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‘We Need a Politics Which Is Inclusive, Rather Than Exclusive’: What Manmohan Singh Said in 1999

'We need a deep change in the mindsets of our people, in their thinking, at all levels. And more so in the mindsets of those who constitute our leaders,' the former prime minister had told Karan Thapar in an interview.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a New Delhi event in 2014. Photo: MEAphotogallery/Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to retire from public life, we take a look at one of his interviews, conducted by Karan Thapar for BBC on August 25, 1999.

In this interview, Singh delved into his political values and perspectives on the state of affairs in India. He discussed his transition to contesting the Lok Sabha elections, emphasising the need for politics to serve social change. He addressed challenges, such as social division and economic mismanagement, while outlining his vision for reform. He also emphasised the importance of restoring politics as a moral instrument.

The full transcript of the interview is reproduced below.


Hello and welcome to ‘Hardtalk India’, and the second of three interviews with top leaders of the  three parties contesting these elections. Today we talk to the man that many consider the  likely choice for prime minister if the Congress party is in a position to form the next  government. So what are his political values, and how does he view the present state of  affairs in India?

Here to answer those questions is former finance minister and the present leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha – Dr. Manmohan Singh. 

Dr. Singh, after eight years in the Rajya Sabha, you have decided to stand for the Lok Sabha – something you consciously didn’t do in 1996 and you didn’t do in 1998. What has brought about the change of mind this time? 

Well, I was initially very reluctant to contest this time also. But our party felt that in the interests of the party, and in the interests of our country, it would be good if I offered myself  for election. Although I have been a member of the Rajya Sabha, I do believe that the quality of membership that goes with the membership of the Lok Sabha is superior. Because you are elected directly by the people. Therefore, though I was initially reluctant, when I thought it over, I felt: I have been in politics now for eight, nine years, I should go to the people to pronounce  their verdict on what I am, what I have been and what vision, what views I hold.

So, in a sense, you are actually now seeking a mandate for the views you hold… That’s true. 

Do you think, however, that you are suited to this sort of electoral politics? 

Well, I had initial doubts, but I am learning very fast. And the last five or six days that I go campaigning every morning, every evening – I am finding it a very educational experience.

Let me put something that people say… Your admirers say that in stepping into the Lok Sabha arena, Dr Manmohan Singh may be in danger of losing the one thing that made him different. Earlier, he was above politics, today in a sense, he is becoming a bit like any other politician… 

Well, I am in politics and I don’t claim any special virtues. All I can say is that in politics I  have learnt that one has to compromise. But there is a limit to compromise. If you compromise at the cost of your conscience, I think there you should draw the line. And whether I am in the Rajya Sabha or in Lok Sabha, I hope I will have the moral courage to not cross that line. And that line is set by my own conscience.

So, will you still be able to do some of the things the country requires, speak out when you think the time has come, stand up for the views that you believe are correct, allow your voice to be heard in favour of the causes you have always supported? 

I do believe we need a new type of politics. A politics of frankness, a politics that tells people things straight, things as they are. I think we cannot fool our people. As Abraham Lincoln once said: you can fool some people for all time, all people for some time, but not all people for all time. And I do believe that in the last 50 years, politicians have been taking our people for a ride. And I feel there is a great danger if the gap between what politicians say, promise, and what they do, grows the way it has been growing.

Let’s test that a little, Doctor Saab, because I think that in the seeds of that perhaps lie some of the hope for our country. Many people in India today feel a sense of alienation, a sense of disenchantment with Indian politics and Indian politicians. As a new man stepping into the Lok Sabha arena, can you understand?

I do very much understand that politics in this country has to be the servant of social sympathy. It has to mediate among the societal tensions that are built into the body politic of a poor country trying to modernise itself. And you can do so only if people believe in your credentials. And if you are telling things and you have no intention of doing them, I think you are now trading on trust, and you cannot last very long, I think. people become cynical – alienated, as you put it.

As you say, telling the truth – even if it is the bitter truth – is very important. One of the fears that people of India have as they look at our quarreling politicians, our hung parliament, our divisions of race, creed, religion, language is that we could face – if things are not handled properly – disintegration. We could be poised at the brink of anarchy.

Well, I have always felt that – if you read my speeches in parliament, I have warned the members of parliament – we should not assume there is a divine destiny which will ensure that India continues to flourish and prosper howsoever we mismanage our economy. Great nations like the Soviet Union have perished, they have disappeared from the surface of the earth. If the Indian polity is not well-managed, I think we ought to recognise that a similar danger can overtake us too.

So we could collapse, like eastern European countries and the Soviet Union? 

