In a wide-ranging interview with PR Ramesh the Prime Minister talks about his journey from Gandhinagar to New Delhi, the challenges of governance, his vision for India in the world and much more
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo:AP)
Congratulations on completing two decades in government. Two decades is a long time. It has indeed been a long, also quite an eventful, time for someone who was reluctant to enter the electoral arena until circumstances thrust him into the office of Gujarat’s chief minister in the aftermath of a catastrophe. How has been the experience of a tumultuous journey? And what have been your most satisfying moments?
You used the word reluctant.
In a way, you are right…let alone reluctance to join electoral politics, I had nothing to do with the political domain itself. My surroundings, my inner world, my philosophy—these were very different. Right from my younger days, my bent was spiritual.
The tenet of ‘Jan Seva Hi Prabhu Seva’ (Serving people is akin to serving the divine), which was propounded by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda always inspired me. It became a driving force in whatever I did.
As for politics, I did not even have a remote connection to it. It was much later that due to circumstances, and at the insistence of some friends, that I joined politics. Even there, I was in a position where I was primarily doing organisational work.
Twenty years ago, the circumstances became such that I had to enter a completely unchartered territory of heading an administration. And this happened in 2001, when Gujarat was adversely affected by one of the most devastating earthquakes our nation has seen.
Having closely seen the deep trouble people were in, I had no time or opportunity to even ponder what the new turn in my life meant. I immediately got into relief, rehabilitation and rebuilding Gujarat.
If you were to ask me…achieving or becoming something has never been a part of my inner being.
My innermost instinct has always been to do something for others. Wherever I am, whatever I am doing, there is a desire to do something or the other for people. Working for others is what has always instilled a feeling of ‘Svantah Sukhaya’ or self-fulfilment in me.
In the eyes of the world, being prime minister and chief minister may be a very big thing but in my own eyes, these are ways to do something for the people. Mentally, I keep myself detached from this world of power, glitz and glamour. And due to that, I am able to think like a common citizen and walk on my path of duty just like I would if I were given any other responsibility.
You asked about satisfying moments. Well, there could be quite a few but let me give you a recent example.
“Twenty years ago, the circumstances became such that I had to enter a completely unchartered territory of heading an administration”
In the last few months, I got to meet and interact with our Olympic and Paralympic heroes. Tokyo 2020 has been India’s finest so far. Yet, naturally there were several athletes who did not win medals. When I met them, they were lamenting their inability to win medals. But each of them only had praise for the efforts of our nation in supporting them in their training, facilities, and other kinds of assistance. At the same time, they were determined and energised to give their best to win more medals.
In my mind, I thought…see how far we have come. Earlier, our sportspersons used to worry about lack of facilities, support, etcetera. These were things they could not do anything about.
But now they feel that part is sorted and their whole focus is on things they can control and their thirst for a medal has taken centrestage. They had a sense of satisfaction that the county has supported them and the determination to do something extraordinary for the nation and bring home more medals in the times to come. This change is satisfying.
You have travelled a long distance. From someone who was forced to hawk tea and whose mother had to work in others’ homes to provide food for the family to the top political office of the world’s largest democracy, and arguably the most popular prime minister, it is really stuff legends are made of. Do you get awed by the trajectory you have traversed?
I don’t get awed by the trajectory of my own life. I get awed by the kind of country we are and our people, who can pick a poor child and make him reach where I have. I feel privileged that the people of this country have given me such huge responsibilities and continue to repose their trust in me. This is the strength of our democracy.
As for me selling tea as a child and later becoming the prime minister of our nation, I see this very differently from how you see it.
I feel that the 130 crore people of India have the same capabilities that I have. What I have achieved, can be achieved by anyone.
If I can, anyone can!
A nation of 130 crore capable people…the contribution that our country can make to humankind is tremendous!
And so, where I started, where I reached, what I did, what my individual experiences are, these things do not matter much. What matters is that this shows that any Indian can achieve anything.
“In the eyes of the world, being prime minister and chief minister may be a very big thing but in my own eyes, these are ways to do something for the people”
That is why empowering people by making upward mobility achievable has become one of the fundamental motivations for me. It is important that every youngster get opportunities. And when I speak of opportunities, I do not merely refer to assistance that keeps them dependent but the support that makes them self-reliant to fulfil their aspirations, with dignity.
