'Anyone who looks at our proposed amendments without politically-tinted glasses will give us full marks.'
'An isolated India is not in our interest. Just because we are a large country, we cannot be arrogant and think that we can ignore others.'
'When opponents keep harping on one point, it is a sure sign of success!'
In an exhaustive interview with PTI, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed confidence that reforms measures like the goods and services tax and land acquisition bill will be passed in "a matter of time".
The prime minister added that he has consciously avoided choosing a populist course and instead opted for a more difficult path of correcting the inefficient government machinery for which he credits the previous Congress-led government.
Looking back at his one year in office, Modi states the government’s role in providing strong governance and a pro-people policy. The prime minister responded to the charges that his government was clamping down foreign NGOs and on the Opposition's criticism of his many foreign trips.
How would you sum up your first year’s experience as prime minister?
When I took office, the civil service was totally demoralised and afraid of taking decisions. The cabinet system also was in disrepair due to the operation of extra-constitutional authorities from outside and groups of ministers from inside. There was a gulf between the states and the Centre and a high degree of mistrust. Foreigners as well as Indians felt despondent about Indian governance. Changing that atmosphere of gloom was a very challenging task and I faced many difficulties in rectifying the situation and bringing back confidence and hope.
Soon after becoming the prime minister, you had said that you are trying to understand Delhi since you were new here. Have you understood Delhi?
When I referred to Delhi, I meant the central government. My experience is that Delhi behaves the way the leadership defines. Our team has worked to bring in changes in the work culture of Delhi for making the government more pro-active and professional. When I assumed office, I found that the corridors of power in Delhi were littered with lobbies of various kinds. The task of cleaning the corridors of power (or cleaning the lobby of lobbies) was important so that the government machinery itself is improved. This process of correction and cleaning took quite some time but it will provide long term benefits in the form of clean and fair governance.
And what have you understood?
One thing I fail to understand in Delhi is how the same parties which as state governments seek amendments to the land acquisition law, suddenly become opponents of the amendments when they are sitting in Delhi.
Looking back at this past year, do you think there is something which you could have done differently?
I had two options. One option was to do things methodically to mobilise the government machinery, correct the many defects and ills which had crept into the system, so as to provide long term benefits to the country in the form of clean, efficient and fair governance. The other option was to use the mandate to announce new populist schemes and bombard the media with announcements to keep the people fooled. The latter course is easier and people are used to it. However, I did not choose this and instead chose the more difficult path of correcting the defective government machinery in a quiet and methodical way. If I had chosen the populist course, it would have been a breach of the trust placed in me by the people.
During the first year, you initiated a number of programmes like Swachh Bharat, toilets for schools, Jan Dhan, insurance for poor, pension scheme. What are the plans for the future?
First, I should mention that Swachh Bharat and school toilets are not merely for cleanliness. The provision of toilets is a minimum requirement for the dignity of our women and it is unfortunate that we have not done this so many years after independence.
Our future focus will be on women, farmers, the urban poor and on employment. Whatever we have started, needs to be taken forward and into the villages and municipal areas. We have to address the issues which prevent clean cities, clean rivers, regular, uninterrupted supply of essentials like water and electricity. We have to carry out reforms which help us in making 50 million houses for the homeless. We have to see that all regions of the country, particularly the east and west, are brought on par in development parameters.
We have made a beginning by setting up the Atal Innovation Mission and Self-Employment and Talent Utilisation. A common requirement for all of these is corrections in our policy regime and also in the administrative culture.
Do you think obstacles posed to reform measures like the land acquisition and goods and services tax are hurting the country? What will be your message to those opposing these measures?
Both the GST and the proposed land acquisition bill are beneficial for the country. The core essence of these bills should be appreciated by all the parties keeping aside political motives. Long term interest of the nation should be foremost. The fact that the states have agreed to the GST design, shows the maturity of our federal system and the GST bill has already been passed by the Lok Sabha. It is a matter of time before these laws are passed.
If the reform measures are not pushed fast, what kind of a message will it send to foreign investors particularly since you have been making utmost efforts to bring maximum investments?
One of the peculiarities of Delhi is that the term ‘reform’ is associated only with passing of laws in Parliament. In fact, the most important reforms are those needed, without new laws, at various levels of government, in work practices and procedures. We have initiated a number of major reforms. These include decontrol of diesel prices, direct transfer of cooking gas subsidy, enhancement of FDI limits, revamping of railways and many others. The truth is that reform has actually been pushed very fast and in fact as a result FDI has already witnessed an increase of 39 per cent in the period April 2014 to February 2015 compared to the previous year.
What further reform measures are you planning in the future?
