Rajnath Singh, Minister of Defence (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
Union Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh has juggled several roles in a long political career. He was president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), and has held important portfolios at the Centre.
The senior-most minister in the Narendra Modi government, Singh talks to Open about BJP’s record in office; he responds to the political opposition’s charge of misuse of investigative agencies by the government; and he also offers explanations and insights on India’s defence modernisation programme.
In eight years, what is the most significant difference the Modi government has made to the lives of ordinary people?
Look at the social welfare schemes. If you look at the lowest stratum of society, you will find that there is an improvement in some way or the other. I don’t have a scale to say that this is the improvement. But the pace of reduction of poverty has increased. The standard of living has gone up. For example, many who did not have houses now have one. This leads to greater self-confidence and a larger scope for work. Some three crore houses being built, toilets, tap water and electricity to most households—all of this makes an impact. The PM Kisan Samman Nidhi that provides `6,000 a year to farmers is very useful, particularly to smaller farmers. They feel that the government cares for them. If a person who did not receive many services and benefits earlier—you can add medical insurance for the poor—does so now, then it can be said that the government has touched the most important aspects of the lives of those people who are most in need.
There are several divides in society, such as urban-rural, language, etc. Has the government been successful in tackling these?
I don’t think we have had to confront such divides and that is because we have seen everyone with the same gaze. There can be divides, or divisions, on the basis of region, or even religion. The benefits of the government’s schemes have reached everyone. There is no discrimination.
What about the charge levelled by your critics that religious divisions have widened?
I do not accept this. This has not been done by us. No one can point out a single example that an initiative or policy has fanned differences and divisions. The government’s programmes are for everyone. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan “Sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas, sabka prayaas” is a solemn promise and he has proved his credentials on this. We understand the need for everyone’s participation and uplift for the nation to progress. We are such a large country with many castes, creeds and languages; but the prime minister has sought to move forward with the support of all.
BJP is today a dominant or the primary political force in the country. In 1996, when it formed a 13-day government, there were no allies forthcoming but today the party is in office in several states and does not lack allies. How would you analyse this journey?
There has been a gradual and steady consolidation. With the advent of Modiji in the centrestage, we saw a major change. People from varied backgrounds gravitated towards him; there was a natural attraction for his leadership and the values he represented. He delivered on the trust placed in him and so the party’s vote increased and a second term—that too, a majority—happened. The party’s geographical spread expanded, reflecting a growing social base too.
You were party president in 2014 when BJP won the Lok Sabha polls. When did you get the impression that the party could win a majority?
Actually some time before that. When Modiji was Gujarat chief minister, even then his appeal had spread much beyond the borders of the state. His style of functioning, his work in Gujarat, and his efforts at bringing about comprehensive development had gained many adherents. There was a sense that he would get unprecedented support. I felt he could do the same at the national level. Not easy for most chief ministers. His image was of a decisive and purposeful leader and that resonated with many.
Yet, when BJP declared him its prime ministerial candidate, there was a lot of debate within the party. Can you tell us how it was settled?
It will not be correct to repeat or retell the events of the time. But there was a [debate] and my effort was to get everyone on board. I felt such big decisions should be taken with the concurrence and support of all. And I would say this is what happened. Theek hai, some difference of opinion might occur. Where there is democracy, and in a party that functions democratically, there will be some debate and discussion.
In recent weeks, we have seen communal violence when Ramnavami and Hanuman Jayanti processions were taken out. This had declined in recent years. Is there a pattern, or something more, to such incidents?
These incidents are unfortunate. They should not have happened. But they did. The opposition straightaway points at the government and raises an accusatory finger.
Is the violence a reaction to BJP consolidating the Hindu vote?
Look, we want everyone’s support. And we might get more from some section or the other, but I do not see a consolidation in this respect. In 2019, we did see women from the Muslim community vote for BJP. It did happen. So did other communities.
But are these incidents random?
Let me remind you that there was a time when Congress was in office in Gujarat… they keep raking it up. There were major riots, violence was so frequent. Have they forgotten their record? Were there no riots when Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister? People who level the accusations forget all this. Who was responsible then? Why did riots become a regular occurrence? This does not mean riots are to be condoned. The law enforcement authorities are actively trying to prevent riots and ensure the guilty are punished after a thorough and impartial investigation. Has Congress forgotten its poor record in dealing with divisive issues?
BJP represents a view of the nation, a vision of politics that has been at odds with a long-established consensus. Being in office has given BJP greater momentum. Is this also a serious faultline and a reason for discord?
We have not deviated from the ideology of the founding fathers of our party. We did not, and do not, see individuals as separate on the basis of caste and community. There is no scope for this. For example, manav darshan is about the development of all.
