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'At the UN, there were times I wished India had a stronger government'

Last updated on: January 03, 2014 19:31 IST

'Under Narendra Modi's leadership, we will be able to regain our rightful place in the community of nations,' veteran diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri, who joined the BJP on January 2, tells Rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt.

Hardeep Singh Puri, a 1974 batch Indian Foreign Service officer, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party on Thursday, January 2.

Puri joins a long list of diplomats like Mani Shankar Aiyar, Meira Kumar, K Natwar Singh and the late Romesh Bhandari of the Congress and the late Brajesh Mishra of the Bharatiya Janata Party who have made the transition from diplomacy to realpolitik smoothly.

Puri's personal friendship with senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley is well-known, so his entry into the party has not created much surprise.

In fact, a former diplomat, who is also Puri's friend, wryly enquired, "Has Puri joined the BJP today, really? When did he leave?"

In a free-wheeling conversation with Rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt, Puri dismissed allegations about maintaining close links with the BJP during his tenure as a senior member of the Indian Foreign Service.

"That is not true at all," said Puri, adding, "When I was Permanent Representative (to the United Nations), I was equally close to people from all political parties, so I will not accept this (charge of being close to the BJP)."

"Arun Jaitley is somebody I have grown up with. We studied at the same university. I have worked with various other people. (Congress General Secretary) Digvijaya Singh has stayed in my residence in New York."

"So don't say I am close to X or Y. Ambassadors, by the very nature of their jobs, deal with all political parties."

"As long as you are in the civil service, you have to be professional and clinically correct. I personally believe that the time has come for more professionals -- whether they are engineers, doctors or bureaucrats -- to become a part of the political system."

"They should do so not to perform any function; but whatever they have acquired in terms of learning and experience, they should put it at the disposal of the country. It is entirely up to the political parties how they use these professionals."

Puri studied with Jaitley at Hindu College under the aegis of Delhi University.

He is considered a clever diplomat who cut a deal to benefit India in various UN organisations or during trade negotiations.

His wife Laxmi, a former IFS officer, is a senior UN official, serving in New York.

Within the BJP, Puri has not been a supporter of former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh.

Puri was critical of how the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government handled the Kandahar hijack incident in December 1999. India was forced to release three terrorists in its custody after Pakistani terrorists hijacked an Air India Airbus from Kathmandu and took it to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Before retiring from the IFS, Puri served as India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations and did a good job as chairman of the United Nations Security Council's Counter-Terrorism Committee.

The diplomat, who started his career as a lecturer at St Stephen's College, has held important diplomatic posts in Brazil, Japan, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom.

Between 1988 and 1991, he was the Coordinator of the United Nations Development Programme /United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Multilateral Trade Negotiations Project to help developing countries in the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations.

It won't be surprising if Puri gets important assignments within the BJP.

It helps that he knows the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi well.

A few weeks ago, Puri met Modi in Gandhinagar. Puri met Modi for the first time in 1999 in Delhi, at an event organised by Jaitley.

When Puri was posted in Geneva in 2003, he spent two days with Modi when the Gujarat chief minister traveled to Switzerland to collect the ashes of Shymaji Krishna Verma, a freedom fighter from Gujarat.

Puri is deft in dealing with people in the real world of diplomacy. His rapport with Susan Rice, his American counterpart at the UN and current US National Security Advisor, helped India in a big way.

Puri is an expert on issues concerning the World Trade Organisation and will help the BJP formulate its views on the complex subject.

On joining the BJP

There was never any consideration of any other party. Let us be very clear. Intellectually and in terms of what I think the country needs, there was no second choice; the timing was purely coincidental. And it happened suddenly.

Simply put, ten years of the Congress's rule has witnessed an undermining of institutions, bad economic performance, corruption and lack of governance.

As far as the BJP is concerned, I have spent a lifetime dealing with issues related to foreign policy and security policy.

As a political party, since its inception, the BJP has been strongly grounded in nationalism. They appeal to me on issues of national security.

But for the May 1998 nuclear tests (conducted under the NDA's regime), we would have, been worse off on the security scene.

I am hoping that with a strong BJP government, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, we will be able to regain our rightful place in the community of nations.

