THE BENGAL CONUNDRUM: UNION HOME MINISTER AMIT SHAH GIVES A CANDID INTERVIEW TO AVEEK SARKAR OF ANANDABAZAR DIGITAL
Mr Aveek Sarkar is an Indian newspaper promoter and proprietor. He is the present Chairman of Press Trust of India (PTI) and Vice Chairman and Editor Emeritus of ABP Group. He was editor-in-chief of Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph. He was also the Chief Editor of ABP Group of publications.
In this rarest of rare interviews, Mr Amit Shah shares his outlook and plan of action on Bengal which is going through an eight-phase election. Four phases marred with unsavoury violence are already over. Mamata Banerjee was banned from campaigning in Bengal for 24 hours from 12th to 13th April evening over speeches that the Election Commission said violated the poll code. The Chief Minister was accused of breaking the law with her comments on Muslim votes and for allegedly urging voters to revolt against central security forces. BJP leader Rahul Sinha has been banned from campaigning for 48 hours in Bengal (13th April 12 Noon to 15th April 12 Noon) over provocative statements and for "inciting central forces", the Election Commission said today. Rahul Sinha, the BJP's candidate in Habra constituency, was quoted as saying, "Not four, eight people should have been shot dead in Shitalkuchi (Cooch Behar)."
Against the current volatile situation where the celsius has been hovering around 39 degrees, it is for our esteemed readers to sift through this interview (12th April) translated from Bengali transcript into English. Interview of the 13th follows in the next instalment. Isaac Gomes, Associate Editor, Church Citizens' Voice.
Aveek Sarkar, Chairman PTI
Anandabazar Digital Interview on 12th April
Anandabazar Digital (ABD): You have an advantage in this election. You have been able to travel and see the whole of Bengal.
Amit Shah (AS): Shakes his head with a smile.
ABD: How frequent and recent is your visit to Bengal?
AS: Once when I was very young I went to Gangasagar Mela. But I have been visiting Bengal since 2016 and have covered all the districts. I have seen 38 to 40 per cent tehsils. Ever since I was a child, my wish was to visit the whole country. By the grace of God, I became the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since then I have visited about 93 per cent districts of the country. There was always a special attraction for West Bengal. Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu — they have always drawn people from all over the country to Bengal. Speaking of literature, I have read the writings of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay. And I have tried to know more about them. But the opportunity to visit Bengal was not very much then.
ABD: In that case should the BJP form a new government in Bengal, you have a chance of becoming the Minister of Tourism!
AS: Ha-ha! I can't say who will be the tourism minister. It is the new chief minister’s prerogative to decide the ministerial portfolio.
ABD: Has the attraction of West Bengal as a tourist destination decreased?
AS: It can be said with certainty that the spiritual consciousness, rich literary history and patriotism of Bengal were considered to be the beacon for the whole of India. These three high standards were first diluted by the Communist government and later by the Trinamool Congress government. However, this does not mean that the attraction of people towards Bengal has decreased. But if you do not hold up these plus points to the people of India, then Bengal is held back to attain its rightful place of eminence vis-a-vis the rest of India. I think after the BJP government, Bengal will become the centre of attraction not only for India but for the whole world.
ABD: How many constituencies in Bengal have you addressed so far?
AS: Can't say right. But since October 2020, I have conducted about 48 road shows and meetings.
ABD: Isn't it correct you also came to Bengal during the 2014 and 2019 polls?
AS: I didn't come in 2014. Then my workplace was elsewhere. I came in 2016 and 2019. I visited many places in Bengal then.
ABD: Will it be 100 places?
AS: It will be more. By the time this 8-phase vote ends, it will reach 125 or 130.
ABD: If so, you will be in the Guinness Book of World Records!
AS: No-no. But yes I have travelled to a lot of states viz. Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar, Manipur, Tripura and Assam.
ABD: Don’t you get bored with so much travel?
AS: No, I don’t feel monotonous at all. Only fatigue will make me bored, especially if you think it is a burden. If you enjoy your job, you will never get tired and feel monotonous. I enjoy the responsibility that is given to me and try to fulfil it with utmost sincerity.
ABD: But you hold so many press conferences and Interviews!
AS: Yes I do. Many times the questions are almost the same. But that should not make me angry. Because, that is the news reporters' demand. They represent their own paper or news channels. They need answers. Those who sit down to answer should listen patiently and answer. If you do not want to repeat the same answer, you can do so. But as a leader, I think you have to be a patient listener. To me, it does not cause any mental or physical fatigue.
