CONFIDENT CLAIM A calm demeanor and figures on his fingertips, Himachal Pradesh chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal has retained some helpful qualities from his teaching career despite treading the rugged terrain of politics for decades now. In an interaction with HT staff as he nears the end of his current term at the helm, Dhumal talks of development as the agenda, lists out achievements to boost his claim, and makes light of the Congress challenge in the assembly polls due later this year.
The confidence of winning a consecutive term stems as much from trophies won by his government, as from the failings of the Congress-led UPA government at the central level. Discrimination by the Centre against his and other NDA governments is a key poll plank as Dhumal sets out to rewrite the electoral history of his state.
What are the top three achievements of your government?
I feel there was a lot of distance between the common man and the government earlier. I have removed that disconnect. People believe that we do what we say, sometimes more.
Himachal’s per capita income was Rs 43,900 in 2007 and has risen to Rs 73,600. The GDSP was Rs 33,000 crore, and it’s now Rs 63,000 crore.
Third, our forest cover increased by 11 sq km, when it is decreasing in the country. The biggest project of carbon credit purchase was in China with 3,500 hectares earlier. We signed a deal with the World Bank for the biggest project of 4,003 hectares. We have been equated with Costa Rica and have come up on the world scene now.
You sound very confident of winning the assembly elections due soon. But in a state that has a history of rotating parties, what makes you so confident?
We have always created history. Till 1998, it was a common belief that the BJP comes to power, but lasts only two-and-a-half years. Then, we formed a coalition government with the HVC (Himachal Vikas Congress) and ruled for full five years. We formed a government of our own in 2007. This time, we will get another term.
How do you view the return of Virbhadra Singh as state Congress president?
He will make a difference to the Congress, but not to the electoral
outcome! There is stigma attached to him. The Congress has declared him as its CM candidate several times in the past, but lost each time.
What effect will the third front led by Himachal Lokhit Party have on the poll outcome?
This is not something new. When the first election was held in 1967, Himachal Lokraj Party was formed with TS Negi, who retired as chief secretary, Hira Singh Pal and JBL Kachi, all stalwarts. They won more seats than the Jan Sangh, but by the next election, most of them joined the Jan Sangh or Congress. It’s a natural phenomenon — during the monsoon, you have malaria; and in election time, it is ‘ticketaria’.
Do you think (national BJP vice-president) Shanta Kumar’s tough stance against your loyalists will make selection of candidates difficult?
He is a very senior leader and we respect his views. But my perception about a particular candidate may differ from his, and his from mine. But ultimately, everybody will sit and decide. The view of the majority matters, and winnability.
There are allegations of corruption against your government. You were accused of shielding a particular section of leaders such as the then minister Dr Rajeev Bindal.
No such allegation has been proven. The person who accused Bindal of corruption is facing a defamation case. Bindal is a very good organiser, and we had to spare him for party work... I have been asking everybody to approach the Lokayukta if they have any evidence.
What about the allegation of selling land to outsiders?
We set up a judicial commission. But nobody, not even a single Congress leader, lodged a complaint.
The BJP has accused the Congress of regional bias in the development in the past. Why did your government follow the same discriminatory approach?
The Congress did that, not us. There were many Himachal — upper, lower, naya (new), purana (old), sebwala (apple-growing), and so on. Ever since the BJP took over, we have ensured ‘tera (your) Himachal, mera (my) Himachal, hamara (our) Himachal’.
Will the BJP’s factionalism have a bearing on the polls?Which party is not ridden with
Factionalism hurts a party but our efforts are to minimise the extent. ‘Aisa to nahi ho sakta ki sansaar mein sirf devta hon’ (It’s not possible for the world to have only saintly people).
You were known as sadak-wala mukhya mantri (the CM who preferred road travel), but people now refer to you as helicopter-wala mukhya mantri (one who prefers choppers). Do you travel by air because roads are in bad shape?
I wish you were with me two days ago. I travelled by road from Solan to Shillai (interior area of Sirmour district) and back the same day. After three-four hours’ sleep, I went to Manali by road.
But why is the condition of roads not good?
The condition of the national highways is deteriorating because we are not getting enough funds for the repair from the Centre. The interior roads in the state are much better than the national highways. Unfortunately, over the past few years the Congress-led UPA government has been discriminating against NDA’s state governments. We are still maintaining the roads.
How is this discrimination manifesting itself?
For instance, army’s Dogra Regiment has maximum serving soldiers from Himachal and Jammu & Kashmir, but it is based in Faizabad. We have been demanding that it be shifted to Himachal.
Since Independence, only 38 km of railway line has been constructed in Himachal. We have all the stress on the roads. The PM had in fact promised completing Nangal-Talwara line by 2008, but only 34km track has been laid; 44km is still incomplete.
The central government is still non-committal on expanding the railway line to Leh. China has constructed six rail lines close to the border, deployed missiles in Tibet. But what is our
preparation? In 1962, we had an excuse of having been caught unawares.
