Since you are an ascetic who takes a lot of interest in nation building let me start by asking about the separation of Church and State. Is the ‘Nation State’ concept in the Indian context somewhat different from Western concept?
First of all, we don’t have the Church in India, that is, an organised setup except for the Christian church which is a small entity. The rest of the so-called religion, what we call as the Hindu religion, has never been an organised process. That’s its strength, and its weakness. The only reason why this Hindu way of life has survived these 1,000 years of invasions and occupations is because nobody knew where the head is. If they knew where the head is, they would have cut it off. Because it was a billion-headed Hydra, whatever they did, it still lived on. So, this whole idea of separating church and state doesn’t even arise in this country.
I’m asking you this because, of late, what has happened in India is that religion has got mixed up with State. There is a monk who is heading the most populous state of the country.
Why do you see him as a monk? Do you say “here is a married person who’s heading the state”? Whether I am married or am I a monk is my business. What’s it got to do with you? Have you given him some special privileges? Can he drive on the street without a licence? Can he go without paying taxes? So, if there are no privileges, why are you taking away certain rights?
Identifying the State with religion, will that not have negative effect on administration?
How do you say that just because I practise something I will definitely impose it on you? Everybody practises something, isn’t it? Somebody drinks alcohol, and he becomes the chief minister. So will you suspect he may impose it on everybody? Actually, they are; you’re not questioning that! So somebody who meditates, will he impose it? Definitely he will recommend it. It’s for people to take it or leave it.
You are a votary of reforms in agriculture and business. If you were to rate the Modi government on a scale of 10, where will you rate him?
Economy wise, certain bold steps have been taken, politically unpopular but economically good. Our tax revenues have increased and more people are paying taxes, that point has gone across well. I think infrastructure building has been on supercharge. I only wish it could be further speeded up by allowing private agencies to build infrastructure. We’ve still not taken such bold steps. We are still a little afraid of going 100 per cent market economy. Somewhere in our head, still we have this welfare state idea. We take one step; when we find some difficulty we step back into socialism, again and again. If we want to succeed, we must make up our mind, which road we are taking. I am not a fan of capitalism, but that’s the only thing that has succeeded in the world.
We are the fastest growing economy, but is it fast enough for this 500 or 600 million people who are not eating properly? No. This speed is largely driven by a few industries. I feel this should be driven by agriculture, which is very easy to do and most practical thing. You can multiply farmers’ income. The problem with agriculture right now is that there is no scale. Everybody is farming two acres, five acres, whatever. You cannot scratch 2.25 acres and make it into a commercial success. It is simply not practical. You need scale, so as a part of this, we got some relief for the Farmers Producers Organisations (FPOs) which is a very positive thing. In this country the rules were like this — if all of us are doing farming separately, in our own two-acre, five-acre land, no tax. But if all of us farm together and scale up, 30 per cent tax.
Straightaway 30 percent?
Yes, up to 30 percent. So we appealed to the government and they removed tax up to Rs 100 crore turnover (for FPOs) but I’m saying why Rs 100 crore? The most significant problem in the country right now is farmers’ distress. The root of this distress is lack of scale. If we scale up and let’s say our turnover goes into thousands of crores, why should we be taxed? The moment you tax it you are making sure there is no scale. One really frightening thing about the nation is if you ask any farmer, how many of them want their children to go into farming, it’s less than two percent.
So, in twenty-five years’ time when this generation passes, you will lose ability to grow food in this country; skills that you gained over thousands of years will be lost. It is not a small thing to convert mud into food. In this direction we should have done much more. Maybe there are various political things because somebody is offering farm (loan) waivers.
Every state government has been doing it…
Yes, the logic is that farmers are in a bad state. If they are in a bad state, give them free seed, free fertilizer, free something else which goes towards productivity. Free loan is not a good thing because it’ll change the whole culture. Ten people who have taken loan from me have to get together and scream and shout or burn a bus and my money won’t come back. I will definitely not lend money anymore, isn’t it? If you want money to multiply, it needs to be invested not given away.
