Pranab Mukherjee has been president of India for just over 12 months. Though his role as head of state is largely ceremonial Mr Mukherjee is a veteran politician having held several portfolios in government.
India’s former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was his mentor in a political career which began with his election to parliament in 1969.
Euronews went to the Presidential Palace in New Delhi to meet Mr. Mukherjee on the eve of his trip to Brussels where he will attend Europalia, a four-month event being staged to raise the cultural profile of India in Europe.
Chiara Reid euronews: “Mr President, thank you very much for welcoming us into your house and for participating to this edition of The Global Conversation, a conversation which we hope will shed some light on the vital issues at the heart of India today.
“You are coming to Europe at a time when both India and the EU are grappling with great economic difficulties. We heard all about the euro crisis, but India’s economic problems took us by surprise. You were supposed to be the future, the smart, industrial powerhouse, one of the so called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India and China). So, what happened?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “First of all I would like to express my views on this issue, I am fully aware of it, because I myself was involved, when the crisis begun. First financial crisis in 2008, I had to bear the additional responsibility of heading the finance ministry, therefore I had to face this problem. Indian GDP was growing at a fast rate of around nine percent plus, but when I took over I found out there was, on almost a fortnightly basis a sliding down of the GDP. In hindsight we can say that we did not understand the depth of the crisis at that point of time. So immediately we had to rush and like most other countries we provided stimulus packages.
“Frankly speaking we could not recover from that shock; I am not talking of India but also the whole world, because the problem is at the root, and at that root there is a commonality of the problems for the eurozone and ourselves, as most of the emerging countries and some of the developed countries also, that our borrowing is not matching our mobilisation of resources. It required radical reforms. Many of the European countries did it, even taking the risk, I salute them!”
euronews: “Do you think that India will do that too?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “India has already started doing it.”
euronews: “But there is more need for reforms.”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “There is. Because – I am coming to that point – we should also keep in mind the size of the Indian population, the level of uneven development. Most of the advanced countries, their manufacturing sector is highly developed. But in India we cannot afford to have that model. Because I am to feed 1.2 billion plus people. Therefore I shall have to concentrate on agriculture. I shall have to concentrate on the development of rural India, but I do agree that in today’s context when the world is becoming economically integrated and global economy is no longer a dream but a reality we shall have to work collectively, but keeping in view the country’s specific requirements.”
euronews: “And talking about cooperation, the EU and India are strategic partners, and there is a free trade and investment agreement on the table since 2007. If completed, it would positively impact on the lives of over 1.8 billion people. How can we kick start this crucial pact?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “Of course, now I cannot respond or directly act on it but my advice to my colleagues in the ministry is that 15 rounds of negotiations have been completed, I will also closely monitor it. When I was in the Ministry of Finance, large number of areas of agreement were reached. There are only very few areas of differences. We should narrow down these differences.”
euronews: “Are these areas you still have to tackle for example the amount of red tape there is in India?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “What I feel, that here are certain areas where there are conceptual differences. But I am not going into the nitty gritty, what I want to emphasise is that we must work to reach the agreement sooner rather than later.”
euronews: “But you are coming to Europe also for a cultural event as well, Europalia, this magnificent show of Indian culture and arts.”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “Of course! India is the oldest civilisation of the world though as a nation state our experiment is comparatively new, but India is the home of the oldest civilisation.”
euronews: “You mean the Harappans.”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “And the essential ingredient of Indian civilisation is its plurality, therefore in this festival in which we are participating we would like to convey the depth of our culture.”
euronews: “We have heard a lot in the last 12 months about another issue, violence against women in India in the past year. Is the media do you think giving us the real picture, or is there another side to the story?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “You know, one point has to be kept in mind, some of these events are really disturbing, such as the incident in December of last year. I have described many times that it shook the national conscience, but this media exposure, to a reasonable extent, is because of the fact, Indian women are normally shy, especially the rural women, and this type of event they did not report it. But nowadays, these are being adequately reported and in one way this is good, though for the time being this is projecting a distorted image of India.
