For the last year-and-a-half, Dr Manmohan Singh has been watching the political scene unfold before his eyes from his rambling Lutyens' bungalow in the heart of Delhi. The former prime minister looked on with fair dismay when the government he headed for 10 long years was unceremoniously voted out of office and the Narendra Modi-led regime took its place. And his worries have only increased seeing the manner in which it has since governed India. In between receiving friends and visitors-two in the morning and two in the evening-the former prime minister reads widely and exhaustively. When he wants to study something more deeply, he makes notes on plain paper-in his small, squiggly handwriting-and then looks for other sources that can help him understand the subject better. Congress president Sonia Gandhi drops in regularly, her son Rahul too comes sometimes. Other Congressmen come to pay their respects. He says he enjoys the intellectual stimulation that comes with meeting old friends from Cambridge and Oxford (institutions where he learned the role of politics in shaping change), or with visitors from Pakistan (former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri was here recently), or Nepal (he stepped out to meet former president Ram Baran Yadav) and other parts of the world. His study at home is lined with books and papers, hallmark of a man who has deeply invested in knowledge and who believes that even if you lose all your earthly belongings-which he did, as a Partition refugee in 1947-you always carry your learning with you.
In this first exclusive interview with Jyoti Malhotra since he demitted office (he has spoken only once before, on TV, in the wake of former president Dr Abdul Kalam's death), Dr Singh speaks freely on a wide variety of subjects. The shrinking of the economy worries him, as do the Modi government's flip-flops on Pakistan. He strongly believes that the prime minister must do much more to heal the country, and rues that he doesn't reach out to the main Opposition party, the Congress. He won't talk about the accusations against him in the coal scam, despite the fact that the CBI has given him a clean chit and said he need not come to court. Dr Singh isn't writing a book, nor his memoirs, but firmly believes that History (yes, with a capital H) will vindicate the political direction he gave India under his stewardship. Excerpts:
Q: What are your views on how the Narendra Modi government is dealing with the economy today?
A: The economy is not in as good shape as it could be, despite the fact that the situation today is much more favourable than it was when we, the Congress-led UPA, were in government. For example, oil prices had at the time gone up to $150 a barrel, today they are close to $30 a barrel. This has significantly helped India's balance of payments, the current account deficit has come down, it has helped the government reduce the fiscal deficit, and in the hands of a purposeful government, this could be an opportunity to step up investment in the economy in a big way.
Q: But you think the government is not doing that...
A: For one reason or another, the government is not able to get its act together to persuade the business community to take advantage of these fortuitous circumstances to step up the rate of investment at home. Today, the investment rate is as low as 32 per cent. When we were at the peak of our government, the investment rate went up to 35 per cent. Yes, it did come down in the last two years of our government but as I said, we had the disadvantage of a sharp hike in oil prices which is not there today.
Q: So do you think India is missing an opportunity?
A: Obviously.... Remember, we are a net importer of commodities, which means low commodity prices are a good thing for India; it helps the balance of payments, it helps the control of inflation as well as the fiscal deficit.
Q: Why do you think the Modi government has been unable to do that?
A: Obviously, people don't believe the government. When they go and call on the ministers, they say the right things, but when they come out, all of them say that nothing much has changed?. There is today a crisis of confidence in the government.
Q: When you were PM, how did you deal with the 2008 crisis, when the global economy slowed down?
A: We spoke to everyone. But today it seems to me that there is a lack of confidence within the business community. I can't make out what it is.... When they talk to the civil servants, they tell them they don't know who the boss is.... When we were in government, the business community talked a great deal about tax terrorism. I continue to hear the same talk from the business community when they come and talk to me.
Q: What should the Modi government do?
A: First of all, we have to recognise that this bonanza in oil prices isn't going to last forever. But this government has already spent two years out of five without giving people the feeling that the country is on an upward path. For example, bank credit is not moving-the rate of growth of bank credit is much lower than would be the case if the economy was on an upward trend....
Q: What about other aspects of the Modi government? How would you assess its foreign policy?
A: Certainly, relations with major powers have improved. But that was also the case with us. We had good relations with Russia, China, Japan, the US, France and Germany. The nuclear deal with the US was a path-breaking effort to break the vicious circle of nuclear apartheid. We ended the isolation of India. But I would say that the real test of foreign policy is in the handling of your neighbours. And here I would say that the Modi government's handling of Pakistan is inconsistent. It has been one step forward, two steps back. Also, with regard to Nepal, once again we have a situation where the government there is accusing the government of India of putting up a blockade, and that is very unfortunate.
