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'It's very important India has a strong government'

April 22, 2009 12:13 IST
Communications icon Sam Pitroda, who is credited for revolutionising India's telecommunications system during then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's tenure, believes it is important that a Congress-led government helmed by Dr Manmohan Singh return to power to maintain the momentum of India's economic growth.

Pitroda, a special adviser to Dr Singh and chairman of India's Knowledge Commission, tells Aziz Haniffa that only a Congress-led government will have a clear focus on India's future strategic and foreign policy.

Why do you believe so strongly that a Congress-led government helmed by Dr Singh should return to power?

I believe it's very important that in India today we have a strong government. We are at a very critical time in our history, partly because of India's growth in the last five years. We don't want to lose the momentum and partly because there is such a serious global financial crisis.

If we don't have this strong government, we will lose momentum, prestige, and all the competitive advantage we have today. You cannot have a government going forward, which is constantly compromising. So, I think it's very important that a Manmohan Singh government come back with some level of majority.

I don't think you will get a thumping majority. But Manmohan Singh has been a slow, steady worker. He is very honest, he is very sincere, I work with him, I meet him regularly. He is not a very flashy guy, but he means well, he's very clear on his agenda and he supports the right kind of initiative and I've been very happy with him and we need someone like that today.

Also, at a global level, he's well respected. He is seen as the right leader for a country of our size.

United States President Barack Obama, during the press conference that followed the recent G-20 summit in London, referred to Dr Singh as a very wise and decent man and lauded him for a wonderful job on guiding India along a path of extraordinary growth.

Absolutely. That's what I mean, he (Dr Singh) is so well respected and admired at the global level and President Obama's praise of him bears that out. In fact, I met a finance minister in Europe, and he said, Sam, I had never met Manmohan Singh, and I met this man for the first time in my life, (and he was) in white clothes, in a white turban and I felt like I had met God! For the first time in my life, I felt spiritual about meeting a person. He said, for a prime minister of a country, he was so calm, he was so normal, he was so comfortable. So, you need that kind of a man today.

Specifically, what's been so great about the Manmohan Singh government?

Manmohan Singh has done a tremendous job under the circumstances. In the last five years, a lot of new initiatives were taken and the right seeds were planted, whether it has to do with employment guarantee schemes -- which is working very well and we need to expand that -- or right to education, right to information, nuclear policy -- there were a lot of big initiatives.

Now, we need to continue the unfinished agenda. And, we can't really do all of that if we have a weak government with a lot of conflicting priorities and coalitions. We have learnt that in the last five years.

I give them a lot of credit that we could last for five years. It required a great deal of maneuvering with the various factions of the coalition, for them to continue for five years. So, the first thing, it is very important that the Indian people elect a government that is stable, that looks at the future growth prospects, capitalises on the financial crisis world over and also plays an important role in the global security scenario.

When you said, you need a strong government, which doesn't compromise, are you implying that a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government under L K Advani will be weak and compromising?

The problem is that you don't need a government that is really looking at a communal divide. The whole issue today is about holding the community together. You can't talk about communal divide and have divisiveness. Isn't the Muslim community part of it (the Indian polity)? You have to look at everybody's interest. And, as a majority, you have a moral responsibility to take care of minorities. And that's where the Congress philosophy comes in.

Do you believe that this Congress philosophy you are talking about is more pertinent at a time when India is facing these terrible external threats of terrorism?

Absolutely. Because earlier, when the US was attacked on 9/11, we said there is no Al Qaeda or Taliban in India. Now, perhaps we can't say that. So, it's very important to have a government that is really looking at not dividing communities, that has a development agenda as the core agenda. And that's where the BJP has gone wrong.

Do you think Manmohan Singh has the strength to fight the problem of terrorism, particularly that which emanates from Pakistan? Many believe that he is too weak on this front and has shown too much restraint?

It's guaranteed that if the government is strong, he (Dr Singh) will have the strength because he speaks for the government. It's not about an individual. It's about collective wisdom. Because I'll tell you one thing: I've been personally involved in using IT to fight terrorism.

After the Mumbai attacks, we set up a special group under (Home Minister) P Chidambaram on really using IT as a major force in fighting terrorism -- in creating data bases, connectivity, information on people (terrorists, potential terrorists and terror groups), their movements. We need intelligence and we have never used Indian IT industry to get security-based intelligence. We are now beginning to do that.

You spoke of the importance of the Indian people electing a government that plays an important role in the global security scenario. What do you mean by that?

I believe India has to take the lead in the security scenario because a lot of the terror is coming out of our neighbour, unfortunately.

At one point of time, we thought trade with Pakistan would be the answer. So, we increased trade and we started having a lot of dialogue with Pakistan at a cultural level, at a business level. All of that has died down now and we need to revive that once the basic security infrastructure is set up. So, this is a very important election.

What are your thoughts on the electioneering so far?

Unfortunately, everybody is taking it personally and there are personal attacks and nobody is really talking about the real issues.

What are these real issues?

The real issues are how India can move forward in this global crisis, how can India continue with the unfinished agenda. We have serious problems on energy security and the nuclear deal gave us the base, but we need to build on it.

But to build on it, you've first got to implement it?

Absolutely. And we have other things to do in the areas of judiciary reform, administrative reform, which we haven't done. As a result, the implementation has been very slow.

As you know, the prime minister launched this Knowledge Commission with the idea of looking at 550 million young people below the age of 25 -- about what kind of future we are going to build for them.

The Commission has brought out reports with a slew of recommendations and set forth an agenda.

We have set the agenda and now we need to implement them. And a weak government cannot implement any of these things.

You are convinced that these will be implemented if there is a second term for the Dr Singh government?

It is guaranteed. The prime minister is totally committed to implementing the Knowledge Commission's recommendations. President Pratibha Patil just inaugurated the knowledge network to connect all our universities, all our laboratories, all our R&D institutions -- to gigabyte bandwidth, broadband network. It is going to cost us $2.3 billion. It is already in the works. That's going to transform Indian education, Indian R&D. So, we have some very ambitious programmes and Manmohan Singh has planted the seeds and now we need to continue.

If the Congress gets a majority, but has insufficient seats to form a government, is a coalition with the Left a viable alliance?

Manmohan Singh will not revoke the nuclear deal. He has said he can't do that. That's a done deal -- it's a deal done between two nations and there's nothing personal about it. It is really the future of India's energy. In fact, I told Manmohan Singh once that this is not about a nuclear deal, it's about an energy deal. It's about lighting the lives of the poorest of the poor in India.

Unfortunately, we have labeled it as a nuclear deal. It's really an energy deal to alleviate the lot of the poor. Without proper energy, India will not be able to sustain 8-10 percent growth.

In the wake of the present global meltdown, how can India take the lead in the global economic recovery and capitalise on it, as you have contended?

I firmly believe that if a strong government comes, India will go back to 8 to 10 percent growth. Because Indian internal markets are so very large -- we need to build more homes, we need to build more roads, we need to build more factories. So, India's internal markets of a billion people, whose aspirations have increased substantially, will be the engine of growth.

We need to build more universities, we need to build more schools, build more bridges and most of the Indian growth is internal. We need to really increase our agricultural productivity because agricultural growth has been only 3 to 7 per cent. We would like to raise that to 5, 6 per cent. So, we need new technology in agriculture. We need better storage facilities. We need better distribution systems.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC