India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee spoke on wide-ranging subjects to Arab News’ Amir Taheri on Aug. 27. The interview, which covered issues ranging from the dispute with Pakistan to the ongoing fight against terror, was conducted at the prime minister’s official residence in New Delhi
* The prime minister emphasizes that bilateral relations with all Muslim countries are rich and strong. He adds that India has always maintained a strong and principled position on the issue of Palestine and attaches special importance to developing richer and deeper ties with all Muslim countries.
* While defending India’s nuclear policy, he adds that the government regards nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent and not as instruments of aggression.
* On Indo-Pak relations, he says, Pakistan must end its sponsorship of terrorism directed against India so that a dialogue can be resumed to resolve the differences on all matters, including Jammu and Kashmir.
* While touching on the economic policy, he highlights the dangers of “unbridled market economics”, and reasserts the fact that Indian policy was dictated largely by its basic needs. He also reiterates that the government is continuing its privatization policy. Many ambitious new development initiatives have been taken — the biggest of them in the area of connectivity, both digital and physical — in the past few years.
* He reveals a new shift in the government’s foreign policy — ‘Look East Policy’— that endeavors to strengthen relations with countries from Southeast and East Asia.
* BJP, he says, has never been — and never will be — a Hindu fundamentalist movement. It has never had the narrow agenda of undermining India’s pluralistic and secular system.
* On Gujarat, he states, “I have repeatedly expressed my outrage over the recent communal violence in Gujarat. It was an unfortunate aberration in our national life. The resilience of the secular fabric of our Indian society was shown by the fact that the unfortunate incidents remained localized in Gujarat.”
Here are the excerpts from the interview:
Q: Mr. Prime Minister, permit me to begin by thanking you for granting your first ever interview with the Arab media. This gives our readers in the Arab world and in the broader Muslim world, an opportunity to hear your views directly.
A: India is fully aware of the importance of its Muslim community and the contribution it has made to the debate within Islam. Ever since independence, India has established and developed numerous ties with Muslim states. Today, our bilateral relations with all Muslim countries could be described as rich and strong. It is only with our neighbor Pakistan that we have some problems. But that is a bilateral issue that need not affect India’s relations with the broader Muslim world. Let me recall that India has always maintained a strong and principled position on the issue of Palestine. We have called for justice for the Palestinians, and were among the first to support the creation of an independent and free state of Palestine. Of course, you might say that more can be done and I agree. This is why our government attaches special importance to developing richer and deeper ties with all Muslim countries.
Q: When you were first sworn in as prime minister in 1996 you promised radical change that would put the country on a new course. Since then you have become the only leader, after Pandit Nehru, to serve as India’s prime minister for three consecutive times. Looking back over the past years, would you say that your government has succeeded in reshaping India’s domestic and foreign policies?
A: In a country like India there cannot be any radical shaping of policies in a short time. This is especially true about India’s foreign policy, which has, right from the time of our independence in 1947, stood on the strong foundation of consensus and continuity. This does not mean that our foreign policy is cast in an unchanging mold. It is a dynamic policy, which has always responded to changing needs of regional and global developments. In the last four and a half years that our government has been in office, we have tried to add some new dimensions to our foreign policy — such as the “Look East Policy” that seeks to strengthen India’s ties with countries in Southeast and East Asia; a “New Silk Route Initiative” to expand our relations with countries in Central Asia, and, of course, our efforts to constantly deepen our ties with friendly countries around the world, including those in the Arab world. On the domestic front, the reshaping of policies has been more pronounced. Economic reforms have accelerated over the past four and a half years. Our economy is steadily strengthening. It is successfully gearing itself up to face the challenges of globalization, as we enter the second generation of our reform process. Indeed, in some sectors — such as information technology, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, auto components etc., India’s prowess has come to be recognized globally. Even our farm sector has a strong global focus today. Besides making India self-sufficient, our farmers have succeeded in exporting foodgrains and other agricultural products to more than 25 countries around the world.
Q: Your government has fixed the provision by 2005 of what you have termed “basic needs” — water, primary health care, primary education, and a network of roads linking villages to towns — as its objective in the current term. Are you on course of fulfilling that promise?
