"BJP's 370 Target Not A Random Number": S Jaishankar On NDTV Battleground

The external affairs minister also spoke about India's foreign policy challenges in the neighbourhood and said some of them may be exaggerated.

The minister said the BJP's focus, if re-elected, will continue to be on a developed India.

New Delhi:

With the Lok Sabha elections winding down to a close, NDTV's Battleground saw a trio of heavyweights speaking on a range of issues, including predictions for the next government, employment and India's rising stature on the world stage. 

Foreign policy was a big part of the discussion because one of the three panellists in the show, hosted by NDTV's Editor-in-Chief Sanjay Pugalia, was External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. The BJP and the opposition's prospects in the election were addressed by both Mr Jaishankar and economist, author and former member of the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council, Surjit Bhalla.

The third member of the panel, Manish Sabharwal - vice-chairman of TeamLease Services, one of India's biggest employers - helped dissect the economy and bust unemployment myths.

Another important talking point through the hour-long show was Lutyens' Delhi - a reference to the traditional elite - and its dwindling importance in the India of today. The "Lutyens' Gang" is,in fact, how the discussion started with Mr Jaishankar saying it is a way of thinking and not necessarily a factor of where people live. 

Mr Jaishankar said he had been to 12 states and spoken to people from all walks of life and different age groups. He said the BJP's target of 370 was not a random number, but thought and analysis had gone into it.

"For the middle-aged and senior citizens, the government's record in the past 10 years is very important, they feel their lives have been changed. When the youth talk about the government, they talk about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and believe a lot can be done now. They are optimistic about their future. So, for some it's hope, for others, it is the record. One thing I will say, though, is the level of people's interest in foreign policy has been a surprise... even in small cities," he said.

Vote Share Significantly Up?

Responding to some people saying that this is a waveless election, Mr Bhalla said he did not think there was a wave in 2019 as well. 

"A wave is when there is an outlier, there is an extreme. The biggest issue is how much people's welfare has improved, and this is true for every country. By that yardstick, the changes, progress, welfare of the people in the past 10 years - and I am not talking about Lutyens' alone, I am talking about 95-99% of the people - this has not been seen before. If the BJP's vote share reaches 42-43%, then I will say there will be a wave," he said. 

"I think it could be 42% for the BJP, up from 37% in 2019. People compare it to 1952 and 1957, when the Congress had a vote share of between 45 and 48%. But now you have to talk about BJP and allies, because the BJP is not contesting all the seats. The NDA, well within the realm of possibility, may have a vote share between 46 and 48 per cent," the economist added.

BJP's Prospects

Asked what number he would choose if he had to place a bet on the number of seats the BJP would get in the upcoming polls, Dr Jaishankar said he would leave the exact number to experts like Mr Bhalla. He said he felt pro-incumbency in several states. 

"I went to Kerala several times last year. I went to Telangana for the election. These are not the BJP's traditional states. I sensed an emerging energy there. I can say that the trend in our favour is very positive. I feel our vote share could go up by five percentage points from what it was in 2019, it could even be more than that. On the basis of my experience, I think our numbers will go up, not down," he said.

On the BJP's claims that it will perform well in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha and West Bengal, the external affairs minister said the BJP is a "professional, serious" party and does not rely on guesswork. 

"We analyse at the booth level and move upwards. When we say we will get this number of seats in this state, a lot of thought has gone into it. You have said the (BJP's) target of 370 seats is a slogan. I don't think PM Modi has randomly mentioned a number. Some thought has gone into it. It is clear that we will be able to hold our position in several states. In some states, such as Bengal, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradeh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, we will increase our seats," he said.

Problems With Maldives Exaggerated?

To a question on foreign policy challenges in the neighbourhood despite India's rising stature globally, Mr Jaishankar said, "Yes there are challenges, they will remain. The neighbourhood itself is a reason for the challenges. We have to increase our capabilities at home and also to compete abroad. Foreign policy is a competitive activity, no one will help you or do you a favour."

"There is some amount of exaggeration as well, some people say everything has gone wrong with the Maldives. Yes, there are some problems but I don't think the situation is so bad or relations have changed so much. If you compare, an Indian company had been removed from the airport earlier (in 2012). In Sri Lanka, our image has changed. In Bangladesh, terrorists and separatists used to operate from there, now that is over. The Nepal that used to say it will never export electricity to India is very enthusiastic," he said.

Mr Jaishankar said that sometimes there are attempts to mislead and spread propaganda as well. He emphasised that the government's effort is to strengthen the neighbourhood and make countries believe that they also stand to benefit from India's progress. 

"We have to take this belief forward. I think a lot has been done in 10 years," he said. 

Constitution Changing?

Mr Jaishankar also took the opposition's allegation of the BJP intending to change the Constitution and used it to take a dig at the Congress. 

Reiterating the BJP's claims that the UPA government was run by remote control and senior Congress leader Sonia Gandhi was actually taking all the important decisions, the minister said, "Let me remind you of the record on the Constitution. Nearly 85% of the amendments made so far have been made by the Congress. There is no reservation on the basis of religion in the Constitution. Which section has a provision for remote control? But that was done during 10 years of the UPA government. So, they violate the Constitution."

Mr Jaishankar also took a jibe at Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and his recent statement of being an insider in the system. 

