Kamal Nath Image Credit: Arshad Ali/Gulf News Archive

Bhopal: In Madhya Pradesh, the kamal (lotus) did bloom — but it was that of the Congress party in the recent polls, thus ending 15 years of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule in the state.

The 72-year-old sagacious leader Kamal Nath, who is close to the Gandhi family, sits firmly in the chair as state chief minister.

Nath is the most senior member of the Lok Sabha, having long represented his pocket borough of Chhindwara in the state after emerging victorious nine times.

The Indian voter is poor, backward and simple. But he is not foolish. The moment he feels he is being robbed, he will not accept it.

- Kamal Nath

The win in Madhya Pradesh is all the more significant, as it is the second largest Indian state by area and the fifth largest by population with over 75 million people. And barely seven months before assembly elections were scheduled; Nath was made the state party chief.

First elected to the Lok Sabha (Lower House) in 1980, he has spent most of his political career in Delhi as a federal minister.

Gulf News travels to Bhopal to speak with the chief minister at Vallabh Bhawan, the state secretariat.

Gulf News: After the victories in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, has the Congress party and Rahul Gandhi found their mojo again?

I don’t think the mojo was lost. It’s just that the previous government was able to skilfully convince the people that they would be a better government. And people are now realising that they have been taken for a ride. The Indian voter is poor, backward and simple. But he is not foolish. The moment he feels he is being robbed, he will not accept it.

On resuming office you announced farm loan waiver up to Rs200,000 (Dh10,527) well before the promised 10 days. How do you intend implementing it?

About 80 per cent of the loan is with commercial banks and 20 per cent with cooperative banks. The commercial banks have been writing off loans for industries in their settlements by 40 per cent to 50 per cent. So, what is wrong if the banks do it for farmers? In the specific case of Madhya Pradesh, 70 per cent of people in the state depend on the agricultural sector. They many not be farmers, but drive tractors on the field. Then there are the poor who work as labourers in the farming sector, the people running small grocery stores in the village, the various markets in Madhya Pradesh — big or small — they are all dependent on the purchasing power of the farmer. So, the state’s economy is largely agriculture driven. The farmer in Madhya Pradesh is born in debt and dies in debt. So, this (loan waiver) gives a kick-start. I don’t call it a loan waiver; it’s a farmer support scheme. Whether it is executed in the form of a loan waiver or any other form, this is a direct inclusion of funds into our agricultural sector.

You talk of farmers dying in debt, but according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, the number of farmers committing suicide has rather fallen in recent years.

No, not in Madhya Pradesh. It has rather gone up.

But not all suicides are agriculture related; many happen due to family problems or illnesses?

No, it is an excuse made to suppress the number of [farmer] suicides.

Looking at Punjab and Karnataka (where Congress was sharing power with the Janata Dal), both the states failed to implement complete farm loan waiver as promised. Don’t you think waiving loan is an ‘eyewash’ and the issue dies down once the ballot is cast?

No, certainly not. We will execute it and are working on the process. We have to ensure that loans of eligible farmers are waived off. I also do not want to penalise the farmer who is not a defaulter. So, even they will be given a bonus.

Economists say loan waiver is a short-term remedy as it increases banks bad debts and shrinks its credit flow to other viable sectors?

It is a remedy. It can be long term if other steps in the viable sector accompany it. That means, the farmers are not getting a fair price. They must get an equitable price. At the end of the day, if a farmer is selling below the price of seed, water, electricity and fertiliser, he will go back into debt. So, we have to simultaneously introduce other measures to ensure that he does not get debt-ridden again. Stand-alone write-off is not the answer. It’s only a thrust in the right direction.

Under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, during 2006, M S Swaminathan Commission report was tabled. So, why did then Congress government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh fail to implement it?

There were reasons, as it had its agriculture ramifications. Swaminathan is one of our top agriculture economists; and what he said about the farm sector is correct. The intention of the UPA government was to implement it in stages. Certain plans were implemented like minimum support prices were raised and insurance schemes were introduced. For these to start taking off took time. We were in the process of dealing with other things, as you cannot implement the Swaminathan Committee report in one go. It has to be done over a period of time, as it involves major reforms. But then the government changed and nothing happened after that.

Recently, the wholesale onion prices had dropped to Re 1 per kilo at the country’s largest wholesale market at Lasalgaon Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) in Maharashtra. Do you think the real issue is minimum support price (MSP) for crops as the supply out runs demand after a bumper crop?

