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The Rediff Interview/Suresh Prabhu, MP
May 26, 2004
Atal Bihari Vajpayee had a soft corner for him. Asiaweek magazine named him a nation-builder to watch out for.
Suresh Prabhu, the Shiv Sena MP from Rajapur, located in Maharashtra's Konkan belt, returns to Parliament for a fourth consecutive term in an election which Manohar Joshi, the Sena's doyen and Lok Sabha Speaker, lost.
Prabhu, chairman of the interlinking of the national rivers project, could well be the Sena's leader in the Lok Sabha. If that happens, life will have come full circle for the banker-turned-politician who was asked to step down as Union power minister two years ago by Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. No reasons were then given, but there were rumours that Thackeray did not like the fact that Prabhu was becoming larger than the party.
Suresh Prabhu takes a fascinating look at his political career and the interlinking of the national rivers project in a recent interview with Chief Features Editor Savera R Someshwar. The first of a two part conversation:
You had barely been elected an MP for the first time when you were appointed a minister in Prime Minister Vajpayee's Cabinet. Did that kind of responsibility faze you, especially since you did not have any kind of political background?
All three times I have been elected member of Parliament, I have taken oath as minister before I could take oath as MP. It is quite a rare thing. And then, fortunately, I was appointed minister of many important portfolios. It was quite a responsibility because I went straight into the job without any previous experience. But I decided it was an opportunity that I must use for the benefit of the people. Therefore I applied myself thoroughly and you know how I performed.
What has been your contribution to Maharashtra?
We have given Maharashtra so much money. When I was minister of energy, I gave money to the state. When I was minister for environment and forests, I cleared several water-related schemes that were pending for years. I have made a contribution to the state, to the country. I have represented my country overseas too.
Then what went wrong between you and the Shiv Sena (Prabhu and Sena leader Raj Thackeray, right)?
What went wrong between you and the Sena? Why were you asked to resign as a minister?
Only my leader [Bal Thackeray] can answer that question.
You must have talked about it. The misunderstanding seems to have been resolved because you are once again representing the Sena in Rajapur.
He will tell you na. You ask Mr Thackeray. He will tell you because he is the one who can answer that question.
Were you disappointed?
No, I immediately started something else. The prime minister and my party asked me to look after the linking of the rivers, which I have been doing since then. So there was hardly any time to think whether I am. Before I was disappointed, I was appointed.
What role do you see for yourself in the new government?
I am willing to do anything that is good for the country in whatever capacity. I am not aspiring for any position at all. I have never aspired for something in the past, I am not aspiring for anything now, I am not even aspiring for the future. Whatever comes one's way, one has to do justice to that. Instead of brooding, you should do something that helps you perform.
Why did you become a politician?
It was really an accident. When my party offered me a seat, I was not in politics. I did not have much time to think about it so I said let me try. This is also a way of serving the people. We keep complaining about the problems of the country all the time and keep blaming the politicians for it. I thought that rather than blaming someone even as we continued to face the same problems, why not try to make that extra effort and be in a position to solve them? That is why I decided to plunge in, hoping I'll be able to solve the problems I've been complaining about.
What has been your experience in the last so many years that you have been a politician? Is it as bad as you thought it would be? Do you find your hands tied?
It is certainly not a bed of roses. It is the toughest profession one could be in. It is the toughest job one can handle actually in life because as a politician you are constantly subjected to the demands of people of different types. There are conflicting interests. At the same time, you know, you have to manage your own life, you have to make sure you do justice to your family and yourself. But this rarely happens because you are always pushed by those forces that want you to do something for your country than do something for yourself.
But at the same time this is quite a satisfying experience because what I learnt in this position I probably would not have been able to learn in my life. When you are actually handling the affairs of the country, you are getting so much of information about so many things. It is really not possible for one to know these things in a normal situation. So that has been a great experience for me.
It is also true that those romantic feelings that one can change the world disappears when you join the system. I also felt that if I could be there, I could change the world. It can't happen because the system is so strong. The challenge is to not to change yourself to conform to the system. I think I have been able to that. I did not try to change myself.
So you have not compromised at all?
I don't think so.
If I may ask, why the Sena? Why not any other political party?
They offered me a seat at that particular time. Besides, I'm not someone who will keep changing parties. If I am with a particular party, I will rather quit politics than change parties.
When they offered you the Rajapur seat, did you find that your ideology matched theirs?
One must look at it like this: the area which I represent in Parliament now is my father's birthplace (I was born and brought up in Mumbai). But we have a family house here and we have family property here. It's a responsibility. It was always my desire to do something for my people here -- the Konkan has tremendous potential but is one of the most neglected regions of the country.
