Bengal lost out because Left and Mamata were busy fighting the Centre, says Amit Shah
Union home minister and senior BJP leader Amit Shah discusses his love for Bengal, politicisation of the administration and the BJP’s grand plans of overhauling education in a freewheeling conversation with the Editor Emeritus of The Telegraph Digital. The interview was conducted during the second week of April.
TTOnline: This election has proved to be a boon for you. You could travel across Bengal.
(Shakes his head smiling)
How many times have you come to Bengal?
I had come for the Ganga Sagar mela once when I was young. But I have travelled across Bengal from 2016, and have managed to visit 38 to 40 per cent of tehsils. I have had this desire to travel and see the country since I was a child. By God’s grace I became the president of the BJP and ended up travelling to about 93 per cent of districts. But not so much West Bengal, even though Bengal has always attracted me. The likes of Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramhans, Chaitaniya Mahaprabhu have always attracted people to Bengal. As for literature, I have read Gurudev Rabindranath and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya, and I have always harboured an interest to know more about them.
In that case, if the BJP is able to form a new government here, you could become tourism minister?
Ha, ha… (laughs). I can’t say who will be tourism minister. The new chief minister will decide that.
Have the attractions of Bengal as a tourist destination diminished?
The one thing I am certain about is that all of India looked up to Bengal for its deep awareness and knowledge of philosophy, literature and nationalism. But first the Left and now the Trinamul Congress have managed to destroy these three pillars. This doesn’t indicate that people have lost their interest in Bengal. But unless you present these plus points to the people, the rest of India will stay disconnected. I sincerely believe that once a BJP government is in place, Bengal will be the cynosure of all eyes in India and abroad.
How many speeches have you given, and in how many constituencies?
Not sure. Since October, I think I have done roadshows and addressed meetings in about 48 constituencies.
You were in Bengal during the elections of 2014 and 2019, were you not?
Not in 2014 as my responsibilities were different. But I came to Bengal in 2016 and 2019 and visited several places.
So, will you touch 100 rallies and roadshows?
Should be more. By the time this election is over, the number will be in the range of 125 and 130.
Then it will be a Guinness record.
No, nothing like that. But yes, I have travelled to a number of states, like Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar, Manipur, Tripura and Assam.
Don’t you feel tired?
No, on the contrary, I feel encouraged. I feel energised.
Don’t you find it monotonous?
Not at all. You will find it monotonous, or feel tired, if you consider this to be a burden. But if you understand and enjoy your responsibilities, then you never feel bored or tired. I do what I am asked to do diligently, with all my attention to the best of my abilities.
What about the press conferences and interviews that you do?
I do a lot of them. And at times, the questions are repetitive. But one can’t get angry about it. They represent a newspaper or a television channel. And they need answers. Those who are answering their questions, they should do so patiently. They may not wish to repeat themselves if the questions are similar, but I believe it is important for them to listen to them patiently. This approach doesn’t tire me out, neither mentally nor physically.
You seem to have a lot of patience?
Patience? Perhaps your analysis is not accurate (laughs). It’s not that I have immense patience. But I understand that is their job, they need answers. Why should I feel irritated? I keep saying everyday: Get rid of this extortionist government. Get rid of this government propped up by illegal aliens. Get rid of this corrupt government. Do people find it monotonous? This is my job. If the masses don’t feel that my speeches are repetitive, then I too must not feel the same way after listening to journalists’ questions.
But you are in various constituencies in front of different sets of people?
Still, everyone’s watching everything on TV. In spite of that it is my responsibility to tell them these things. Just as it is the responsibility of journalists to get answers for their respective organisations.
You have said in your speeches that Bengal hasn’t seen progress. But that is not confined to Didi’s tenure. There has been no progress since the time of Jyoti Basu. Between them, they were in power for 44 years. Will a BJP government be able to change this?
We can certainly stop the degradation. The beginning will be good too. I cannot tell you how long it will take for Bengal to regain its hallowed past, but I am certain we can stop Bengal’s decay. This I am sure of.
As soon as a new government is sworn-in?
A new government will usher in a renewed effort. From the first Left government of 1977 to the government of Mamatadidi, the only politics that was pursued was that of confrontation with the Centre. For narrow political gain, the Centre’s schemes and initiatives weren’t allowed in Bengal. They feared the Union government would get popular in Bengal whoever that may be. Our government has been in power at the Centre for about six and a half years. Before that, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government was in power for some time. Before that Indira Gandhi, the Congress… It was the duty of Bengal governments to engage with the Centre on Bengal’s needs and rights. They did not, thereby depriving the people of Bengal of that right.
As soon as you take the oath?