You have defied the caricatures of your being a gung-ho free-market liberaliser or a champion of what your critics call RSS-endorsed upper-caste orthodoxy. Your opponents concede in private that they have not been able to figure you out completely. Were the populist portrayals incorrect to begin with, or is it that they have turned out to be incorrect because you keep changing course to meet the temper of the times or the diktats of practical politics?
The problem here is not Modi…but when any person tries to see anything with a preconceived mindset, then either he is able to see only half of the view or is inspired to see wrong things. And if he is not able to see anything as per his preconceived notion, then he creates a perception to feed his preconceived mindset.
We all know it is the nature of Man to not accept his mistakes easily. It takes courage to accept truth over your wrong notions. And it is because of this that one forms notions about a person even without meeting, knowing or understanding him. And even if they meet you in person and observe something different (as compared to their notion), they will still not accept it just to feed their ego. This is a natural tendency.
If someone had only analysed my work, he would not be under any confusion about me. After I became chief minister, the first thing which I did, about 20 years ago, when I didn’t have any prior experience of administration…I first of all went to the people affected by the Kutch earthquake. I publicly stated that this is first Diwali after the earthquake, so we will not celebrate it and I was there with the families of the earthquake victims on the day of Diwali and shared their suffering.
“Right from my younger days, my bent was spiritual. The tenet of ‘Jan Seva Hi Prabhu Seva’ always inspired me”
And the first public function which I did after becoming chief minister was the Garib Kalyan Mela. If someone would have understood all this, then the work done by me today, like building toilets in poor people’s homes or providing free ration to the poor, would have been easier for them to understand.
And it does not mean that Modi has no faults or there is no point on which Modi can be criticised.
Secondly, I feel, and this is my conviction, that for my own healthy development, I attach a big importance to criticism. I, with an honest mind, respect critics a lot. But, unfortunately, the number of critics is very few. Mostly, people only level allegations, the people who play games about perception are more in number. And the reason for this is that, for criticism, one has to do a lot of hard work, research and, in today’s fast-paced world, maybe people don’t have time. So sometimes, I miss critics.
From your question it seems that outdated theories of the last century like private sector versus public sector, government versus people, rich versus poor, urban versus rural are still on your mind and you seem to fit everything into this.
Global experience says that government should be there for those for whom nobody is there. Government’s whole focus should be on helping them. Take the example of our aspirational districts programme to ensure that no region should be left behind in India. We created an atmosphere of healthy competition, mobilised resources, enthused confidence among citizens. Even those districts that were lagging behind in several parameters have come up and improved drastically. A breakthrough has been achieved and you will see great results in the future.
Like everyone thought that sport was restricted to a certain class of society, but we have extremely talented people in poor and backward regions. If we reach them, sport can go a long way in the country and results have showed that. Kids of Tier 2, Tier 3 cities and even of villages can be seen these days competing in the playground.
“All governments were formed under a person from Congress Gotra. Thus, there was no difference between their political and economic thought”
So, I would like to say that if our work was evaluated then the question you asked shouldn’t have arisen. This question is on the basis of perception and not on the basis of the real situation.
You are seen as a risk-taker. While you chose not to press ahead with your plan for amending the land acquisition laws, you showed your readiness to venture outside the box by demonetising high-denomination notes, crossing the Rubicon on labour reforms and by refusing to roll back the farm laws. Are you not worried about the consequences of these risky, although essential, forays into the taboo zones where your predecessors feared to go?
The politics of our country is such that till now, we have seen only one model in which governments are run to build the next government (sarkar banane ke liye sarkar chalayi jaati hai).
My fundamental thinking is different. I believe we have to run the Government to build the nation (desh banane ke liye sarkar chalani hai).
The tradition has been to run the government to make your party win but my purpose is to run the Government in a way to make our country win.
And due to this basic concern, I take decisions based on Gandhiji’s talisman that sees how my decisions will benefit or harm the poorest or weakest person.