A: We have started many ambitious new development initiatives in the past few years. Perhaps the biggest of them is in the area of connectivity — both digital and physical. In a short span of two to three years, India’s communication landscape has completely changed. We are today adding more than 1,000 telephone lines every minute. Some 13 million new telephone lines will be added this year. Of these 7.5 million will be mobile telephones. This is expected to take India’s teledensity from 4.38 to 5.61, the highest ever real increase since independence. Along with the expansion of telecommunication and Internet services, their tariffs have dramatically come down.
In physical connectivity, we have two big projects under way. One of them is the National Highway Development Program, under which we are building a network of world-class highways linking all major commercial and population centers of the country with each other. The other is the National Rural Road Project, which seeks to connect the unconnected villages by 2007. We have also started new initiatives in the social sector. Under a scheme initiated in November 2000, we aim to ensure quality elementary education for all children in the 6-14 years age group by 2010. Our National Agenda for Governance seeks to provide safe drinking water to all rural habitations in the country by 2002. We will soon launch a National Rural Water Conservation Project to augment our water resources and make our agriculture “drought-proof”. Besides reorganizing and upgrading existing health care infrastructure, we are also seeking to extend the reach of health care facilities by using telemedicine, using satellites. All these are difficult tasks in a country of over 3 million square kilometers and over one billion inhabitants. All I can say is that we are working hard to fulfill our promises.
Q: Before gaining central power, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was regarded by many inside and outside India as a Hindu fundamentalist movement committed to imposing a narrow agenda (Hindutva) and undermining India’s pluralist and secularist system. By and large that has not happened. Is this because the BJP never gained a straight majority? Is it because of your moderating presence? Or is it because the exercise of power has persuaded the BJP that India is too complex and diverse to fit into any ideological frame?
A: I would like to clear some misconceptions that some people abroad, including in the Arab world, have. The BJP has never been — and never will be — a Hindu fundamentalist movement. We have never had the narrow agenda of undermining India’s pluralistic and secular system. We believe in secularism, by which we mean Sarva Dharma Sambhava or Equal Respect for all Faiths. In this sense, India has been secular as long as it has existed; it has always been an innate part of its culture. The BJP is a national party and a nationalist party. It cannot subscribe to any narrow ideology based on discrimination that is repugnant to traditional national culture. We are wedded to the goal of prosperity and welfare for all our citizens irrespective of their caste, creed, language and religion.
Q: In your address to the United Nations during the millennium summit you warned of the dangers of what you termed “unbridled market economics.” In the light of the current financial crises, those words sound almost true. You also criticized the global system for “erasing social objectives by profit motive.” Does this mean that India may be having second thoughts about opening its economy? Would this mean a slow down in privatization and a less welcoming attitude toward foreign investment?
A: There is no question of India having second thoughts about opening its economy to goods, services and investment from all over the world. The second phase of our economic reform program is now under implementation. Privatization of our state-owned enterprises has been progressing well despite sluggish world markets. The government has progressively responded with policy adjustments tailored to the needs and expectations of foreign investors, and is working with private industry to remove obstacles on the ground to project implementation. As the world’s largest democracy with a well-entrenched rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press, a highly skilled workforce, and a trained managerial cadre, India has some natural attractions for foreign investors.
At the same time, a developing country like India has to place the highest emphasis on poverty alleviation; equitable development and balanced growth. We believe that the pace of globalization should be tempered by the development needs of the world’s poorer nations. We should ensure that the income disparities of today do not become the digital divide of tomorrow. My words, which you have quoted, reflect this concern that economic liberalization should not become an end in itself; it should be geared to the equitable development of the country. This is not incompatible with encouragement of privatization and foreign investment.
Q: India is now recognized as a nuclear power. Your government has announced a moratorium on underground tests. Is this moratorium indefinite? Should we understand that other tests, especially through simulation, would continue?
A: Yes. India has announced a unilateral moratorium on further underground test explosions until the CTBT comes into force. This effectively means abiding by the provisions of the treaty even though we have not yet acceded to it.
Q: In 1998 India promised to adhere to the CTBT within a year. That did not happen. Under what conditions will India be prepared to join efforts to prohibit the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, and help prevent the spread of nuclear technology to other states?