ABD: I see you have a lot of patience!
AS: Patience (Laughter)? I think your analysis is incorrect. It is not that I have a lot of patience. I understand they (news reporters) need to ask questions. That is their job. Why am I going to be upset? I say every day, remove the government of Tolabaji (extortion of commission from people through Syndicate Raj). Remove the corrupt government. Remove the government supporting the infiltrators. Does the crowd feel bored? This is my job. If I do not dislike listening to the people, then why shouldn't I listen to the questions of the journalists?
ABD: But there are different crowds in front of you in different constituencies?
AS: That too. Now everyone sees everything on TV. But despite that, it is my responsibility to tell the reporters my story. It is also their responsibility to take my answer for their respective newspaper or news channel.
ABD: You are saying in your speeches that Bengal has not made any progress. But that is not only during Didi’s tenure. There has been no progress since the time of Jyoti Basu. 34 plus 10 years of Didi’s rule – a total of 44 years. Will it change if BJP comes to power and forms the government?
AS: See, the decline can be arrested for sure. The beginning will also be very good. I can't say how long it will take to get Bengal back to its place of eminence. But erosion can be stopped. This I am telling you with great conviction.
ABD: As soon as you take the oath?
AS: New efforts will begin with the new government. Since 1978, first the Left Front and then Mamata Banerjee have been doing the same politics – confrontation with the Centre! For their own narrow political interests, they did not allow Central Government welfare projects to enter Bengal. They want the central government (whichever party except their own) not to become popular in Bengal! Our government has been in power for six and a half years. Before that the government of Atalji was there for some time. Indira Gandhi had a government. That was a Congress government. At that time the Bengal government should have talked to the Congress-led government about the rights of Bengal. They have deprived the people of Bengal of that right since then. It has been a continuous process of deprivation (since the Left Front government).
ABD: Can you please give an example?
AS: For example, for the last three years, Narendra Modi has been remitting Rs 6,000 to each farmer’s account. But the farmers of Bengal have not got it yet. Because, Didi did not send the list and the bank account numbers. We did one more project. Five lakh rupees will be provided by the Government of India for the treatment of every poor person. This facility should have been available to the poor people of Bengal. But they are not getting, because Didi is not allowing it to be implemented in Bengal. Similarly, the Prime Minister's Rural Road Scheme is not being allowed to be launched. Because, Didi fears this will make Narendra Modi popular. I think the people of Bengal are entitled to avail these benefits. The people of Bengal also have a right to the funds allocated by the Indian government. Whether it is Jyoti Basu, Buddhadev babu, or Mamta didi, they have deprived the people of Bengal of that right. The Centre has not done any wrong to Bengal. The rulers of Bengal did.
ABD: Did Buddhababu also do this too?
AS: Yes he too did. Because his party cadres controlled him. I have studied and analyzed the phenomenon in detail.
ABD: Many people think that Jyoti Babu was the Chief Minister for so long because he did not try to do anything. They think that Didi too has been in power for 10 years because she has not done much. Buddhababu tried to work. He tried for development, to bring art. That is why Bengalis voted him out. Bengalis do not like to work. They also dislike those who work.
AS: That's not the point. I think there was a dichotomy among his (Buddha's) cadres. There is no dichotomy in the Bengali society. The communists never contested elections based on the Bengali society. They did this on their cadre strength. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was never accepted by his cadres. This is my political explanation. But it can also be wrong. The point that Buddhadeb Bhattacharya lost the election just because he wanted to perform, is not correct.
ABD: He tried to bring Tata. He also tried to set up a chemical hub in Nandigram.
AS: No sustainable change can be brought about through these small and symbolic initiatives. The biggest thing he could have done was to stop the politicization of the government and to make the administration independent. Under his party pressure, Buddhadeb Babu made no attempt to do this. The party also controlled the administration. As long as the administration is not independent, no state can reach out to the people, to the truly poor. The cadre moves in the middle as commission agents. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya made no attempt to make the administration independent. Images like Singur are okay for cosmetic changes and to make front page news, they do not bring development.
ABD: What should have been done?
AS: Take for example Uttar Pradesh. There too the administration was completely politicized. We have come to power and freed the administration from complete politics. No one can threaten the district magistrate there or use shoes to beat up people. No one can order abrupt transfers – the Superintendent of Police is given freedom to work with freedom two and a half years to three years. The earlier pattern in Uttar Pradesh was transfer of officers on an average every three months. Now it has come to three years. Neither Buddhadeb Bhattacharya nor Mamata Didi did this.