While taking decisions, I stop even if the slightest of vested interests is visible to me. The decision should be pure and authentic and if the decision passes through all these tests, then I firmly move forward to implement such a decision.
“There is a problem in the way sections of our political class view the Indian people. They only see Raj Shakti. They do not see the innate Jan Shakti”
The things that people of India are entitled to, those benefits that they should have received decades ago, have still not reached them. India shouldn’t be put in a situation where it has to wait any longer for the things that this country and its citizens are entitled to, we should give it to them. And for this, big decisions should be taken and if need be, tough decisions should also be taken.
In such a large country as India, is it possible to make a decision which is acceptable to 100 per cent people? Although if a decision is not acceptable to even a small number of people, they are not wrong. They may have their own genuine concerns but if the decision is in larger interest, then it is the responsibility of government to implement such a decision.
If a political party makes a promise and is unable to deliver on that promise, then that is one aspect which the political class must improve upon. But there is another aspect which is completely different from this and is a particularly undesirable and, I would say, detestable trait in certain sections of the political parties. This trait I am talking of is the trait of intellectual dishonesty and rajneetik dhokhadhadi.
There are political parties which will grandiosely make promises before elections, even put them in their manifestos. Yet, when the time comes to deliver on the same promises, these same parties and people do a complete U-turn and worse, spread the most malicious kind of misinformation on the promises they themselves had made.
If you look at those who are opposing the pro-farmer reforms today, you will see the real meaning of intellectual dishonesty and rajneetik dhokhadhadi.
These were the same people who wrote letters to chief ministers asking them to do the exact same thing that our Government has done. These were the same people who wrote in their manifesto that they would enact the same reforms that we have brought. Yet, just because some other political party, blessed by the will of the people, is enacting the same reforms, they have made a complete U-turn and in a brazen display of intellectual dishonesty, completely disregard what will benefit the farmers and only seek what they think will benefit them politically.
“If you look at those opposing the pro-farmer reforms today, you will see the real meaning of intellectual dishonesty and rajneetik dhokhadhadi”
We are committed to empowering the small farmers in every way. The farm laws about which you are talking, the Government has been saying right from the first day that on whichever point there is a disagreement, the Government is ready to sit together and discuss those issues. Many meetings have also been held in this regard but no one till now has come up with a specific point of disagreement that we want this to be changed.
You can see the same rajneetik dhokhadhadi when it comes to Aadhaar, GST, farm laws and even crucial matters such as arming our security forces. Promise something and make arguments for it but oppose the same thing later without any moral fibre.
Don’t you think political parties were making a mockery of themselves when their members spoke about the need for a new Parliament, previous speakers said that a new parliament was needed? But if someone tries to do it, they oppose it by making some excuses, how correct is this?
Those who create these types of controversies think that the issue is not whether these decisions would benefit people, but the issue for them is that if these types of decisions are taken, then no one will be able to stop Modi’s success. I want to urge everyone that the issue is not whether Modi succeeds or fails, it should be about whether our country succeeds.
When analysts look at these matters, they also seem to only see it as a political matter and not as a matter of moral and political consistency. But these things are far beyond politics and have real-world consequences for the people and our country.
Many experts have come around to concede that the measures taken by you for accelerating growth, reforming the economy and governance, and strengthening infrastructure are steps in the right direction. But they also say the benefits will take time to manifest and you will not be able to reap the rewards in 2024.
This question is also the result of old thoughts of political pundits. If this would have been true, then I would not have been given the opportunity by people to work as a head of government for 20 years.
Those who think along these lines neither know the people of their country, nor their thinking. The people of the country are smart enough to understand all good work done with good selfless intentions and support it. And that is why I have been given the opportunity by the people of the country to work as head of the government for 20 continuous years.
The person who plants a seed should not bother who will get its fruits. The point is not whether I get to reap the benefits of my economic policies or not, the point is that the nation will.
“I am grateful to the experts for conceding that measures taken by us for accelerating growth, reforming the economy and governance are steps in the right direction”
I am grateful to the experts for conceding that measures taken by us for accelerating growth, reforming the economy and governance, and strengthening infrastructure are steps in the right direction.
