we’ve seen some very senior leaders and I only hope and pray those I’ve seen as role models continue to remain my role models.

&#149;But tell me what’s happening? It looks like your party’s now imploding,not as if they have the power inside.

But I don’t think you can generalise it with regards to the party. Frankly,Mr Shekhawat has very honourably said that he’s not a member of the party ever since he became the vice-president. There has become a tradition at certain levels of some people wanting to speak their mind to the media before even the discussion is held within the party. I think if you are in the discipline of a party,then you must accept the discipline. And the discipline itself requires that there are virtues of silence,there is a dignity in silence.

&#149;The funny thing is the more veteran your party leaders,the less they seem to understand this.

I can tell you as far as the next generation of my party is concerned,all of us are very measured when we speak about party affairs and I hope we continue to do that

&#149;And don’t you wish also some of India’s top industrialists would have been more measured in the way they spoke last week about Modi?

No,I think the industrialist who praised Narendra Modi did so in a given context. Well,if I were to praise a politician,say if he is running the state extremely well and say that this gentleman is prime ministerial material,it doesn’t mean that you are adding to some inner fight within the BJP. Probably,it was never their intention.

&#149;But given the situation in the BJP it has begun to be seen as that.

I have spoken to some of those industrialists and they felt that they didn’t want to say this,that they didn’t say this. They said you never know how the media can take you… (laughs)… that is what they felt.

But I can tell you for myself that the kind of governance he (Modi) has provided to Gujarat has been praised by them.

I personally take it as a sense of pride for the BJP.

&#149;I think we’ll visit that in a few months. Now there are many responsibilities on you and one of those is to stitch up the alliances and it’s in that area that the NDA looks so weak right now. You have lost many of your allies,some more are restless and you don’t seem to have any appeal with important ones like Jayalalithaa,Chandrababu Naidu. Unless you get your southern alliances right,you can’t have the numbers.

That’s factually correct but it has also a reality of Indian politics that barring the Left,and the Left decides its stance post-elections,there are a large number of political parties,smaller state-level parties,etc. Some decide their position before the polls and I don’t think in Indian politics,barring a few that are permanently aligned,there are some who prefer a Third Front option. But then don’t forget,anti-Congressism is also a part of conviction for a large number of political parties. Even those who are in exploratory politics of a different kind today,notwithstanding the horrendous experiments of the Third Front in the past,will eventually have to converge around the idea of anti-Congressism.

&#149;The Samajwadi Party is the interesting one right now. They believe in anti-Congressism,doing very interesting things like the whole Sanjay Dutt experiment.

I think the Samajwadi Party is an aberration of the Lohiaite movement. It formed and it started honestly as a Lohiaite movement,considering the entire background of Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav and his commitments. But I think it’s been taken over by various kinds of collateral interests and its political stance is now decided not on the basis of that conventional ideology but on the basis of its current activities and associations.

&#149;So how do you look at this whole Sanjay Dutt experiment?

I think it’s trivialisation of Indian politics at its worst.

&#149;The Munna Bhai-sation of…

No,I don’t think it is the (criminal) conviction part of it but whether he gets permission or not.

&#149;But what’s your take?

That’s for the Supreme Court to decide.

&#149;Right.

At the same time,I feel you have to be certain about somebody’s commitment to public causes and public issues; it cannot be done merely on the strength of some cinema glamour. We’ve also done these experiments in the past.

&#149;I am sure Amar Singh would hear this and we’ll have something to hear from him in response.

I am sure he’ll be back.

&#149;So,Arun entering a very busy political season,all the best to you.

Thank you.

Transcript prepared by Sharika C

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