The full text of the BBC Hindi special programme Aapki Baat BBC Ke Saath with the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, who is also the convenor of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The topic for the programme: Has the present NDA government been able to fulfil the aspirations of the Indian voters?
BBC: Has the present NDA government been able to fulfil the aspirations of the people of India?
George Fernandes : Absolutely, whatever the NDA government has done has been based on the aspirations of the people; in fact whatever could not be done in the past years, has been accomplished by this government.
BBC listener from JNU, Delhi : Mr Fernandes, in the past, you were known as the pillar of trade union struggles, today your image has completely transformed. How do you feel? Secondly, as the Defence Minister of the country during past five years, you were only seen trying to keep the alliance together. Could you do justice to your post?
George Fernandes : Today I am the Defence Minister of the country, and not a trade unionist. When I was in the trade union movement, I did all I could to fight for their rights, and I did that with all my might and sincerity. But now I am the Defence Minister - whether you like it or not is a different matter.
If you say that I was busy only trying to persuade one ally or the other, my answer is you are not aware of the country’s security and its needs. You have not even imagined how much work I have done for the security of the country. I visited Kargil 38 times as Defence Minister of the country. Has any Defence Minister of the country been there? If at all they have, it was not more than once. To remind you, I was only the Defence Minister of the country when we achieved the Kargil victory. Today our armed forces are a power to reckon with in the world. If you do not know that, what can I do, please?
BBC listener from Muzaffarpur : The NDA promised one crore jobs a year during the last elections, but they were not provided. Today the major problem facing India is unemployment, why is it not the main issue of NDA for this elections ?
George Fernandes : Since independence, all the five year plans concentrated on this problem but, unfortunately, due to flawed planning, these plans created more unemployment rather than providing jobs to more hands. This is what the NDA government inherited from its predecessors. The NDA government took upon itself the task of linking all villages with roads and having a proper network of National Highways. The massive amount of money being spent in developing this infrastructure, is Rupees one lakh crore. Tell me when work at this scale is taking place in the country, what else is it resulting in except job creation? Let's remember that industries and especially those in the public sector cannot be opened everyday, therefore the jobs are being created in the infrastructure development sector.
BBC : But Mr Fernandes, it is a fact that the number of unemployed is consistently on the rise. Why have the Central governments, including your NDA government, not been able to make this as a primary goal to be achieved?
George Fernandes : Employment is generated when capital is invested. I say that this has been done by the NDA government - and not only the capital within the country, we were able to attract foreign capital as well. I accept the point that this was a problem which should have been the priority immediately after independence, but now we have directly tried to address this and results would be positive.
BBC listener from Delhi : I feel honoured to speak to a Defence Minister who braves the minus temperature to meet the army jawans. Sir, why did we keep the army on the borders for eight months in the hostile place, when they were to be returned to the barracks without even firing a bullet at the enemy? Why did the country incur such a huge cost? Secondly, we are talking to Pakistan despite the continuing violence in Kashmir - only recently the Chief Minister has escaped an attempt on his life.
George Fernandes : Indian army was deployed on the borders with a specific aim, and it was due to the deployment only that we were able to the thwart the designs of Pakistan, and it could not even try to achieve what it was aiming at then.
Remember, the expenditure on the armed forces is the same at all places, no matter where it is stationed, and same is the case for army movement. So it does not make a difference where the army is. So far as the situation in Kashmir is concerned, I am happy to state that since the ceasefire was declared in November-end, not even a single bullet has been exchanged by the armed forces from either side since then. There is complete peace on the borders, people have started travelling on both sides of the border. In March, you will see the Indian Cricket team playing in Pakistan. So major steps have been taken to normalise the situation.
Now coming to your question on the attack on Chief Minister - these are militant activities. Our fight against militancy is on, and is being fought without any let-up.
BBC listener from Rajouri (J&K) : Sir, I am talking about the days of 1984-85, when we the people of Kashmir were living with happiness and in peace. Today we cannot move freely in the dark, we are living in constant fear of the gun, and even the guests coming to our houses fear for their lives. Would the old days of our state ever return?
George Fernandes : Please do not forget that the NDA government at the Centre has ensured free and fair assembly elections in October 2002, which saw a high turnout. Despite the militant threats elections were successful - the credit for that goes to security forces and the people of the state, who ignored all threats. So, therefore, I would not agree with the statement that only bad things have happened there in past 15 years.
We are fully aware of the problems in that state, and they are being addressed. The Indian army is doing everything possible to normalise the situation, our jawans are constantly working to make your lives safe, without caring for their own lives. Now the Lok Sabha elections are coming and the people of the state would once again exercise their rights.
BBC : Mr Fernandes, you have talked about the steps taken by the NDA government to normalise situation in Kashmir in that the govt is talking to Hurriyat - but now the Hurriyat leaders are unhappy that human rights violations have not stopped and they are threatening to pull out from talks. Isn’t it a setback for your government ?
George Fernandes : They complained about one incident and it was after that incident that they gave such a statement. I have appealed that given the situation that Kashmir is passing through today, certain developments or happenings which take place should not happen in the first place. But when we decided to move forward towards a larger goal of attaining peace and normalcy in the state, let us not get deviated by small things. I hope that the Hurriyat would accept our appeal and continue the dialogue process.
