India's BJP enters national polls with image makeover | Asia Pacific

India's BJP enters national polls with image makeover

India's BJP enters national polls with image makeover

Updated 9 April 2014, 11:58 AEST

A former Indian cabinet minister says a BJP administration will rule for all faiths, and Muslims have nothing to fear.

India has started its mammoth elections, lasting a five-week period.

While the BJP's Narendra Modi is ahead in opinion polls, he has also been shadowed by persistent reports of anti-Muslim tendencies and divisiveness.

The last BJP government ruled India between 1998 and 2004, under the National Democratic Alliance.

Former BJP cabinet minister and policy-maker, Suresh Prabhu says voters should be concerned with issues other than religion.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Suresh Prabhu, former BJP cabinet minister and chair of India's Council on Energy, Environment and Water

PRABHU: Corruption, rising prices, the type of governance this (Congress) government has provided, the unemployment, the slowing economic growth which affects everybody in the country. People may not know macro economics, but they understand the change in their lifestyles, when the economic growth is slower. So all these issues will dominate the elections.

So the Opposition has put up a candidate, Mr Narendra Modi, who has become one of the most popular leaders - the most popular leader in India today. A big concern is to increase economic growth. When the BJP led the National Democratic Alliance government, which ruled India from 1998 to 2004, of which I was a part of, under the leadership of Prime Minister Vajpayee, the Indian growth was really very high. Clearly, that government was making investment into infrastructure, first time they created economic growth and low inflation - one of the hallmarks of that.

So the BJP government, the BJP-led government would probably working on low inflation, high economic growth, more investment in infrastructure - kickstarting the economy again, which is now languishing, and also to make sure that large numbers of jobs are created. To find out how we can meet the aspirations of the young generation - that's the big challenge.

LAM: Doing well in a state is different from translating that to national reality. Do you think the BJP has what it takes to do that, to make that transition?

PRABHU: You know, in fact, the BJP has been ruling for a while in different times, in about thirteen states in India. The BJP has ruled at federal government, 1998 to 2004, and in fact, many people feel that was a 'golden period', so this is not the first time that they're getting into governance.

I agree with you, there's a difference between state and the federal government, but if you really look at it, what is federal government? It's aggregation of the growth of all the states in India, and therefore, an aggregation of growth at the state level. So if you have a leadership coming from the state who understands the problems of the state and who is willing to lead as the leader of the (other) states, I think that will make all the difference.

LAM: It's not the economic credentials that the electorate is concerned about. Huge sections of the electorate I think are a little unsure about the Hindu nationalist flavour of the BJP. How do you reassure the Indian voters, particularly the non-Hindu voters, that a BJP coalition will vote for everyone in India?

PRABHU: You know, there's a chief minister of Goa, where there is a minority, is very high, like Christians are very high. The deputy chief minister of Goa is a Christian. There are at least two vice presidents of the BJP who're Muslims and there is a large number of candidates now contesting the elections on the BJP ticket, who're also Muslims and others. So it is not that the BJP believes in, or for that matter, the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) believes in discriminating between A religion or B religion.

So there is no reason why one should doubt the credentials of a party like the BJP to rule at national level, when during 1998 to 2004, when PM Vajpayee was the prime minister, a large number of people would say that they were very happy. In fact, Jammu and Kashmir, particularly, the Kashmir valley, which has a large number of Muslims, they're saying they were very comfortable when Prime Minister Vajpayee made a sincere effort to bring peace to that part of the country.

You know, if you go by the report which was prepared by a Commission which was appointed by the federal government - which is currently the Congress Party - it's found that Gujarat has been the one single state in which disproportionately higher to the population of Muslims in that state, there're bigger job opportunities. They have been employed by the government, as well as the private sector far more, than in other parts of the country.

LAM: The Muslims are?

PRABHU: The Muslims. And Muslims have benefited as much as Hindus have benefited because the State should not discriminate between a religion. When they talk about economic development using the resources of the state, which are public money, they should be used in a manner that everybody gets benefit of it, and not benefit goes only to only one community. In fact, that's what is happening in Gujarat, it's a very unfair assessment of Mr Modi as someone who is 'anti-Muslim'. I don't think he is.

LAM: If I may move to topics close to your heart - energy and water are the twin challenges, faced by any state, but also particularly by modern India, as it continues to grow. And you've held government portfolios in both. How should these twin challenges be approached, if India gets a clean slate for the next five years?

PRABHU: Let's come to water first, because water is something so important and critical, for human and biological existence, for economic growth as well as for social development. I think very importantly, we must find a way of using limited resources, for unlimited wants - the issue of water resource management. You cannot create water.

LAM: And this would be tied to infrastructural works?

PRABHU: Ya, absolutely. So I think we will need to therefore, manage water resources by bringing in smart water management technologies, by ensuring that wastage of water stops, at the same time, that people get water for everything. Agriculture consumes over 80 percent of water, industry consumes not so much, but if you want to increase a share of GDP, of manufacturing into growth, so we need to find more available for that.

Energy is critical for India, and we're importing a lot. We're importing from Australia, coal, we're importing oil and gas from the Middle East, so we need to find out how we can be more energy-secure. Australia is a friendly country, so we have no problem with that. But when we talk about only importing it (energy), then it affects our fiscal deficit, it affects our current account deficit.

LAM: Well, you're close to the BJP. How do you see a BJP-led coalition government approaching these issues?

PRABHU: Making cleaner energy will be still more important, because people are not happy that along with energy, they get pollution. So they should be provided cleaner energy, renewable energy, which is made within the country, so there is no import, inherent in that.

I think with water, it's making every village a unit, and deciding about management of water will be a very critical issue, because you cannot just look at it nationally, the water problem, because water is a local issue. People need water in their own villages and their own cities, and towns.

LAM: So you think there should be a form of devolution?

PRABHU: Absolutely. And therefore, managing water resources at the village level, is going to be an important priority. I personally feel that both are do-able, if you have the

political will and the planning, and then the ability to implement it.

The two challenges can be converted into two opportunities. If you can work in a proper manner, water and energy alone, could really spur the economic growth in India. But I personally feel that more important is the issue of managing water resources at the village level, the challenges people face in their doorstep, not something which can happen only from the supply side.

All this, put together, is something which can address the challenge, but also create new opportunities.

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