“But what I can assure you, that all the measures that we have taken already or which we are contemplating, one of the basic objectives of our inclusive growth is empowerment. Empowerment of weaker sections, empowerment of women. In our local bodies, more than three million elected local representative participate in the decision making. Right now when I am talking to you, more than 1.2 million women chiefs of these local bodies are exercising their authority!”
euronews: “Yes because the clue is you have to give the women more clout, more education; also men, don’t they need to be re-educated a bit?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “That is absolutely needed, that is absolutely needed, awareness building, education, creating consensus, and that is why I have turned the page and I have asked my countrymen to reset our moral compass.”
euronews: “After a decade of relative quiet, we have seen an increase of violence at the Line of Control with Pakistan. We know it is on the front page these days. Do you think you will see peace between Pakistan and India in your lifetime?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “In 1971, when Indira Gandhi was prime minister, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan, India entered into an agreement known as the Simla agreement, and in that Simla agreement India ceded all the territories occupied by the Indian army during the war. In our basic foreign policy we do not have any territorial ambition, we do not have any ambition to export our ideology to any country, or we do not have any commercial interests. Because when I was foreign minister more than often I used to say that ‘I can change my friends if I like, but I can’t change my neighbours if I like’. I shall have to accept the neighbour for where he is, whether I like or not. Therefore it is for me to decide whether I will live with my neighbour in tension or in peace.
“We opted for peace! But one point is to be understood: no country can compromise its territorial integrity. That is not possible. And second thing is terrorism. And terrorist activities must be curbed. And state-sponsored terrorism can never be acceptable.”
euronews: “India says this is state-sponsored terrorism, but of course Pakistan says that it is not state-sponsored terrorism.”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “No it might not be, but non-state actors, that is the phrase they use, then I respond by saying that non-state actors are not coming from heaven. Non-state actors are coming from territory under your control.”
euronews: “India is going to the polls next spring, major general elections are coming up, I know you cannot talk about party politics in your present position, but you are a senior politician, so can you tell me which are the key issues which are going to win or loose the next general election?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “Economic development, inclusive growth, maintenance of law and order, protection of internal security and protection from external treats. The Indian electorate are fully aware of their responsibility and I am quite confident they will exercise their right very wisely.”
euronews: “And do you think it is important to have a charismatic leader to win these elections?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “Whether a leader is charismatic or not, it will depend whether or not he or she is able to catch the vote because charisma is tested by them.”
euronews: “We asked our web users if they would pose a question to you. I would just like to put to you one which came from a young Indian man, his name is Tanmay Kumar, he is a student in economics and lives in Delhi. He would like to ask you: ‘Has the way politics was done in India changed over time?’”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “Every election in India is a landmark election in the sense, that it has thrown up new leaders, it has thrown up new issues, it has addressed new problems, which the growing economy, growing country, growing society faces.”
euronews: “I wonder if I could now tap into your incredible historical perspective. If anyone has lived through all the pages of India after Gandhi, you have. We don’t have time for a history lesson, but tell me one thing, if the founding fathers of India, Gandhi, Nehru, were here today, would they be reasonably content with what they see?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “Of course, because when we became independent, there was disunity. When India became independent, we could hardly manufacture anything. But the manufacturing we have developed over the years is substantial. The literacy rate was less then one third and now is more than three quarters. Therefore these are the areas where the founding fathers would surely feel satisfied. But at the same time, they will feel not satisfied because we are to reach much greater heights!”
euronews: “Do you have any regrets?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “No”.
euronews: “And what keeps you awake at night?”
Pranab Kumar Mukherjee: “I would like to see India takes its rightful place in the community of nations, as one of the most prosperous developed countries which protects human rights, which includes the development of one and all, which is the old maxim of our society.”