Q: Why do you say that? After all, India would like to see the people of the Terai get equal rights as other Nepalis.
A: Nepal is our closest neighbour and we must make every effort to ensure that as a small neighbour we attend to their perceptions. Even when they are wrong, we have an obligation to create an environment in which the common people in Nepal feel that in India they have a great friend.
Q: But the Madhesis feel they have not been given their full rights in a democratic Nepal?
A: First of all, I feel that India should have acted much sooner than it did. The Constitution of Nepal was being approved on September 20, 2015, and the foreign secretary was sent to convey a hard message to the Nepali government only a couple or so days before that. I think this is not a very good way of tackling a very difficult problem. If India did feel there was a problem with the constitution, the government should have quietly told the Nepalis what they felt and talked to them and persuaded them. Instead, the government woke up late, just a few days before the constitution was to be adopted. In fact, a majority of Madhesis also voted for the constitution, so the government of India should have been much more conscious of what was going on in Nepali society.
Q: The government should have reached out much more to Kathmandu?
A: Yes...we have always had leverage with Nepal and we have always utilised it for the good of India-Nepal relations.
Q: Earlier, you said the Modi government's policy on Pakistan has been inconsistent. What do you mean by this?
A: Certainly, I cannot say that my government's relationship with Pakistan was free of problems. I think the control of terror is our primary concern. And Pakistan made promises it didn't keep. I think, in substance, the problem has not disappeared. The question is, how is the Modi government responding? Whatever your views on Pakistan, our effort was that we have to engage Pakistan. They are our neighbours. We can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our neighbours. But the Modi government has been inconsistent. It went out of its way to invite Nawaz Sharif for the prime minister's swearing-in ceremony, which was a good move. But the advantage that should have been taken from that move did not materialise because the Modi government made it conditional that the Pakistani government could not talk to the Hurriyat, and so the talks were cancelled.
Q: How should the government have responded to the Hurriyat?
A: The point is that the Hurriyat exists, it is there. Whether it is a representative of the people of Jammu & Kashmir is a question mark; certainly we don't recognise that it is the only entity which can deal with the problems of Jammu & Kashmir. But there is no harm in talking to them. Even the previous government, Atalji's government, was talking to them, we were talking to them, and our stand has been that the Hurriyat, instead of talking to Pakistan, should talk to us. And therefore the sensitivity that is required to handle the relationship with Jammu & Kashmir has been missing in the Modi government.
Q: Just to finish the question on Pakistan.... When the Mumbai attacks took place, you were prime minister. What did you say to the Pakistanis at the time?
A: Our effort was to tell the world community that this is an unacceptable situation, but I was also of the view that war was no part of the solution. And therefore our effort was to put pressure on the international community so they could in turn put pressure on Pakistan to ensure that those responsible for perpetrating this horrible massacre must be brought to book. I think we did succeed on that score. I think the world community recognised that the government of Pakistan could not get away with saying that it had no hand in what had happened in Mumbai.
Q: The Americans recognised that the government of Pakistan was involved in the Mumbai attacks?
A: I don't think the Americans ever said it like that, but they did believe that the source of the terror in Mumbai was certainly in Pakistan.
Q: But why was the world community unable to put pressure on Pakistan to deliver on those who had been accused in the Mumbai attacks?
A: Unfortunately, terror has been a part of Pakistan's policy in dealing with India. At the same time, we have to recognise that we are both nuclear powers. Pakistan has now gone in for tactical nuclear weapons. Therefore, one cannot talk glibly about going to war or teaching them a lesson. We have to create an environment in which the people of Pakistan will themselves recognise that their government isn't doing the right thing for the interests of both countries?. Pakistan has often promised to take action against terror, except that its delivery of those promises remains a problem.
Q: What did you make of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's quick trip to Lahore?
A: I don't know if it was well-thought-out. There seems to be no evidence that the Pakistanis have taken action against those who perpetrated the crime in Pathankot. I read an article by the well-known Pakistani journalist Ayesha Siddiqa, who went to Bahawalpur, headquarters of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, soon after a great deal of noise was made that Pakistan had taken some action against the Jaish. But she said she didn't see any activity which was abnormal, the madrassa that is the headquarters of the Jaish seemed to be functioning as before, everything seemed quite normal. And now it comes out that Pakistan is asking-what it used to ask us-that you are not providing enough evidence. I think with regard to Pathankot, history is repeating itself.
Q: But the PM's trip to Lahore, wasn't that a good thing?