A: India did not set for itself a fixed time limit for adherence to the CTBT. What I stated at the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1998, and also in our Parliament, was that India will not stand in the way of CTBT coming into force. We remain committed to the endeavor of evolving a national consensus in support of India’s accession to the CTBT. We are also committed to joining the efforts toward a non-discriminatory treaty banning future production of fissile material for the purpose of nuclear weapons or explosive devices. India has never helped the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction nor will it do so in the future. We also have in place strict and effective export controls on dual-use technologies.
Q: You have said India would never use nuclear weapons first, nor would she employ such weapons against non-nuclear states. Neither of India’s two nuclear-power neighbors, China and Pakistan, has offered such a guarantee. Would it be realistic for India to use nuclear weapons after it has been attacked with the same? Or is the entire nuclear project nothing but a costly matter of prestige and big power pretensions?
A: The imperatives of its complex security environment compelled India to develop nuclear weapons. But we regard our nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent and not as instruments of aggression. India continues to stress the need for a cooperative thrust to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons by subscribing to such measures as no first-use, and a move way from hair-trigger deployment. We are also committed not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. India is not engaged in any arms race with anyone.
Q: Many Pakistanis believe that the Indian elite never forgave the creation of Pakistan, and that India harbors the secret dream of dismantling Pakistan. In what the Pakistanis see as the first stage of a long-term Indian plan, East Pakistan was turned into Bangladesh in 1971. How can you assure the Pakistanis that India does not harbor such secret ambitions?
A: I do not know how many more times and in how many different ways we have to keep reassuring Pakistan about this misapprehension. During my visit to Lahore in February 1999, I visited the Minar-e-Pakistan (Pakistan’s monument of independence), and assured the people of Pakistan of my country’s deep desire for lasting peace and friendship. I also mentioned there that a stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. When I spoke to the people of Pakistan at the civic reception in Lahore, I had stated that though the partition of our country had caused a wound in our heart, that wound had healed and the mark left by it reminds us that we have to live in harmony with one another. Today, I can do no more than repeat what I stated on Pakistani soil in February 1999.
India was not responsible for the events of 1971 (which led to the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state). We shared the sufferings of the people of East Pakistan (as Bangladesh was known before 1971) when refugees began to pour into our country in large numbers. Pakistan’s president himself has recently expressed regret for the suffering caused to the people of East Pakistan. To insinuate that Bangladesh was created as part of a long-term Indian plan is to denigrate the heroic struggle of the people of Bangladesh for self-determination.
Q: You have already mentioned your famous bus trip to Lahore in February 1999 that raised hopes of lasting peace in the subcontinent. Was the Kargil incident enough to kill all those hopes? Didn’t your government overreact to that provocation?
A: In Lahore I extended the hand of friendship to Pakistan despite its continued sponsorship of cross-border terrorism. Pakistan’s incursions in Kargil were not just an invasion of our territory. It was a betrayal of the trust which I sought to build in Lahore. To decisively repulse the aggression in Kargil was not overreaction but a necessary act of protection of our national integrity. In spite of the perfidy at Kargil, I took yet another peace initiative by inviting President (Pervez) Musharraf to Agra last year. Not only was the opportunity not grasped by Pakistan; we have been subjected since then to the most violent acts of terrorism sponsored by Pakistan, including an assault on the Parliament in Delhi and on the Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir in Srinagar. Hundreds of innocent civilians, including women and children, have been brutally murdered by the terrorists. It is for Pakistan now to re-establish trust and confidence by first stopping its sponsorship of cross-border terrorism and dismantling the infrastructure that supports terrorism directed against India. Only then can India resume a dialogue with Pakistan.
Q: During the standoff on the Line of Control in Kashmir last spring there were moments when a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan appeared possible. Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has said that a nuclear exchange was “very close indeed.” Is this also your sentiment?
A: I have already expressed clearly our perspectives on nuclear weapons. We do not believe that a nuclear war should be fought, and we do not believe that a nuclear war can be won. We believe that it is highly irresponsible even to contemplate the use of nuclear weapons as an instrument of war.
[First of two parts]