New efforts will begin with the new government. Since 1978, first the Left and then Mamata Banerjee have been doing the same politics - fight with the Centre! They did not allow the projects of the central government to enter Bengal for their own vested political interests. They want the central government not to become popular in the state! That is whatever the government. Our government has been in power for six and a half years. Before that the government of Atalji had some time. Indira Gandhi had a government. There was a Congress government. They should have talked to the Indian government at that time about the rights of Bengal. They have deprived the people of Bengal of that right.
For example, Narendra Modi has come up with a plan to povide Rs 6,000 to each farmer. This scheme has been going on for three years. But Bengal’s farmers have not got it yet because Didi did not send the list (of beneficiaries). She did not send bank account numbers. We offered another scheme, that of providing Rs 5 lakh for the treatment of every poor person. This should also be available to the poor people of Bengal, but they aren’t. And it is because Didi is not allowing it to continue. Similarly, the Prime Minister's Rural Road Scheme is not being launched because she fears it will make him (Narendra Modi) popular. The people of Bengal also have a right to the keys of the Central government’s coffers. Whether it’s Jyoti Basu, Mamtadidi or Buddhadeb babu, they have all deprived the people of Bengal of that right. The Centre has committed no wrong to Bengal. The rulers of Bengal have.
Yes, he too. Because the cadres of his party wielded the knife against him. I have analysed and studied this in great detail.
Many people think that Jyoti Babu was able to remain chief minister because he did not try to accomplish anything. Similarly, Didi has been in power for 10 years because she too hasn’t done much. Buddhadebbabu tried to do things, worked towards development, and tried to bring in industry. That is why the people of Bengal got rid of him. Bengalis do not like to work, and the people who do.
That's not the point. I think there was a dichotomy between his (Buddha's) cadres. There is no dichotomy in Bengali society. The communists never contested elections on the basis of Bengali society. They fought as cadres. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was never accepted by his cadres. This is my political explanation, which could be wrong. But it’s not that Buddhadeb Bhattacharya lost the election because he wanted to accomplish something.
He wanted to bring in the Tatas. He also tried to set up a chemical hub in Nandigram.
Such one-off, symbolic initiatives can’t usher in transformation. The biggest thing he could do was to stop the politicisation of the government and make the administration independent. Buddhadebababu made no attempt to do so. The party was sitting on his head. The party controlled the administration. As long as the administration is not independent, no state can reach out to the people, to the truly poor. Cadres come in between. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya made no attempt to make the administration independent. Projects like Singur and the like are good for an image boost and get a few pictures on the front pages of newspapers. That’s about it.
What should have been done?
Consider Uttar Pradesh. There too the administration was totally politicized. We came to power and rid the administration of politics. No one can threaten a district magistrate, no one can pelt shoes at anyone. No one can force a transfer. The SP also has total freedom. In UP, officers used to be transferred, on an average, within three months. Now that’s become three years. Neither Buddhadeb Bhattacharya nor Mamtadidi has been able to do this.
Is it even possible? People think political masters run the administration. The party decides who will be posted or transferred. During the Left regime, these decisions would be taken at Alimuddin Street by Anil Biswas. For Didi, it used to be Mukul Roy. Now that Mukul has left, Abhishek is doing that.
It will be, after May 2. No extra-constitutional system allows the administration to succeed. My party believes that there should not be any extra-constitutional system.
Can you change a ‘tradition’ of the last 44 years?
If you have the will it can be done - as 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 came to power. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are better than before. Rajasthan is no longer sick. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have also, by and large, come out of that situation. States that have been sick for the last 25 years, we have been able to change in five to ten years. The BJP's track record says so.
But those who have worked in this state for long know of one system. It was started at the time of Jyotibabu. Didi has maintained the same system. If you want to change that, you will have to re-educate bureaucrats.
Bureaucracy or the administration is like water. If you put him in a glass, he will be like glass. Put him in a cup, he will be like a cup. The water will take the shape of the reservoir. If the pot is right, the water will be right too. The UPA government saw corruption to the tune of Rs 12 lakh crore. Even then it was the same administration. But we haven't had a major financial scandal in six and a half years. No one has been able to complain. And it is the same administration. There’s been no 2G or 4G.
So how will you go about it?
Decisions will be taken by the elected government. The administration will implement it. But if you involve cadres in implementation, that’s where the problem starts. If the elected government takes constitutional decisions the administration will have to ensure the benefits reach the lowest level. If you try to break the chain, then distortions will creep in _ which is what has been happening in Bengal for years. When we come to power, recruitment or transfer will have no political influence. This is not the first government we are going to set up. There are 16 BJP governments in this country. And these are all running well.