It does. It also depends on procurements and movement logistics. So, we find that in some states the price of onion is very high. The answer to that lies in storage capacity. Onions can be stored for several months. So, we are now building low-cost storage facilities.

The Central government is opposed to loan waiver scheme and is readying a big farm relief plan that includes direct benefit transfer and minimum support price?

They know that the farmers have turned against their government. Now they are trying to seduce the farmers by bringing out these schemes.

As former minister for commerce and industry in the UPA government, shouldn’t you consider setting up industries in Bhopal and Indore, so the state’s unemployment rate could be brought under control?

Certainly, industrialisation is a very major part and Madhya Pradesh is a very attractive state. A large market in itself, the state can sustain a number of people. We are working on a new industrial policy and would be looking at all avenues of investments — both domestic and foreign. For this, we are giving ourselves three months.

The BJP has accused you of being involved in 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The issue crops up whenever you come into limelight.

No, it did not come up earlier. Thirty-four years have passed. I was minister in 1991 and many times until 2014 and no one raised it. But now that I have become the chief minister, they are raising it. There’s no charge and no FIR registered against me. But they will continue to raise the issue, perhaps because they have nothing else to speak against me.

But Supreme Court lawyer fighting the case on behalf of the Sikhs has said that law will catch up with you too?

If there is a case, there has to be an FIR. But why no one has spoken about it all these years.

The anti-migrant gibe against people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh has caused discomfort among regional parties. Do you think this can unnerve leaders from Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to walk the talk in putting up a united front against the BJP in 2019 elections?

I have not said there should be a ban. I have said to avail the incentives, which the state government gives for fresh employment, people of Madhya Pradesh will be given preference. But the industry, which is running, is free to employ anyone. This is happening in other states as well. It is in West Bengal, where you must know Bengali, in Gujarat, where you must know Gujarati and in Kerala where you must know Tamil or Malayalam. The only difference is that others say it in a camouflaged way, but I said it openly.

With a wafer-thin majority in Madhya Pradesh, what’s your mantra to keep the flock of MLAs together?

Congress MLAs are and will remain together. For 15 years they have struggled together against the BJP. And the SP and BSP are supporting us. The four independent candidates are Congress people. So, statistically, we may look wafer-thin, but otherwise we are comfortable.

Even while welcoming the change of government, people claim your government will not survive for long.

This is a BJP canard. They cannot reconcile themselves that they are out of power.

Former chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan told people in his home constituency (Budhni) they should not worry about his work as, ‘Tiger abhi zinda hai’ (Tiger is still alive).

He has no choice. Obviously, he cannot say the tiger is dead. But he must also know that lion bhi abhi zinda hai [The lion is also alive]!

Seems like a close contest in the forthcoming elections?

Of course, it will be a close contest. The [aura] that Prime Minister Narendra Modi created has dwindled. And while in 2014, after 10 years of Congress rule, people were looking for a change, they have seen through the Modi government. The institutions are under attack. Everything is being divided — from RBI [Reserve Bank of India] to CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] and the judiciary to the society. This is not the ethos of India. India runs on the basis of institutions and the country’s ethos is harmony in society.

Your supporters say you are fast becoming the prime ministerial face of the proposed coalition post the 2019 elections, as you are considered the politician best equipped in the Congress to lead the government in an alliance with like-minded parties, if the BJP were to lose power.

At the moment, I am very happy being in Madhya Pradesh. I have a challenge here and must meet the expectations of people of the state. There’s no use contemplating the situation of my being a prime ministerial candidate.

Kamal Nath 

• Kamal Nath was born on November 18, 1946 in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh.

• Studied at the Doon School, Dehradun and graduated from St Xaviers College, Kolkata.

• Elected to the Lok Sabha in 1980 and re-elected in 1985, 1989 and 1991. Appointed Minister for Environment & Forests and then Minister for Textiles.

• Won Lok Sabha elections in 1998, 1999 and 2004. Appointed Minister for Commerce & Industry.

• Won again in 2009 and appointed Minister for Road Transport & Highways, Minister for Urban Development and then Parliamentary Affairs minister, until 2014.

• His contribution to higher education is manifest in the establishment of the Institute of Management Technology in Ghaziabad, Nagpur and Dubai.