Shimla is bitingly cold, but Jai Ram Thakur, 55, exudes the sort of personal warmth that defines a quintessential organisational man. Pitchforked to the chief minister’s chair in Himachal Pradesh after the BJP’s chosen CM-candidate lost the elections, Thakur has been at the helm and consequent limelight for little over two years. Over steaming hot coffee, he spoke to Editor-in-Chief Ruben Banerjee about his achievements, disappointments and all that he wishes to achieve in the remaining three years of his term. Excerpts:
You have been a longtime legislator, but not many expected you to be the CM. Are you surprised with your sudden leap to prominence?
Not really, because I have been working in the party organisation for long. Also, (then) party president Amit Shahji had during the election campaign indicated that I would be given a bigger role. We had a chief ministerial candidate, but when he lost, I was chosen. There was no surprise in that.
You have completed two years as CM. What have been your major achievements?
The biggest achievement, I believe, is the manner in which we have gained acceptance among common people and the space we have carved for ourselves in the hearts of poor people in villages. Our biggest scheme has been Jan Manch, an initiative under which the administration reaches out to far-flung areas. Villages are provided microphones and they air their grievances in the presence of officials. Addressing complaints has been a major focus for us.
From pensions to providing gas connections, we have achieved a lot. For that matter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Ujjwala Yojana has been a 100 per cent success in Himachal. There is not a single household left that has not got a cooking gas connection. For health, we have initiated our own state health scheme to complement Ayushman Bharat.
What have been your disappointments in these two years?
Well, connectivity in Himachal has always been a challenge and that has prevented Himachal from excelling in tourism, the state’s economic mainstay. Rains wash away our roads intermittently, while snow cuts off areas regularly. We need better roads. We also need proper airports so that tourists can come. The airport in Shimla is small. We are building airports in Kangra and Mandi. Work is progressing, but perhaps it is not progressing as fast as I would like it to and that’s certainly a regret.
Himachal is known for contributing many brave men and women to the army. Why do so many Himachalis enlist?
The reason is Himachali people are honest. They also belong to a terrain that makes them tough. Patriotism runs in people’s veins here.
Does it also mean lack of other job opportunities?
Like every other state, there is a tremendous pressure on government jobs. But then, there is a limit to how many government jobs you can provide. We, therefore, are trying to open other avenues and are organising investor meets to attract private investments. We are facilitating loans to set up enterprises. Providing jobs is a focus area for us.
You have spoken about doubling farm incomes. How will you achieve it?
That is our prime minister’s objective and we are working hard to streamline marketing to achieve that. Farmers in Himachal face a multitude of problems, including wild animals. We have gone for solar electric fencing of farms to keep away animals. We are focusing on organic farming too.
Himachal has several prominent political leaders such as current BJP national president J.P. Nadda. Does it help the state?
Of course it does. Himachal is a small state, but Naddaji’s elevation as the party president is a huge honour for us.
There are prominent leaders from the state, including Union minister Anurag Thakur, who was in the news recently for the “goli maaro” slogan. Should that kind of slogan been voiced?
It all happened during electioneering and what was said was said in the heat of the moment.
Even you have been quoted as saying that only those who say “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” should be allowed to stay in India.
What is the problem in saying Bharat Mata Ki Jai? Since I stay in this country and I have a responsibility towards this country, we call this country our Bharat Ma. I don’t think there should be any problem in saying this.
So, the Bharat Mata slogan has no religious connotation? It’s purely nationalistic?
Yes. To love our country is our duty.
Don’t you think polarisation has increased in this country in recent times?
A certain shape is currently being given to politics, which is unfortunate. However, India remains a country in which every religion is respected and everyone is together. Even if one is shouting slogans, one is living among others. You cannot see this in other countries as much.
So other communities, including Muslims, have equal rights?
What do you think happened in Delhi?
Some political parties are seeing an opportunity in the anti-CAA protests to stoke passions. When CAA was legislated, it was for the entire country and not for Delhi alone. But vested interests are spreading falsehood and trying to profit.
Are you saying Shaheen Bagh has been hijacked by political parties?
Yes. They (political parties) think they can profit from this and did what they did. This is unfortunate.
But people have a right to dissent and protest, right?
Yes, they have a right to protest. But children are being made to protest and forced to parrot lines that are being taught to them.
How does one soothe tempers?
Everything will be alright. Government has taken multiple initiatives. This country is for all and everyone should work to make it better. Blocking roads and barring a section of media from reporting are not helpful.
Coming back to talk about Himachal, what will be your principal challenges in your remaining three years?
I am focused on developing the state. Opening new places for tourism, improving highways and providing better air connectivity are our mission. Bettering health infrastructure and the quality of education are foremost in our mind.
And is Himachal ready for the coronavirus?
Yes. I have had a series of high-level meetings and we have all the necessary facilities. We are ready for any contingency.