‘STAY ALERT, GET THINGS DONE FAST’
The Madhya Pradesh chief minister on the Lok Sabha verdict, the leadership crisis in the Congress and the challenges he faces
The drubbing the Congress got in Madhya Pradesh, winning only one of the 29 Lok Sabha seats in the state, has put Chief Minister Kamal Nath on the back foot. His task is cut out—to deliver on the promises made in the party manifesto and revamp the state administration. Though Nath has handled various portfolios at the Centre, this is his first shot at running a state government. From his sandstone-clad, fifth-floor new office at the mantralaya, Vallabh Bhavan, atop a hill, Nath has a near 360-degree view of Bhopal—as he would like to have of the entire state. In an exclusive interview with Group Editorial Director
(Publishing) Raj Chengappa, Nath spoke about the Lok Sabha verdict, the leadership crisis in the Congress, his agenda for MP and the challenges he faces. Excerpts:
Q.The Lok Sabha result must have come as a shock. The Congress won only one seat out of 29 in MP. Is this a verdict against the state government? No, the verdict was entirely on the central government. Even the most naïve voter knew this election was about the Centre. Just like in the assembly election, Mr Narendra Modi campaigned extensively, but to no result, because the people knew it had nothing to do with Mr Modi. Similarly, they knew this election was Mr Modi’s election and had nothing to do with the state government.
Q. Did you not consider resigning and seeking a fresh mandate because of your party’s huge defeat in MP?
Not at all because this government was sworn in on December 25, and I had (only) 75 days to work (to show). The code of conduct came into effect, and what we accomplished in those 75 days has arguably not been accomplished in any state. So there was no question of resigning. Had I been in office for three or four years and this had been the result, maybe I would have thought about it.
Q. Do these back-to-back defeats of the Congress, getting only around 50 seats, signal the death of the party? Has the Congress become irrelevant as a national party?
Well, I was in Parliament when the BJP had just two seats. These things happen and I feel this (outcome) works in inverse proportion. The bigger the mandate, the faster you go down because the expectations are very high. People start thinking they have been duped. In this election, we could not counter the issues that had nothing to do with Mr Modi’s performance or his promises.
Q. What were these issues?
Mr Modi brought in the issue of nationalism and I was surprised because the BJP cannot name a single person in their party—now or in the past—who has been a freedom fighter. They don’t have a single one. And they are talking of nationalism. They were successful in their art of conveying to the people what is not.
Q. It has been reported that Congress president Rahul Gandhi said senior party leaders, such as Ashok Gehlot, P. Chidambaram and yourself, didn’t really work and focused more on the election campaigns of their sons. Did you give your 100 per cent?
I was in Chhindwara for a day. People have voted for me for 40 years, and being the longest-serving MP in the country, I didn’t need to spend time there. There is no question of focusing on getting my son elected. I campaigned all over the state, every day. And when Mr Gandhi was here, I was with him in all his programmes.
Q. The other criticism is that Rahul Gandhi felt leaders like you didn’t use the slogan ‘chowkidar chor hai’ in your public meetings and did not carry forward the Congress campaign. Was there any particular reason?
This ‘chowkidar chor hai’, we all said it, but the fact is the theme does not depend on just one slogan. Mr Modi had to cover up his non-performance of five years, his promises to the farmers, and how do you do it? He was successful in diverting from the real issues, such as jobs and economic growth, which he had no answers to. He picked up some other issues that people got induced into accepting.
Q. Rahul Gandhi has indicated he would like to step down as Congress president.
I think Rahul Gandhi should stay on as Congress president because, as a president, when you are down, you must stay and when you are up, you must think of going. Now that we’re down, he must not say he is going. He says, it’s my responsibility; it’s actually everybody’s responsibility. The electoral atmosphere was built on issues that we were not able to counter. Their (BJP’s) campaign theme was entirely different from ours and the people accepted their theme.
Q. If Rahul Gandhi indeed steps down, should Priyanka Gandhi succeed him or should it be a non-Gandhi leader? So far, I have not thought of the Congress minus Rahul Gandhi, so let’s see. I have not even applied my mind to that till now. Q. What should the Congress do to become relevant again?