Look at Assam. When we said, ‘we will create an agitation-free Assam’ or a ‘militant-free Assam’, no one believed us. But in the last five years there hasn’t been a single agitation in Assam. More than 2,000 militants have surrendered. Assam is walking on the road to development. So is Tripura. And Manipur? It used to be shut down (bandh) for 200 days. There would be blockades. There hasn't been a single bandh or blockade since the BJP government came to power there three and a half years ago. This is what administration is meant to be.
What is the magic behind this?
There is no magic. You need to understand your dignity and act accordingly.
What will be your first task when you come to power?
The first task will be to synergise everyone and everything else towards the development of Bengal. This has not been done in Bengal for many years. Both parties have run the state with their cadres. Every Bengali has to be associated with the development of Bengal. Every Bengali should connect with the honour, glory and self-respect of Bengal. This is very important. The communists did not do this. Mamata did not try it too. Even after being down in the doldrums for so long, Bengal, I believe, has the most possibilities.
In the state where I live, water is found 1,200 feet below the ground. Here, there’s water barely 60 feet below. The river, Ganga, brings the fertility of the whole country to this state. Bengal can be the largest centre for business in eastern India. All markets of east India will open up. The road that will be opened after the exchange of enclaves with Bangladesh will make communication with the Northeast easier and quicker. By building two or three more ports, Bengal can be the gateway for industries of Bihar to Assam. Bengalis never lacked intelligence. Gokhale said, what Bengal thinks today, the whole country thinks tomorrow. Hence, I think, if someone guides that intellect in the right direction and with foresight, then the situation will change. It will lead to amazing change. After the conquest of Murshidabad, Lord Clive wrote a letter to the East India Company stating that there were 86 London properties in Murshidabad. I am talking of London of that time!
Here we have fertile soil, no shortage of water, intelligent people, and a glorious past. I don't think there is anything lacking here except political will and hard work.
Land holdings are small in Bengal because it is fertile. There will be problems for industry.
Those who have experienced development create such myths. In Gujarat, 25 lakh women work in Amul, milk for which reaches all parts of the world. Here, one has to spend one tenth of that to raise a cow at home. Raising a buffalo also costs one tenth of what it is in Gujarat. But no cooperative dairy has been set up here? There’s been no agitation for it. On the contrary, all cows were trafficked to Bangladesh! Each state has some plus and minus points. If the land holdings are small, one will have to work much less to earn a living. Just keep going in the right direction. Every human being has a way of earning. Zamindari belongs to one person. As many as 1,200 people have land here. It is a great power. There is so much government land in Bengal that if a land bank was to be set up faithfully, there’s enough land for industry for the next 20 years.
Buddhababu also used to say this. Didi also says so.
But no one did anything! See the website of West Bengal and tell me how much land there is in the Sundarbans for industry? All state websites have all the information. Open the Gujarat website and you can find out how much land there is in Mandbi taluka of Kutch district. In Jammu and Kashmir too, all the information has been posted on its website in the last five months.
The land ceiling act has been repealed everywhere but not here.
It is there in my state too. But once non-agricultural land gets a no-objection certificate, there is no upper limit law. The land ceiling act is to protect agricultural land holdings.
In Ahmedabad city, there is no land ceiling act. It has been annulled across the country. But it is still here in Calcutta.
I think that law should be repealed in Calcutta too. We repealed the law during the time of the NDA government.
Bengalis love holidays. Russia did not announce a holiday on the centenary of Lenin's birth. But Jyotibabu announced a holiday in Bengal! Mamtadidi also gives a lot of leave. There is a culture of laziness here.
No, I don't think there is a culture of laziness in Bengal. In terms of GDP, Bengalis used to contribute 30 per cent. That is the culture of a hundred and fifty years. It has taken 650 years for this country to move from dhoti to pajama. Culture doesn’t change so easily. It is in the DNA. As a central leader, I cannot say whether the holiday culture will end when the BJP government comes to power in Bengal. The government of the day will have to decide. If need be, it may consult the Centre. But if I take such decisions from Delhi, it doesn't look good. Those who are elected here, the chief minister, ministers will decide.
There is no debate about who will be chief minister if Didi returns to power. But who will it be for you?
Our chief minister is yet to be decided. You see, our political strength is that we have not yet decided on the name of any chief minister. Our strength is also that Didi's name has been fixed as their chief minister (laughs).
Are you happy with the work of those who have joined your party from other parties?
We have an all-India team. Wherever our party has grown, leaders and activists from other parties have joined us. In Tripura, 20 per cent of those in the Communist Party has joined us. In Assam, people from the Congress joined us. In Uttar Pradesh, 30 per cent MLAs have come from SP and BSP. They are 100 out of 300! But when they accept the ideology, and leadership of the BJP, they have to abide by our party’s discipline. Otherwise, the party will take action against them. But why should I think they will not abide by the party rules. I am an optimist. This happens during every vote. Where did Didi come from? From the Congress. Her entire party came from the Congress. How can she complain about defections?