The benefits may take time to manifest but the people of India are smart and are watching our policies and evaluating them positively. People are seeing the renewed interest among global agencies and companies about economic momentum and growth in India.
People are noting the record FDI inflows, people are noting rising exports, people are noting good GST numbers, people are noting dozens of startups becoming unicorns, people are noting the high frequency indicators showing an uptick.
The ideological play of your Government, articulated by you on several occasions, is pro-poor and pro-business. In the pro-business category, the Government has rolled out many measures like scrapping redundant laws, lowering taxes, ease of doing business and PLI, to name a few. The new economy players, particularly digital, are already running with them. Some say the old India Inc is a little slow. But there is unanimity that you are breaking into their mindset with things like the latest defence agreement with the private sector to manufacture aircraft. The pro-poor agenda is even bigger. The approach to governance has changed. You have knocked down corruption through disintermediation. You have taken forward the idea of JAM. It has given an economic GPS to the Government to locate the poor. The amount of savings from DBT is phenomenal. It has directly empowered people. Your thoughts on how things have changed.
The syllabus and environment for primary students, secondary students and the students doing PhD are different but it doesn’t mean that they are in conflict with each other.
Our country is not a developed country yet, we are still grappling with poverty. Every person in society should get opportunities according to his needs and ability. Then only, development is possible.
The poor need one type of opportunity and wealth creators need another type of opportunity. When the Government believes in ‘Sarvajana Hitaya , Sarvajan Sukhaya’, then its approach can never be unidirectional; rather it becomes multidirectional. The things in which you see contradiction, I see an inter-linkage.
“The poor need one type of opportunity and wealth creators need another type of opportunity. Why are pro-poor and pro-business mutually exclusive categories?”
Why are pro-poor and pro-business mutually exclusive categories? Why should we divide policies into one or the other of these buckets? According to me, policymaking should be pro-people. By creating these artificial categories, you are missing out on interdependence in society. Business and people are not working with opposing objectives.
For instance, don’t the poor benefit when the PLI scheme allows companies to expand manufacturing capacity and creates new job opportunities in the manufacturing sector? The objective is to create more jobs through the PLI scheme. When we save thousands of crores of rupees by preventing leakages in public service delivery through JAM, does that not benefit the middle class, taxpayer and businesses? In fact, when the poor and farmers receive direct transfer, they consume more, which in turn helps the middle class and the overall economy.
In many ways, you have changed the governance paradigm of every issue. Look at One Nation, One Card. You have made it portable. While programmes like MGNREGA stay, you have brought in accountability. You have also layered this entitlement programme with empowerment. Same is the case with Ujjwala, power, delivery of foodgrains. In all these schemes, governance is layered with actual proof of concept. Past governments faced a trust deficit on account of poor delivery. How far has the Government moved on trust in the past seven years?
You very well know that I do not come from a royal family. I have lived my life in poverty. I spent 30-35 years as a wandering social worker. I was away from corridors of power and have lived among the people and because of that I know very well what the problems, aspirations and capacities are of the common man. That is why my decisions (when the country has given me the opportunity to work) are an effort to work towards alleviating the hardships of the common man.
Toilets were never seen by anyone as a way to serve the people. But I felt that Toilets are a way to serve the people.
And that is why when I take decisions, the common man feels that this prime minister understands us, thinks like us and is one among us. This sense of belonging among them leads every family to feel that Modi is just like a member of our family. This trust is not developed because of perception created by PR. This trust has been earned through sweat and toil.
I have attempted to live a life where I walk on a knife’s edge, experiencing and living every issue concerning the people. I had promised three things to people when I came to power:
I will not do anything for myself.
I will not do anything with wrong intention.
I will create a new paradigm of hard work.
People see this personal commitment of mine even today. This is how people develop trust.
The immense mutual trust between the Government and citizens has been the foundation for whatever we have been able to achieve in the last seven years.
There is a deep problem in the way many sections of our political class view the Indian people. They only see Raj Shakti and view the Indian people only through that lens. But they do not see the innate Jan Shakti in Indians, they do not see the skills and strengths, the ability and capability of the people.