BBC : But Hurriyat leader Maulvi Abbas Ansari says he is not being allowed to participate in processions, and their executive would decide whether to participate in the next round of talks or not. Would the Centre send an emissary to convince them?
George Fernandes : I cannot comment on this, as this is a matter being dealt with by the Home Ministry.
BBC listener from Latur : I remember the day, when in 1967 you were elected from Mumbai, but no one thought you would be a - even if a different type of - Defence Minister of India. Similarly, can we wish that one day we hear that ‘Prime Minister George Fernandes would address the nation'?
George Fernandes : Your wish would not be fulfilled. (laughs)
BBC: Mr Fernandes, a recent survey has described you as a unique Defence Minister, but the opposition does not want to listen to you in Parliament - isn’t it a strange situation ?
George Fernandes : I think this question should be addressed to those who sat in the parliament to boycott me - maybe, they don’t like to hear my voice. Or, maybe, they are afraid to face me in a debate. But it is for them to answer this.
BBC listener from Surat : The effort that NDA government has made in normalising relations with Pakistan has taken a year’s time, but how far can India trust a country whose top priority secretive programme like the nuclear programme is not safe?
George Fernandes : There are numerous problems in this world. There are bilateral problems and even internal disturbances in many countries. But let's remember that being obsessed with the past, we cannot solve any problem. For a better future, we would have to understand the present times very carefully, and both the countries have the responsibility of fulfilling the aspirations of the people of South Asia, and those aspirations are for peace. A beginning was made by Prime Minister Vajpayee, and the response from Pakistan side was positive. Now we have to work for the success of entire process.
BBC : But Mr Fernandes, is it right for India to have Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the field of reduction of nuclear arsenal of both the countries, given the recent developments of illegal nuclear technology leakage to other nations by Pakistan’s top scientists? I am asking this question as India and Pakistan have set up a group for reduction of nukes.
George Fernandes : Yes, I feel that confidence building steps should be taken in this direction. So far as the nuclear technology leakage and similar questions are concerned, it is not a matter of any single country. When such problems arise, there are international bodies to take care of the entire problem. So we should not be worried on who is where and doing what, as it does not concern us. This is what I feel.
BBC listener from Bhagalpur : Whatever our leaders might say, the reality remains that whenever India has extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan, it has reciprocated with deception. Can we forget Kargil? What is the guarantee that this time there would be no Kargil?
George Fernandes : This is a statement, which is neither political nor diplomatic - never give up hope in life! It is true that not all experiences with Pakistan have been positive in the past. But let's also remember that Pakistan also has its own experiences of the past. Whenever it went to war with India, it suffered defeat and nothing else. The present situation is that three attempts have been made on the life of their President. So all countries pass through their own experiences. So, for us, it is not correct to be living in the past only. It is good to remember the past, take lessons from it, but we have to move forward towards a good future.
There should not be any basis for fear, as the Indian army today is powerful enough to tackle any situation, then why should we unnecessarily think about what happens if tomorrow Pakistan might do this or that? We are today hoping that the positive mindset with which we are moving to normalise relations is the approach of Pakistan as well, and we would both move forward with both hands and all our might.
BBC : Mr Fernandes, the Indian initiative has been well appreciated, but do you see any change in Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir and the militant activities in the state?
George Fernandes : All these are the matters for dialogue and debate, the agenda for which is being worked out in the official level talks. We hope that both the countries would move forward, and contentious issues would be dealt with amicably in the coming days. This is our hope.
BBC : Mr Fernandes, the deal for AJT Hawk Trainers with Britain has not been finalised till now. Where is the trouble in that?
George Fernandes : It is not a question of trouble, but the initial talks that took place for the contract - there were some problems with that. Both sides are now working to reach towards a solution, and the decision would be taken soon.
BBC : Mr Fernandes, the NDA is the first non-Congress formation to have almost completed its tenure. Individuals are joining your alliance even now, but in five years nearly six of your partners walked out. Why?
George Fernandes : The alliance has been successful. When you have at least 25 parties, there is bound to be some problem - some parties have their own compulsions related to their politics and their respective regions. But I say this is not at all a cause of worry. We have been successful.
BBC: But it looks as if NDA is a combination of parties opposed to Congress in their states who are with BJP for power, and it is the BJP agenda that dominates other alliance partners.
George Fernandes : The NDA went into last elections with a common programme and we worked according to that. After the elections a four member committee, comprising L K Advani, Murasoli Maran, Jaswant Singh and myself, was formed to prepare the Agenda for Governance. It is not a single party agenda. I do not agree that it was a BJP agenda enforced on other parties.
BBC : Mr Fernandes, you are saying it was a success of the alliance. For the coming elections, people and individuals are joining you, but in your state of Bihar, your talks with Ram Vilas Paswan are not yielding any result.
George Fernandes : Well, Ram Vilas Paswanji has given up talking with us.
BBC : Paswan is talking to Congress leaders, so you think he is aligning with the Congress led alliance?
George Fernandes : If that's the final decision he has taken. Well, then, this is what would happen, what else?
BBC : If you become the Defence Minister of the country again, what would be your priorities ?
George Fernandes : Our priority would be the same, to continue working the way I have done this time. Today our armed forces have earned a name for themselves in the world, they are a power. I would want to continue to work to solve their problems and create good conditions for them. I hope we would be able to make India into a world power.