We will take our positions based on national dignity and people will think twice before taking liberties with us.

I believe the BJP under Narendra Modi offers the best prospects for India's foreign and security policy.

In New York, there were moments when I wished we had a stronger government in Delhi.

One of my regrets has been that we worked so hard and after 17 years we got into the Security Council (as a non-permanent member), but the government in Delhi was completely preoccupied with domestic issues.

When we were a part of the UNSC in 2011-2012, Delhi was distracted. They were dealing with corruption cases like the 2G scam and the Commonwealth Games scam.

To push issues like the expansion of the UNSC or India's permanent membership in the Security Council, it would have been nice if we had had a stronger government in Delhi.

Of course, I am not suggesting that a stronger government in Delhi will ipso facto result in the Security Council's expansion, but we have been distracted.

On the transition to politics

When you finish one phase of your life as a civil servant, it is time to give back, time to go onto the next phase.

I am not suggesting that this is politics in the conventional sense. I have only joined the party.

What use the party wants to make of my experience is entirely up to BJP leaders.

I don't think there has been any discussion on the issue; I have not come with any preconceived notions.

On the UPA's foreign policy

I think the present political dispensation could not stand up forcefully enough in the last few years.

Why were we pursuing a bilateral meeting at the prime ministerial level when the Pakistanis had not given up the use of terror as an instrument of their policy?

Why was there so much hype about Nawaz Sharif taking over (as Pakistan's premier) and his keenness to meet the PM?

There was a three-week long incursion in the Depsang valley near the India-China border in Ladakh. It was a military standoff; it was described by the external affairs minister (Salman Khurshid) as a pimple on a beautiful skin. Then he goes to Shanghai and he wants to settle down there.

I could go on giving you such examples. Look at how they have handled the Sri Lankan Tamils issue.

We owe it to the Sri Lankan Tamil minority to use whatever margin of persuasion we have with the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to encourage them to give the Tamil community a good deal.

Please don't compare the United Progressive Alliance and the NDA's record on foreign policy.

You mentioned the Kandahar hijacking. I had forgotten it, I prefer to forget it.

But my sense is that on every score -- the handling of the nuclear issue, relations with neighbours, ties with the United States -- look what has happened.

The PM was ready to forsake the future of his government over the India-US civil nuclear deal, but not a single dollar of commercial contracting has been done since the agreement has been inked.

You are buying billions of dollars of military equipment from the Americans, yet that does not encourage the State Department to withhold clearance for the physical arrest and strip-search of a senior Indian diplomat?

I think it is shameful.

On the Aam Aadmi Party

Politics is about governance. Governance has to be based on understanding and sound considerations.

If you are going to base concessions on subsidies, then you should know what it means.

Subsidy by definition is a charge on the State exchequer. The State exchequer gets money from the taxpayer.

So you are going to take the taxpayers's money and you are going to give subsidies to a limited section of the people.

I want the AAP experiment to succeed, but it cannot succeed on the basis of wasteful subsidies.

Look at what has happened to the Indian economy after 2008. The UPA government had waived farm loans worth Rs 70,000 crore. Look at the other wasteful schemes they have had.

The NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) was supposed to have a positive impact because it was supposed to have generated employment. But figures on the level of utilisation of the scheme in the poorest states -- the Bimaru states -- are for all to see.

The Food Security Scheme is equally taxing.

By definition, subsidy is not a bad thing. If you are giving a subsidy to poor people who do not have enough to eat, which is a consumption subsidy, it is logical up to a point. It is necessary.

But you can never build infrastructure on the basis of subsidies.

Infrastructure and utilities like water and electricity, by definition, have to be paid for. If you are giving subsidies on the supply of water and electricity, then you are obviously robbing Peter to pay Paul.

You are taking money from somewhere, but at the end of the day, it is the taxpayer's money. That is why I feel very uncomfortable with the AAP.

I am happy to see these young professionals, these IIT alumni, coming into politics by joining the AAP.

But I am not attracted to the AAP. In fact, I am worried when I see this kind of extravagant wasteful expenditure. It is not a sound economic model.

Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

Sheela Bhatt