Mamata says there are a lot of issues among old timers and newbies in the BJP.
She should stop worrying about what is happening in our team and think of how she will survive (laughs). Our ability to cushion problems is strong.
Both the Congress and the CPI(M) gained support while in power. But both lost their support base after losing power. This has been seen election after election. If Mamata's government goes, what will happen to Trinamul? What is your prediction?
This is not for me to predict. But the way she has run Trinamul or her government, it will be difficult for her to sustain the party! For example, in Uttar Pradesh, we formed the party while in the Opposition. The same is true in Assam and Rajasthan. Vashundhara Raje lost. But the party remained. In Manipur and Tripura, we formed the party while in the Opposition. Elections come and go, we win some, lose some. But our vote does not decrease. We stay on. The Congress, for example, is finished in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. But we didn’t get wiped out anywhere. Win or lose elections, we have increased our influence in every state.
But democracy needs a strong Opposition? If there is no Opposition in West Bengal, we will end up with small district-wise parties. Will that be good for the state?
Agreed democracy needs a strong Opposition. But it is not my job to provide that. That is the job of the people. I don't believe that in the absence of a primary Opposition, there will be small area-based parties. Politics does not offer such space. But someone or the other will come and fill in that space. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, the Congress party is finished. SP-BSP has been formed in its place. In Bihar, the Congress is finished. In its place, we have the BJP, Janata Dal and Lalu’s party. There is no vacuum in politics. Even if that happens, our responsibility to perform increases 20 per cent. And we should be ready for that. I think the people decide what happens in a democracy and not theoreticians like Aveek Sarkar (laughs). It is better to leave it to the people.
Once upon a time, education was very strong in Bengal. There was a lot of improvement during the time of Shyamaprasad Mukherjee.
I have studied it in detail. It used to be very good. But in the current situation, the education infrastructure and hierarchy will have to be rebuilt.
We have created a fund of Rs 20,000 crore and worked out detailed plans for infrastructure upgrade of all educational institutions. We call it Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar Fund. I have created a Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay fund of Rs 10,000 crore to fill the gaps. Suppose there are 13 colleges for one lakh children which is much lower than the national average. So, we have to open polytechnic colleges, medical colleges, general colleges. Only then will educational facilities increase. What is there now needs to be developed. Staff vacancies 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 as mentioned in our manifesto. We will build 100 government colleges, 50 new polytechnic colleges and create 20 medical colleges. And the Government of India will help.
For Santiniketan, we have created a fund of Rs 20 crore which will bring the focus of the world back on Gurudev Rabindranath's dream. We have to do something new. I think Santiniketan is in itself a solution to many of the world's problems. Gurudev’s idea of creating a complete man, a fearless man who develops his own will independently does not look like happening anywhere in the world till the next 23rd or 24th century. We will emphasise on this. We will announce academic chairs in the name of various great men of Bengal like Rishi Aurobindo, Rabindranath Tagore, Subhash Babu, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu all across the country. We are moving towards full integration on the basis of advice we received while framing our manifesto. When the government is formed, when the administration is in our hand and we analyse its shortcomings, we will draw up a complete blueprint of our plans. But we will definitely try to improve education.
For example, we have created a 'Child University' in Gujarat. Learning begins when a baby is in the womb. Take three days off and visit our university. There’s nothing like it in the rest of the world. In the Mahabharat, Abhimanyu's education began in the womb of his mother whose good behaviour, good thinking influenced her unborn child. No one in the world thinks about this. But now people from all over the world come to see this 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 shortcomings are. That is why we have made big sketches. After coming to power, all of these will be scrutinised and a detailed blueprint made for the betterment of education.
Since the time of CPI(M), intellectual resources have been moving out of the state. Many have gone to Delhi or Bangalore.
I think many more Bengalis should be sent out. They will be the brand ambassadors of Bengal. There is no shortage of intelligence in Bengal. The system is lacking. Every Bengali has the best intelligence in the world. As 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 job opportunities.
This is a political answer. But if there are no good people left who will teach?
No, it wasn’t a political answer. It’s my belief. Don't think of it as a political response. I think people have become despondent because there is an atmosphere of fear. A lot of people will come out when an open atmosphere is created. Those people will do very well not just in education, but in literature, music, art and elsewhere. Earlier, 90 per cent people used to go abroad to study space science or space technology. Now barely 10 per cent go because their education is being fully utilised in the country. Then why go! We have opened up space science to the private sector. Now the possibilities are so vast in this country that there is a need to create new colleges for space science.
Question: Will industry come from Gujarat?
Answer: Of course. Industry will come from Maharashtra too