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Narendra Modi has not uttered a word on his stand on Ram mandir, Article 370, the Hindutva agenda or, for that matter, on the Land Acquisition Act, the Right to Information Act and on labour laws, points out Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan in a candid interview with Prachi Pinglay-Plumber. Opinion polls, he says, often underestimate the Congress, while AAP for him is ‘NOTA with a face’. Excerpts from the interview:
What do you think of the opinion polls on the general election?
These polls are not predicting a landslide. Polls are merely giving BJP higher number of seats than the Congress, not a clear majority. If you look back at 2004 and 2009 predictions, polls had then predicted fewer seats for Congress than we what actually got. Congress is often underestimated, the depth of congress leadership, presence in every village, its long history—they are not quite apparent, that's why people underestimate the Congress. Even polls don't capture it.
But the media is speaking of a Modi wave...
I don't see any Modi wave. He has created a hype, without a doubt. Best marketing techniques, lot of money being poured in, media buying, live telecast-- all that he has done. He had to start his campaign a lot earlier too because he wanted to take over the party. First, he wanted to be named the PM candidate. Then he wanted to convert this election into a presidential form of election, which is what his friends from the United States suggested to him. That is why the emphasis on declaring the PM candidate was there.
But declaring a definite PM candidate surely helps people make an informed choice?
“The AAP will have little impact; they may alter a couple of results but they will not win a single seat in Maharashtra.”
Then why don't we go for a Presidential form of government? The constitution makers after having considered the Presidential model of the US very consciously rejected that because at that stage of development, state of literacy, majority of the people would tend to vote for religion and Hindu upper caste males always. The minority will not a have chance at all. But in the Westminster type of democracy, there is a possibility. That's why Constitution makers stayed away from the Presidential form of govt. But that is BJP's favourite plank. The day Atalji took over as PM, he set up a committee to review the Constitution, where this was one of the themes. We are not falling into that trap by naming a PM candidate.
There is talk of the Gujarat model and criticism for Maharashtra government's slowing down development projects?
The fact is Mr. Modi's is a one man show in Gujarat. That is why decision making is probably faster in Gujarat than in a coalition government here. But on 1 may 1960, two separate states were born. Per capita income then was the same in Mumbai and Gujarat. Today we are way ahead of them. Take any parameter—10 times more FDI, more industrial output and employment, more export, today also foreign companies are more interested in Maharashtra. As regards delays, if we speak of mining, for example, it is done from Delhi. Is it Mr Modi's case that mining projects are cleared faster in Gujarat? That is not true at all.
What explains the large number of political defections in Maharashtra?
Yes, it is an unfortunate trend, where politicians are perceived to be more opportunistic and less idealistic. The foundation of a political party should be based on economic theory and social theory. That is weakening. All parties are responsible for it. We have also admitted people, who were ideologically at cross purposes. Corruption is no bar. People alone will have to rise against it. All the party hoppers would perhaps then be punished by the people.
What about the nomination of Ashok Chavan?
I don't really know if having a non-corrupt image is important to the people. If you call one person Mr. clean, then you are calling the others not so clean. Everyone should work within the rules that we have made and not break the rules when it suits us. Ultimately the people will have to rule and vote. There is a tendency that if a person works for me or for my community, then I don't care if he makes money. But there is a lot more anger now and the Delhi results showed that.
You mean AAP's win in Delhi?
How successful will AAP be in Maharashtra?
I don't think they will have much impact. They may alter a couple of results but they will not win a single seat in the state.
How would the changing equations in BJP-Sena-MNS and the option of NOTA affect the election?
“What’s happening to the Sena-MNS will happen to small, regional, family-run outfits. We must strengthen national parties.”
Infighting in BJP-Sena is their internal problem. NOTA is a good decision and if 50% choose not to vote for anyone then it is advisable that the election be cancelled, but that is still not accepted by the Election Commission. Aam Aadmi Party is NOTA with a face. What is happening to Sena MNS will happen to all small, regional parties, which are family-run enterprises. Very few have converted into national parties. You need to strengthen national parties and you cannot have one issue party. Parties based on state boundaries, language, caste, religion are dangerous for the unity of the country.
