‘Danger to secularism is old slogan, let’s move on’: Lord Swraj Paul gets candid with HT
An influential and irreverent voice, Lord Swraj Paul spoke to HT’s Senior Resident Editor on India after 70 years of Independence — its politics and politicians, and, of course, PunjabUpdated: Aug 03, 2017, 09:25 IST
At 86, he is the big lord of Indian diaspora. Son of a bucket-maker in Jalandhar , Lord Swraj Paul encapsulates the sterling success story of non-resident Indians — a multi-millionaire business magnate, member of the British House of Commons since 1996, and a widely respected philanthropist-educationist. So, when he peers through the window of his office — its walls adorned with an array of honours including the Padma Bhushan — in London’s upscale Baker Street, he has a worldview shaped by his more than 60 years in public life in Britain and close ties with India. An influential and irreverent voice, he spoke to HT’s Senior Resident Editor on India after 70 years of Independence — its politics and politicians, and, of course, Punjab.
How do you look at the evolution of the idea of India ahead of the 70th anniversary of Independence?
It has taken a long time for the people here to accept the fact that India is even more democratic than Britain. India has demonstrated to the world what democracy is. It is something we can really be proud of. The governments change at the drop of a hat, but that happens democratically. When governments change, there are always pros and cons. Look at Bihar: whatever has happened may be unfortunate but it’s all fair in democracy. We have made a lot of progress in the 70 years. We went astray for a while and then pulled it up. If you look at where India was and where it is now, we have come a long way. But, people in India don’t recognise that. That’s where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done a tremendous job in elevating the status of India on the world stage.
You are speaking about the bright spots. How about the warts?
A lot of warts that the press talks about are normal for a democracy. India still has riches for few and poverty for a large population. So, when the poor cry, they are the warts. The only way these things will go is by what is happening now. Corruption has gone down and the guilty are being punished. We would like the Indian judicial system to become more efficient.
How has the world’s view of India changed ?
For long, India had a socialist thinking and the Western world criticised it. Nor at that time did the West really see the potential of India. But, perception on India has changed a lot because of the diaspora. Indians migrated all over as workers. Now they are playing an important role in every sphere of life in the Western world, and very successfully. It is unfortunate that when Mrs Indira Gandhi and Pranab Mukerjee, then her finance minister, tried to get NRIs to play a part in the nation’s development, our businessmen in India killed her effort as they just wanted to put up their fiefdoms. We were branded as ‘non-required Indians’. But, one thing I do take the credit for is that I didn’t succumb to their criticism, and I brought the issue on the platform.
- On Indian democracy and secularism: Democracy is not in danger. In the Modi government, there has been no threat to secularism. It has grown stronger.
- On PM Modi: He may beat both Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the best prime minister of India
- On India Inc: They have created poverty, not wealth.
- On Congress and Gandhis: They are failing because they are stuck with old slogans. Rahul’s challenge is huge and he needs more than himself.
- On Punjab and Capt Amarinder Singh: Punjab has been left behind… CM Amarinder will need leadership to pull the state out of the woods
Has India lived up to its potential?
No. But it is on the way to do that, if people don’t allow corruption back again. Corruption has always to be watched. The good thing is the government’s action against bad business practices that the nation is still suffering from. That is, people having borrowed more money than they would repay to banks. These are all abuses. India’s corporates have created poverty, not wealth.
What do you count as the Modi government’s biggest achievement so far?
Containment of corruption. The world recognises that. And that has given India the greatest respect. Not many countries can take the credit that they have reduced corruption. Corruption is going up in the world. So, here is a government which has fought corruption successfully. His other achievement — neither being talked about in India nor abroad yet — is that in 2014, and also in elections in UP this year, the question of the Hindu vote, Muslim vote or Dalit vote did not count. People have voted for bread and butter.
You once called Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the best PMs India has ever had? How do you rate Modi?
It’s too early to make a judgement, but so far all indications are that Modi will beat both of them.
What’s your take on the pace and direction of economic reforms?