“Whether in permitting self-attestation or in reducing thousands of compliances for businesses, we have built a faith-based system”
Take the example of digital payments. I remember a speech by a former finance minister in Parliament in February 2017. In typical condescending tone, that comes to those who only know Raj Shakti, he asked: “[B]uy potatoes and tomatoes digitally in a village fair. What will the poor lady do? Does she know digital payments? Is internet there?”
The answer to him was given by the Jan Shakti when India became the number one digital payments country in the world just three years later, in 2020, with over 25 billion transactions. In just August 2021 alone, over
₹ 6.39 lakh crore was transacted using UPI, which is a completely homegrown solution by our youth.
This Digital Revolution is powered by the same people who were underestimated: the pushcart vendors, the small shopkeepers, the samosa and chaiwallas in roadside corners, the women who buy daily groceries and have found a secure way of payments. They have all not just empowered themselves but by their Jan Shakti empowered India globally by going digital.
This same phenomenon of underestimating our people happened in many other cases.
When we built toilets, they said people won’t use it and go back to defecating in the open. When we gave gas connections, they said people will use it the first time and not take refills. When we gave collateral-free loans to small entrepreneurs, they said the money would never come back. The irony was these people gave loans to their cronies and created the NPA problem but were against giving loans to small entrepreneurs.
Such an attitude towards the poor and common citizens of our country is sad and unfortunate.
We see the Jan Shakti in our people as a way to take the nation forward and bow to its immense potential.
“Our experience shows that it is the poor who get the maximum benefit of technology. They do not have to pay a bribe or stay behind in the queue to avail services”
One of the reasons we have affected a paradigm shift in governance is because of the mindset change we have brought about. Whether it be in the scope of the schemes, the scale of the delivery, or in the nature of the schemes themselves. However, the biggest mindset change is that we trust our people. Whether it be in permitting self-attestation or reducing thousands of compliances for businesses, we have built a faith-based system.
Crores of households across the country voluntarily gave up their LPG subsidy in the last few years. This happened because they knew that the subsidies forgone would ensure that crores of poor households across the country could access clean LPG fuel. The public would have never trusted us enough and given up thousands of rupees if they didn’t appreciate our performance. Similarly, tax evasion has declined since 2014. Apart from various reforms and improved oversight by the Government, there is a lower intent to evade taxes. As people started witnessing that their tax contributions were being effectively utilised, intention to evade taxes reduced considerably.
If you look back at India’s last 74 years, there have been four stages: first was Nehrunomics. Then Indira Gandhi. The Indira Gandhis of the 1970s and 1980s were different. First she talked about self-reliance and poverty programmes. Then she started diluting her stand in the 1980s, dialling down and beginning economic liberalisation. It was a period of reforms by stealth. In the third phase, PV Narasimha Rao capitalised on this strategy in a big way. Now, we have Modinomics. In Modinomics, boldness of reforms is unprecedented. That flows from your full majority in Parliament. You are someone who is using social capital for social good.
All governments formed in our country were fundamentally formed under the leadership of a person from Congress Gotra. And that is why, for each of them, there was no difference between their political thought process and economic thought process. Atalji was given an opportunity by people but he didn’t have a full majority, it was a coalition Government. I am fortunate that this is the first non-Congress Government that was given a full majority by the people. This means that the people of this country voted for complete change (Poorna Parivartan).
“If we had changed our policies on maps on time, perhaps India could have become the global leader in map technology”
I had in front of me people’s experience of the past 70 years and because of that it was easy to judge what was right and what was wrong. The successes and failures of the past seven decades were in front of me. And because of this, I adopted policies and strategies such that the common man benefited and the country also moved forward.
After years of compulsive reforms, we have brought in reforms through conviction.
We did reforms in the Covid period, something that was unique if you look at countries across the world. Whether in established sectors like insurance, agriculture and labour, or in futuristic sectors like telecom and space.
There is not a single sector where we have not brought fundamental reforms. We also created a conducive environment for state governments to introduce various reforms.
Our reforms are not only aimed at achieving our economic objective of Atmanirbhar Bharat but also focused on Ease of Living, unlike earlier governments which viewed economic reforms through a narrow prism of facilitating business ventures.
