INTERVIEW | ‘India’s growth no longer dependent on a government’: Former Union cabinet secretary

I don’t think we need to worry about India’s growth per say. We need to worry about the fact that our growth is more business-oriented, says K M Chandrasekhar.
K M Chandrasekhar
K M Chandrasekhar(Photo | Vincent Pulickal, EPS)

You have witnessed various political developments from very close quarters. What do you think of the current political scenario in the country?

If the Modi government returns to power, what they will do is evident. If you look at the backdrop, they are trying to implement the Uniform Civil Code; maybe the farm laws too will be back. There could be further progress on Article 370. As far as the INDIA bloc is concerned, they have not worked out a common agenda yet. For me, what is important is not who governs but that there should be a balance in governance. Only one side has been dominating Parliament until recently. Conflicts between states and the Centre have escalated considerably. Governors are playing a proactive role, which has not happened in the past.

So, do you share the foreboding that India will change forever if BJP wins the 2024 general elections?

If they win with a big majority, like in 2014 and 2019, then, the tendency towards autocracy will increase. If they win with a small margin, there will be debates in Parliament, states may become more powerful and there will be a balance.

You predicted the 2014 election results correctly. How do you view the situation now?

A month or two ago, I thought it would be a clear victory for Modi; that he could achieve 400 plus seats, as he has built up his image after G20. Everything was centred around him. However, after three phases of polling, reports say it is gradually balancing out. I don’t know which way it will go.

K M Chandrasekhar
K M Chandrasekhar(Photo | Vincent Pulickal, EPS)

Do you feel PM Modi has become desperate lately?

In 2014, he was full of humour and confidence. But now, he is not talking in that tone; rather, indulging in direct attacks. Normally, he displays loads of confidence.

There’s a new narrative being spread that a new India was built after 2014. Being someone closely associated with the WTO, how was India’s global image before 2014?

When the economy is weak, our diplomatic image too weakens. In the 80s, there was no mention of India in newspapers in England. The only exception was a news report about an elephant, brought for the Asian Games from Kerala, not being treated properly (smiles). There was no news about the Asian Games in the papers. That has changed now.

So, do you think India is in a better space economically?

Yes... since 1991, the economy of the country has been growing consistently. The best point was between 2001 and 2007. As far as international image is concerned, they are more interested in business opportunities in India. When you are economically strong, you can dictate terms. Now, India is in a position where we are strong. The growth of India is no longer dependent on a government unless they do something very foolish. Take the case of demonetisation. The impact was for two-three weeks. We recovered. I don’t think we need to worry about India’s growth per say. We need to worry about the fact that our growth is more business-oriented. Businessmen are growing. Inequality growing. Unemployment is high. Inflation is something that ought to be controlled, whichever government is in power.

Who should get the credit for this?

The Economy has been in a happy space for a long time. It’s not easy to talk about who gets the credit. If Nehru hadn’t come up with the two five-year plans in 1951 on agriculture and basic industry, growth wouldn’t have happened. We’d have grown faster during the 70s, but no changes were made. In the 80s, when Rajiv Gandhi came in, growth was taking place. In 1991, it got a spurt. The effect has continued for a pretty long time.

People are trying to draw a parallel between the 2004 and the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Are there any similarities?

There are certain similarities. The campaign slogan then was 'India Shining'. People made fun of me at Geneva, as to where exactly India was shining; it had not shone in its villages. India has been shining for the past one and a half years in G20. The economy is more or less in the same state. There is, however, substantial fear psychosis today — the fear of autocracy and dictatorship. The best time was during Vajpayee’s tenure.

But what was not visible in 2004 and is visible now is a pan-India Hindutva connection

Absolutely. Even the prime minister has been harping on Pakistan, Muslims etc, not something a PM should ever say at any time, even during elections. That’s why there is a sense of panic among people.

Veteran BJP leader L K Advani and you were neighbours in New Delhi. Have you ever felt he was not a hardliner? What are your fond memories about him, not as a politician, but as a neighbour?

If you compare him with Modi, Advani is not a hardliner (laughs)... but compare him with Vajpayee, he is. Advani is a very genial and a good person to talk to. He gifted me a book once. He is deeply religious. I too am a spiritual person and into meditation. He is also spiritual to some extent, open to mysticism. He was not entirely Hindutva-oriented. In his book, he mentions that during the Emergency, when he was in jail, his wife went to meet Sathya Sai Baba who told her that her husband “will be released today”. He was released that day.

How do you assess Manmohan Singh as a prime minister, especially being tagged an accidental PM? There’s a narrative his hands were tied and the actual rule happened from 10 Janpath...