A: It is always good to maintain contacts with your neighbours, but there is no need to create a euphoria. If you are not sure about the outcome of your initiative, I think you are wasting the levers of power that you have regarding Pakistan. So I don't think that the PM thought it through? He said that he was in Kabul when he spoke to Nawaz Sharif, who invited him to come. But that is no way of planning or taking a view on such a sensitive relationship, especially one between India and Pakistan.
Q: But Modi was taking a leaf out of your book, which was to have breakfast in Kabul, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Delhi.
A: (Cutting in)... Yes, but that was only our ambition. What I did not do was succumb to pressure from various sides to go to Pakistan when I had no assurance that some effective outcomes will be there. If there is no effective outcome, then it is a wasted effort. You only compromise your own ability to deal with the problem.
Q: But you, sir, were almost going to visit Pakistan in 2007?
A: No, never.
Q: There was a big rumour that you very much wanted to go to your ancestral village, Gah?
A: There were invitations and promises and some tentative plans were also made. But I had never taken a firm decision to go there, unless and until I was assured of a positive outcome, which was that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack be brought to book and that Pakistan stops using its territory to launch terror attacks against India.
Q: But it was rumoured that Gah was being spruced up for your visit?
A: In matters of state, one has to be full of sentiments, but one can never be sentimental. I would like to go to my village, but there must be more to it than a mere visit.
Q: Tell me about your back-channel conversation on Kashmir, which was amongst the most forthright in decades. Why did you start this conversation?
A: Because I have always believed that relations with neighbours have to be the primary concern of India's policy, and on Pakistan, despite all its mischief, we have to learn how to engage with it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But we could not simply say, especially if we believe that we are the biggest power in the region, that it's impossible to deal with Pakistan.
Q: But what about the four-point formula on Kashmir that both sides were working on?
A: Former president Pervez Musharraf has written about it, but I am not saying I'm endorsing him. Yes, there were back-channel talks, and they were moving in the right direction. The objective was to normalise India-Pakistan relations. And the solution to Kashmir, it has been recognised since the Simla Conference, must be a joint effort of the two countries. Our view with regard to Jammu & Kashmir was that borders cannot be redrawn. If borders cannot be redrawn, then you must find other ways of dealing with the problem which will satisfy the people of Jammu & Kashmir as well as India and Pakistan.
Q: So what happens to the Line of Control?
A: The Line of Control is there, we cannot redraw the line. But through normalising the situation in J&K, we can create a situation where the line becomes practically irrelevant. As I had visualised it, the people of J&K on both sides should be able to trade with each other freely, move around freely, together deal with common areas like rivers and environment concerns and resolve common problems through a consultative mechanism where both sides would be represented.
Q: This seems to be similar to Atal Behari Vajpayee's vision on Pakistan?
A: Well, I carried forward that process. I think substantial progress was made, but the Mumbai massacre created a massive handicap in taking forward that process.? As for the Modi government, I cannot advise them, but they have to decide whether they want to continue to deal with Pakistan in the haphazard way they have done in the last 18 months.
Q: What do you make of the situation in J&K today which has lapsed into governor's rule?
A: In a way, the BJP as well as the PDP have a common responsibility for what is happening in J&K. Somehow, the central government has not been able to inspire much confidence in the people of J&K. In my view, the PDP is now increasingly conscious of the fact that what they have done with this marriage with the BJP doesn't have the support of the ordinary Kashmiri people. They are tempted to be part of the government, but they are also worried that if they lose the people's faith, this may be a short run affair and that in the long run it may not be beneficial to them. So I believe it is the responsibility of the central government and the BJP to create a proper atmosphere in which the PDP would have no worries in moving forward with the relationship.
Q: Mehbooba Mufti is like a daughter to you, what advice would you give her?
A: I don't know what the state of the relationship is between the BJP and PDP. But I think it is in the interest of both parties, in the interest of the people of India that Kashmir should have a well-functioning government and whatever will facilitate the smooth running of the government in J&K should be done.
Q: To come back to national politics and the Modi government which won with such a huge majority in the 2014 elections. How did you feel when the Congress lost so badly?
A: I was very sorry that the Congress lost so badly. I thought we had done enough to earn the renewed confidence of the people, but obviously there were problems and the BJP, certainly in the management of people's perceptions, scored a point.
Q: How do you think the BJP has done in the last one-and-a-half years? There has been a huge debate on intolerance in the country?
A: There is a growing view that the BJP is not able to deliver in areas in which it had made huge promises. The PM talks about 'vikas' but in the growth rate there is no significant difference from when we left power. In our last year, the growth rate was 6.9 per cent, while the latest figures today show that it is hovering around 7-7.2 per cent. So, despite the significant improvement in the balance of payments, the economy is not moving forward which was the aspiration and for which the government had made promises.