For instance, our Government gave additional borrowing facility to states if they implemented ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ which will allows crores of migrants to receive PDS entitlements. Does this not help improve the lives of crores of the poor?
But how beneficial are economic reforms if there are no matching and simultaneous governance reforms? We have worked on both in tandem and in parallel. Over 1,600 old laws have been scrapped. Multiple reforms across the board have made compliance easier for business and for people. Many more such measures are in the pipeline.
“This Digital Revolution is powered by people who were underestimated: pushcart vendors, small shopkeepers, samosa and chaiwallas”
In our entire reforms journey, we have taken people along. In our country, it is perhaps the legacy of the British that people and government are considered separate entities and governments alone are expected to work towards betterment of the country. Our model is different; we consider people as partners in the journey for developing India and hence are able to deliver better results.
Vaccination, too, is a classic governance play. You used digital technology to reach everyone. Vaccines reached people and not the other way round. This had never happened in India. And how did it reach the people? It was up to them—where they wanted to go and when. It was the same country where you could not buy ration beyond the designated shop.
Your question itself contains many answers. I would like to appreciate your understanding of the success of India’s vaccination drive. As you rightly pointed out, it is the same country where a person could not buy ration beyond the designated shop and it was our Government that brought in the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme.
Imagine if our country had not come up with a vaccine. What would be the situation? We know that a large population of the world doesn’t have access to Covid vaccines. Today, our success in vaccination is thanks to India being Atmanirbhar.
Some years ago at a science conference, I said that it is time to move on from “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan” and work on the mantra of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan, Jay Anusandhan”. We had accorded top priority to research.
“Unfortunately, independent commentators have also become accustomed to ‘silos’. They have no idea what the results are of an ‘integrated approach’”
We started planning for the vaccination drive right in May 2020 when no vaccine was even close to approval anywhere in the world. We had decided as early as then that we did not want this vaccination drive to be run in the old way where it could take decades to vaccinate people. We wanted to run this in a fast, efficient, discretion-free and timebound manner.
But as the people of our country understand, vaccinating such a large number of people comes with its own share of complexities. Ensuring proper temperature control of vaccines, cold-chain infrastructure across the length and breadth of the country, timely deliveries from the manufacturing plant to the remotest vaccinating centre, supply of needles and syringes, training of vaccinators and preparing for adverse reactions, from quick registration to certificate generation to reminder for next appointment…And [smiles] in the midst of all this, we also had people who knowingly tried to create panic and anxiety. I can go on and on. There are so many things which went on behind the scenes of such a large initiative. We need to look at the entire logistics, planning and progress to understand the success of the vaccine drive. It is a huge effort with so many people mobilised across the country. I hope the media will take out time to highlight the efforts of our people in making the world’s largest vaccination drive a stunning success.
We made sure that technology formed the backbone of the vaccination process. In the last seven years, we have leveraged technology as a means to save the poor from injustice. Our experience shows that it is the poor who get the maximum benefit of technology. Thanks to technology, the poor do not have to pay a bribe or stay behind in the queue to avail of services they rightfully deserve. They have equal rights as anyone else. Imagine a poor migrant who is now empowered to take his second dose of the same vaccine in the city he works in, even though he took the first dose in his village. Technology ensures that he gets the right vaccine at the right time and seamlessly.
“The biggest lesson from the Covid-19 fight is that India has an unparalleled ability to unite and a tremendous capacity to deliver when a need arises”
We managed to save the lives of a large number of people during the pandemic. We also cannot forget those we have lost. For their families, it would be an irreparable loss. When we compare India’s situation in the world, we have done better than many developed countries. However, we have in our midst vested interests whose only aim is to tarnish India’s name. Covid-19 was a global scourge with all countries equally affected. In this scenario, India has done better than its peers and many developed countries, notwithstanding such negative campaigns. I have trust in our people and they have set an example for the world.
And the Government is constantly challenging holy cows. Ending geospatial monopoly is one big step in that direction. Map-making was once sacrosanct. You can now map ration shops, toilets, and so on. If someone creates a GPS-controlled app which tells you about the nearest toilet, it solves a big problem. What was your idea when you thought about it? How do you plan to take this ‘triangulation of India’ forward?
