What are some of the key issues in your constituency that you’re hoping to work on as an MP? The key issues that need attention, of course water, without water there is no life, so it is water. And the second which I think is a greatly neglected filed, which I have no instant solution is the health cover, medicine particularly for women and particularly for women in childbirth because these are all rural villages. There used to earlier be a system of village daai, it’s died out in time and now it’s appalling, it’s truly appalling, heaven forbid should a woman’s pregnancy go wrong, then where does she go? You can’t carry a pregnant woman on a camel or a bullock cart, particularly if she’s in labour. I do run a private charity, medical charity but I don’t have the resources to cover this extensively. Water, medical and the third is uncontrolled pollution.
For example mining is taking place. Or for example the pollution of vehicular traffic. These are issues that need some attention. Barmer must also have, I think, even if it’s once a day, an air connection. There’s a perfectly good field. Then there is the rail communication and connections with Sindh and Pakistan. I had a hand in starting it earlier but then they reduced the periodicity of it to once a week, which is absurd. A very large percentage of the population residing in Barmer, Jaisalmer have relatives just across and there’s no other way around. So this service must be made at least daily. And the border must be a little more open. Now when passengers come from Sindh, they have to be checked for customs and excise at Munabao. I think there should be a second customs post at Barmer so people don’t have to travel all the way to Munabao.
Travel restrictions must also be eased– the natural trading from Barmer, Jaisalmer was Karachi. India-Pakistan relations are not limited to Indo Punjab relations. You can do things in Jammu –Kashmir, you can do these things in Punjab, then why not in Rajasthan. This is the quietest border, there are no terrorists here.
Why did you choose not to contest from Darjeeling this time? Because I had done the work that I had to do and I realised that I had been a Member of Parliament for 9 terms, which is not a boast, is just a statement of fact. And this election, the 16th is going to be my final election. I started as an independent in the 4th General Elections, ’67. So I wanted to come back home and work from home or work for home. I owe this land, and this soil and this people, I owe then a great debt. They made me what I am. I tell them, I am not going to pluck stars out of the sky, I can’t do it but I do wish to work this final term in Parliament to the best of my ability, for my home, this land and its people.
Is that part of the reason why it was so important for you to contest? There was widespread speculation that you were offered other positions in lieu of not contesting. The merit of that claim notwithstanding, you could have gone on to do other things. You did consider once running for the Vice President of India. Why was it so important for you to come back here and contest? Because I’m not interested in office. It’s a mistaken impression. Look I’ve held Defense, External Affairs, Finance, Planning Commission. That experience cannot be taken away from me. I’ve handled so many responsibilities. Ministry of External Affairs, United States, Pakistan, let me not make a long list of it. So I am not hankering after post or position. Vice President’s election, the party wanted me to contest, I did not seek it. The party wanted me to contest because it really had no one else. And all that I asked for, that I no longer had any purpose in staying in Darjeeling, the Gurkhas wanted me to stay but I don’t think I could have served them because there’s a very strong sentiment in Bengal against what they term as ‘Banga-Banga’. Now, Darjeeling was already declared autonomous, large number of responsibilities of a State were with them and in no sense are the Gurkhas of Darjeeling geographically, socially, linguistically, they’re not Bengal. Earlier Bengal realises that, the better it is. I did what I could, there was no more role left for me. There is a role left for me here. I was not being obstinate and asking this, I knew that what subsequently happened was part of a larger design.
When all is said and done, how do you analyse what eventually happened? Because you see, the argument that this was routine replacement of old guard with old guard, does not hold, especially given that Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi have been given tickets. I was told, no, no you’re the wrong caste, which is absurd. My son contested this very constituency and won by a record margin of 2 lakhs and 70 plus thousand. I’ve never fought an election on caste or community basis, how otherwise would I have won in Darjeeling? I am distressed because you have not replaced me by someone younger from within the party. I feel that to replace me by a Congressman who two months back was abusing all of us, contested the state assembly elections as a Congressman, lost that election and you pluck him out of whatever morass he is in and you say he is the BJP candidate. I can understand the Cheif Minster of Rajasthan engaging in such an act, but the Central office bearers.. Rajnath Singh then explains to me that there are political reasons for what happened. So I asked him, do please tell me, it can’t be a state secret. But he didn’t. So here I am.
The BJP unlike the Congress has not had many terms in the Parliament so one would imagine that it would need all the experience of governance it can have on its side? A kind of support system of experience is necessary for governance of a country like India. I think the BJP is going very wrong in this. There is a very highly personalised agenda that has taken over. I feel grievously that the BJP has lost its moral compass. It no longer knows where it is headed. When I pointed out that the alternative against who I have to contest as an Independent, is a Congress party discard, the retort was there were some 62 examples, some figure like that which is appalling. BJP has now landed in a devastatingly unreal situation.
In the last 15 years, can you think of what might have been done differently for the party to have been headed in a more positive direction right now? I think 2004 greatly affected the party because it didn’t expect to lose. In 2004 all the embassies, missions, everybody said, no, no you’re coming back. Even the Congress did not expect to win. Chidambaram had come to meet me and said, “…Look. I really didn’t expect it. I thought I’ll have a seat and attend Parliament 2 days a week and practise in the Supreme Court for the balance of the time.” But 2004 unbalanced us and thereafter Atal ji’s health began to sink. I repeatedly requested the party, advised them, that it would be good if we sat and reflected on what has gone wrong. There was impatience. You see, even in that short 6 year term in office, we got infected by what I call Raj Madh, the heady intoxication of office. It became as if office is our right; office is nobody’s right. The great French President Clemenceau, his statue is in a very central part of Paris, and on it is inscribed, what he said, ‘The graveyards of the world are full of those who were thought indispensable to their own nations.’ I think we Indians have to learn that.