I am not saying that that is on the cards right away, or that it is inevitable. But if we continue to mismanage our economy, if we continue to divide our country on the basis of religion, caste and other sectarian issues, I think there is a grave danger of that sort of thing happening.

And it is a serious thing… 

It is a serious thing.

Let me push that thought a little further for a moment. Many people feel that although we have considerable achievements, nonetheless the sense of purpose we had 30 years ago is lost. Today, moral authority is eroded, political authority is questioned. Do you think that there is a danger that in fact that we could end up fragmenting the nation state that we have?  Could [that] be in danger? 

Politics, unfortunately, has ceased to be – in many ways – a vehicle of purposeful social change. It has become a ticket for power: power for the sake of power; not power as an instrument of doing something good for society. And that is, I feel, a great source of anxiety and danger for the future of our polity.

So, has politics become a vehicle for self-serving politicians, rather than a means for change or a means for reform?

Yes, I think that is very much true today.

Is that one reason why you have consciously decided to step into the arena and try to change things? 

If I have an opportunity, I do hope I will, I think, [I’ll] be a small instrument of writing some new guidelines for the way political processes should be conducted in our country.

How much of the crisis our country faces is also a result of another crisis – a crisis of leadership? To what extent have our leaders, historically and even today, let us down?

Leadership is the crux of the matter. Look at China. After the disastrous results of the cultural revolution, there came the grand old man, Deng Xiaoping, at the age of 80 years. And he transformed the Chinese society beyond recognition. Leaders have to be leaders, they have to be pace setters, not leaders who just follow what is momentarily in the popular mind, look at the opinion polls every day and adjust their thinking to that. I once said in parliament about leadership, quoting a couplet: Insaan voh nahin hai jo hava ke saath badle, insann toh vohi hai jo hava ka rukh badal de [Man is not the one who changes with the wind; man is the one who changes the direction of the wind.]

I think that we need leadership of that kind.

Dr. Singh, the hallmark of leaders whom you admire was their conviction. It was their strength of belief in what they wanted to do that gave them courage. Do you, therefore, believe that what we need today is conviction-based leadership?

In the measure of strong conviction, Indian leadership cannot deliver the goods. And I say this in all sincerity, because at the present time, the aspirations of our people are rather modest. And if they have a leadership which is not sincere, which is not intent, which  does not think how we all should work to meet those aspirations, then I think, tomorrow, it will be too late. The gap between aspirations and what is feasible – politically, economically, socially – will grow to a point that I think there will be a great danger of acute political stability in our country.

So, is it a question of now or never? 

Yes, that’s very much the case.

You are on record as saying that what we need in our country is reform with big ‘R’ in every sphere, but you’ve added that the political mindset of our politicians does not recognise this. Where do they fall short? 

Most politicians in our country do not adjust their thinking to the changing needs of our time. When I was a student at Nuffield College, Oxford, nearly 40 years ago, one of the persons who later became prime minister – James Callaghan – when he became the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, spent full one year at Nuffield College, taking tutorials in economics. He said: I could not function as an effective shadow chancellor unless I had a deep understanding of modern economic analysis. Our politicians feel that whatever they learnt in their childhood is adequate stock for them to pronounce on everything in the world. I think there is contempt for knowledge.

Professor Raj Krishna once said that Indian politicians are knowledge-free. And we live in a world where knowledge is power. So unless those politicians value knowledge, I think they cannot be a purposeful instrument of social change.

You also once said that international ideas of what constitute good policy are totally at variance with what our politicians think. Now, I think I understand what you are saying, but could you exemplify that?

Well, I was talking in the context of the management of the economy. In the 1950, the idea that the commanding heights of the economy must rest with the public sector; that if you nationalise an industry, you contribute to growth as well as to growth with social justice; if you restrict private investment that also brings about socialism; if you raise tax rates, that helps to reduce inequality.

Now, in all these matters, experience has shown that short-term solutions [are inadequate]. As Alfred Marshall taught at Cambridge many years ago, all short-term solutions have their limitations in social matters. Therefore, one has to change one’s thinking. The collapse of the Soviet Union serves as a compelling example of why a command economy simply broke down. However, ideas associated with a command economy persist in the thinking of many of our politicians even to this day. The world has changed, and if we do not change our thinking in accordance to the changing needs of time, we [risk being stuck with] have a Bradshaw, a railway timetable that is thoroughly outdated. And as a result, we may suddenly…

You are saying something more…you are saying that our politicians are prisoners of failed  truths… 

That is, in many ways, true

In fact, you are also implying that we have a dinosaur mentality, and we are in danger of the same fate that the dinosaurs met.

