Ashok Gajapathi Raju, 67, was one of the two ministers that the TDP pulled out of the Union Cabinet to protest against the denial of special status to Andhra Pradesh. The party has since pulled the plug on its alliance with the BJP. A first-time MP, Raju is a senior TDP leader and hails from the royal Gajapathi family of Vizianagaram. During his stint as aviation minister, there was double-digit growth in air passenger traffic nearly every month
The TDP leader who just resigned as aviation minister argues why Andhra Pradesh was right in asking for special status, says commitments made by the Centre should be kept, lists the UDAN scheme as a success, admits demonetisation should have been planned better and stresses that Air India should stay in business
Manoj C G: Y S Chowdary and you resigned from the Union Cabinet, but the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is still, technically, part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). When are you pulling out of the NDA?
The TDP has historically been anti-Congress. Our first president and founder N T Rama Rao took a lot of pain to bring everyone together. It wasn’t easy because the Left thinks differently, the BJP thinks differently, so getting everyone together on one platform was a very difficult task. Somehow, he managed and it continues in our party, the culture of being anti-Congress that is.
Rakesh Sinha: The Centre says it’s ready to offer you a monetary equivalent of special status. It cites the 14th Finance Commission report to deny you the special status category on the grounds that its hands are tied.
This angle of a special package equivalent in case we lose out on special status was announced in June 2016 or somewhere around that time. We are in 2018. The time should have been better utilised. If a package can be evolved that is equivalent to a special status, I think I would advice a serious look at it. After all, we are also part of the country; we too have to cooperate.
Ravish Tiwari: The question then is the timing of the demand.
If you see now, what has the finance commission said? What was the special status being given earlier? There was a development council and a planning commission. Now, both have gone and the NITI Aayog has come in their place. All this hair splitting. Where is it taking us? Is it going to add to the confidence that people repose in any democracy? Or, is it, again, taking it away from them? What are we proving by getting into all this? The devil lies in the detail. It (Andhra Pradesh) is an agrarian state, people are very simple. They don’t understand these complications.
Ravish Tiwari: The way your opponents and critics look at your move is that it is less about the special package and more about the TDP being spooked by the crowds that the YSRCP (YSR Congress Party) is drawing. Has competitive regionalism forced you to take this drastic step?
That is probably one way of looking at it. When crowds come to a place, what is it that they have in mind? I, for one, won’t have confidence in a gentleman like Jagan (YSRCP chief Y S Jaganmohan Reddy). Some people have confidence in him; so, that’s a different matter.
But one thing is for sure, it’s not going to be a cakewalk for him. Politically, he is not in that type of reckoning. He had also given statements earlier, not far back, that he will support the BJP. Manoj C G: In the last Assembly elections, the difference in vote share between the TDP and YSRCP was around 2.6 per cent. And the BJP got as many votes in Andhra. So, minus the BJP, are you confident of winning the state again?
In politics, you will win a few elections and lose a few too. Majorities will change, and these figures are never consistent. If people have confidence in you, they will get you. The advantage is that today everybody at some point has been in power. There are no new horses, in that sense. The true images are in front of everybody, whether it is the TDP or Congress or the BJP. In that sense, democracy does get enriched. And you (the media) are free to remind them (people) what they tend to forget.
Sandeep Singh: How do you see the BJP’s performance in the by-elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar?
These are by-elections. They happened in UP and I am no expert on the state. UP is very, very different from the southern parts of India in terms of the way people think and the way they relate to things. I can’t say why or what, because there are 101 things on people’s minds when they exercise their franchise. So, I don’t know what the factors are, but this demonstrates one thing very clearly — people will decide whichever way they think is right at that very moment.
Ravish Tiwari: One argument is that even if you are given a special package or status, other states may start demanding the same. How do you relate to that argument?
Whatever it is that states may demand from the Centre, it is for the Centre to decide on the criteria. But that is in a prospective case. Here (in case of AP), you made a commitment at the highest level; everything is recorded. If that becomes a debatable matter, then confidence in the system begins to erode and that is dangerous too.
Ravish Tiwari: One criticism of this government is the domineering presence of the Prime Minister. That there is no honest discussion in the government. In the three-and-a-half years, what has been your experience in the Cabinet? Was it an open forum?
Cabinet meetings are structured meetings and they are held with an agenda. The way things happen in the government of India, my understanding is that by the time anything reaches the Cabinet level, there are no real differences over it. If there are differences, they are handled outside.
I, for that matter, think that the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister should have a decisive say. In fact, we have suffered in our country when prime ministers did not have a decisive say… But then there should be a process of consultation.
Liz Mathew: A section of the BJP including some from Andhra Pradesh want the party to explore the possibility of an alliance with the YSRCP. As a politician from the state, do you see a possibility for it?
We were with the NDA when all this happened (the bifurcation). When we were reduced to the residual state of Andhra Pradesh, we felt that it was the BJP that raised questions and extracted assurances (of a special status) from the then reluctant PM (Manmohan Singh). At that particular point of time, we fought elections together as an alliance partner.
We are still in the alliance. We are out of the government, that is it. And if the BJP decides on anything or if the TDP decides on something, there is an old saying , ‘Jab miyan biwi raazi, toh kya karega qazi’. So, like that, if TDP and BJP want to be together, they will be together. If they don’t want to be together, no amount of cajoling, no amount of anything is going to make it happen.
Pranav Mukul: In your stint as the civil aviation minister, in the last six-eight months, you were personally looking at complaints by passengers regarding mistreatment by airlines. Do you think more should have been done and should be done by the current government?
