Excerpts from an interview granted Monday by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his South Block office in New Delhi to the Toronto Star's Asia Bureau Chief, Martin Regg Cohn.
Star: You know that Canadians have of course been following with great concern the events of the tsunami. And they have been struck by the way in which India has shown great self-reliance at this time, on the one hand providing aid and assistance to
other neighbouring countries, but also initially declining emergency relief aid…. What does this say about India's place in the world, and also the world's place in India?
Singh: Well I think this was a classic case where disaster has affected the well-being of so many countries. Sri Lanka is our close neighbour, Maldives is our close neighbour, Indonesia is our close neighbour. And therefore we thought adversity is an
occasion when we should stand by the side of our neighbours, and that's what we did as a good-neighbourly device.
Star: How do you believe this affects India's image in the world and its standing in the world?
Singh: I don't think that the image of India was the most important consideration when we took that decision. Our concern was that we were afflicted with this terrible disaster, we should do utmost to relieve something to ensure that our own people are
provided with relief and rescue operations and that we shared our experience, our knowledge and our resources with our neighbours.
Star: Do you believe that the worst is behind you now?
Singh: Certainly we have completed the first stage with relief and rescue operations. Now it's the longer term task of giving the affected populations the new livelihood strategies which will I think give them new sources of livelihood and also will
be ecologically sustainable. So that's the big challenge we have.
Star: Was there a sense of concern that India's actions were being misinterpreted in some ways?
Singh: My concern was that by saying we would like to make the maximum possible use of our own resources we were not turning our back on the world. We believe that distances have lost their old meaning. In the one world that is now on the horizon, both
prosperity as well as disaster are indivisible. My only concern was that there should be no misunderstanding of what we have done. We certainly would like to go to the international financial institutions when it comes to questions of seeking rehabilitation
assistance…. We feel it is appropriate if we should take advantage of the facilities that they offer. But at that particular time quite frankly we didn't know how the international community's efforts could fit in. Our immediate requirement was rescue and
relief, and there we felt that involving too many agencies could become counterproductive. But not in any sort of chauvinism or isolationism that we arrived at that decision.
Star: The Indian media have reported that Kofi Annan was discouraged from making a visit to Tamil Nadu and also that the Canadian Prime Minister was discouraged from spending time there. What was the thinking there?
Singh: Well I really don't know whether that is so. But our major concern has been that nothing should come in the way of effective relief and rehabilitation operations, and sometimes the visits of high dignitaries-when Indian press had commented on
my visit also they said the best I could do was to stay away. So our concern has been that nothing should come in the way of officials concentrating on their primary task that is to engage in effective relief and rehabilitation measures. But I think certainly
we would welcome any honoured guests if at a later stage they would like to look at what we have done.
Star: I remember when I was covering the elections, when you were sworn in, you said that the 21st century would be the Indian century. It reminded me of one of our great Prime Ministers, Wilfred Laurier, who said the 20th century would be Canada's
century. He might have been a bit overoptimistic. How do you ensure that your goals-your very ambitious goals of continuing the economic reforms that you pioneered, and ensuring a broader distribution to India's poor and rural people-how do you actually ensure
that happens. And what happens if you don't succeed in those goals?
Singh: Well, the first thing that I would like to emphasize is that (for) any country as poor as India, meaningful solutions to the problems of mass poverty can be found only in the framework of a rapidly expanding economy. Therefore our first and foremost
requirement is that our economy should experience robust growth rates. We have been growing at the rate of 6, 6-1/2. But I think we would like these growth rates to go up to 7 to 8 per cent per annum. For more than one reason, I think. When an economy is growing
at a fast rate, the redistribution tensions tend to be much less keenly felt. If the economy is stagnant and you superimpose redistributional objectives, I think then this attempted redistribution becomes a zero-sum game. Those who have, they don't want to
part; those who do not have, their desire and their intensity of deprivation also increases.
So we feel the redistributive tensions are inevitable in societies which are unequal societies, and we recognize that we are an unequal society. But we also recognize for a functioning democracy we cannot live with these inequalities, and therefore the first
and foremost task is that the economy should grow and then that the growth should have an employment-friendly pattern, growth should pay particular attention to ensuring that those who are in the bottom rung of social and economic ladder do become effective
partners in processes of development, and that means greater emphasis on education, greater emphasis on health, and that since 65 per cent of our population lives in rural areas, greater emphasis on social and infrastructure in rural areas.
Star: Will you be judged on that, and will you find yourself in the same position as the BJP if you fail to achieve those goals?
Singh: Well I think those are our challenges and we would like, as our term proceeds, that we would make an effective dent on some of these chronic problems. But having said that, I must say that problems of mass poverty cannot be solved overnight. I
think what we need to ensure is that the direction is right, that we are sincere, that we have effective strategies working on the ground, at the grassroots level to deliver some of the basic social services.
