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Talking to the new prime minister of India



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

May 24, 2004 - This is the Prime Minister's first interview since taking office.

NEW DELHI - Has the Indian Congress party, in electing Manmohan Singh as the man to lead the nation, in a stroke won for India a leader attuned to the voices of the rural poor as well as those that "shine" in the information technology sector, a leader who happily and uncomplicatedly embraces Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Christians and non-believers, one who will exert all its strength to make peace with Pakistan, and one who is determined to put India's economy on course to overtake China's within a couple of decades (and maybe before if China's precarious system of economic and political governance breaks down)? For now these unanswered questions are just hopes, although widely touted ones. The biggest question mark over his head is will his communist allies give him the room for maneuver he needs on the vital economic liberalization on which all other progress hangs?

Just over a year ago Singh and his wife invited me for breakfast and for over an hour and a half we talked about his views of Indian political life. On Sunday I was invited back to the same house- the first foreign journalist he has talked to since his swearing in- where for over a week he has only averaged three hours sleep, often as last night, meeting with Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party, until 3.30 in the morning. As much as one can discern, it is very much a co-government between the two of them. But the long-standing relationship is, by all accounts, an easy and comfortable one.

"It helps having a European mind", he said of Mrs. Gandhi. "She likes to be told things straight, not in the Indian roundabout way." He credits her with having helped the Congress party recover from its underdog position. "It's her stamina, her interaction in parliament. She has grown with the responsibility and she has been a unifying factor."

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I asked him what was the most important issue. "The mass poverty of India. Our economic reforms are half incomplete. We have to take these reforms to their logical end. 70% of our people are in the rural areas and we have to give them good water, primary health care and elementary education." Although Singh thought land reform is impossible "without a revolution" what is important is for "sharecroppers to get their rights established so that they can invest in their land with security. We need to be like the communist government in West Bengal".

Can India turn an economic growth rate of 8% every year, I asked? "8% would require a Herculean effort. Our investment rate is too low. But perhaps in five years' time we can do it. If we can attract the same foreign investment flows as China does we can do it. But we have to change the mentality of foreign investors. And we can do that if we have stable policies. Meanwhile, if we can have economic growth at an annual 6.5% in a sustained manner we can make an impact on poverty and unemployment. China's long range rate is probably nearer 6%, not the higher figure they claim".

"We have to find a way to stop talking of war with Pakistan. This is stopping us realizing our economic potential. Two nuclear-armed powers living in such close proximity is a big problem. We have an obligation to ourselves to solve this problem."

I pushed him on how far he himself would accept compromise with Pakistan over Kashmir. "Short of succession, short of re-drawing boundaries, the Indian establishment can live with anything." Meanwhile, "we need soft borders- then borders are not so important. People on both sides of the border should be able to move freely."

I reminded him that Nehru had always promised Kashmir a plebiscite. "A plebiscite", he replied emphatically, "would take place on a religious basis, it would unsettle everything. No government of India could survive that. Autonomy we are prepared to consider. All these things are negotiable. But an independent Kashmir would become a hotbed of fundamentalism".

Corruption is endemic in India and already with his cabinet appointments coalition politics has compelled Singh to give office to Laloo Yadav who heads a regional party. In 1997 Yadav had to give up being chief minister of the impoverished state of Bihar on charges of corruption which are still pending. Singh won't comment on Yadav but he does say that in recent years, "political power has been passing into the hands of a new type of leadership. And they don't make a distinction between state and private property. Government officials have large discretionary power. We have to de-regulate even more so that this discretionary element is much reduced."

For the shy, self-effacing, uncorruptable, ex-economics professor the premiership is visibly overwhelming. He cannot talk more, he says apologetically, "I have to get on top of the issues."


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Read also Power's interview with Sonia Gandhi and his comparison of India and China.



Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"




Här kan du läsa om - och köpa - Jonathan Powers bok på svenska

"Som Droppen Urholkar Stenen"



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