A lot has been done to put a system in place. For passenger grievances, we launched AirSewa — an app that has all the airports and airlines on it and is monitored by the ministry. Those who have used it have been immensely satisfied. Of course, we’ve had incidents —MPs beating up airline staff, airline fellows beating up passengers… sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.
These things should not happen but have happened. Once they do, you have to get to the bottom of it and put measures in place to see that they don’t recur.
Arun Nair: In the 10 months you oversaw UDAN (regional airport development scheme), how happy were you with its progress? There were 128 allocated routes and flights are yet to take off on many of them. Was there a benchmark on how many routes you wanted to start?
I look at it a little differently. Since Independence, till this government came to power, there were about 73-74 airports where scheduled flights used to go. Historically India has had about 400 airstrips, some owned by the state government and some by the Centre. Most of these airports had cattle grazing on them. So we wanted to see how many could actually be made active. The government decided on a ballpark figure of Rs 50 to Rs 100 crore to get about 50 of these airports back to commercial use.
Then on the other side if you see, we wondered why is it that passengers were not using them. A person capable of flying is unlikely to drive for six hours to catch a flight. So, the geographical spread also became important and ultimately price was another concern. Based on all this information and the feedback that we got, we worked on it. I was fortunate that I was blessed with a good team, which worked cohesively and came up with UDAN.
In this UDAN scheme itself, there are two options. In both, you are looking at 80 destinations. The very fact that 18 destinations have already started functioning in these few months, I think, is an achievement of sorts. And more will be coming. I have a feeling that it has caught the imagination of people.
Ravish Tiwari: Do you think we should have a Civil Aviation Ministry in the first place? Should the government be in the business of running an airline?
It is difficult for the government to be in a competitive business like the airlines sector, where the margins are thin and decision making is fast, as the government by nature is a slow machine. While civil aviation in certain countries, like ours, is a separate ministry, in some countries it’s clubbed with transport. Civil aviation does not work in isolation. The departmental approach is an administrative convenience but ultimately, things have to fit in its totality.
As for Air India, I think it’s a beautiful airline. I won’t like it to go the Kingfisher way. I would like it to survive. I can tell you one thing because I am no longer there — and it’s wrong of me probably to comment on certain things because we were part of that decision-making. But there is serious thinking in this government, that it (Air India) should be professionalised and the government should let it go. I’d like it to survive. It’s a beautiful airline and its parameters have also improved… Its finances are bad and it’s in a debt trap. It needs to come out of it, and I think it will.
Kaunain Sheriff: The political argument about granting special status to Andhra is that it would displease important neighbouring states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Right now you are an agrarian state, but if given special status, all industries would start moving to Andhra.
The special status was announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Parliament. It was demanded, requested or rather cajoled, as that government was reluctant. It was Jaitleyji and Venkaiah Naiduji who did it.
Of course there might be difficulties (in granting special status) but these difficulties have to be overcome. Andhra Pradesh’s performance in industrialisation is good. It has a working government there. Welfare and development are not issues in Andhra as of now and we don’t think they will be made issues. It is as much a part of the country as any other state. People there don’t want to live on largesse, they want to work hard and contribute to the economy. And I think that’s the right thing.
Ravish Tiwari: The one thing about the TDP, since its formation, was that it was associated with progressives, Left-leaning liberals. Later, you appear to have completely succumbed to the saffron umbrella. What is the TDP today in ideological terms?
Change is a continuous process. There will be some things that will be common and there will be some things that will change. The TDP has never dictated anybody’s diet. I’m carnivorous in my food habits. My leader is a person, I think, who eats grass, all frugal and vegetables. N T Rama Rao was more my style. But generally anyone can eat what they feel like eating. I have not eaten beef; I’m a Hindu by religion. I don’t mind another person eating beef. When I was in Kerala interacting with some students of an institution there, a student there said, ‘I like to eat beef’. So I said ‘who’s stopping you’.
Ravish Tiwari: But your government wanted to ban beef.
Some states have the ban and some don’t. If you want to eat, eat. If you don’t want to eat, don’t eat. Now I enjoy eating fish and chicken. Frogs, not so much. I was in China recently and there they took us to a food court where they were serving fried scorpions. The Chinese were relishing it, but if I’m asked to eat it, I can’t. I think it’s choice.
Ravish Tiwari: The question is why weren’t you speaking up when these issues happened?
The beef ban we’ve been speaking about. Like I told you about when I was in Kerala, I answered. It didn’t generate the interest it’s generating among you all today. The thing is that you keep reacting to things. At times, in circumstances, attentions are at a different level.
Ravish Tiwari: Soon after demonetisation, the TDP chief had spoken about the inconvenience it had caused. From the benefit of hindsight and when you are no longer a part of the government, what do you make of demonetisation?
In hindsight, everybody is wiser.
Ravish Tiwari: What does your wisdom say about the issue now?
What should have happened is, it should have been done in a particular way. No doubt, I think it was a good thing for our country, that is my general feeling. Could it have been managed better? Yes, it could have been managed better. Digital payments should be encouraged. In fact, it should become cheaper than cash. Then everybody will move towards digital payment. It’s good for the country. The cash also cost the country quite a bit. So a lot of work needs to be done on this. The follow-up has to be proper, the feedback has to be taken and certain things have to be set in motion that will make the original act of demonetisation more meaningful.
Pranav Mukul: As the leader of a regional party what is your view on simultaneous elections?
I think it’s a nice idea. We’ve been asking for it for some time. Continuous elections also generate problems. A democracy without an election does not work, you do require them. But one after the other, where you can’t think of anything else but elections, that is also not the correct way of going about it.
The interview was held on March 14, two days before the TDP withdrew from the NDA. Raju has since questioned the timing of the decision