Star: One of your other challenges is managing your coalition. I think you have 15 parties that are in your alliance. I'm sure Prime Minister Paul Martin would be interested in hearing, since he is governing with a minority Parliament in Canada, how
do you manage to keep the coalition on the same page?
Singh: We need to spend a lot more time in discussion. Coalition politics is essentially an essay in mutual comprehension. But I think we have this advantage of having agreed upon a Common Minimum Programme, so I think that focuses our discussions on
a pre-designed set of priorities. So that certainly has helped in managing the tensions which are an inevitable of a functioning coalition of various parties.
Star: Speaking of managing tensions and prosperity, obviously you need peace in order to maintain that kind of stable growth. What is your sense of what it would take to achieve a new beginning or new dawn-not a false dawn-in Kashmir and in your relations
Singh: Well let me say that we are very sincere, very keen that India-Pakistan relations should make a new beginning. We are committed to discussing and resolving all outstanding issues which affect the relationship between India and Pakistan, and that
includes the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. Our only concern is that this dialogue, composite dialogue, to which both of our countries are committed, can proceed only if Pakistan remains firm in its commitment … that Pakistan territory would not be used to promote
terrorism directed against us.
Star: And so far has Pakistan been living up to its word? You've reduced troop levels recently.
Singh: Let me say there has been some progress, but the overall infrastructure of terrorism has not been dismantled. And we hope that Pakistan would honour its commitment, and therefore I sincerely hope that our two countries can work together to make
a new beginning.
Star: You met President Musharraf I believe in New York, and I expect you would meet him again next month in Dhaka. What is your measure of Musharraf? Can you do business with him?
Singh: We have to do business with President Musharraf. I was very happy with the outcome of that meeting in New York, and it is my hope and prayer to sustain the momentum.
Star: One of the explanations given for your election victory was that India had turned the page on communalism in Gujarat of the last few years. What is your sense of the legacy of the BJP's policy of Hindutva? And can any of the problems with saffronization,
as the phrase is used here, can those problems be undone?
Singh: Let me say that the BJP even at the best of times never got more than 25 per cent of votes. It is certainly true that they tried to distort the essence of our civilization and cultural heritage. I think a sense of Indian civilization throughout
the many centuries has been respect for diversity, tolerance, respect for pluralism, working towards an inclusive society where people of all diverse religious persuasions can live together as equal citizens in peace and amity. And therefore I think what happened
in Gujarat was a big shock to our people. I think it's not wrong to say that the May 2004 elections were a reaffirmation of the hearts and minds of the people of India.
Star: India has the world's second-largest population of Muslims, and I'm wondering if you think there is a way for India-India's Muslims and their role in Indian society-to be a role model for the rest of the world?
Singh: Islam is an integral part of our civilization and cultural heritage. We have probably one of the largest Muslim communities in the world and we take pride in the fact that these 150 million Muslims live as peaceful citizens of our country, that
there is not a single incident of their being involved in Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups.
Star: I believe you were chairman of the University Grants Commission in a previous life, and as you probably know there was a great debate about the idea of adding astrology to the curriculum at Lucknow University and other places. Now that you're Prime
Minister, what do you think of that?
Singh: Anything which interferes with the promotion of scientific tenor, scientific outlook, I think distracts people from concentrating on issues which they ought to be concentrating on. I have never gone to an astrologist.
Star: The fact that you are a Sikh Prime Minister, does that also provide a symbol for people that everyone is included in this society?
Singh: I don't look upon myself as a Sikh or a non-Sikh. I am an Indian first, an Indian last. But I am proud to be an Indian and proud to be a Sikh. And the fact that a person of any religion can rise to the highest office-we have a President who happens
to be a practising Muslim, I am a practising Sikh-well that is one indication of the India that we want to build, an India where as I said people of diverse religious backgrounds can live together as equals and be active, effective partners.
Star: Prime Minister, I know you wouldn't let me leave without talking about Non-Resident Indians in Canada, and I know you've thought very carefully with your staff about how to reach out to NRIs. Can you tell us what that means for Canadians, and
what your message is particularly to them?
Singh: Well we have a large community of Canadian citizens who are of Indian origin. In an increasingly interdependent world that we live in, I think all these Canadian citizens can become major instruments of promoting cordial relations between our
Star: What about investment?
Singh: Well I very much hope that some of them would find India a very desirable, profitable investment destination. But we would like our relations to have a multi-faceted character, and that cultural link should also have a prominent place.
Star: Are you hoping Canada will support you on the Security Council bid that is so important to India?
Singh: I very much hope that all right-thinking people would support India's case. I believe we have a very strong case.
Star: What can Canada do particularly though at the UN to help with your Security Council seat?
Singh: We very much hope that Canada will back us up in our quest for a more balanced composition of the Security Council.
Star: Thank you very much.