I will share an old experience with you. Some 15-20 years ago, when the Sardar Sarovar Dam was being made, a lot of people used to visit it when there was a lot of water. But there were signboards there saying, “Photography Prohibited”. I used to ask what is the use of banning photography when the same dam can be clearly seen in satellite imagery. I asked the logic of such a move. The system only said that this is the law. I decided that such laws have become irrelevant and need to change. Instead, I started a photography competition at the Sardar Sarovar Dam and as a result the dam became even more popular. We also started a nominal ticket for visiting the dam. It is a very heartening memory for me that we awarded the tourist number 5 lakh at the dam and it was a young couple from Baramullah.
See, I have got an experience of 20 years in governance as a head of government. But even before that, I have travelled far and wide and observed things very minutely.
If we had changed our policies on maps on time, perhaps India could have become the global leader in map technology. Instead, our policies remained archaic and our innovation-oriented and creative youth left the country for better opportunities.
The youth of our country have an immense potential and spark in them. We must make them part of the process, part of the system, part of the decision-making apparatus.
We have often seen that the more different data sets become accessible, the more they become an asset. You can see this in our approach when we came up with NaVIC, a homegrown navigation system. Now with the reform on maps, it can significantly improve ease of living once our young innovators use them to make interesting products.
The reforms in geospatial technology will create economic opportunities for many startups and even businesses. Startups are often founded not on an idea, but to find a solution to a problem. Now, when we empower our youth to come up with their own products on maps, they will certainly solve problems being faced by our drivers and our entrepreneurs.
Our politics prioritises the divisions among Indians for electoral success. In the last seven years as prime minister, how difficult has it been for you to get unifying ideas accepted in the political system?
I would request you to hear my speeches, be it as chief minister of Gujarat or prime minister of India over the last 20 years.
What did I always say? Earlier when I was in Gujarat I said 6 crore Gujaratis…and now I say 130 crore Indians.
What does this imply? That when I am speaking, I speak for the entire population without a shred of discrimination.
Our development policies aim at complete saturation or 100 per cent—be it in electrification, housing, toilet coverage, among others. When the scale is this big, when we are aiming at complete transformation, where is the scope for discrimination? We are motivated by the mantra of Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat.
Let me give you an example of a subject that has divided the nation for decades—that of reservation. Pick up the history books and you will see there were movements, counter-movements, so many painful events relating to this one issue of reservation.
“Covid-19 was a global scourge. India has done better than its peers and many developed countries, notwithstanding negative campaigns”
But a few years ago when our Government had the honour to provide 10 per cent reservation to the poor from the general category, was there any bitterness? Did anyone protest? No. The decision was hailed across the social spectrum. Such a smooth process, without any protest, is a very big thing and something that deserves greater study by political scholars.
I will give you one more example.
Over two decades ago, the NDA Government under Atal Ji created three states. This was done with a spirit of cordiality. There were celebrations in the new states and in the states out of which the new states were carved. In contrast, see how the UPA Government handled the Telangana-Andhra Pradesh issue. The bitterness of their mismanagement lingers even now.
Let us talk about language, another subject that has divided people for decades. Due to frequent politicking, the importance of one’s mother tongue kept getting reduced over the years. Our Government took a decision to impart medical and technical education in the local language. Forget causing divisions, this move was welcomed.
In the same spirit, let me mention something related to agriculture. Our Government has worked tirelessly for the small farmers. But does that mean we have taken decisions that are against the interest of the large farmers? Absolutely not.
We are striving to work for economic prosperity but we also believe in catering to the needs of ecology. Why do we do that? Because at the root of our thought process is the ideal of “Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas, Sab ka Vishwas, Sab ka Prayas.”
It is also rightly said — संघे शक्ति कलौ युगे—there is strength in unity.
What are the lessons about the state and preparedness of the healthcare system during the Covid-19 fight that you plan to now change and transform?
