Thank you very much Mr. Sunjoy Joshi, Mr. Rory Medcalf, Mr. Johanson, Mr. Amitabh Mattoo, and a lot of friends and people I have tremendous respect for who are present in this auditorium today. It is always nostalgic to come to the Observer Research Foundation. Some of us have been associated with it since its inception, and I personally have been because I drew a tremendous amount of inspiration from its founder, Late Shri R.K. Mishra, who was extremely close and who I can say with a lot of humility had a role in mentoring me and making me become what currently I am.
Let me commence by first congratulating the Lowy Institute, Australia India Institute, and the Observer Research Foundation for the initiative that they have taken. It is reflective of the fact that India has started figuring into the calculus of research institutions and think-tanks around the world. But be that as it may, as someone who is in the business of dealing with polls, exit polls, perception polls, opinion polls, attitude polls, I would most humbly like to submit that I am a bit of a sceptic when it comes to the findings of polls. The simple reason for this is not to say that because the sample size is 1233 over let’s say 1.2 billion Indians, so therefore the size of the sample is something which should be utilised to deprecate or decry a poll. I regularly conduct polls in my own constituency and we do it with a sample size of almost 10%. I have a constituency which has got 15 lakh voters and about twice a year we do an in-house poll with a sample size of about 10%, which is about one-and-a-half-lakh respondents. Often, the findings don’t really square up with what the perceptions of ours on the ground are. So, therefore, the short point that I have been trying to make is that sample sizes invariably big or small are not really reflective of the accuracy of the findings one way or the other.
But be that as it may, I think this poll comes out of a crucial point in time when the UPA government would complete nine years in office the day after tomorrow. We have the Chinese Premier in town. Also to a very large extent, attitudes as they play themselves out are also shaped by policies which have been articulated by the government over a period of time and you have a government today which has spent close to a decade in office. So, therefore, I think the poll does provide certain indicators. But before I go into the specifics of the findings and submit what would be purely my personal take on it, let me just step back and say that when you - this is relevant from the point of seeing as to how perceptions get tailored - when you try and benchmark the performance of any government, you benchmark it essentially on five parameters.
In the case of India I think the five important parameters are [first] political stability, notwithstanding that we have been in a coalition era. The UPA government has been able to provide political stability over the last nine years. The second is social cohesion which also is something which comes out very strongly in your poll. Without making this party political, very respectfully I can submit that the UPA government has ensured that some of the events of the earlier decades, or the earlier years of the first decade of the 21st century which besmirched India’s reputation, we have not allowed that to be repeated. On internal security, I think India looks much, much better if you juxtapose 2004 to 2013. The violence levels in Jammu and Kashmir have been at a record low; the North-East which has been a problem with India for a while, has looked much more stable leaving one or two states aside. Even in Central India, [the situation with] left wing extremist violence is much better off than it was possibly nine years ago. On economic development, I think we have done fairly well on the parameters of economic development at a time when the world witnessed the worst-ever global meltdown.
Between 2007 and 2012, you had a government which was able to deliver 8.2% growth over the 11th plan period, and I think that is fairly commendable when you had institutions and banks and governments really tumbling like nine pins. Even if you look at the international track record of this government, you have a situation whereby we have been able to get exceptionalism from an architecture which was built essentially to contain India in 1974 after the first peaceful nuclear explosion. So, therefore, if you were to really take a long view and cut the surround sound out and the chatter out, I think India and possibly the UPA government should get a little more than ‘a good effort’ for having successfully steered the ship of the state.
But coming back to your poll, there are certain things which, of course, make us optimistic, but there are certain other things which worry me and let me start with the worry because there was a time when it was said that our neighbour Pakistan, purely a personal view, is run by Allah, Army and America and not essentially in that order. What I find in your poll is the army and America figured very strongly in the calculus of Indians’ likes. I just hope that we do not have democracy getting replaced somewhere down the line. So, given the fact that there has been a rise of right wing tendencies in this country, as someone who believes in the pluralistic vision of the idea of India, that is something which would personally worry me and that is something which I think we need to watch out for and we need to possibly have a more rigorous analysis of. Because when I read the findings tentatively, it also indicated that about 20% of the people do believe that an alternative to democracy is something which they would like to consider. This is the tendency which could be disturbing and I think this is something which we have to guard against because the one thing that we have been able to do is maintain an unbroken democratic tradition from 1947 till today, and that’s been one of our strengths.
The other thing that I would really want to pick on is to look at just two tables. First, the table which is on page 29 which deals with the domestic imperatives. As I said, it is interesting that maintaining social peace and harmony ranks very high in the pecking order of concerns of your respondents and I think that’s something which is given, and which reinforces that the people of India do believe in the idea of India or the pluralistic vision of India, and that is extremely reassuring. Reducing corruption; I think that’s a fair take away. People in this country do want that when it comes to public services. When you are at the cutting edge of the interaction between the government and the people, the government does not come across as an aggressor or the government does not come across as a usurper, but the government comes across as a facilitator.