The most important thing is the BJP’s election machinery is far stronger than that of the Congress. They have the RSS, the Bajrang Dal, the VHP, the Saraswati Shishu Mandirs and 15-20 organisations. We don’t have such organisations. We have to find ways to build our election machinery. We are not wrong on ideology or policy, but how do you combat disinformation without election machinery?
Q. You have claimed attempts are being made to destabilise your government in MP. What are you doing to keep your flock together? How serious is that threat from the BJP?
The BJP keeps trumpeting this to keep their morale high. The first test was the election of the speaker, which we won. Then they said the deputy speaker’s post goes to the opposition. I said nothing doing. We broke convention and held an election for the deputy speaker’s post—with the same result. The numbers are clear and the BJP’s hopes of destabilising the government are far-fetched.
Q. The income-tax department searched the homes of your aides and there were allegations
I believe Rahul Gandhi should stay on as Congress president because, as a president, when you are down, you must stay and when you are up, you must think of going” The BJP’s election machinery is far stronger than the Congress’s. They have the RSS, Bajrang Dal, VHP, Saraswati Shishu Mandirs and 15-20 organisations. We don’t have such outfits”
of hawala transactions.
There were two raids on some of my staff members, besides other raids. One of the raided persons, with whom money was found, has said on camera that he is from the BJP; he said so transparently. Money and documents were found. Nothing was found in the raids on people associated with me. But they (the BJP) are not saying that. What they are saying is that these were the people raided and this is what was found—without saying where it was found. I don’t know whether there’s pressure or not. But talking about transactions, I want to ask the BJP: if they have built an office in New Delhi worth a thousand crore rupees, where did the money come from? They contested the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabha elections with no limitations of money. Where did the money come from—from selling their wives’ jewellery or their property? Let them answer this first.
Q. During the assembly election campaign, you said corruption was a big issue in MP and you would expose the irregularities from the previous regime. What action have you taken regarding that?
As I said, I had only 75 days, during which my focus was to get the state moving again from the morass it was in. There is now an FIR in the e-tendering scam. Six people have been arrested. If there is evidence, more arrests will be made. I think the e-tendering scam is to the tune of Rs 20,000 crore. The latest report to me suggests that not seven but close to 400 tenders were fudged.
Q. Does the Congress lack the BJP’s killer instinct when it comes to going after its rivals’ wrongdoings? I am not targeting anyone. That’s the difference between the BJP’s politics and the Congress’s. One has to do a proper inquiry, which is on. Every department that you touch, stinks. Where do you start? There was so much corruption.
Q. What measures are you taking to generate employment for the people of MP?
There are two challenges. One, the youth and securing jobs for them or ensuring they are selfemployed. The other is agriculture. Seventy per cent of the people in MP depend on it. Even a kirana store-owner in a village, who may not be a farmer, depends on the purchasing power of farmers. Twenty years ago, the challenge was of shortages; now the challenge is of excess production, the problem of plenty. How does the farmer get equitable return on his investment? That’s why there are farmer suicides. There has to be a new thought process. Earlier, we went in for a production revolution, now there has to be an income revolution.
Q. Your government focused instead on farm loan waivers. But that didn’t get you Lok Sabha seats as
you had expected them to.
It was not supposed to. It was not aimed at getting us seats in the election, but as a first step towards alleviating distress. A farmer is born in debt and dies in debt.
Q. On the loan waiver, PM Modi said Congress chief minister make promises but don’t deliver.
Mr Modi delivered zero. I delivered: almost 2 million farmers have had their loans waived; the process for the rest will begin soon. If a farmer gets Rs 1 lakh in his account, his purchasing power increases by that much, it generates economic activity. A lot of this economic activity is outside the market economy and not reflected in GDP figures.
Q. Where are you going to get the money for this?
We told the nationalised banks that you waive loans taken by industry. You take a 40 per cent haircut for industry, but what do you do for farmers? The state government can take over the loan and if we refuse to pay it, it’ll become NPAs (nonperforming assets) for the banks and hurt their balancesheets. What they do for industry, they must do 10 per cent more for agriculture. The scheduled banks did this.
Q. Are you thinking in terms of innovative schemes to raise resources without having to increase taxation?
There are many schemes but the problem is in delivery. I will scrap schemes where the delivery is poor.
