Interview – Jairam Ramesh
Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Jairam Ramesh is a Rajya Sabha member. He is also member of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, the Standing Committee on Finance, the Committee on Government Assurances and the National Advisory Council. Bappaditya Paul spoke to him on the fallout of the Mumbai terror attack, ties with Pakistan and the Congress’s prospects in the impending Lok Sabha polls.
The Mumbai terror attack was an assault on India’s security. Was it also an assault on the country’s economy and industry?
Well, in the short term, there is some discomfort and unease among travellers coming to India, among investors looking at Mumbai particularly. But over a period of time, I am sure that this discomfort and uncertainty will subside and the resilience of India will be shown once again. For example, we were going to have the India International Tea Festival in Kochi between 19 and 21 February 2009; we are going ahead with it…But there is (a) certain degree of unease, since the Mumbai attacks captured world headlines and a number of foreigners were also killed.
Will this terror attack adversely affect India’s investment prospects and economic growth?
India is a very large country you know and there should not be any worry that because of the terrorist attacks investment is going to be adversely affected. In any case, 94-95 per cent of investment required for India’s development is generated within India; foreign investment is a very small proportion of the total investible surplus. So, I am sure that would not be affected but foreign investment would certainly, as there is a certain degree of unease. But over the next three to four months, the situation will come back to normal.
There will be a short-term impact you suggest?
Yes. In fact, in the short term, the slowdown in the world economy would have a much greater impact on us than the terrorist attacks. Export slowdown that has been seen in October, export slowdown, which probably we will be seeing in November also, and for the first time, we are seeing industrial growth in negative in 15 years. So, the slowdown in economy worldwide will have a far greater impact on our economic growth than the Mumbai attacks itself.
Was it the incompetence of our intelligence and security setup that made the Mumbai strike possible?
No, I can’t say this. …all I can say (is) that we need to substantially improve our anticipatory intelligence capabilities ~ both human intelligence as well as technological intelligence and more importantly, our ability to act on that intelligence.
The intelligence reports cannot be like weather reports: “Today it will rain in Bengal”, “Today there will be a terrorist attack in western parts of India” ~ it does not make any sense. The intelligence has to be focused, has to be sharp, actionable and then action must be taken based on that intelligence.
So you are saying that we are lacking in certain aspects of intelligence and internal security?
No, I am not saying that we are lacking. Unless I have inside information, I can’t be able to pinpoint. But all I can say is that we have many agencies gathering intelligence, all that has to be coordinated, all that has to be analysed and all that has to be acted upon. We will have to strengthen our anti-terrorist forces. We can’t only have the National Security Guards sitting in Manesar in Haryana, we have to have mobile facilities to quickly dispatch them to different parts of the country. So, a comprehensive overhaul of the intelligence and the anti-terrorist mechanisms has to be carried out. Also the police system has to be empowered because the first layer of fighting the terrorist forces always is the police. After all, in Punjab Mr KPS Gill won the battle against the terrorists because the Punjab police were empowered politically, administratively and by technology and modern means.
Are you saying the Mumbai police were not empowered to act against the terrorists?
No, no. I am saying something positive and you are trying to convert that into negative, please don’t do that. I am saying that we need to substantially modernise our police system. However horrific the Mumbai attacks were, we need to look upon this as an opportunity of completely overhauling our machinery relative to intelligence gathering, analysis of intelligence, acting upon the intelligence and carry out anti-terror operations. I think the media’s role also has to be completely redefined. The way the Indian media behaved during the Mumbai mayhem, I didn’t see this happening after 9/11 in the US, in the UK, in Spain. I think, the Indian media really in its race for TRPs, didn’t enhance the national interests by the live coverage of what was happening in Mumbai.
Isn’t it the job of the media to convey authentic information fast?
No, it’s not. By live coverage, you can’t give the militants information that the commandos are landing in such and such a place. It is well documented and well proven that based on images seen on our televisions, orders were being sent from the headquarters of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) to the terrorists in Mumbai. So I am afraid, the media have played a highly irresponsible role during the Mumbai terror attacks.
Will the government carry on trade with Pakistan as usual?
There will certainly be some effect on the normalisation of our relations with Pakistan. I was myself scheduled to visit Pakistan from 6 to 15 January, but all that is now on hold. There were a large number of confidence-building measures we were taking, like opening banks in each others’ country, promoting Pakistan’s export to India, opening up of the land customs station at Wagah, promoting rail movement of freight on the Munabao-Khokrapar rail route between Rajasthan and Sindh. A lot of these things have got affected. It is not wise to proceed on the assumption that everything is business as usual; everything is not business as usual and until Pakistan comes up with a credible response to what India has been asking for, I don’t see us going back to the way we were before the Mumbai attacks. The ball is in Pakistan’s court, we are ready to engage; we have an agenda for engagement.
But Pakistan has to make up its mind whether it wants the economic engagement and while not taking action against organisations like Jaish-e-Mohammad, LeT and all the all the other terror outfits that are operating freely from Pakistan under the watchful eye and support of the ISI. These two things can’t go side by side.
Recently the Muzaffarabad trade route was opened. Have we suspended trading through this corridor?
No, that’s continuing. The LoC trade is continuing, what was there is continuing. India is continuing its exports; tea is continuing to go to Pakistan from India and we are continuing to import from Pakistan. We import roughly $350 million worth of goods from Pakistan and our exports to Pakistan are about $ 1.7 billion and that will continue. We are not going to put a physical restriction but the trade negotiations, the trade discussions, the normalisation of our bilateral relationship ~ all that has been certainly affected because of the Mumbai attacks.
Given the prevailing tension, is a war with Pakistan imminent?
No. Our external affairs minister has said categorically that there is no war with Pakistan. We will retain the pressure diplomatically. War is the last solution and whatever the headlines in the media may be, it has never been India’s intention to go to war…
Given the bitter experience that the Congress has of the Left, is there a possibility of future alliance with them?
Let us see what the future holds. But we are going into elections seeking a mandate for ourselves. We are not seeking a mandate for the coalition government. We are seeking to come to power on our own two feet. I think the people of India want single-party rule and only the Congress can provide the single-party rule.
What will be the Congress’s slogan for the general elections?
Panch saal aur (elect us for another five years).
To carry forward with the good work that has been initiated and ensure India’s march to progress. And for this, India needs a 40-year-old leader more than an 80-year-old Prime Minister and we have that.
So you are saying, Mr Rahul Gandhi is ready to lead the Congress and the nation?
Of course he is and we are all there to back him.
(This interview was first published in The Statesman, India on 20 December 2008. The interviewer is on the staff of The Statesman)