When I was chairman of Saraswat Bank, we opened branches here. When I was working with NGOs, I used to come and do a lot of work here. Which is why the suggestion that I contest from here appealed to me. I suddenly realised this is a golden opportunity of doing something good for your people which otherwise will never happen. I will keep complaining and grumbling that roads are not there, there is no electricity, there's no water, but now I had a chance to do something concrete.
Today when I look back I can say with confidence and a little bit of satisfaction that I have been able to solve many of the problems in my area. This would have never happened otherwise. So I am quite happy with that.
One of the so-called allegations made against you during your tenure at the Centre was that you were not paying enough attention to the Sena, especially in terms of collection of funds. Or was that just one of the rumours floating around?
I was never a collector or fundraiser for the party therefore so there is no question of my doing that. I have never being doing that.
So what was the animosity all about and how did it…
You ask Mr Thackeray this…
You got a ticket now so obviously that means things are now okay…
So you talk to him na, he'll tell you. You talk to him. He will tell you.
Did the fact that the prime minister asked Mr Advani to intervene because he wanted you in the Cabinet sour the relationship between you and Mr Thackeray?
Not at all. In fact, this is all… I have got best of relations with everybody. It is not my nature to fight with anybody and therefore there is no question of having an animosity with anybody.
You've never cleared the air on what really happened.
That is why I am telling you there has never been any animosity with anybody.
You don't want to speak about what happened then?
He asked me to resign and I resigned.
But you won't tell anybody why?
He told me to resign. I resigned. That's all.
You never asked him why?
No, I did not.
Do you believe resigning at that point in time was in tune with your stated attitude towards politics which is to work for the improvement of the state and the country?
You must accept the facts. After all, we all represent a party. There is a party rule and the party has the right to nominate [someone to the post of a minister]. We can't help it. These are the facts of life.
What kind of relationship do you share with Mr Vajpayee and the BJP?
See, I have been a minister under him. I have a relationship that every minister has with the prime minister.
He seems to be particularly fond of you.
That is his greatness. The fact that such a tall leader should have such fondness for me speaks of the greatness of that person.
What is your opinion of him?
He is a great person. He is a great statesman. He is a great leader. He is a great human being and I would say he has been a great prime minister for the country; probably one of the best ever India… the best probably India ever had.
Is there any particular incident that has endeared him to you?
He has always been extremely supportive of the policies I've pursued. When I was minister for the environment and forests, I decided to launch a programme to tackle the problem of dwindling forests. At the same time, I wanted to meet the requirement people have for forest products. So I thought of using bamboo. The prime minister encouraged and we became a member of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan in Beijing and launched the bamboo programme in a big way in India.
As minister for chemicals and fertilisers, I wanted to ensure fertiliser companies declared their true capacities and did not avail of unwarranted subsidies. I did that and the prime minister supported me thoroughly.
As minister for power, I embarked on a massive target of increasing our capacity by 100,000 megawatts of power and launched a reform programme in distribution for the first time in India. We also decided to increase the public outlay for power because the poor must get that power. The prime minister supported me thoroughly.
He was very supportive of my viewpoint in the Cabinet. He always made me a member of some important committees of the Cabinet. I have great regard for what he did and I try to repay his trust by putting in as much work as possible.
Did you expect this kind of upward trajectory that you have had in your career as a politician?
I am an ordinary person. Fortunately for me, due to Divine Grace and by the greatness of some of the politicians I have been working with -- including my party chief, the prime minister, Advaniji and others -- have been extremely kind and charitable towards me. If at all anybody has to give any credit to anybody, it is to these people, not to me.
How has life changed for you since you became an MP or a minister?
It's quite a tough job.
Did you expect it to be so difficult?
I enjoy it to tell you frankly because I continue to work all the time. But it's tough. It's not an easy 9 to 5 job. It's a 24 hour, seven day, 12 month job, There are no vacations, no weekends…
So you haven't taken a vacation in the last eight years.
Sometimes, maybe, when I am doing some official work I request my family to travel with me and then we try to catch up and spend some time together. But actually, as such, I don't think I have really taken exclusive vacation without it being attached to work.
How is your family reacting to this?
In fact, my family was not in favour of my joining politics. At the same time they -- my wife, my son, my mother, my sisters -- are quite supportive. They appreciate my responsibilities and they really don't complain and try to create any hurdles or obstacles. So in that way, yes, they have been extremely supportive. Without their support it was impossible that I could have done this.
Has your wife been campaigning for you here?
She cannot come regularly. She is a journalist. She works for The Times of India. She comes off-and-on, when she gets some leave.
How old is your son?
He will be 18 in June.
Does he involve himself at all or does he keep away?
He keeps out of this. He did not want me to join politics.
It happens you know. Some accidents take place…
Is he worried about your safety?
Not necessarily. But he did not want me to be in politics.
Photographs: Jewella C Miranda | Image: Rahil Shaikh
Part II: 'We need to shed our fiscal orthodoxy'