The pandemic started in other countries before India. I was observing the global situation and trends. I could see confusion everywhere and also a lack of seriousness at an individual level. We knew that India would also be invariably affected. I started planning on how to bring the entire country on board for this. Eventually, it would be people’s resolve and discipline that would matter and without it, it would be impossible to deal with this pandemic. It is then that the thought of Janata Curfew came to me. It spread the intended story far and wide. It is a big success story.
“There is not a single sector where we have not brought fundamental reforms. We also created a conducive environment for state governments to introduce reforms”
Similarly, in the pandemic, the biggest role was of the healthcare and frontline workers. There was a need to boost their morale. The banging of thalis and lighting of diyas became a big mass movement and it helped boost the morale of our healthcare workers. It can be a big case study. This also led to fewer cases of misbehaviour with medical personnel and respect for them went up. People saw medical personnel as gods in white coats.
My experience of 20 years as head of government says that people in government often underestimate people’s power. When we trust their power and connect with them, we get results. The country has seen this during the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Give It Up, etcetera. I have seen this in my Gujarat days too.
The biggest difficulty of the governments in our country is the ‘silos’. And unfortunately all the independent commentators have also become accustomed to silos. Because of this, they have no idea what are the results of an “integrated approach” and “whole of government approach”.
The biggest thing that I have learned from my 20 years of experience in governance is that if I start something, I do not start it in isolation. There is a progressive unfolding of the vision and in the beginning I do not tell everything. Take the example of Jan Dhan accounts, people felt that it is just a financial inclusion programme. Take the example of Aadhaar, people felt that it was just an ID card. But at the time of this pandemic, when governments across the world wanted to send money to the needy, they were unable to do so. India was able to do it in the midst of a pandemic with the click of a button, crores of our mothers got money directly in their account.
It shows how our approach is integrated, holistic and futuristic.
And just like money was sent, foodgrains were made available to the needy and this scheme is still on. I heard somewhere that in the pandemic in the previous century, a large number of people died due to starvation. So, we were very conscious of this and in this hour of crisis, from the very first day, we have been giving free ration to such a big population for many months. One could easily make headlines by quoting the total money transferred when one gives cash, but ensuring that foodgrains reach the poor without corruption, without delay and without discretion for a long period of time is a big thing.
The biggest lesson for us from the Covid-19 fight has been that India has an unparalleled ability to unite, find a common purpose, come together, and a tremendous capacity to deliver when a need arises. From being a net importer of PPE kits, we have now become one of the biggest manufacturers across the globe.
Similarly, we not only managed to exponentially increase the number of ventilators but also did so largely through domestic manufacturing. India achieved this despite limited global knowledge about the virus, the economic impact of lockdowns and existing state capacity constraints. Is there any better evidence of our ability to bring transformative change? In the last seven years, we have built a temperament of collective efforts for national goals. For us, it was clear in the last seven years that we can achieve tremendous results if we harness the latent energy of our citizens. But now, this has been a key learning for everyone I think.
Apart from this, the Covid-19 fight has also made us realise that we need to further strengthen our efforts for building world-class medical infrastructure. A lot of people today speak about the need to augment healthcare infrastructure. However, we need to remember that it cannot be merely done by adding more beds or rooms, it needs skilled and trained medical personnel. Over the last seven years, we have been actively working towards this. From six AIIMS in 2014, we are now building 22 AIIMS. From around 380 medical colleges in 2014, today we have around 560 medical colleges. From around 82 thousand undergraduate and postgraduate medical seats, we now have around 1 lakh 40 thousand undergraduate and postgraduate medical seats. Recently, we came out with a scheme to help states ramp up medical infrastructure in all categories, including paediatric facilities. We are also working on launching a massive scheme to boost health infrastructure that will address a lot of legacy issues.
Another key realisation for everyone has been to look at the health sector holistically. We are actively focusing on preventive healthcare. From improved sanitation to water supply, from yoga to Ayurveda, from strengthening diagnostic centres in remote areas, we are doing it all.
We realised the importance of Telemedicine and, at the beginning of the pandemic, we came out with a policy on Telemedicine and removed all the restrictions that it had. Recently, we have launched the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM). It will enhance access to healthcare for the poor, boost innovation and make treatments seamless across geographies.