I had been saying that there is presence of Chinese soldiers in Pak-occupied Kashmir. It was later confirmed by America. If we have to meet the security threat, we have to develop good infrastructure.
In the BBMB case, it was the duty of the Centre to implement the Punjab Reorganisation Act. When we went to Supreme Court, the affidavit given by the union joint secretary (power) was against us. However, the judgment was anyway given in our favour. Still, the Government of India is not vetting our claim of arrears from neighbouring states. We will take these things to the public.
In a ‘chargesheet’ recently, the Congress accused you of obliging your son (Hamirpur MP Anurag Thakur) by allotting prime land to the HP Cricket Association controlled by him. Was it out of affection for your son, or you see a future for cricket in HP?
I never allotted any land to my son. The cricket association does not belong to him. The Dharamsala stadium has brought Himachal on the world map. The Congress has no issues to raise, they took five years to prepare this ‘chargesheet’, came up with this cricket association charge. They ignored their own governor and gave the chargesheet to the President. There has been no controversial land deal in which my son has been involved. These are politically motivated allegations.
Since 56% of the state’s budget is spent on salaries, and another hike has been announced, how would you spend on development?
Due to unfair distribution of money by the 13th Finance Commission, our state suffers. But employees are the backbone of any state, so we will create more revenue avenues to ensure that HP does not lag behind in other indices of development.
What is the government doing about its failure to find buyers for surplus hydro power?
It is true we are not getting buyers. The power corporations are not buying; private companies run their diesel generators at high costs. Still, our power, which is much cheaper, is not being bought. We sold electricity worth Rs 200 crore to Uttar Pradesh during the elections and are yet to get money. In our state, we are giving electricity at just 70 paise per unit to BPL families, 50 paise per unit to agriculture sector and Re 1 per unit to APL families.
Your government has bagged many awards for development, but (Gujarat CM) Narendra Modi remains your party’s role model. Do you feel jealous of him sometimes? And will you invite him for campaigning?
He is a colleague. And it is good that he is the role model. As for campaigning, he will be busy with his assembly elections. Modi will win Gujarat; we will win here!
Do you consider Modi as your friend or, as we understand, your mentor?
I don’t want to comment on this.
Why are you opposed to foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail? Is there any scope for a rethink?
There is no question of allowing FDI in retail in the state. After the UPA withdrew the tax holiday, which was to originally stay till 2013, there were no jobs. Jobless youths opened small retail shops for livelihood. They cannot compete with multinational companies. There has to be a level-playing field, or let the Centre provide unemployment allowance.
Your government introduced directs polls for mayoral posts, but lost the seats of mayor and deputy mayor in Shimla MC. How do you see the defeat?
It was indeed a setback, but the Congress has been ousted after 26 years. At present, we have the highest number of councillors, which is an achievement of sorts.
Is there any one thing you wanted to do in this tenure but couldn’t?
My idea is ‘sabse upar Himachal’ (Himachal on top). I want overall development, so why limit that to one thing.
You talked about industry not coming to Himachal, but the existing industrial hubs have not been developed?
Haphazard growth is a reality, as the Congress had come to power soon after the tax holiday was given. But once we came to power, we rectified it to some extent. Problems raised by the industrialists in the beginning have been sorted out in our tenure.
Why have you allowed over a dozen private universities when the existing state-run ones are in a financial crisis?
Our students were being enrolled and sent to Karnataka and other states. Now, the students from outside are coming to Himachal. We are trying to improve the financial position of the state universities by enhancing their grants.
Do you have any regrets?
My only regret is the partisan politics at the national level. Being a Himachali, one knows the sacrifices Himachalis have made for the country. Still, our youngsters are not getting the chance to join army due to the population parameters. There is no population criterion for the IAS, so why army. We need nationalist thinking, and need to be ready to sacrifice partisan interests. Even in the times of Abraham Lincoln, hundreds were killed in America to bind the country together.
Kindly put your reference to Lincoln and the American civil war in context. Are you seeking to offset some acts in our country?
No, I am talking about the Maoist violence. These people blow up trains, but the army is told to act only in retaliation. That makes no sense.
Since you seem to be advocating the iron hand theory, and Narendra Modi is projected as a strongman leader, would you back him as the BJP’s national face in 2014?
Let me tell you an anecdote. Recently, there were reports that the 26/11 attacker Ajmal Kasab was gaining weight in jail even as he faces hanging orders. And the others on death row were growing thinner. A senior officer told me that in Kasab’s cell are photographs of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and PM Manmohan Singh. I said, ‘Put up Modi’s picture instead, and see what happens!’
Why not hang Kasab and Afzal Guru and the likes immediately? The politics of emancipation must make way for the politics of nationalist thought.
The NDA looks poised to gain from the UPA’s failings; but don’t you think the BJP is struggling on the leader projection front?
We have many capable leaders in pur party. But we will cross the river when we come to it.