Traditionally the Congress-NCP banked on a secular agenda. But now there is an option like AAP....
AAP is a recent phenomenon. It is not easy to raise a national issue and have a take on diverse issues like Siachen, LTTE etc. True they raised an important issue. But the economy has to grow, jobs have to created. A fine balance between environment and development is needed. How can a start-up party like Kejriwal's have views on everything? His is a one person party.
But he did talk about Reliance and its influence. How do you look at the involvement, influence and impact of industrial houses on political parties/government?
Impact of big business on the political process is a challenge faced by every single democracy in the world, from UK to US. Unless we are able to fix problems of political funding and unless the awareness of political process, the democratic way of choosing people who govern us goes to a much higher level, this influence of money, whether it is business or the corporate sector, will remain. Because there is a real issue about how do you fund elections and where does the money come from. .
Shouldn't it be more transparent?
We have to try, we can't give up. We have to chisel at the problem slowly, gradually. There cannot be a silver bullet solution overnight. Simple things like NOTA is a half-hearted attempt. SC deciding quickly about corrupt people like Gholap is a step in that direction. Unless election petitions are decided in a year or so, the election code of conduct is enforced more rigorously, influence will remain. The trend is that unless, you spend a lot of money, you can't be elected. We have travelled a long distance. Somebody earns huge amounts of money during his tenure we now ask questions.
But we are also hypocritical. In order to govern as PM, CM you need minimum infrastructure because we are a large country. MPs are expected to live on a salary of 20,000, that's not right. Same corporate person is getting a salary of Rs 5 crores. We have to strike a balance.
Do you consider yourself an administrator or a politician?
I am not a politician in Modi's mode. Yes I should be able to clearly define where I stand on issues. If you compare Mr. Modi, he has not articulated on any issue. I'm waiting to hear his stand on foreign policy, Article 370, Ram Mandir, Hindutva agenda, Common Civil Code; in economic terms on opening up insurance and pension for FDI, allowing foreign banks, labour reforms etc. These are all important points. He has not said one word except calling us names and making fun. Will he scrap the environmental law? Will Mr Modi come and scrap the wild life protection laws? Will he undo the Land Acquisition Act? Will he scrap RTI?
So what is he doing then?
He is getting rid of old BJP leaders. The way he insulted Advaniji and Jaswant Singhji. We were always opposed ideologically but I had great respect for these leaders. They contributed greatly to India. I am worried about where does he stand today. Will he take dictations from RSS? I'd like the RSS to speak. Has he given up the agenda of Hindutva? Is he going to be a modern reformer?
That's why the development agenda, isn't it?
But, is it? Then he should say it. If he is willing to come out one day and say that we will not talk about Ayodhya and Ram Mandir anymore. Or about the common civil code till the country is prepared for it. Is he going to say he will bring faster industrial development and change labour laws? What is his take on banking and insurance? Are we ready for FDI in retail? Will the farmers eventually not suffer? No, no, no. we must come to some conclusion on whether we want organised retail or not. The answer is yes, we do want organised retail. That is essential because it preserves food grains and grading becomes possible because customers get value for money and value is transferred to farmers. The question is whether we are open to foreign investment in retail or not. We opened up Telecom, Airline and Roads sectors. So, why not retail?
Financial help that your government offered for damages caused by hailstorms is said to be far too little. While you offered Rs 10 to 12 thousand, the investment per acre amounts to Rs 30,000, say your critics. They also allege that the help was offered too late...
We must realise that whether the damage is caused by flood, drought or hailstorm, we can't have different rates. We are not trying to compensate farmers. We are only trying to give some help so that he can restart. It is a natural calamity. Until we develop a system where we can secure 100% agricultural insurance, where every single Rupee of loss is covered, the state will have to intervene. From last year, we increased the compensation by 2.5%. The relief package given for Maharashtra for one calamity in one state is unprecedented. As regards the delay, it happened in March and I wanted to do it systematically. I went to the PM, the Agriculture minister, the Election Commission, a central team was invited. All that has followed. We will serve interest on loans and restructure loans.
