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Sunday, Oct 20, 2019

Odisha and Bengal will be two pillars of the 2019 govt, says Dharmendra Pradhan

Dharmendra Pradhan asserts that the BJP has faced opposition alliances during elections in the past as well but is confident the party will overcome it comfortably.

india Updated: Jul 09, 2018 09:17 IST
Shishir Gupta and Prashant Jha
Shishir Gupta and Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Dharmendra Pradhan Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas of India talking with Hindustan Times reporter's during the special Interview at his residence in New Delhi, India on Friday, May 26, 2017. ( Photo by Sonu Mehta/ Hindustan Times)
Dharmendra Pradhan Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas of India talking with Hindustan Times reporter's during the special Interview at his residence in New Delhi, India on Friday, May 26, 2017. ( Photo by Sonu Mehta/ Hindustan Times)(Sonu Mehta/HT File Photo)

Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan is a key player in the government, handling the portfolios of petroleum and natural gas and skill development and entrepreneurship, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, as its face in Odisha. He spoke to Shishir Gupta and Prashant Jha on the Iran sanctions, oil prices, Odisha, and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Edited excerpts:

How will the government deal with the fallout of US sanctions on Iran?

Let us wait and watch. The government has a considered view. National interest is paramount and we will align our decision on that. It is a challenge. Our ties with both countries are good. We have a special strategic relationship with US. We have a historic, cultural and civilisational relationship with Iran. Iran is also a factor in India-Afghanistan relationship because of its geographic proximity. Our economic interests are tied to both. The government will take a comprehensive view.

The US has said that if countries can show that they will reduce their sourcing, sanctions may not apply. Are we looking at cutting imports?

We don’t want to give a knee-jerk reaction. Both are equal partners. We will find a way out of the challenge. We will do what is desirable. This is not an issue of quantum – how much to reduce or increase. It is far more comprehensive than that.

But sanctions kick in on November 4. Your window is limited.

We are aware of it. The government is concerned, it is a challenge, and we will find a way. We are doing something. I won’t go beyond this.

There has been a debate over oil prices, with demands for reduction in taxes. What is your long-term plan on sourcing? There has been discussion on India and China constituting a consumer’s collective, and having a pricing deal.

There cannot be a long-term pricing deal. Forget crude oil. For any commodity, prices cannot be fixed. Even long-term contracts have been renegotiated, because market requirement is one aspect, but there are other factors like innovation, technology and geopolitics. You cannot lock it within a long-term price assurance mechanism. What we consider low today may appear expensive with time. We had done a long-term contract with Qatar at one point, and thought it is a good price; in some time, it seemed like too expensive and we renegotiated it.

The issue is that we are dependent because we are an oil-importing country. What can we do to reduce our dependence? That is why, under Narendra Modi’s leadership, we are slowly becoming a mega-power in solar power. We are looking at domestic production; alternatives beyond solar; a gas-based economy; renewables; biomass; increasing conservation and efficiency. This is a holistic approach.

Transportation fuel is an international commodity; it will fluctuate with geopolitics. India has succeeded in influencing it. PM Modi consistently has said on global platforms that India is a big consumer, and those who want to do business here must take into consideration our affordability. This has had a positive impact on producer countries. We have wanted for a long time that Asian premium should be revisited.

When I first raised it four years ago, people made fun of us. But now, there are reports of UAE and Saudi coming up with a new formula. This is because of our market capacity and size. Why should we pay Asian Premium? We are the third-largest consumer; our per capita energy consumption is among the lowest; it is the lowest among emerging economies and this means our energy consumption will only increase. Those who want to deal with us have to consider affordability. This is about market fundamentals. PM Modi has firmly, tactfully, diplomatically, successfully taken this up. An achievement of a global leader is if you can get your voice heard on hard economic issues. The reduction of price benefits poor across the world.

Will you buy gas from the US?

We already have $2 billion trade on gas. We will get 5.6 MMT gas from the US. They have cheap gas. We even got shale oil. India can get energy from anywhere in the world. There is only one condition – price competitiveness. Our sourcing basket has got diverse.

Oil prices lead to strengthening of the dollar.

The appreciation of the dollar leads to pressure on the price. When the price of crude oil increases by a dollar, it increases by 50 paisa or so in our prices. When our currency gets weaker, then it has an impact of 65-70 paisa. It has a double impact. And both coincided this time.

Do you see oil prices reducing?

It will and it should because market pressure is developing. There is a paradigm shift. The monopoly of producers is over; the voice of buyers is emerging. Earlier, there were no options. There are also alternative sources which we can tap through technology.

When prices were increasing, did you feel the political pressure to reduce excise? Do you see this as an electoral issue?

In October, we reduced excise by ?2. Those who were criticising us, see what they did in Karnataka. Did they tweet? Where is the fuel challenge now? There is a limit to hypocrisy. It is the character of this government that we will not take a decision under pressure, and keep in mind larger public interest. When prices were increasing, even if we had reduced excise, it would have got washed out; the prices would have increased again. Timing and calculation are important. We instead told producers why are you increasing it, why are you taking it to 80? I went and told OPEC that we are pained by your pricing mechanism; it is not only pinching, we are pained. When a big consumer says it, OPEC had to think about it. They had to increase production by a million barrel a day. People acknowledged PM Modi’s appeal and praised him.