Well, there is indeed a danger, and I really believe it. How else can we explain the situation in this country where people can get votes based on religion? [How is it that individuals] seek votes on the basis of caste, even 50 years after India adopted a constitution that talks about a classless society? Yet, 50 years later, we find Indian society is so badly divided on the basis of religion and caste.

Dr. Singh, you’re not only saying that we are prisoners of failed truths, but you’re also emphasising that we not only fail to realise this but are actually proud of our folly.

Many politicians, I am sad to say, practice a very divisive politics for narrow sectarian reasons. It may be good politics for the moment, but it can be a source of disaster for our country. We need a type of politics which is inclusive, rather than a type of politics which is exclusive.

So today sitting before me, you are calling for far-reaching, I might even call it, dramatic reform and changes in the way we operate.

I am talking about change in the mindsets. I think institutional changes are necessary, but more than institutional change we need a change in mindsets. Of all those people who make critical decisions of our national life – be it in politics, be it in economics, be it in social engineering – we need a deep change in the mindsets of our people, in their thinking, at all levels. And more so in the mindsets of those who constitute our leaders.

Dr. Manmohan Singh, that [statement] is not just forthright; many would say it’s a stinging indictment of the political system as it exists today. I have to ask you, this is so different from the perception we have of the Congress party. Where do you fit in?

I came into politics by accident. I have stayed committed to the Congress party. And I do believe that there is a ray of hope. At Pachmarhi, many of these issues were discussed.

And forgotten? 

Well, I would not say forgotten. I think there are momentary lapses. Politicians, before they become statesmen, want to be re-elected. And when electoral compulsions come, people do make compromises. But I have faith in the power of ideas. As Victor Hugo once said, no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.

Do you really believe that Sonia Gandhi is capable of representing the sort of dynamic, forward thinking, far-reaching change that you are calling for? 

Sonia ji is a very dynamic person. Whenever I have conversed with her,  she is acutely conscious of the moral imperatives, the moral foundations of our polity, more than many other politicians in this country. She has in many discussions with me mentioned some of the problems which I have mentioned. How politics has ceased in our country to be a purposeful instrument of social change. How we are all bereft of all the morals…

May I interrupt you for a minute – her appeal is emotional and passion-driven, yours is one of logic and reason. Where do the two of you meet? 

I am a small entity in the Congress party. And Sonia ji is the acknowledged leader of the Congress party. She was elected leader of our party at a time when our party was in deep crisis. And that she sways the minds and hearts of our party was certainly displayed in May 1999.

So, [does] she provide the vote-winning edge? [And] would you, in a sense, be the moral, principled backbone?

I am not the only one, I am only a small entity in this large organisation called the Congress party. I am not saying that I have the monopoly of virtue, or that I am the only one who knows…

But you are the strongest, clearest voice today calling for reform and change. The strongest voice pointing out that if we don’t correct ourselves, we may lose the opportunity to forever do so.

There are many young people in our party who feel the same way.

They don’t have the opportunity and advantage that you have today, of being a frontline leader. You are for them the first person in the line.

I do not know what line you are talking about. As I said, now I am only seeking election to the membership of the Lok Sabha. All the rest is in the realm of speculation.

Absolutely, and I don’t want to embarrass you by forcing you to make modest disclaimers about what will happen after the elections. Let me ask a hypothetical question instead. If you were to be the head of the government after the elections, do you think you would be capable of  pushing through the far-reaching reforms that you are talking about, in a constructive, cohesive, proper, forceful way? Or would it be piecemeal, would it be one step forward, one step back? Would it be ad hoc? 

Let me say who will head the government – that is a hypothetical question. We will cross that bridge when we reach there. But I sincerely believe that whosoever is the head of the  government, ought to implement a coherent programme of action if our country has to move in the desired direction in the desired way. We cannot have a system – as my esteemed friend P.N. Dhar used to say: in this country, we can have growth only through stealth, we cannot do it the straight way. I think that time is over. We must do things the straight way, tell our people what are the options, what are the costs, what are the benefits and then tell them why we consider, on balance, a particular course of action is the  best [choice overall].

Level with Indians, to tell them the truth as you see it, and if it is bitter, then it is bitter.

I think that we cannot carry forward the social and economic transformation that our country needs to realise the vision of the founding fathers of our republic.

Such as the financial, because you also have to sell to them the essential message that we must learn to live within our means, that we have to tighten our belts today for a better tomorrow. And those sometimes are difficult things to say. 

They are difficult. And I often used to say in my budget speeches that money does not  grow on trees. And therefore, I think there is such a thing as resource constraint. If there were no resource constraints, then money could be simply printed for all purposes. Every society would be a rich society today. The fact that most of the countries are poor is because of a shortage of resources. So, you are, therefore, correct that a political or economic leadership, which tells the people that there is no such thing as a resource constraint, [can lead to] this is a concept of disaster.