ABD: Is it possible at all? People think that the political masters run the administration. The party decides who will get which posting and where he/she will be transferred. During the Left Front period all postings were controlled from Alimuddin Street. Anil Biswas would do this. Mukul Roy used to handle this during Didi's tenure. Now after Mukul left TMC, Didi’s nephew Abhishek does this.
AS: It will be possible after May 2. No extra-constitutional system allows the administration to work successfully. My party thinks that there should be no such system!
ABD: Can you change the tradition that has been going on for the last 44 years?
AS: Of course it can be done if the mind is strong. Change in administration has been brought about in many states. At one time Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh were called sick states. These four states have been on the path of development since the BJP government came to power. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are better than before. Rajasthan is no longer sick. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have also come out of that situation a lot. We have successfully replaced the states that have been sick for 25 years in five to ten years. BJP's track record says so.
ABD: But those who have worked in this state for so long, they have worked according to a system which started at the time of Jyoti Babu. Didi has followed suit. If you want to change that, you have to re-educate the bureaucrats!
AS: Bureaucracy or administration is like water. If you put it in a glass, they will take the shape of a glass. Fill them up in a cup, they will fit in a cup. Fill them in a mug. They will take the shape of a mug. A reservoir of water depends on what you want to it to be – according to your needs. If the container is right, the water will be right. The UPA government was rife with scams, scandals and corruption worth Rupees Twelve lakh crore. Even then more or less the same people used to run the administration. But we haven't had a major financial scandal in six and a half years. No one could complain. It is the same administration. Yet nothing like 2G or 4G has happened.
AS: The decision will be taken by the elected government. The administration will implement it. But if you put the cadre during the administrative system application, then the problem starts there. If the constitution is followed, the elected government will take policy decisions and the administration will take it to the lower level. If you break it from one side, distortions will come. This is what has been happening in Bengal for years. When we come to power, recruitment or transfer will naturally have no political influence. This is not the first government we are going to make! There are 16 BJP governments in this country. They are going on well.
ABD: Can you please give an example?
AS: I am giving the example of Assam. When we said, ‘We will create a `revolution-free Assam’ or a ‘militant-free Assam’, no one believed. But in the last five years there has not been a single movement in Assam. More than 2,000 militants have surrendered. Assam has started on the path of development. So is Tripura. Manipur? It used to be blockaded/closed for 200 days. Blockade was a common feature. Since the BJP government came to power three and a half years ago, there has not been a single blockade of roads. This is what a good administration is.
ABD: What is the magic behind this?
AS: There is no magic in it. You need to understand your dignity and act accordingly.
ABD: What will be the first job you will do when you come to power?
AS: The first task will be to connect all the forces of Bengal towards the development of Bengal. I think this has not been done in Bengal for many years. Both parties have run the state with their own cadres. Every Bengali has to be associated with development with honour, glory and self-respect of Bengal. It is very important. Neither the communists nor Mamata did this. I still think, even after being so bad for so long, Bengal has the biggest scope to make a turnaround.
AS: In the state where I live, water is found 1,200 feet below the ground. Water can be found by digging 60 feet here. The river Ganga brings the fertility of the whole country to this state. Bengal may be the largest center of business in eastern India. The entire East India market will open up. The road that will be opened after the exchange of enclaves with Bangladesh will make communication with the North-East easier and shorter. By building two or three more ports, Bengal could be a great way for the whole industrialized crop from Bihar to Assam to reach the whole world. Bengalis never lacked intelligence. Gokhale said, "what Bengal thinks today, the whole country thinks tomorrow." As a result, I think, if someone guides that intellect in the right direction with foresight, then the situation must change. That would be a great change. After the conquest of Murshidabad, Lord Clive wrote a letter to the East India Company stating that there were eighty-six London properties in Murshidabad. Speaking of London then! Fertile land here. There is no shortage of water. There is intelligence. And there is such a long history of glory. I don't think there is anything lacking here except political will and hard work.
In Gujarat 25 Lakh women work in Amul. Milk from there goes to the whole world. In Bengal the cost of rearing a cow is 1/10th of that of Gujarat. Why then no Dairy Cooperative movement has taken shape in Bengal?
ABD: The land of Bengal has become fragmented because it is fertile. There will be problems with small pieces of land to set up industry.