Q. Your predecessor offered schemes benefitting people from the ‘cradle to the grave’. Are you reviewing them? We are refining them. How do we improve the delivery of schemes to ensure they reach the beneficiaries? It will require an attitudinal change in the bureaucracy. This concept of spending the leftover funds in the budget in a hurry in the end has to go.
Q. Talking of the bureaucracy, there are allegations that numerous transfers have taken place and that money has changed hands in the process.
Let me be blunt. Transfers have taken place and will continue. The BJP was in power for 15 years and they tried to saffronise the government at all levels. There are those who were sidestepped because they did not toe the BJP line; I must give them a fair chance now. That’s what the BJP isn’t liking. Their favourites who would dance to their tunes know there won’t be any tune now and there won’t be any dance either.
Q. Power outage is a big issue in MP these days. The perception is that you are unable to control the problems in the energy sector.
How the BJP is behind all this has been out in the media. One person was arrested cutting wires. Q. Do you mean sabotage?
It is sabotage, and the power distribution equipment purchased in the past few years is substandard. Also, the BJP government had suspended maintenance work owing to elections. We are going to get it done this year.
Q. MP needs industry. What does the state need to do to attract investment? Investment is an article of faith. It cannot be demanded, it has to be attracted. I have held two roundtables with existing industry and enquired about their problems. Delays in setting up projects lead to losses. Speeding things up requires an attitudinal change. Our government’s focus is both on expansion of existing industry and on fresh investment. A large number of investors are known to me. They have engaged with me in the past, they know things will move in MP now. Investment should be linked to employment. The question is, what economic activity does the investment generate? The investment policy
The transfer of officials will continue. In 15 years, the BJP tried to saffronise the government at all levels. Their favourites, who danced to their tunes, know there won’t be any tune now and no dance either”
cannot be onesizefitsall. I have said the government will negotiate with the investor: what have you got to the table and what can I bring. That’s how we will function.
Q. Can Madhya Pradesh be turned into a hub for agro and food processing?
Absolutely. One of the first things I did was to create a mithai park. This would generate employment for 30,000 people in Indore. Why shouldn’t we have MPbranded sweets? The state also produces a huge amount of garlic. We need to look at districtlevel branding instead of national branding. Under the new GST regime, MP, which borders five states, becomes a natural choice for investors.
Q. MP has long been talked of as a potential logistics hub. Just yesterday I held a meeting on logistics. Every state has an advantage. Some have ports, we have a logistical advantage. How we capitalise on our strength is crucial.
Q. With your gaushala venture, you seem to have gone a step ahead of the BJP on the cow agenda.
The Congress doesn’t use religion for politics. The BJP uses religion only for politics. Our decision has nothing to do with politics. The BJP built no gaushalas, we are building a thousand. The idea was born during the assembly election campaign. Cows were all over the roads, destroying crops, hampering traffic and causing accidents. Many voluntary organisations have stepped forward to help us out. They just want the land and will run the gaushala.
Q. You met Prime Minister Modi recently. What are your impressions of him and how he is running the government?
The purpose of my meeting was to seek the prime minister’s support for my state. I told him, just as I supported Gujarat when I held various portfolios at the Centre, he must support MP.
Q. What style of governance would you like to bring to MP?
A government that is responsive, alert and moves fast. Get it done, move on. Either you get convinced or convince the other. There is no other way. Things don’t remain at a standstill. If you are not convinced and neither is the other, bring them to me. There will be reforms in governance too, which I am also looking into.
Q. What’s the difference between being a Union minister and chief minister?
There is a huge difference. As chief minister, everything falls in your lap. Even if there is a bus accident, I am asked all the questions. But when you are a minister at the Centre, you are confined to your ministry. It’s a wide spectrum in the state; at the Centre, it’s a focused job.
Q. Do you enjoy being the chief minister of a state?
I’m getting to enjoy it.
Q. Do you miss Delhi?
I’m hardly in Delhi, I’m there only for meetings. One adopts and adapts to what one is required to do. I enjoy being in Madhya Pradesh and Bhopal.
Q. What is your big promise to MP?
I want a new Madhya Pradesh that has a rightful place in the country. We can’t remain a BIMARU state.