The opposition has been projecting the government as anti-poor and anti-farmer. How would you respond to the criticism one year on?
The opposition’s work is to criticise. We have succeeded in controlling inflation in the past year. There have been no cases of corruption against this government. There have been no communal riots or major communal tension…
Is the BJP rattled by Rahul Gandhi’s offensive, including the ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ jibe?
The Congress cannot digest the fact that an ordinary man hailing from a backward class is leading the country. Rahul Gandhi’s jibe only reveals the Congress’s psyche. Agar Modi Scindia parivar se hote, toh aisa yeh bolte kya (Had Narendra Modi belonged to the Scindia family, would they have said such a thing)? What a person wears or what he does not does not matter to people. It is what work he does that matters.
Give us your assessment of the first year’s performance.
Whatever the government could do in a year, it has done. It’s true that people’s expectations from the Modi government are high. Development ki gaadi 10 saal ruk gayi thi. Logon ko lagta hai Modi ke paas Aladdin ke chirag hai jo jhatke mein sab badal dega. (The wheels of development had stopped for 10 years. People feel Modi has an Aladdin’s lamp that will change everything in an instant). We have laid a nice foundation. Each ministry has achieved something of note.
Has the beef ban and the hate speeches from within the BJP and affiliated Hindu outfits overshadowed the development agenda?
Yeh sach hai sahi signal nahin gaya hai. Kuch cheezon ko hawa dene ki koshish ki jaa rahi hai (It’s true that the right signals have not gone out. Attempts are being made to create controversies out of certain things). But you can’t blame the Prime Minister for it. Please take into account that the government’s agenda is separate from the party’s agenda. I must also tell you that the PM himself is not at all happy with these controversies. Sahi signal nahin jaa rahi hai. While the BJP has issued notices to some people for such controversies, sirf notice dene se kuch nahin hoga (serving notices will not be enough). The PM himself is focused solely on the development agenda. He hasn’t been seen making any communal speeches. I also know that he has asked the Minority Affairs Ministry to evolve a time-bound plan for welfare of minorities. It is true that sections among the minorities still have some apprehensions about the BJP but these are gradually being overcome. The PDP-BJP alliance in J&K is a positive step in this direction.
What must the government’s agenda in the second year be?
The top agenda must be more pro-poor reforms. Measures that give power to the poor and farmers, generate employment, and empower disadvantaged sections must be taken up on a priority.
BJP ally the Shiv Sena has been critical of several central and state policies.
Jo kaam karne wale log hain, unhe is sarkar mein koi grievances nahin hain (Those who are willing to work have no grievances with this government). I don’t think there are any major differences among allies. The Shiv Sena must shed the apprehension that the Devendra Fadnavis government will wean away its core voters. When it is convenient to them, as in the case of the beef ban, they support the BJP. We are opposed to the beef ban as we feel that it is not in the larger public interest.
It has been a year of farm distress. Yet the minimum support prices for farm products have hardly been hiked.
This is a catch 22. When prices for farm products rise, the consumer becomes unhappy. We all know how an increase in prices of onion and potato has resulted even in governments falling. People don’t protest when car rates increase tenfold, but if prices of farm products rise even by a few rupees, we see protests. My ministry has undertaken reforms and plugged leakages in food storage and distribution. We have also asked all states to implement provisions of the Food Security Act by July. Fortunately, despite the distress in the farm sector, there is already enough wheat and rice to last us a full year. The concern is the sugar industry, where mills have run up arrears over Rs 22,000 crore. We have increased the cap for ethanol blending, increased export subsidy, and extended a soft loan to mills to help them write off these arrears. A demand for building up a buffer stock is being examined, but this could lead to an increase in retail sugar prices.
The government plans to call a joint session on the land bill. Do you think it is wise to expend so much political capital at a time when elections in Bihar are coming up?
I’m all for calling a joint session. The government has already taken on board valid suggestions by parties and stakeholders. If you ask me, the land bill is a boon for the nation. Farmers ka fayda hi hoga. Yeh kisan ka andolan kahan hai, yeh toh neta ka andolan hai. (Farmers will benefit; the opposition is not farmer-driven but politically driven). Land rates in Bihar will increase when industries are set up. The Samajwadi Party is opposing the land legislation but it has allowed several acres of farmland in Noida to be usurped.
How does the NDA plan to counter the Janata Parivar? How many seats will your LJP contest?
Hum toh chahte the ki threat badhe, par aisa kahan ho rahan hai (I was hoping that a threat would rise, but where is that happening). There is no possibility of the Janata Parivar coming together. Lalu Prasad, Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar just can’t coexist. Also, Mulayam Singh Yadav knows he can’t afford this headache either. The NDA will sweep the Bihar polls with a three-fourths majority. I’ll be meeting senior BJP leaders including Arun Jaitley to discuss the elections later this week.
The Nitish camp is keen to project him as the CM face.
It won’t make any difference. Nitish has lost his appeal. Any sympathy he could have gained has also been lost after he stripped Jitan Kumar Manjhi, a Mahadalit, of the CM’s post. The RJD too is headless. Lalu can’t be projected as CM; Rabri Devi won’t be projected as one.
Six decades after independence, a wide perception is that India has not been successful in mainstreaming those from the scheduled castes.
Unless there is adequate representation for the backward classes across sectors, this can’t happen. Reservation must be offered in private sector jobs too for providing a platform to the downtrodden. I had introduced reservation in dealerships as fertiliser minister in 2004. This can be extended to other sectors too, par netaon ki niyat nahin hain (there is no political will).The dignity of labour too needs to be restored. Apne desh mein jo joota banata hai, uske hi pairon main chappal nahin hote; jo anaaj ugate hai, use bhooke pet sona padta hai; jo mahal khada karta hai, uske sar jhopdi nahin hoti. (In our country the person who makes shoes is without chappals on his feet; the person who grows crops has to sleep on an empty stomach; the person who raises a palace hasn’t got a roof over his head).
You once baited Narendra Modi and now have joined hands with him. Why this transition?
No one can take humiliation. Humiliation by the Congress forced us to join the BJP. We did our best to remain with the UPA and even met Sonia Gandhi three times. Woh humko jhulate rahe (They kept us waiting).