Even though he says that he has quit the BJP, won’t join any political party and won’t contest any elections in future, Yashwant Sinha remains a thorn in the flesh of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The 81-year-old former BJP veteran and anex-minister of finance and external affairs continues to embarrass the BJP government. The question is whether his views will be taken as seriously by the public at large as they are by the opposition. Here are excerpts from an exclusive one-on-one interview Sinha gave to Rajeev Sharma for South Asian Monitor:
South Asian Monitor (SAM): Now that the BJP has suffered its first electoral setback, how do you and other senior colleagues plan to redouble your efforts against the Narendra Modi government?
Yashwant Singh (YS): I will continue to do what I am doing currently. And that’s what my other friends are also doing. It’s this. We’re touring various parts of the country and telling the people what the truth is. And we’ll continue to do this.
SAM: What exactly does the government intend to do with the RBI’s capital reserves? And what will be the impact on the economy?
YS: Tapping into the RBI’s reserves will be a bonanza for any government. If this government gets that kind of money it will definitely be a poll bonanza and it will ensure the government’s victory in the polls. So, this is not surprising. What is surprising or shocking is the government dipping its fingers into the RBI’s chest and taking the money out. I can tell you that most of the RBI reserves are notional. It’s not real money. They’re there against some obligation.
SAM: According to press reports, the RBI has close to Rs 10 lakh crore…?
YS: That’s what I am telling you. They’re there but most of it is notional. And no government has ever interfered with the reserves of the RBI before. So, it will be unprecedented and not good for the country.
If I am external affairs minister again, I will sit with my Pakistani counterpart and ask him to put all the issues on the table. Neither India nor Pakistan has done this as far as this government is concerned. You can’t run your Pakistan policy on hype. It has to be firmly grounded. You have to do enough homework before a summit. Why did the Agra summit fail during our government? Because we had not done our homework.
SAM: You have been a finance minister. Do you think Arun Jaitley has been doing a good enough job? He should know the consequences of the Modi government trying to eye the RBI’s reserves.
YS: I am disappointed. Take the RBI case for example. It could have been easily sorted out if they had called Urjit Patel (the RBI governor who resigned recently) and they had a heart-to-heart conversation. And I tell you this is only the tip of the iceberg and much more is going to tumble out in near future.
SAM: How would you have handled RBI if you were the finance minister?
YS: The RBI-government relationship is very sensitive. During my tenure I had the best of relations with the then RBI governor Bimal Jalan. You need to have a polite one-to-one conversation.
SAM: What are your views on the government’s near-abroad foreign policy?
YS: We have many problems and I can tell you that this policy is not as successful as it is pointed out to be. A prime example is Nepal. The blockade misfired and made India unpopular in Nepal. Our relations with our immediate neighbours today are not as cordial as they used to be. The Nepal blockade was the biggest mistake. This government’s foreign policy is touted as the best ever. But this is not true.
SAM: How would you respond to the government’s policy with regard to Pakistan and China?
YS: In Pakistan, there’s a new government. There have been overtures from them. The Kartarpur corridor is one such. For Pakistan, the core issue is Kashmir. For India, it is cross-border terrorism. India and Pakistan should seriously sit down on the terror issue. If I am external affairs minister again, I will sit with my Pakistani counterpart and ask him to put all the issues on the table. Neither India nor Pakistan has done this as far as this government is concerned. You can’t run your Pakistan policy on hype. It has to be firmly grounded. You have to do enough homework before a summit. Why did the Agra summit fail during our government? Because we had not done our homework.
No country has supported India on the BRI issue, not even our immediate neighbours. All of them are part of this. Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Maldives and of course Pakistan. Our stand is valid because of CPEC concerns. But we failed to convince them and bring them on board.
SAM: And China?
YS: Our biggest failure pertains to the One Belt One Road (OBOR), now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). No country has supported India on the BRI issue, not even our immediate neighbours. All of them are part of this. Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Maldives and of course Pakistan. Our stand is valid because of CPEC concerns. But we failed to convince them and bring them on board.
SAM: How do you think India can play a positive role to revive SAARC?
YS: The most important factor in SAARC is India-Pakistan differences. We have not been able to manage that. And that’s why the current scenario.
SAM: How do you view the recent assembly poll results in the Hindi heartland which have gone in favour of the Congress and against the BJP?
YS: It will be a grave error of judgement to see that this will set the tone for the general elections. There’s no guarantee that the voter will vote similarly in the general elections. In 2004, the BJP won the assembly elections but lost the general elections. However, the election results do represent agrarian distress.
SAM: What are your views on the current economic situation of the country?
YS: I don’t trust the statistics that this government gives. This has never happened before. In January 2015, the government changed the base year and changed the formula for adjudging the economy. The NITI Aayog, which has nothing to do with the collection of statistics, was given this task. During demonetisation too the figures were changed. No government in the past has ever interfered in the work of the Department of Statistics. Often the distress, which is there at the lower level, doesn’t reflect in the statistics. Rural distress and agrarian distress are the most important issues today. What’s required today is introduction of a basic income scheme for farmers.
SAM: What according to you are the three biggest blunders of the Modi government?
YS: Demonetisation, a very botched up GST, and too much trust on one individual who thinks will polarize the voters to win elections.
Rajeev Sharma is a strategic analyst and columnist who tweets @Kishkindha