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I am not minister for Air India: Ajit Singh

December 09, 2013 15:50 IST

I am not minister for Air India: Ajit Singh

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Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh tells Kavita Chowdhury that he is focused on passenger comfort and not on favouring private airlines, as many have alleged.

Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh has just returned from an official visit to the US and has finally made time for this lunch at La Piazza, the Italian restaurant at the Hyatt Regency, chosen because it's a favourite with his five-year-old granddaughter.

It turns out that the former IBM techie turned Jat political leader is familiar to the La Piazza staff, so we are able to order the meal quickly. "The usual" for him is spinach ravioli and I opt for a prawn fusilli, the fusilli pasta a bright yellow due to a pinch of saffron added to the dough.

His favourite tipple is also produced, an Australian Chardonnay so light that I decide it will go well with my meal too. 

Aromatic focaccia bread dipped in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, which has become a staple complimentary starter in most tony restaurants in the capital, serves as an entree.

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Image: ames Hogan (L), chief executive of Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways, Ahmad Ali-al-Sayegh (2nd L), a board member of Etihad Airways, India's Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh (C) and Naresh Goyal (R), Chairman of Jet Airways.
Photographs: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

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I begin the conversation with the controversy over the Bharat Ratna awarded to cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, now the subject of a public interest litigation.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, have objected to "non- Congress leaders" being ignored in the list of awardees of the country's highest civilian honour.

Janata Dal (United) leaders Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and K C Tyagi have demanded the Bharat Ratna for the "kisan leader," the late Chaudhary Charan Singh, Ajit Singh's father, also India's shortest-serving prime minister (in 1979).

I ask him about his father. Singh prefers to steer clear of the controversy and dwells at length on Charan Singh's contributions. Singh clearly idolises his father. He remembers him as "feared and respected: by everyone - "right from the peon to a Secretary, and from a constable to the police inspector general".

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Image: Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh.
Photographs: Reuters

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His father was also, Singh is keen to emphasise, "fiercely honest". "When I was working for IBM in the US, I would send him $250. When he died he had Rs 300 in his bank and a Fiat car," Singh recalls, "but the goodwill he had was boundless. Even today, when I go to the south, they may not know me but they know Chaudharyji. He changed the lives of so many farmers."

Our main courses are served and as he liberally sprinkles chilli flakes on his ravioli he tells me that he picked up the habit during his days as a B Tech student in IIT Kharagpur. "The rickshaw-wallahs would double up as cooks for us and generously used chilli in the food; otherwise the food from my native region is quite non- spicy."

But it's another kind of hot issue that I want to discuss: the recent communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh (UP) that spilled over into neighbouring Baghpat. 

Singh is the sitting MP from the family stronghold of Baghpat with his Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) party and has claimed his father's legacy as speaking for the powerful pastoral community, the Jats of western UP.

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Image: Ajit Singh.
Photographs: Reuters

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So why are the Jats here so polarised that large numbers are supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s communal agenda, I ask him, voicing the prevalent view on the riots that the Muslim-Jat split will hit the RLD.

Expectedly, Singh dismisses this outright: "I know my following. There is lots of anger but that is ebbing now." 

His take after several visits to the area is that the riots took place in five or six villages but the fear psychosis was created all over because the "Samajwadi Party-led UP government wants this". "Mulayam (Singh Yadav, the SP party leader) wants Hindus and Muslims to be separated. It's a political game being played by the SP and the BJP."

Arguing his point, Singh says of his community, "They are outspoken, they are individualistic but Jats are very politically savvy." Meaning? "They know that when they are united [as a vote bank] they have clout, divided they have no scope," he elaborates.

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Photographs: Reuters

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I am unconvinced, so I ask him pointedly, "Is BJP an untouchable?" The subtext being, whether he would be open to allying with the party if it came to power in the Centre next year.

Singh shoots back, "That is a very strong word. But let me say this. I'm with the UPA and I'll stay with the UPA." There has been some chatter about Singh meeting BJP President Rajnath Singh, I persist. "Absolutely not," he replies unequivocally, "I haven't talked to him or met him in the past four years."

I'm still sceptical. BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is virtually calling the shots in the electoral fray and while most opposition leaders have commented on his style (mostly in derogatory terms) Singh has been singularly silent. Singh's first defence is that he doesn't believe in the politics of slander. 

Then, after a few seconds, he adds, "India is a very diverse country with multiple religions, sects, languages. We can't afford to polarise it and Modi is a polarising figure."

He rules out aligning with the BJP and Modi under any circumstances, although I remind him of earlier poll pacts between the BJP and RLD, as recent as 2009. In the post- riot scenario, Singh's rationale is simple. "My following is not based on any religion - its farmer based. I don't want to divide that base."

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Image: Narendra Modi.
Photographs: Reuters

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With the 2014 polls looming I ask whether he's going for a pre- or post-poll pact with the Congress. Pre-poll is the instant reply, but he qualifies it, "That's a question both have to sit and decide. We haven't discussed it yet."

With that pretty much thrashed out, I turn to the equally controversial topic: his portfolio as civil aviation minister. 

And, since he's just back from Boeing's Seattle headquarters, I quiz him on the expensive Dreamliners that loss-making state-owned Air India has bought only to suffer embarrassing serial glitches. Well aware of the talk surrounding this deal, Singh offers a robust defence.

"None of the issues that have come up in the Dreamliners are safety issues," he says. At most, they underscore the need for a software upgrade for the technical parts. Before I can ask him about the incident of the broken aircraft window, Singh cuts me short by saying, "the Dreamliner's reliability now is 97 per cent; we intend to go up to 99 per cent."

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Photographs: Reuters

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On Air India, he waxes eloquent - as have ministers before him - on its improved on-time performance, employee morale, and how it's making operational profit."

Then, he launches into the Jet-Etihad deal and the Tata Singapore Airlines agreement to highlight his own achievements.

"Now we have three big names - Etihad has the most reach, Air India is back on its feet and, of course, Singapore Airlines is considered the best in the world. The whole scenario has changed."

All these decisions, I point out, have opened him to the accusation that private airlines have benefitted under his tenure, at the cost of domestic carrier Air India. Singh retorts,
"First you decide: am I minister for civil aviation or am I minister for Air India."

Then he rationalises, there is enough growth potential for everybody and as minister, he has to look after passenger comfort first.

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Photographs: Reuters

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In the middle of this argumentative conversation, the staff suggests we order dessert. We choose tiramisu, a personal favourite that I regretfully do not get to fully enjoy in the interests of asking about the controversies surrounding the Jet-Etihad deal.

The approval of the largest foreign direct investment in Indian aviation raised eyebrows because of a very favourable bilateral deal cut with the government of Abu Dhabi (Etihad's parent) and the issue of control of the joint venture, which initially weighed heavily in favour of Etihad (until the Indian stock market regulator stepped in).

Singh claims vested interests. "The margin of profits in this aviation sector is very slim. So no airline wants any other competitor and this campaign was funded by vested interests. All these MPs who were misinformed would have done better to discuss these issues with me instead of trading charges."

Our delicious overdose of mascarpone and chocolate is over so as we wind up, I ask when he plans to retire from politics - since his son, Jayant Chaudhary is already an MP from Mathura. Singh laughs, "In our profession, the "janata" (people) retires you, you don't need to retire!"


Photographs: Reuters

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