The success of the steps that we have already taken and the positive response of the people throughout the country to our actions in the first year have encouraged us to do even more. Our focus will be on P2G2, i.e. Pro-active, pro-people good governance reforms. Another aspect we will emphasise and strengthen is that the state and the Centre are one team which has to work together for reforms to be effective.
What are the areas that you may consider opening up for FDI in the future?
The measures already taken have increased the attractiveness of India as an investment destination and confidence has improved. Wherever there is high employment potential and wherever we have strong local talent, for example, in research and development: those will be the areas of focus for FDI. We have created the National Infrastructure Investment Fund. This is a major step which will increase the flow of foreign investments into all infrastructure sectors, without needing separate sector-by-sector approaches.
With regard to economic policy, is the Reserve Bank of India on the same page as the finance ministry? I am asking this question because there are sometimes remarks by RBI governor which indicate a disconnect with the finance ministry.
I am surprised that an important and credible media agency like PTI is drawing an incorrect inference based on remarks made in different contexts. The RBI has its functional autonomy which the government and the finance ministry always respect and preserve.
What growth figure are you targeting this financial year?
The experience of the last year and the enthusiasm and encouragement of 1.25 billion Indians give me the confidence that all economic indicators will exceed the targets. I do not want to undermine the potential and the efforts by giving any figure which may turn out to be too low.
Do you think the opposition’s resistance to the land acquisition bill, which they claim is intended to benefit the corporates, is justified?
I don't want to get into political mudslinging. However I do want to ask whether those who allotted coal mines and forest land, rich with mineral resources, to their favourite corporates have the moral right to question this government which is working ceaselessly for the welfare of all sections of society. I am astonished that even after running a government for 60 years, the ones asking these questions have such poor knowledge of administration and governance. The whole country knows that the subject of land is not with the central government and the Centre does not require land. All rights relating to land are with the states. The 120 year old land acquisition act was amended by the previous government without even 120 minutes of discussion in Parliament. Thinking the bill was good for farmers, we also supported it at that time. Later many complaints came from the states. We cannot disrespect the wishes of states. One should not be so arrogant as to avoid correcting mistakes, so we brought the bill to rectify the errors, that too in response to the demand of the states. Anyone who looks at our proposed amendments without politically-tinted glasses will give us full marks.
Since there is a deadlock on the land bill, what is the way out? Are you ready to accommodate the views of the Opposition on the land bill?
Gaon, garib, kisan (the villages, the destitute and the farmers): if the suggestions are favourable to these downtrodden groups and are in the interests of the nation, we will accept those suggestions.
Your government as well as the Sangh Parivar have been repeatedly targeted whenever members from the minority community or minority institutions have been attacked. What do you have to say on this?
Any criminal act against any individual or institution in the country is to be condemned. The attackers must be strongly punished as per law. I have said this before and I say it again: any discrimination or violence against any community will not be tolerated. My position on this is very clear: Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas. We stand for every one of the 1.25 billion Indians regardless or caste or creed and we will work for the progress of every one of them
What is your response to the Oppostion’s criticism of your numerous foreign trips during the last year?
We live in an interdependent world. An isolated India is not in our interest. 17 years without a visit by an Indian prime minister to Nepal was not a good situation. Just because we are a large country, we cannot be arrogant and think that we can ignore others. We live in a different era. Terrorism is global and can come from even remote countries. International summits and organisations like World Trade Organistion take decisions which will bind us and if we are not present in such summits, we may be hurt by the decisions taken.
In a democracy, everyone has the right to criticise the government. Normally, the Opposition gets more media space and even the people find it interesting to listen to voices against the government of the day. Ever since I took office, my friends in the Opposition have been levelling baseless allegations about my foreign trips. Had these trips been a failure or had we made any mistakes, then they would have based their comments on specific issues. In the absence of any specific issue, they are only discussing the number of days and the number of countries. Look at the maturity of the people: all recent surveys show that the highest approval rating is for our foreign policy. When opponents keep harping on one point, it is a sure sign of success!
You have been accused of being pro-corporate. How then do you respond to Deepak Parekh’s statement that nothing is happening on the ground for the industry?
The answer is to be found in your question itself. If opponents are accusing us of being pro-corporate but the corporates are saying we are not helping them, then I take it that our decisions and initiatives are pro-people and in the long term interests of the nation.
Rahul Gandhi has recently got active and raised issues of farmers as well as land acquisition bill. He has also called your government ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’. What is your comment on this?
The Congress has suffered a crushing defeat and ended with less than 50 seats. Even after a year, they are not able to digest this. The people have punished them for their sins of omission and commission. We thought they would learn from this but it looks as though they are proving right the earlier saying that if con is the opposite of pro then Congress is the opposite of progress.