Do you feel the party could have handled 2002 Gujarat riots differently? Oh yes, of course it could have.
How so? I won’t go into what all could have been done because… but certainly it was a situation that demanded a true accounting of the self and there wasn’t. We tended to think, “It’s a bad dream. It’ll go away.” But in governance things don’t go away.
What do you see as the pros and cons of BJP’s relationship with the RSS? I’m not an RSS man.
Which is why I ask you. They provide a spine of an organisation which is permanently there but there is another liability with it because where is the authority? And who is answerable? Where there is authority, the real authority, they are not answerable. There is another aspect of it, which is that the political input of thought should only be with the BJP because it is doing the political work and it has the experience. If that is shifted out not because of a greater political acumen elsewhere but a kind of political overview-what should I call it- a political monitor, then it’s unnatural and becomes unbalanced. And it reminds me, if you go into history, really speaking the Maratha confederacy thrived, for so long as the Peshwas only advised. When the Peshwas began thinking, “Why are we advising? We can sit in office,” then the confederacy began to collapse. India is very beautiful, interesting, vivid. It’s a country that is a constant challenge. It’s not what we read in Delhi. Here, for example, my folk and I, we find Delhi is such an irrelevance. God alone knows what they are talking about. It’s truly astounding. So the irrelevance of Delhi. But everything is centred there.
Could you sum up the legacy of the NDA where finance and foreign policy is concerned? And how do you assess UPA 1 and UPA 2’s performance in the area? When Atalji asked me to take over the Finance Ministry, there was a particular problem that had arisen with the Unit Trust of India – it was about to collapse and that would have affected large number of middle class investors, pensioners, retired people, their investments would go. I did tell the Prime Minister that I’m really not an economist but he insisted I do this. I’m not an economist, I’m not even very good at keeping my own personal accounts. When I went there your community (media) present at the entrance of the Finance Ministry, they asked me what is your policy and on the spur of the moment, I said, “My policy is very simple- grehani ki tukiya mein aana aur garib ke pet mein dana.” I don’t believe much in the magic of GDP. I think that if there is no gross national contentment, then GDP is an absurd figure. I had once shared this thought with His Majesty, the King of Bhutan and he was greatly struck by it. He made it his state policy. It flattered me greatly and I’m very happy. You can’t measure gross national contentment in some kind of scientific formula. But by god, if you have contentment then this country can flower. That was my effort as Finance Minister. I told them, “Go out and conquer the world. I will stand by you. If you need money, I will get the Reserve Bank to give you money.” Which was later what Manmohan Singh called ‘animal spirit’. UPA foreign policy was very confused. The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, like most Prime Ministers do, he wanted to keep his grip on foreign policy and yet have SM Krishna. Foreign policy requires a lot of forethought. You should be reading and studying. Krishna was not inclined. He should not be chided or made fun of because he picked up a wrong piece of paper. That’s alright. But what was the central purpose? Ministry of External Affairs is not a Viceroy’s office. The role that India has to play globally is a conceptual challenge for us and I’m afraid UPA II failed greatly, totally failed in this because Manmohan Singh lost interest. And my friend Salman Khurshid is a very affable man but sadly is not a very able man. And I don’t think affability is the only requirement.
Can you cite a couple of examples where they dropped the ball where foreign policy was concerned? Yes, of course. The neighbourhood. Never in India’s independent existence has almost the entire neighbourhood been in turmoil. Why is it bad? Because if neighbourhood shackles our feet, India’s feet, then we will never be able to achieve, never be able to impress our role, our position in the global community. Why did Pandit ji succeed? Because neighbourhood then was not in turmoil or he would not recognize that it was in turmoil. There is another aspect of it. You see mistakes of domestic policy are more easily corrected domestically than mistakes and errors of foreign policy. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, otherwise a great human being left two errors of foreign policy – the mistakes of Jammu and Kashmir and Tibet and China. They still afflict us. They’ve seized our manoeuvrability by both the feet and the throat.
What are the key challenges in terms of the foreign policy and the finance policy for the upcoming government? I don’t know. I don’t much care because I don’t think much in terms of government. Whoever aspires to govern that is a question you should ask of them.
You started as an Independent but for the last many, many years you have contested within the folds of a major national party. What are the challenges of contesting independently? Today was the last day of campaigning for you. How did it all fare? Yes I have finished this evening. So I was feeling very light. I thought I would go take a bucket bath and have a drink. I have said I would like a drink on purpose because there is a lot of hypocrisy that surrounds us on this subject of a drink. But coming back, the Hindi word for independent is ‘nirdaliya’. I prefer to call it ‘swatantra’. I feel much freer because I no longer have the obligations of functioning within the confines of a party. Those confines are also mental and they restrain you from saying exactly what you want which I think is one of the deficiencies of our democracy. Subscription to a party is not a subscription to censorship of thought. I think we should have sufficient understanding of the demands of policy in a country like India and accept that there will be another opinion. And we should have the ability to absorb that opinion, rationalise it and then distil the outcome. We don’t. Opinions, policies become very tight little cocoons. I think this is a part of the malfunction of our party system.
(Part of a multimedia series for India.com and DNA)