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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Interview with Kapil Sibal

Interview with Kapil Sibal
By Devasish Ray

President Bush has launched his new foreign policy in trying to get Israel and Palestine to talk peace, yet this policy remains a Rubik cube, with some nations attending, curious to see what really transpires. India a long time friend of Palestine and a relatively new playmate of Israel also attended the meet held at Annapolis, the picturesque capital of Maryland, led by a surprise choice, Kapil Sibal, Minister for Science, Technology and Earth Sciences. In his whirlwind tour of the US, Sibal met with both the heads of state of Palestine and Israel and reiterated India’s commitment to play its’ “due role” in assisting this new peace initiative.

Sibal sat down with this correspondent in Washington DC and spoke about his visit, domestic politics, Nandigram, the Nuke Deal, poverty and his reflections on the recent headless chicken fiasco, which forced Ambassador Ronen Sen to apologize in Parliament. Here are some excerpts from this exclusive interview:

DR: You are leading India’s delegation to Annapolis, what are your reflections on this new peace initiative of President Bush?

KS: Well! I think we must congratulate President Bush and also the parties to this conflict, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for having come together to forge some kind of a road map to the future, with some kind of a time frame, along with a monitoring mechanism as both sides have agreed that US would oversee the progress. They have also agreed to bi-weekly meetings and setting up by December 12 a working group which takes this step further.

DR: It took President Bush seven long years to re initiate this dialogue. What is India’s opinion on this?

KS: As far as I am concerned it is an initiative that must be applauded. You must remember that the crisis in West Asia has been festering for a long time and the impact of the consequences of the conflict have been felt over the world and the International community must come forward to help in any way. We should look upon this initiative with optimism and the issue is not that he took his time. My personal reflection during the course of this summit has been that both parties want peace as they see that violence and negotiations are incompatible. We must encourage and support them.

DR: Yes! India has been a good friend of Palestine and it was the first country to recognize the State of Palestine in1975. Since then there has been a major shift in India’s foreign policy with leanings more towards Israel. Then it was Arafat. Today it is Hamas which is really not keen to talk to Israel. You met President Abbas yesterday. What misgivings did you convey to him?

KS: Everybody including both heads of state knows the obstacles and the pitfalls (meaning Hamas) in the road ahead. Also all know that there are other spoilers besides Hamas. It is going to take a lot of give and take to achieve this peace. This is the impression I got frankly that he really wants peace and has a desire to move forward. Let us see. Again it is imperative that the entire International community come forward in backing this initiative.

DR: There is a reason I asked this question, so let me rephrase it. What is India’s take on Hamas?

KS: You know very well and this is something which we made very clear before too, that violence is not an appropriate route to take when we want to move forward. We have always supported Palestine and its cause and we want good relations with Israel too. I am very happy that the two state concepts have been agreed upon for the very first time.

DR: Switching gears now Kapil… What on earth is going on in Nandigram and why was it allowed to escalate so much?

KS: As far as the central government is concerned we have made our position very clear. The Central government has two takes on this. One, there seem to be evidence of some outside elements who are trying to destabilize this region…

DR: Who are these elements?

KS: I do not want to mention them now?

DR Why?

KS: There is at this moment a temporary resolution so why should anybody make a statement which will increase the tensions in the area. Number two, yes excesses were committed in Nandigram and I am sure the government has taken cognizance of that and we hope that things will improve.

DR: What has your ministry been up to lately?

KS: Quite a lot actually. The bio-tech sector is moving ahead at a pace of 30 to 40 percent. We in collaboration with the ministry of agriculture are working towards a plan to ensure 4 % growth rate. Agriculture needs a lot of technology and we will provide inputs in the quality of soil and seeds. We have new software that monitors crops which alert farmers accordingly. By this we will know the extent of productivity. We are also trying to empower the university structure and are offering scholarships for excellence. We want more students to take to science for which we are offering a Rs 5000 a n incentive. Huge investments are on and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating as it will be evident soon…….

DR: Quite a rosy scenario. How does it percolate down to the common man? Let’s not be defensive about this. We talk of 9 % GDP growth but how has it impacted the poor?

KS: Very important issue that you have raised, Devasish This is the one government which is addressing this issue…….

DR: Come! Come now Kapil! Garibi Hatao has been going on since Mrs. Gandhi. Nothing has been done about this, so do not say that you are doing anything? What concrete steps are you taking…?

KS: I am coming to that. I knew that you would be countering me...

DR: Okay then. Convince me!

KS: I want to inform you that never before in the history of India have you had the kind of investment made in the social sector. They may have been slogans before, but there was no money to back it. That we have a 9% growth is crucial as it gives you the capacity to invest in the social and education sector. Our health budget has increased significantly. There will be a slow impact but there is no magic wand to make it happen immediately.

DR: The nuke deal was botched by your coalition partners? What now?

KS: There are a lot of misgivings but also a lot of politics. We are debating this issue and the opposition which initially had supported this is opposing this for the sake of opposing. I know the Indian American community here has contributed a lot and I must say that we are equally disappointed like the. But, I assure we will move ahead.

DR: Why did the government of India ask one of the finest diplomats Ambassador Ronen Sen to apologize in parliament for a comment he reportedly made off the record? Why did the government subject him to such embarrassment?

KS: Remember Devasish, the parliamentary process is not a governmental process. If the issue is raised in Parliament and the speaker takes note of it and refers it to the privileges committee, the government has no right to override this. So it inappropriate to say that the government allowed this to happen.

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