Are India and China cooperating in talks in OPEC, given we have common objectives?

Yes, but we have our own strategies. PM Modi has become a reasonable voice of the deprived of the world.

You handle Ujjwala. There is criticism that the beneficiaries are not coming back for refills.

This fact is wrong. On an average in a household, the consumption is seven cylinders. There are four-and-a-half crore beneficiaries of Ujjwala. In the first year, 80% of the consumer base refilled. And the average refill is four LPG cylinders. This is a serious quantum jump for those who could not afford gas at all, and got it with government handholding. On MyLPG, you can actually track the refilling, too.

Turning to politics, there is a sense that you may not be able to replicate your 2014 performance in North, West and Central India. Will East India fill this gap?

When Amit Shah took over as the party president in August 2014, in his first presidential address, he said this. When we recently won elections, he said our victory will be complete when we form governments on the Coromandel coast. PM Modi has been saying since his campaign back in 2013 that till East India develops, we cannot say India is developing in a comprehensive and balanced manner. And we are doing this with a concrete strategy in Bihar, Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Northeastern states.

What is your expectation in Odisha?

The outcome will surprise you. Our mission for the assembly is 120 seats.

Has Naveen Patnaik’s popularity declined or BJP’s popularity increased?

PM Modi’s credibility is very high. The government there is a failed government. If it has been in power in 18-19 years, you can only judge it on performance – health, education, employment, irrigation, drinking water. Only 2% people in Odisha have piped water. Will you call this government successful? If doctors are reducing in the health care system, there is a patient-bed imbalance, will you call it successful? If malnutrition has led to stunting, what will you call it? Naveen babu has got votes four times. So he may have been popular. But the key is its performance. It is a failed, stagnant government. Today, there is an alternative. We were never an all Odisha party. For the first time, our base has extended to all villages. Under Amit Shah’s strategy, we are increasing organisational capacity; we are building party structure in 36,000 booths; we are taking Modi’s development agenda to booths; and exposing the government’s failures.

BJD supports you at the Centre, and is not a part of the Mahagathbandhan. How will you strike a balance?

Did Naveen babu support Union government on Aadhaar? He opposed us in Parliament. Did he support us on Ayushman Bharat? He opposed it. Has he supported us on aspirational districts? He opposed it and just joined. This support is imagination of three people in Delhi. He is an opportunistic politician. When he broke off his alliance with us in 2009, he was in power with Congress support. He does politics according to convenience; he has no ideology.

Your criticism of Naveen Patnaik seems to have sharpened.

There is no personal ill-will against him. I respect his personal living. But he has been elected four times. The state has everything – natural resource, water resource, coast, mineral resource, intellectual manpower, honest and hardworking people. But he has failed the new generation of Odisha. There is no village there from which there has been no migration. Why can’t it be a manufacturing hub?

There is speculation that PM Modi may contest from Odisha?

The parliamentary board will decide. I am just a simple worker. But we are implementing Modi’s developmental agenda.

Should the party declare a CM face in Odisha?


Naveen Patnaik is a big face. Don’t you think you need a local face?

There is a collective leadership there. The issue is credibility and development agenda of Modi. People have faith in his work. We will fight in the PM’s name. You look at how his policy reforms have helped Odisha. If one state benefited from the 14th Finance Commission, it was Odisha – it got thrice the money. The MMRD act changed; there was an auction of mineral resources; obviously, a mineral-rich state like Odisha benefited. Mineral Development Fund was created; Odisha districts got most funds.

Four crore homes will get electricity in the country, out of which forty lakhs will be in Odisha alone. Take NCLT – Tata has bought the Bhushan factory. This will help Odisha’s industrialisation. Odisha will become a steel hub in the country. Paradeep port is the number two port in the country after Kandla. There was 4,600km of national highways in Odisha; this government has added 5,000km. Take MSP and who will benefit from it. 50 lakh metric tonne of paddy is procured in Odisha, there has been a hike of Rs 200 per quintal; the net beneficiaries will be farmers.

Will it be a bipolar or triangular contest?

Congress is becoming irrelevant every day. 2014 was the worst election for Congress nationally; and Odisha was the worst even in that.

What happens if Congress and BJD come together?

There is already a tactical understanding to check Modi’s development agenda in Odisha.

How will you overcome that?

We will overcome it comfortably.

How do you see the emerging Mahagathbandhan?

These forces were together last time, too. Divisive, negative narrative will not work. Don’t underestimate the emerging, aspirational, connected India.

But UP has a new alliance.

We will overcome it.

You have handled Bihar for the party. There are reports that (chief minister) Nitish Kumar is reconsidering the alliance.

Nitishji is our political ally. He will contest with us. He is and will remain the chief ally of PM Modi in the state.

But seat-sharing is an issue. You win 22 of your own; you already have allies.

Don’t see things from the old prism. He is the face of our government there. He will have a role in seat sharing.

How do you see the BJP’s prospects in West Bengal?

Odisha and Bengal will be two big pillars of the new government in 2019.

But your local leadership in Bengal is weak.

Our leadership has acceptability across the world. His name is Narendra Modi.

First Published: Jul 09, 2018 09:10 IST

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