Your understanding of economics and administration is impressive, but...
See, for the farmers, one thing you have to do. Whatever I grow on my land, I can do whatever I want with it. I will take a bag of rice and sell it in the North Pole where it is as good as gold. You leave it to me. Why are you trying to stop me? If you are running an electronic industry, you can take your product wherever you want. Just because I’m a farmer, I can’t take my product where I want. Why? What I grow on my land, let me be free to sell it wherever I want. Your problem is the middle class will have inflation. Let them have it. In India you’re eating the cheapest possible food in the world. For Rs 25 you can eat a limited meal in a hotel, okay? It is thirty cents. For thirty cents, in which country can you get a meal? So the people who are growing food are dying. Not one or two, 300,000 farmers are supposed to have committed suicide in the last 10 years — and we are controlling the price of food? What for? There has to be some sense. Maybe innocuously, unknowingly, but we have been consistently against farmers.
We are the fifth largest economy in the world, which is a good thing but not good enough for 1.3 billion people. I’m not trying to deprecate everything. But this attitude that we have in the nation that we have a political thing going on for the full five years, this damn thing has to stop. You do the political thing for the last three months before the election. But full five years? I was the first one to suggest there must be only one election in five years. I would say if it’s necessary, till India reaches say a certain level of economy, please make the election a once-in-eight-years affair. All the political parties are going to get me for this, but I am asking, is it about the nation or is it about the parties?
Talking of elections, in the Hindi heartland, there is an attempt to forge a coalition. How effective it would be?
See, earlier you asked me what are the significant achievements of Narendra Modi. One of the biggest things is across the world, the way people look at India. This has changed dramatically, believe me, just because of the prime minister. Today, the way the economies are built, if the world doesn’t respect us and look up to us, I don’t think we can thrive.
International image is important. But would coalition adversely affect that image?
See, if coalition happens because of a certain direction in which they want to take the nation that would be fine. But right now the coalition that we are seeing is just about winning the election. I think this is not the time for a coalition, when we are on the threshold of a possibility. When I say a possibility, I mean that if we do things right in the next five, ten years, for the first time in the history of humanity, we can move a large mass of people —nearly 600 million — from one level of living to another. Such a thing has happened in China but democratically moving such a mass of people from one level of living to another is a unique opportunity.
Youth is an important constituent of the electorate, so if you allow me to name names, Rahul is young, Modi is not. Should the electorate be guided by the age of the leaders or it should be the idea that they (the leaders) represent?
If you want to marry somebody, you will look at their age. For somebody who has to be a leader of the nation why are you concerned about age? Competence is the most important thing. So, it’s for people to decide. I’m not somebody who’s ever told even my family who they should vote for.
But when you speak about age and competence, would you allow me to draw an inference?
(Laughs) And what is that? In a country like India with 1.3 billion people, we should have hundred options as to who can become a prime minister. Unfortunately, across the political spectrum, we don’t see too many options.
So, the choice is obvious, is that what we can infer?
No, no, I’m not here to endorse or deprecate somebody because any human being can grow and transform; that possibility is always there. In the last five years, the stature of the nation has improved because of one leader. It is the prerogative of democratic world that we don’t have to agree with him on everything that he says. But the important thing is, is he genuinely working for the country? I think 100 percent yes. Is he right always? No. In intent and in purpose there is no doubt about how he’s working. The kind of schedule he keeps is inhuman. I think one reason for this is that in this country we have not created layers of leadership. If a leader takes the responsibility it is totally on him to prove or disprove whether he can do it or not. This is an unfair expectation from any human being. Right now he’s trying to initiate everything in the country.
You have to keep your streets clean; it’s his initiative. Children should wash their hands before they eat; that’s his initiative. You should do yoga for your health; it’s his initiative. I’m saying that he is the captain of the ship, not the crew. But unfortunately, he is also taking the role of the crew because in many things and so many places, the crew is missing.
This interview was conducted by Consulting Editor Ajay Singh in the last week of January