Most of the farmers have not borrowed from official sources. They are borrowing at huge interest charged every week. They may actually land in a much worse debt trap?
You are right there. There are instances of private money lenders charging exorbitant interest on loans. We do have a law against private money lending. We have increased agricultural lending from Rs 10,000 crore to Rs 35,0000 crore. However the problem will not go away in one day. We need to ensure they all have bank accounts. Technology has to be harnessed and mobile phones used to achieve results. It is a battle and we need to fight against evil practices while providing an assured market to farmers.
How do you explain cotton prices going downhill?
We cannot nationalise agriculture, like in Russia and China. It is a private sector activity. We cannot give one hundred per cent protection to farmers. The first year we gave a Rs 2000 cr package for falling prices and income protection. While Agriculture insurance is required, it is a difficult business. Let's not forget that in Maharashtra 82% of the land is rain-fed as opposed to 98% and 90% of the land in Punjab and Haryana which is irrigated. Give us 98% irrigation and we will feed the world.
But Maharashtra has just witnessed a huge irrigation scam, haven't we?
I think there has been a mistake. We need to correct them. We must put in right policies in place.
There is also a perception that while Gujarat has been registering all-round growth, in Maharashtra even building activities have slowed down. How would you respond?
When it comes to builders, there were issues. Permissions were given against the law, against rules. It had to be corrected. I corrected the situation about building plans in Mumbai, especially what is called the fudgable FSI. It brought Rs 3000 crores to the state. Real estate hasn't been easy. The Campa Cola housing issue began in 2000, where residents were told to fell some of the floors. The matter was in the court for 13 years. In February 2013 the court gave a very strong order that you must follow BMC rules, set right the illegal construction and that no state authority shall interfere. How can any state authority help them out? We all felt for the people. We don't want anyone to lose the roof over his head. Following our intervention, the court diluted its order and asked them to find a solution. But to say that everything that was done illegally, whether in Pune, Pimpri or Chinchwad, should be regularized--is not acceptable. What would people, who followed rule and constructed as per rules - which is difficult as it is, do then? What wrong have they done? Then everybody will say, let me build illegal floors after construction. If you start regularizing them all, that's not fair. How is regularisation of slums (cut off date 2000), which you recently announced, any different? The issue was whether to regularise upto 1/1/95 or extend the date. There are arguments on both sides. Congress and NCP in its 2004 manifesto had promised this to the people. Right or wrong, that was a decision, a well-considered decision in the manifesto. We could not fulfil it. We repeated that promise in 2009. People wrongly accused me that it came towards the fag end. I started the process when I became the CM. It's a long tedious process, court orders etc took a long time. Of course if I had not pushed, it would have crossed the election deadline. I pushed them. We have been working on this for years together. The Assembly was good enough to pass the law. If it was bad and very populist, I wouldn't have got a unanimous decision in the House.
What about the mounting pressure on Mumbai? Railway accidents are taking place because people are falling off crowded trains, pot holes are appearing on the roads and so on?
I have tried to do whatever I could. We now have the Mono Rail, we have the Metro coming, the Eastern Freeway, cross connectivity, SCLR, airport connectivity, proposed coastal road. We are trying to build a trans-harbour link, Metro in Navi Mumbai, light rail in Thane. There is a huge ambitious project for Vasai Virar. You can ignore this reality or correct the position. I can't wish away relocation of people. All I can do is improve upon transportation infrastructure. Housing is a real problem. The SRA scheme, which was announced long time ago, has not worked effectively. So I have incentivised cluster development to avoid single buildings coming up like pencils. For the first time we charged mill workers for construction. We need the political will. Unfortunately pot holes is a municipal issue, governed by the Shiv Sena. I did put in some rules that roads should be inspected by foreign experts though.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print