AS: Those who have not brought about development, must have created these myths. In Gujarat, 2.5 million women work in Amul. That milk is sent all over the world. Raising a cow at home in Bengal costs one tenth. Raising a buffalo also costs one tenth of the cost in Gujarat. But why no cooperative dairy was started here? There was no movement for this enterprise at all. On the contrary, all the cows were simply trafficked to Bangladesh! Each state has some pluses and some minuses. If the land is fragmented into small plots, you will have to work much less to earn a living. Just keep being in the right line. Every person has a way of earning. Zamindari belongs to one person. 1,200 people have land here. It is a great power. There is so much government land in Bengal that if a land bank is faithfully made, there will be land for industry for the next 20 years.
ABD: Buddhababu also used to say this. Didi too said.
AS: But neither made it! Go to the website of West Bengal and tell me, how much land is there in the Sundarbans for making industries. All State sites have this information. Open the site in Gujarat. You can find out how much land there is in Mandvi taluka of Kutch district. In Jammu and Kashmir too, all the information has been posted on the website in the last five months.
ABD: The land ceiling law has been scrapped everywhere. But it is still here.
AS: That is also in my state. But once non-agricultural land gets no objection, there is no ceiling for the upper limit. Land ceiling act is only for holding agricultural land.
ABD: In Ahmedabad, there is no land ceiling law applicable in the city. It has been abolished across the country. But it is in Kolkata.
AS: I think that law should be abolished in Kolkata too. We repealed that law during the NDA government.
ABD: Bengalis very much like to have holidays. Russia did not have a holiday on the centenary of Lenin's birth. But Jyoti Babu announced a holiday in Bengal! Mamtadidi also grants a lot of holidays. There is a culture of no-work in Bengal.
AS: No, I don't think there is a culture of `No-work’ in Bengal. At one point of time, Bengalis contributed 30 per cent to the country's GDP. That is culture and the lifespan of culture is not so short. This work culture of Bengal is one hundred and fifty years old. It has taken six hundred and fifty years for this country to move from dhoti to pajamas. Culture does not change so easily. It is in the DNA. As the central leader, I cannot say whether the holiday culture will stop when the BJP government comes to power in Bengal. The government that will come here will fix it. This is where the driving force of the government will be. They will make the right decision and will consult with the centre if needed. But if I keep making such a decision in Delhi, it doesn't look good. Those who will be elected here – the chief minister and the ministers, will take a call on policy decisions.
ABD: There is no debate about who the chief minister will be if Didi returns to power. What about BJP?
AS: It is yet to be decided who will be our Chief Minister. You see, our political strength is that we have not fixed the name of any Chief Minister yet. Our strength is that Didi's name has been fixed as their Chief Minister (laughs). Didi's name having been decided as the Chief Ministerial candidate is good for us!
ABD: Are you happy with the work of those who have joined your party from other political parties?
AS: We are an all-India party. Wherever our party has grown across the country, leaders and activists from other parties have joined our party. In Tripura, 20 per cent people have joined us from the Communist Party. In Assam too several have joined BJP from the Congress Party. In Uttar Pradesh, 30 per cent MLAs have come from Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. They comprise 100 out of 300! But when they accept the ideology, program and leadership of the BJP, they have to abide by the discipline of our party. Otherwise the party will take action against them. But why should I think that they do not follow the rules of our Party? I am a positive person. I always think positive. This migration from political parties happens at every election. Where did Didi come from? She came from Congress Party. Her whole party has come from the Congress Party. Now why is he complaining of poaching into her flock?
ABD: Mamata says there is a lot of confusion between the original BJP member and the new entrants.
AS: The BJP's digestive system is very good. Instead of splitting hair on what is happening in our party, she should worry about how she will survive (laughs)! Our capacity for digestion is tremendous!
ABD: Whether it is the Congress or the CPM: After losing elections, they have lost their strength. Both increased the strength of their respective parties when in the seat of power. After electoral defeats, the parties also lost their membership strength. That has been the pattern in one election after another. If Mamata's government loses in this election, then what will happen to TMC? What is your prediction?
AS: This is not a matter of prediction – I cannot. But the way Mamata has run the party on the strength of her government, it will be difficult for her to sustain TMC! For example, in Uttar Pradesh, we formed the party while we were in the opposition. The same is true in Assam. The same is true in Rajasthan. Bashundhara Raje has lost. But the BJP party there did not become extinct. We did not allow it – it is very much there. In Manipur and in Tripura, we have formed the party from the opposition bench. Victory and defeat are part and parcel of any election. But our votes did not decrease. We stay. The Congress has virtually perished in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. But this is not our case. Whether we win or lose in elections, we have increased our influence in every state.