Recently, the CAG has raised questions over the country’s defence preparedness and claimed that the army has ammunition which can last only 10-20 days if there is a war. Its report was based on 2013 figures. What would you say on this?
National security is a serious matter and I do not think it is in proper to discuss such details in a public forum. However, I can assure our countrymen that the country is safe in the hands of the brave warriors of our army, navy, air force and coast guard.
One of the campaign promises was that the new government would take stringent action against black money. Has there been any progress in this?
The very first decision of this government after taking office was to constitute the special investigation team to pursue black money. This step had been pending for years with no action and we executed it in our very first cabinet meeting. Subsequently, we have also brought a new bill which will combat black money held abroad and it prescribes stiff penalties. Thanks to our efforts, an agreement was reached at the G-20 summit in November 2014 to curb tax evasion and in particular to exchange information between countries. This will help us to trace black money. These are very strong and concrete actions.
What efforts have you taken to change the way the government works?
We have tried to remind government servants that they are servants of the public and have restored discipline in central government offices. I have done a small thing, one that appears small from outside. I regularly interact with officers over tea; it is part of my working style. Philosophically, I feel that the country will progress only if we work as teams. The prime minister and the chief ministers are one team. The cabinet ministers and the state ministers are another team. The civil servants at the Centre and the states are yet another team. This is the only way we can successfully develop the country. We have taken a number of steps for this and the abolition of the Planning Commission and its replacement with NITI Aayog in which states are full partners is a major step in this direction.
Is there any merit to the criticism that all powers are concentrated in the PMO?
Your question is loaded. It would have been better if this question had been asked when an unconstitutional authority was sitting above the constitutional authority and exercising power over the Prime Minister’s Office. The prime minister and the PMO are very much part of the constitutional scheme, not outside it. We have made major increases in the delegated powers of individual ministries so that many decisions that earlier needed to come to the prime minister and the cabinet can now be taken by the ministries themselves. The financial delegation for ministries has been trebled. Devolution to the states has been increased and states have become full partners in governance through the NITI Aayog. All successful and transformational administrations need close coordination across different ministries and there is nothing unique in it. We have not made any changes in the business rules of government and decisions are taken by those authorised to take them.
You received a massive mandate from the people who wanted a change from absence of governance in the final years of the United Progressive Alliance II. One year on, there are murmurs that you have not exactly delivered achche din. Are people being impatient?
The 21st century should be India’s century but from 2004 to 2014 bad ideas and bad actions have affected the country adversely. Every day was a new bad day and there were new scandals. People were furious. Today, after a year, even our opponents have not accused us of bad actions. You tell me, if there is not a single scandal, is this is not achche din?
The country is facing an agrarian crisis. The issue of farmer suicides has become a cause of political slugfest. What is the government planning to do?
Farmer suicides have been a serious concern for several years. Political point-scoring through comparing how many suicides occurred under which government will not solve the problem. For a government of any party, and for every one of us, even one suicide is worrisome. I had said in Parliament with great sadness that mudslinging between the ruling and opposition parties would be unproductive and, respecting the sanctity of Parliament, we need to collectively find an answer to this issue. We need to find where we have gone wrong and why we are not able to solve this over so many years. I have asked all parties for their suggestions to bring contentment and security to our farmers. I want to assure our farmers that this government will never be found wanting in doing whatever is needed for their welfare.
What is your response to Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s accusation that your government of showing ‘obstinate arrogance’ in Parliament and working to scuttle administrative transparency?
Perhaps, she is referring to the fact that, earlier extra-constitutional authorities were the ones really wielding power whereas now power is wielded only by constitutional means. If the charge is that we are working through constitutional channels and not listening to any extra constitutional authorities, then I plead guilty to that charge.
Your government has also come in for criticism for its ‘clamp down’ on NGOs with the US saying that such actions could have a ‘chilling’ effect on freedom of speech and expression. Is that an alarmist view?
The current Foreign Contribution Regulation Act was passed by the UPA government in 2010. The steps taken are only to enforce the law as passed by the previous government. There has been no action taken contrary to law. No patriotic citizen can object to this.
How cooperative are chief ministers in strengthening cooperative federalism?
The experience of chief ministers with the Centre over many years has generated an atmosphere of distrust. Doodh ka jala chhaachh bhi phook phook kar peeta hai (a burnt child dreads the fire). Even now there is a lot of mutual suspicion between the Centre and the states as a legacy of the previous decades. However, I can say that there has been a good beginning in building trust. The NITI Aayog is acting as a catalyst to build a vibrant Centre-state partnership to take the nation forward. This spirit of partnership and team work is gradually increasing and the fruits will be seen in the coming years.