I’m not sure if his hands were tied or not. I have never received any call from Sonia Gandhi or anyone representing her. But there were a few occasions when she pressurised Manmohan Singh. One occasion was when she asked Manmohan Singh to ensure Rahul Gandhi’s security after Rahul tried to break security protocol. Another instance was the inappropriate appointment of Suresh Kalmadi to head the 2010 Commonwealth Games. There was also the involvement of the PMO in the 2G case. A PM can write to a minister telling him to act, according to the law. If you want a policy change, go through the cabinet. Instead, he got involved in correspondence, bypassing me. I didn’t know until much later. Then there was the incident of Rahul Gandhi tearing up the ordinance, but it didn’t affect my work.

That act of Rahul Gandhi was symbolic of the undoing of UPA-II, wasn't it?

Yes, he tore up his own government.

Have you ever interacted with Rahul Gandhi?

Only once, at a lobby at the Commonwealth Games main venue. He asked me, “Are you happy now?”

How do you see him as a political leader?

Any political leader needs administrative experience. He had two opportunities. During the Commonwealth Games, he could have taken over, instead of Kalmadi. He could also have joined Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. A five-year tenure is bound to bestow maturity.

Do you think he is still an evolving leader

That’s what I feel. Even if he’s able to form a government, it would still be tough for him to head it.

Had Manmohan Singh asked Rahul Gandhi to join the ministry?

Yes, but he refused.

You worked with both UPA governments. UPA-I is remembered for good things like MGNREGA but UPA-II became infamous for scams. Why did they differ so much? Was it because the Left had no link with the second ministry?

I think the UPA-II failed to defend itself amid controversies. Another issue was the absence of a bridge with opposition parties. The Left too withdrew support during the civil nuclear bill in 2008. Besides the 2G scam allegation, other factors that worked against UPA-II were the Lokpal Bill taken up by Anna Hazare and Acharya Ramdev, the India against corruption movement that saw the rise of Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi.

The scams during UPA-II helped BJP and Narendra Modi more than anything else. What went wrong for Manmohan Singh?

I believe 2G and Coal scams were tremendously exaggerated by the CAG. Performance audit is something that needs to be done jointly with the government to improve performance. It cannot assume the role of a regular audit. It must be done quickly. Presumptive loss assumes the government would have made money had they adopted a different policy. The said policy existed since Arun Shourie’s time, with a deliberate intention to increase the use of mobiles and telecom. From the initial Rs 17 per minute, it came down to 30 paise. That was the objective. TRAI said there should be no auction in 2G to ensure a level playing field. TRAI was headed by Nripendra Mishra who later became Modi’s principal secretary. If the government decides to reduce tax, then it is a presumptive loss. Government policy is not always about making money. It has a policy objective. Whether the policy objective was violated, that is for the CAG to find out. Manmohan Singh came from a bureaucratic background like us. Bureaucrats will have a natural fear. So, he got a little nervous. On the other hand, when the Rafael issue came up, Modi had no difficulty. He just went through it.

How did you predict the Congress government won’t return to power in 2014?

It was clear to everybody. Modi has got a way with people. Also, at the time, the Nirbhaya case, Anna Hazare, and Acharya Ramdev... all came together... plus the 2G scam. All these gave the impression there was massive corruption in the UPA-II government.

How do you assess A K Antony as a defence minister? Throughout his tenure, he faced criticism for policy paralysis.

I would differ on that. Usually, the defence ministry wouldn’t be able to spend its budget allocation fully. During every budget, the defence minister would ask for more funds. But at the end of the year, he won’t be able to spend the full amount. But during Antony’s tenure, he spent the entire allocation and asked for more, invariably. So I don’t see any policy paralysis. I think whatever was given to him, he did the best.

Recently, there was an allegation regarding the appointment of the CBI director. Middleman T G Nandakumar alleged that Antony’s son took bribe from a person who wanted to be appointed as CBI director.

Antony had no real role in the appointment of CBI director. That is generally left to the home minister. P Chidambaram was the home minister then. If he (CBI director aspirant) paid money to Antony’s son, then he is an idiot.

How was your relationship with Antony? Also, did he actually command respect from the forces?

My relationship with him was very good. I knew him much earlier. He is always a gentle, good person. Everyone had a lot of respect for him because he was not a man who threw his weight around. He always remained the same person. The then defence secretary, Vijay Singh, was my batchmate. They had a wonderful equation. He had only praise for him. Antony is a person who won’t allow people to go beyond a particular limit. You can’t make him do things if he is not convinced. He will look at everything. He had a basic integrity.