It is also a political leadership of lying… 

Of course, it is lying.

But it’s not just the challenge of telling the people the truth that you are going to face. Should  you happen to be in that position – the other challenge is of convincing the Congress party that the reform, that the change in the mindsets, that telling the people the truth even if it is bitter, even at the cost of popularity has to be done. Can you carry your party with you? 

Well, let me say, if you read our election manifesto…. People have compared the Bharaiya Janata Party (BJP) or the so-called National Democratic Alliance manifesto and our manifesto. I think most people will say that we have spelt out [our agenda] far more clearly than the BJP has done.

Let me say, we have, I think, spelt out these things for the first time in great detail – sector- wise. Where our system is really weak is about bringing about a fiscal correction. There [in that aspect] all political parties, I think, suffer from a lack of vision, a sense of purpose, and a lack of  adequate commitment.

And do you believe you’re in a position to put fiscal correction back on the table, pursuing it doggedly, even if it makes you unpopular?

Look at my record. In 1991-92, when this country was in a desperate economic situation, on the verge of collapse, I came up with a budget which cut the fiscal deficit in a single year – in fact in eight or nine months – by 2% of the GDP. We slashed subsidies all round.

But what happened after Babri Masjid…? 

After the Babri Masjid [event], the political agenda overtook the economic agenda.

Might that not happen again?

I cannot say that events will not overtake… I think you cannot predict social evolution. The process of social evolution is never a linear process. I think exogenous events sometimes derail the process. It has happened before, it may…

But will your personal determination to stay on course always be there? 

Of course. If I have anything to do with managing our economy and polity, we will try to erect safeguards that will not derail the inherent rhythm of the reform process that our country needs to realise the vision of our…

Just a couple of points… If you were to be in charge in the next government, would you, for instance, continue with fairly sizable and dramatic disinvestment so that the state is freed from tasks it shouldn’t be doing, and concentrate on areas where it is needed?

We do want privatization, but not privatization all along the line. We believe that where public sector enterprises are running efficiently, there is no reason to privatise them. But the public sector has no business to be in hotels or other low priority activities, so we will get them out of those. And the resources that we save, we will put in education, health, and in areas we feel the state ought to be more actively involved.

What about government expenditure? Would you be able to curb it from running away?

If cannot be curbed overnight. We need a perspective of three to four years to bring about an orderly adjustment of government expenditure. We will work to that purpose.

And will you rigidly stick to that purpose? You won’t let yourself be blown off course by adverse reaction or unpopularity? 

No, I think we would make every effort to ensure that expenditure aligns with broadly agreed-upon national priorities; that the overall government expenditure pattern conforms to national priorities; and that the level of expenditure remains consistent with the limits of fiscal prudence.

Will you scale the government down? 

We will do that. I think the government is too bloated. I think areas that the government has no  business to be in… I think there are far too many ministries in the central government. Now we do not want to create, overnight, unnecessary unemployment in the public sector, but over  a period of time, we must restructure our government.

My last question Dr. Singh: you have sketched out a very effective agenda for reform. You have committed yourself to the need for conviction for change. The major question people want to know is, will your party agree to this? Or whether it will have the courage to persist with it. But let me ask a personal question: Should you lose the Lok Sabha election, will you throw in the towel, or would you continue to fight – in some other way – for what you believe in? 

Well, there is no question of throwing in the towel. I am in the fray. I am in politics. And my politics does not end with winning or losing the Lok Sabha election. I have come to politics in the belief that we must restore politics to its original purpose of being a purposeful  instrument of social change…

And a moral instrument.

And a moral instrument. Ultimately our politics must be rooted – as Gandhi ji used to say – in fundamental human values.

[Since] you mentioned Gandhi ji, if you happen to lose, will you continue as leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha or will you feel the moral compunction to step down? 

I do feel that I will have the moral compunction… In that situation, probably, it would be wise for me not to stay as the leader of the Rajya Sabha, if we are in opposition.

Even if your party insists, will you step down? 

Yes, that is my intention. If I lose, for example, the Lok Sabha election – having gone to the people, not having won their verdict, and then still staying in power as leader of my party in the Rajya Sabha, I think that probably will not be a desirable course of action.

Dr Manmohan Singh, many would hope that that does not come to pass. Obviously, that’s not something for me to comment on. Thank you very much for talking so openly and so frankly.  

Thank you very much, Karan.

Thank you, sir. 

Transcribed by Daman Singh.

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