For long, what you said was not mainstream. BJP was a challenger or an alternative. But now you have, to a considerable extent, become the mainstream. Is this a reason for the opposition to you?
If there were discontent and unhappiness felt towards the government among the common people—any sense of disappointment—then that would be a reason to feel that what BJP stood for had been rejected. This is not so. Otherwise, we would have seen a stronger [political] opposition. The fact is that there is no credible opposition. It is not that we have somehow deliberately weakened the opposition. We have worked to improve the common lot, sarvajan hitay, and our support has swelled.
Are you referring to the decline of regional or caste-based parties in north India? What does this mean for BJP and politics?
Our support will continue to increase. Our style of functioning, our ideology, our programmes are the reasons why people have reposed faith in BJP and its leader. Should we stop working to strengthen the opposition? Surely, no one is suggesting that!
Several opposition leaders have accused the government of using Central investigative agencies to settle political scores.
So were the Central agencies not working or functioning earlier? The investigation of cases must be carried out. Otherwise, the agencies and the government would be failing in their duties. The public would lose faith in the criminal justice system. Organisations must function according to their mandates. They must play their due roles. There is a system of judicial review to ensure any case of injustice is redressed. The courts have not condemned the actions of the agencies in any significant manner that suggests those actions were wrong. The courts have intervened when necessary. There is no question of the agencies acting in an indiscriminate manner; that is not possible in India where there is judicial oversight and executive accountability.
The investigation of cases must be carried out. Otherwise, the agencies and the government would be failing in their duties. The public would lose faith in the criminal justice system
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In view of the decline of powerful regional parties in north India, what is the political scene in the run-up to 2024?
There is no political party that can claim a national presence, or an effective presence, in every state or in most states. I feel this is unfortunate. But the opposition parties are responsible for this because they are losing credibility among the people. BJP cannot be held responsible for this. Modiji is not responsible for the opposition’s decline. He can be held responsible if you consider that he continues to work with undiminished vigour and so is consolidating support for BJP. As I said earlier, can the prime minister stop working to strengthen the opposition? The truth is that it is the opposition that needs to introspect instead of blaming the government for sundry things. They should ask themselves why their standing is declining among the common people.
Turning to defence, some important decisions have been taken in the last few months. There is a push for Make in India and a list has been drawn up of equipment not to be imported.
Yes, 310 items will not be imported progressively from 2022 onwards.
There are sophisticated technologies that need time to be developed. What happens in the meanwhile?
That is why OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are being welcomed in India. We should see some big companies in India soon, companies that manufacture engines. To encourage indigenisation, it has been decided that 68 per cent of the capital budget will be utilised by our public sector and Indian private companies who will make weapons and various platforms. Of this 68 per cent, a good 25 per cent is for private industries alone.
It has been the case that India’s defence PSUs were unable to meet deadlines.
But now most of our PSUs are making a profit. A major achievement has been the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). Some 40-odd factories were mostly running on losses. You will be happy to know that six of seven reconstituted companies are making a profit. They are getting orders from abroad as well; the corporatisation of OFB is a karsihma (miracle). There are more than a lakh employees and no disruption or hartal happened.
The border standoff with China in Ladakh has continued for more than two years. What is the situation now?
For the first time, a message has gone out that any mischief on the border will be responded to in a very firm manner. The message is that India can respond appropriately and in a sustained manner.
How did this come about? Was it progress in border infrastructure, improved weapons, political will?
A lot depends on political will. There is no doubt about the capability and bravery of our military. They can be counted on to deliver. Our Army has done exceptional things in dealing with the challenge. Talks are ongoing [with China] and some disputes have been resolved, and I think the rest can also be resolved.
How is the ceasefire agreement with Pakistan progressing?
The violations had stopped. There are a few violations now, but fewer than earlier.
As terror incidents in Jammu and Kashmir show, Pakistan’s support for terrorism remains a matter of concern.
Yes, that is correct. Our forces are doing what is possible and there is a reduction in terrorism; they are making sure attacks do not happen to the extent possible.
The armed forces are a reflection of modern India. Are there plans to modernise or change recruitment and training?
Several measures are being taken; you will come to know about these soon. Recruitment was affected by Covid and that has restarted.
The Ukraine war has created a new international situation. How does it impact ties with Russia? Are we under pressure? And what about military supplies?
We are now developing our own capabilities. We are also sourcing equipment from several other nations. As far as India’s ties with Russia are concerned, the world now knows that India’s foreign policy is not a zero-sum game. As a result of this, the prime minister can speak to the US, Russia and Ukraine as well. There are few leaders who are in such a position and this is because of our independent foreign policy.
You were recently in the US and Japan for the 2-plus-2 Dialogue. Did any reference come up?
Nothing. There was no discussion on Russia. India has worked for world peace; this is not a slogan for us, we really believe in it.