Q: Do you think this is because the PM's attention has been distracted by the many issues regarding intolerance? The banning of beef, for example, and the unfortunate killing of a Muslim in Uttar Pradesh because he, ostensibly, had beef in his house...
A: All these are problems. The public in our country expects the prime minister to take the lead in managing public opinion. But he has never spoken; whether it is on the beef problem or whether it is what happened in Muzaffarnagar or elsewhere, he has kept quiet.
Q: Why do you think he does that?
A: I don't know, I cannot read his mind. But he is the prime minister of all the people of India and he must give every Indian the confidence that in him we have a prime minister who cares for our well-being.
Q: Critics of the prime minister say that one of the reasons for his silence is because he has been a long-time member of the RSS, a swayamsevak?
A: So was Atalji, but Atalji grew in office. I believe Modi also has great and unique opportunities. They have a huge majority in the Lok Sabha? In the hands of a purposeful government and wise leadership, there are enormous opportunities to make progress in the management of the economy and in containing social tensions.
Q: In Parliament, do you think the PM is reaching out enough to the main Opposition party, the Congress?
A: I have had the opportunity to talk to the PM once or twice and I have told him that he has to reach out to the Opposition much more effectively than has been the case. There has been no serious discussion with the Congress, whether it is on foreign policy or domestic policy, and even on the GST?
Q: There has been no serious discussion on the GST?
A: Well, except that Mr (Union finance minister Arun) Jaitley came and called on me and on Soniaji to invite us for the marriage of his daughter. But that is not the way for the government to handle the relationship with the principal Opposition party.
Q: But the PM also invited you both to tea in the beginning of the last session?
A: But there also Mr Jaitley did all the talking, the PM kept quiet. He had invited me earlier as well, and after all, if the PM invites me, I felt it is my duty to go. So I went to meet him. At that time too I had told him that if you really want to improve relations with the Congress party, it's much more essential than ever before for you to establish contact with the Congress leadership, particularly with Soniaji and Rahul Gandhi. I told him that this is not a task on which I can deliver. They are the two most important leaders of our party, and unless and until the government establishes some rapport with Soniaji and Rahul, the Congress party cannot be taken for granted. You cannot have a situation where you foist cases like the National Herald and then expect.?
Q: So what did the PM say to you in response?
A: He listened a great deal, but didn't reveal his mind. In that meeting, he asked me, "What should be done with Pakistan?" I told him, whatever your views on the relationship, we must engage Pakistan. Engagement doesn't mean that we have to agree with Pakistan on everything.... I told him that at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, the US and the Soviet Union were eyeball to eyeball but they continued to talk to each other all the time.
More recently, on the occasion of Sharad Pawar's 75th birthday, I was coming out of the function and so was the prime minister. He said to me, "With regard to Pakistan, we are following what you have suggested to me." (Smiles)
Q: He is giving you credit, Dr Singh!
A: Well, I don't think he would ever do that in public!
Q: But the truth is that despite the Pathankot attack, the talks have not broken down?.
A: Yes, let us see where that goes. The problem is that in Pakistan the situation is always very complex. There are several players, such as the army, which is a very powerful player.
Q: In Parliament, though, it is increasingly clear that the Treasury and Opposition benches are hardly talking to each other.
A: That is not good for democracy, for the country. There is unwanted bitterness between the two sides. It doesn't have to be that way.
Q: And why do you think there is bitterness?
A: Because the ruling party doesn't feel that it needs the Congress in managing the country.
Q: One last question on the several scandals and scams in the last couple of years of your government, such as the CWG, 2G or coal. Do you feel bad that your last years were shrouded by them?
A: I really feel sad about those years, that reports of the CAG were used by the Opposition to disrupt the functioning of Parliament. Actually the reports of the CAG must be discussed in the public accounts committee, but the day the report was published, the BJP brought up the matter in Parliament and it was disrupted. So we never had any opportunity to put out our view of what really happened. Parliament was never given an opportunity to objectively examine what the situation was and that has always remained a sore point with me.
Q: Are you bitter about that?
A: I'm not bitter about anything, but it hurts me. I had not entered politics to make money for myself, my family or friends, and I felt very sad and hurt when BJP members would walk into the well of the House and say, "Pradhan mantri chor hai." That really hurt me.
Q: So that's why you said, "History will treat me better than the present"?
A: Yes, I really believe that. I really do hope so.