ABD: But does democracy not need a strong opposition? If there is no opposition in West Bengal, will small district-based or area-based parties come? Will that be good for the state?
AS: I agree with you on this. Democracy needs a strong opposition. But it is not my job to provide it. The people will give it. It is the people’s responsibility. I don't think in the absence of the main opposition, there will be small regional parties. Today’s politics does not leave that space. Someone comes and fills the vacuum. For example, in Uttar Pradesh, SP-BSP have taken over the place of the Congress party which is also finished in Bihar. There BJP, Janata Dal and Lalu Dal have filled the Congress vacuum. There is no vacuum in politics. If that is so, our responsibility to perform increases all the more. And we should be ready for that. I think the people will decide what will happen in a democracy. Theory-specialists like Aveek Sarkar will not decide it (laughs). This is something which will be decided by the people in a democracy. So it is better to leave it to the people.
AS: We have created a fund of Rs. 20,000 crore and detailed projects for infrastructure uplift of all educational institutions. The name of the fund is Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar Fund. I have created a Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay fund of Rs 10,000 crore. This fund will fill in the gaps. Suppose now there are 13 colleges for one lakh students. This ratio is much lower than the national average. So we have to start polytechnic colleges, medical colleges and general colleges. Only then the spread of education take place. What is there now needs to be upgraded. The shortcomings in the staff etc. need to be filled quickly. From primary to post graduation, from technical to medical education and legal education, we have allocated Rs 20,000 crore in the manifesto. We will build 100 government colleges and 50 new polytechnic colleges. In all, we will create 20 medical colleges. For this, the Government of India will help.
ABD: In Santiniketan?
AS: We have also created a fund of Rs 20 crore for Santiniketan to again present Gurudev Rabindranath's thoughts to the whole world. It shouldn't stop. We have to do something new. But I think Santiniketan itself is the solution to many of the world's problems. The experiment that Gurudev made to create a complete and fearless man, to develop his own will independently, does not seem to be happening anywhere in the world in the coming 23rd or 24th century. We will put more emphasis on this. We will institute chairs, all over the country, to honour various great men of Bengal like Rishi Aurobindo, Rabindranath Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. We are moving towards full integration of education including exchange programmes. We have done all this on the basis of the advice given to us during preparation of our manifesto. When the government is formed, when the administration is in hand, when we analyze the shortcomings of the administration, a complete blueprint will be drawn. As of now we have made a big pattern. But we will definitely improve education. For example, we have created a 'children's university' in Gujarat. The learning begins when the baby is in the womb. You take three days to visit our university. This thing is nowhere else! Abhimanyu's education in the Mahabharata started from the womb. The good behaviour of the mother, the effect of the mother's good thinking must pass on to her unborn child. No one in the world thinks about this. But now people from all over the world come to see that university. There will be such experiments here too. But until we can form a government, we will not be able to say exactly where the deficit is. That's why we have now made big sketches. After coming to the government, all of them will be scrutinized and a detailed blueprint will be made for the expansion of education.
ABD: Since the time of CPM, the intellectuals here have started moving out of Bengal (brain drain). Many have moved to Delhi or Bangalore.
AS: I think many more Bengalis should go out. They will be the brand ambassadors of Bengal. There is no shortage of intelligence in Bengal. What is lacking is the system. Every Bengali has the best intelligence in the world. If many Bengalis go out, they will become your ambassadors. Don't stop them (laughs). Instead, improve the environment here, so that the Bengalis who live here also get employment opportunities.
ABD: This is a political answer! But who will teach if there are no good and talented people around?
AS: No, that's not a political answer. That's my belief. Don't think of it as a political response. I still think people have become withdrawn because there is no environment and there is also an atmosphere of fear. A lot of people will come out and give excellent output not just in education, but also in literature, in music, in every sphere, when an atmosphere of openness is created. Earlier, 90 per cent of the people used to go abroad to study space science or space technology. Now not even 10 per cent go abroad for this. Because, in this country, their talent is being fully utilized. Then why will they go abroad? We have been able to change this ratio. We have opened up space science to the private sector. Now the possibilities in this country are so vast that it is necessary to create new colleges for space science.