Reforms alone have no meaning. Reforms without removal of corruption gave the people licence to be more corrupt and not fix the country. There was a famous Peruvian economist who long ago said that people do reforms so that their friends can make money. Reforms are only good when everybody makes money. And that didn’t happen with reforms. Now, one thing nice when you go to India is that nobody can say: ‘Oh, I know such and such minister in the central government and will get your things done!’. Things have changed over the years, but in the last three years the speed of that change has been faster.
As a long-time member of the British parliament, how you do look at India’s parliament?
Well, the quality of Indian parliamentary debates is as good as anywhere in the world. The government’s job is to get on with the job, while the opposition’s job is to criticise them, find the wrongs, and make them improve.
How do you look at the beef politics, especially violent vigilantism in the name of cow protection?
This is very sad and stupid . We have a lot of lack of education. This type of politics will only go when we improve our education. We need more women to be educated. The Indian girls are very, very bright. What justification do we have that only 40% women go to the university? We are ruining 60% assets of the country. They will the biggest agents of change. Education in India is becoming a business, which is most unfortunate. Education institutions should make money, but it should be ploughed back.
Modi’s critics say that India’s liberal and secular values are under a strain.
The bigger picture is that democracy in India is not in danger. If that’s so, then people can change the government every five years. Indian voter, irrespective whether he is poor, is very aware of his right to vote. People say, ‘Oh, the voters are paid!’. He might take the money but still vote the way he feels. They have learnt that vote is more important than even bread and butter.
But secularism is the cornerstone of our democracy.
I will say that secularism has become better. Where is the threat to secularism? Now, secularism is being used by those who want to try and get the votes (by) calling themselves secular. Modi has given no sign that he is not secular. And, have the governments, either in the states or at the Centre, done anything that is not secular ? That’s how you have to judge, not by the slogans. Muslim politicians will try to get votes in the name of Muslims. Hindu leaders will try the same. But does the voter really care? So, the ‘danger to secularism’ is being used now as a failure. It has become an old slogan. Let’s move on in life. There are certain arms which, when you are getting ready for war, need to be discarded.
What does the shrinking opposition space mean for Indian democracy?
I have no doubt that there will be opposition in India. But, the opposition parties have to ponder why ‘we don’t count anymore’. They might be working on old slogans which aren’t valid anymore.
As a long-time Congress supporter, what will you suggest to the party to reinvent itself?
I admire the Congress party. But that’s where the party needs to think: ‘Why are we failing?’ Has anybody given it a thought? Because they are stuck with old slogans.
How about the Congress leadership? Is there a life beyond the Gandhis?
If you don’t get the votes, never mind whether it’s the Gandhis or A-B-C, that means you have failed. If you, as a student, don’t do well, whom do you blame? In every party there comes, once a while, a challenge that has to be met from within.
What are your views on Rahul Gandhi?
Oh, I like the young man! But his the job is huge and he needs more than just himself. His mother has played a tremendous role. Nobody would have believed it. She has kept her dignity. But in democratic politics, the role is never for life. And she has realised that.
How do you reflect on and relate to Punjab?
I love Punjab. And I love Jalandhar. That’s why I built a college there. But, in terms of investment, there was not much to do in the businesses I deal in. Punjab is a great state. Not necessarily having had the best of politics! (laughs)
How is the Punjab of today different from the one you left in 1966?
There is a world of difference. But, looking at the rest of India, I don’t think Punjab has exploited its talent and potential. The Punjabis living abroad feel disappointed that Punjab has been left behind. The state should have made far more progress than it has done so far.
What do you expect chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh to do?
He is a lovely man… very decent, without any question. You expect him to do the moon. But then, does he have the team ? Does he have the stamina? He will have to show leadership to pull Punjab out of the woods.
The Captain government wants NRIs to invest in Punjab.
A big stumbling block is the big amount of time it takes to follow anything in Punjab. Nobody decides anything. The quality of decision-making, from what I hear, is very poor.