Unlike the Modi government, there were many cabinet sub-committees during the Manmohan Singh government. Is Modi autocratic?

Singh used to refer controversial matters to GoMs or committees of secretaries and the cabinet would take a decision based on their recommendations. Modi may want to make all the decisions by himself.

What are the positives of the Modi government?

It has done very well in infrastructure development. I have a lot of admiration for Nitin Gadkari. He is a first-class minister. He has done well. In Railways, Ashwini Vaishnaw has done some fairly good work. When it comes to image makeovers at the global level, diplomats tell me they have been able to advocate their position well. They have been able to act quickly. That’s an advantage. There’s no more indecision. Whether these are the best decisions or not, we don’t know.

There are allegations that the Election Commission’s credibility has been affected. What are your thoughts?

That’s a kind of defeatist statement. It’s like saying if we lose, it’s due to ECI. But yes, when it comes to taking action against controversial statements by the government, no action is taken. But the same is not the case with the Opposition. To that extent, it’s a reflection of overall governmental systems. Criticism against EVMs has been going on for a long time. Some say it can be manipulated. But so far, there’s no evidence. Considering our population, it would be difficult to go back to ballot paper. Back then, there were also issues like booth-capturing.

With delimitation proposed in 2026, what kind of a change will it bring to the political landscape?

It will bring major changes. If the current strength in the Lok Sabha continues, Kerala’s share will come down from 20 to 15. Seats from south India will decrease, while those from the north will increase, due to their population. Ours has declined with family-planning measures. By now, there should have been two delimitations. We postponed it by a decade. It all depends on Parliament’s structure. There should be some balance.

Many say that during UPA-II there was a Malayali coterie of top bureaucrats in Delhi.

If you look at the Delhi bureaucratic structure, it’s mostly dominated by people from UP. Nobody speaks about a UP coterie. Now, there’s an Odisha coterie. T K A Nair (Manmohan Singh’s principal secretary) was chosen as he can speak Punjabi. It just happened that there were many from the Kerala cadre there at the time.

Current Bengal Governor C V Ananda Bose is some years junior to you. Some major allegations have surfaced against him.

These are major allegations. I think he should clear himself. What’s wrong with a police enquiry? Now it’s very easy to prove since CCTV visuals are available.

The Centre has done away with the Planning Commission. But in Kerala, the Planning Board still functions. You were the board vice chairman once. Do you think the board effectively discharges its duty?

The Planning Board is basically an advisory body. They will allocate money after consultations, on an incremental basis. Mostly, the entire money is not spent for the purpose for which it is granted. The board has no control over this. The personal relationship between the board vice chairman and the chairman, who is the chief minister, is also important. The Planning Board’s role inside the state is limited, unlike the Planning Commission which had a bigger role.

Kerala is going through a severe fiscal crisis. What’s the way out?

There are many PSUs that can either be merged or privatised or sold off. There are too many officers all over the place. It only adds to the costs. There is an ocean of official vehicles. We can’t afford such wastage. As a sub-collector in Devikulam, I used to travel by bus. When I was an assistant collector in Kozhikode, even the collector did not have a vehicle.

What about resource mobilisation?

GST should make a big difference to Kerala. It’s a destination-based tax, and we are the biggest consumers in the whole country. I don’t know whether the entire amount is coming in. Excise should be liberalised. More licences should be given. Prohibition has become a kind of madness. Ultimately, fiscal issues can be addressed only through the 16th Finance Commission. You must see that a good share comes to the states first, and then to the Centre. Reduce expenditure wherever possible.

Should there be a cap on spending on salaries and pensions?

That people live only till a certain age (laughs)? The retirement age should be increased to 65. People are still young at 56-57. At 65, people are in perfect command of their senses. We won’t have to pay them a pension, till then. But there is unemployment. The government cannot be a source of employment. There’s no need for pay revision every five years.

What about reducing the number of employees, especially after computerisation and other innovations?

It can be done to a major extent. You have to rationalise your staff structure. Our problem is the population. If you compare India with the rest of the world, we have only about 11 people on staff, per one lakh population. We need to bring down consultancies.

Among Kerala politicians, with whom do you share cordial relations?

The minister for whom I had the greatest respect was CPI’s E Chandrasekharan Nair. I worked with him closely. He was the one behind Maveli stores, Onam market et al. Some ministers are brilliant. Similarly, I enjoyed working with K Karunakaran too. Once he trusts you, he’s with you. Oommen Chandy was a great man. I have never seen such a hard-working individual.

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