So, therefore, to that extent the concern about reducing corruption is something which is legitimate and I think this is something that we should keep in mind. But having said that, we have seen this great debate around certain hugely exaggerated and mythical corruption numbers which have been extensively thrown in the public space by certain very irresponsible institutions and functionaries. With due respect, because the gentleman is supposed to retire the day after, I think when institutions start indulging in fiction writing, that is the greatest disservice that can possibly done to a nation. I think the CAG over the past six years, with all due respects to him, has done the greatest disservice to India’s story by tossing mythical numbers into the public space which had no relationship with reality, and I will substantiate by an example. When the 2G report came out in 2010, the CAG report, where he came up with this number of 1,76,000 crores, essentially based on the fact that if telecom licenses were auctioned, the government would get 176,000 crores. Licenses got auctioned. Where is the 176,000 crores? I don’t see that revenue flowing into the state’s exchequer. So, I think to a certain extent the public discourse was vitiated and that this was the fault of institutions behaving irresponsibly is something also that we need to guard against.
On [the poll results regarding] improving healthcare, providing jobs, improving education, improving infrastructure, making the Indian economy grow, protecting India’s natural environment, and protecting the democratic rights of Indians, I think really there can be no quibble about this. The one thing that we have been trying to do over the past 8-10 days as the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has been to try and mainstream the India story, the narrative which unfortunately has been divorced from the noise which surrounds two-and-a-half miles of Raisina Hill. To see that this discourse of a very silent revolution which has taken place across the Indian countryside does get mainstreamed into the national discourse, because it is really through the rights-based entitlement program that we created over the past nine years which has essentially tried to address some of these concerns, especially with regard to education, employment, healthcare, and food security.
The other thing which is extremely interesting in the report and which I would look at carefully is your table on page 22, table 8, with regard to foreign policy. I think that is really the heart of what the institute and its affiliates have focused upon, because what we have not had so far is some kind of an informed poll with regard to the kind of attitudes which Indians have towards questions of foreign policy. I think over the last four or five years this has become much better. One of the spinoffs of the India-US civil nuclear discourse was that in a period of three years I think every Indian became a nuclear expert. So, therefore, to some extent it mainstreamed foreign policy issues.
But one thing which bothers me about the poll is the number on the importance of a strong military. I come from a state and I represent a state, which contributes quite a substantive number of people to the Indian armed forces. We are a border state as the crow flies, we are 100 miles from Wagah, and I can never forget the day 26/11 happened. I was not in the parliament then, I was preparing to contest a parliament election on the morning of the 27th. I had a program in my constituency and I went from Delhi to Ludhiana by the Shatabdi and we spent the day in the field in the villages. Towards the evening when I was coming back, I had this group of villagers come up to me and the one thing which they told me in our local language was to not let there be a war. This was when you had television channels, you had the entire discourse screaming and being extremely hawkish for the right reasons because there was outrage across the length and breadth of the country. Then there was this group of people who possibly may have had relatives who were in the armed forces, who were in the frontlines, who had a completely different perspective.
So, therefore, I think we need to be very careful when we juxtapose the narrative of a strong military among the respondents with what somebody pointed out to me, was also that we should take the next initiative qua Pakistan. I don’t think there is any appetite in this country for taking an initiative which is hawkish in any sense of the word. I would rather tend to agree with what Professor Mattoo said that while we have legitimate concerns with regard to terror which emanates from Pakistan, the initiative which I think Indians would really like to be taken is that if there could be a certain reconciliation which can lead to more peaceful and a more stable South Asia. I think regarding the rest of them, [the other instruments of Indian Foreign Policy identified in the poll], such as India’s having a good image in the world, wise political leadership, strong political leadership, nuclear weapons, strong countries as partners, effective intelligence services, an effective Ministry of External Affairs - I think there really cannot be much of a quibble. There has been a lot of debate with regard to the size of the Indian Foreign Service and there is enough which has been written about it, and I think if India has to punch to its weight, though we see the next 20 years or at least I personally see that as a space for consolidation, we need a larger Ministry of External Affairs, a larger contingent of diplomats.
Finally on a more effective intelligence service, I would defer to Mr. Vikram Sood though I had a private members’ bill to provide a modicum of oversight on our intelligence structures. But be that as it may, I think it is a poll which is worth reading irrespective of the fact whether we agree or disagree with a particular finding or not. At least it gives us an indicator as to what are the things that we need to red flag and watch out for.
Thank you very much and I congratulate everybody who has been a part of this.