"He said there was discrimination during the time of his grandmother (Indira Gandhi), father (Rajiv Gandhi) and the UPA. I agree with that. But he hasn't been in the system for 10 years, so he has no experience, he has no information (about those years)," he said.

Circling back to the Lutyens' Delhi, the minister said, "Look at the President, the PM, the cabinet ministers, the MPs, can't you see a change? Can you see the same elitists? There used to be talk of a Doon School gang, now there is possibly be no one from the Doon School in Parliament."

Third Term Plans

On the roadmap for a possible third term of the Modi government, the external affairs minister said the upcoming election is a national one. 

"There may be local problems, but people will vote based on whether they believe in Modiji or someone else... and there is no other face. We have shown the country an optimistic future and people believe in us. We speak about Viksit Bharat (a developed India), the other side tries to scare," he said. 

"We were told months ago to plan for the third term. even during elections, we get feedback from the Prime Minister on this. When the PM says the past 10 years were a trailer, don't take it lightly. There will be a focus on education, skill development, employment opportunities, technology, sunrise industries, and manufacturing. People say manufacturing can't happen In India, but I am certain it can. PM Modi has the vision as well as the talent to make it happen. This is his speciality," he said. 

Mr Jaishankar stressed that the overall atmosphere for investors will also get better. 

"Investors look at political stability. Whenever a government comes in the second term, they make corrections based on the experiences in the previous two terms. A Centre-state alignment will also happen after the elections. Even if the state does not have an NDA partner, they will adjust because they also stand to gain. Some people are part of an alliance that they know has no future. They will also be normal after the election," he said. 

Welfare Politics

Making a strong statement on welfare politics and the lessons that can be learnt from developing countries, Mr Jaishankar said, "For the foreseeable future, the government has to provide basics to people, like ration, housing, power, health and medicines. We should take a lesson from developed countries, who are not being able to manage their health system, where urban poverty is now growing. Our commitment is to keep schemes like Mudra loan yojana, anna yojana (free ration scheme) and housing going at least for the next five years. 

"We should not look at the Western definition of welfarism. We need welfare for now, but efficient welfarism, without leakage. This has been good for the economy. The rural economy has grown because of the anna yojana. Farmer income has also grown," he said.

Mr Sabharwal also said that the welfare state will have to stay and that there is no such thing as poor people, but "people in poor places".

"Three poor places are not places per se, it's which sector you are working in, which firm and what skills you have. Agriculture employs 42% of labour force, but accounts for 14% of GDP. IT sector is worshipped but it's a rounding error in terms of labour force - about 1% - yet accounts for 8% of GDP. Firms have a difference of 25 times in terms of productivity."

For poor places, he said, welfare state will have to stay. 

"Because we can't move 42% out of agriculture. It's not a bulb that goes on, it's a gentle sunrise, done over 10-20 years. So if a patient is in the ICU, you must give triage, but if a patient comes every day, somebody has to tell him to lose weight or quit smoking or do something. Therefore, the economy is being put through some short-term pain for long-term gain," he stressed. 

'Employed Poverty'

On unemployment being a major issue in the elections, Mr Sabharwal said the real challenge is "employed poverty".

"Unemployment has never been a challenge. It's been between 4-8% since 1947. Our problem is employed poverty - people have jobs but not the salaries they want. If there would have been 45% unemployment, price of labour would have fallen exponentially. The only information in an economy are votes and prices, everything else is a model. The price of labour has gone up everywhere. I have employees in 5,000 cities and the average salary now is Rs 28,000. If 300 million had left the labour force, how would that happen," he asked. 

"The price of labour does not suggest unemployment is a very important labour market issue or political issue," the TeamLease vice-chairman said. 

Mr Jaishankar also responded to the opposition's claim of rising unemployment and emphasised that 46 crore people have taken Mudra loans and 28 km of highways and 14 km of railway lines are built in a day.

"If all this is happening, someone must be working, some must have taken loans. Hence, saying so many crore people are unemployed or there is so much unemployment... Like he (Mr Sabharwal) said, there are only two firm indices, votes and prices," the minister said. 

"When we go to meet the public, we ask 'are you getting ration?'. 81 crore people get free ration, without leakage, every month. People in Lutyens' Delhi have got all these basic necessities so they don't give them any weight, for them it's taken for granted.  Four crore people have got houses. The average family size in India is 4.8 - so, 19 crore people have got houses after 2014 and they thank Modiji for it," he stressed.

Mr Bhalla said employment has grown the most between 2014 and 2024 and between 1999-2004, both under NDA governments. Jobless growth, on the contrary, happened most between 2004 and 2011, he claimed. 

'Once In A Country's Lifetime'

Sharing an interesting anecdote illustrating India's rise, Mr Sabharwal said, "In 1994 when I went to the US, there was a front page copy in the Wall Street Journal saying India is more interesting than important. I hope the journalist is eating the paper on which he wrote that."

"Because, what is happening in the country is not once in a decade or once in a millennium, it is once in the lifetime of a country, because 50% of the FDI since 1947 has come in the last five years. In 2021, we exported more software than Saudi Arabia did oil. The next 25 years for India will be very different than the past 25 years, not because of luck, but because of what has happened," he said.