Ahmedabad, Aug 30 : Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has in a controversial remark blamed the high level of malnutrition in Gujarat on the predominantly vegetarian diet in the state and the “middle-class” being “more beauty conscious than health conscious”.
Asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter on what he was doing to check malnutrition, Modi has been quoted as saying: “Gujarat is by and large a vegetarian state. And secondly, Gujarat is also a middle-class state. The middle-class is more beauty conscious than health conscious — that is a challenge. If a mother tells her daughter to have milk, they'll have a fight. She'll tell her mother, ‘I won't drink milk. I'll get fat'.”
Below are edited excerpts of The Wall Street Journal's exclusive interview with Mr. Modi at his home-office in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. His answers have been translated from Hindi.
WSJ: Can Gujarat sustain its fast pace of economic growth as it gets richer and as the nation's growth is slowing to less than 7%.
Modi: Going from 1% or 2% growth to 10% isn't difficult. What is difficult is to sustain 10%. But I'm confident that we can achieve it easily. I believe growth should be constant, sustained and inclusive. It's only meaningful if these three things are there. Otherwise they're just economic figures.
WSJ: What was your reaction to India's massive electricity blackouts at the end of July?
Modi: The power and energy sectors are the biggest constituents of the infrastructure sector. If you ignore them, no development will happen. As far as the power blackout is concerned, I am embarrassed by it. This is a great loss for my nation. The situation was immediately compared to Gujarat. The world saw so much darkness that even a flicker of light caught their attention.
WSJ: Can Gujarat's electricity reforms be a model for other states?
Modi: Villages (in Gujarat) didn't used to get power at dinner time. They'd eat in the dark. Kids didn't have light to study for exams; if mother was sick, there was no electricity…It disturbed me. Then I got involved. God helped me. He gave me a technical solution: separating the network so there are different power lines for agriculture and for domestic use. It became a huge success story – we completed it in 1,000 days. All the states of India felt that this should be replicated in their states too.
WSJ: Should India remove foreign investment barriers in the multi-brand retail sector, allowing in companies like WalMart and Tesco? Would you support such a move?
Modi: When you bring in multi-brand retail items into the country, you're not just bringing the products, but you're also harming local manufacturers. You must strengthen your manufacturing sector and put it on a level playing field with the world. Any kind of items manufactured globally, like small pens, pencils, notebooks – our manufactured goods need to be on a level playing field. Then let them come. Have a competition. The biggest loss is going to be to manufacturers. Local traders will be fine; they will sell the stuff imported from outside and still earn profits.
WSJ: What are your plans in the auto sector?
Modi: For me as chief minister, my thinking about the auto sector is over. I will not spare a single second for the auto sector – it is already over. Now, naturally people will come and they will do their business. What I am looking for is the next generation – and that is, we want to focus on defense equipment.
WSJ: Gujarat's malnutrition rates are persistently high. What are you doing to combat this?
Modi: Gujarat is by and large a vegetarian state. And secondly, Gujarat is also a middle-class state. The middle-class is more beauty conscious than health conscious – that is a challenge. If a mother tells her daughter to have milk, they'll have a fight. She'll tell her mother, “I won't drink milk. I'll get fat.” We will try to get a drastic change in this. Gujarat is going to come up as a model in this also. I can't make any big claims, because I don't have a survey in front of me yet.
WSJ: What steps have you been taking to increase primary school enrollment, especially among girls?
Modi: Every year in June when it's 44 degrees (Celsius), I personally go to those rural areas where there's minimum education. I stay for three days and we go from house to house to say that all the girls should go to school. Then for another two to three days in October we go to assess the quality of education. I go myself to primary schools in villages. We ask the kids, “Can you read, can you write?” We involve the teachers also. We made 60,000 toilets for girls in schools so that girls wouldn't stop going to school.
WSJ: How were you affected by the Emergency of the mid-1970s, when you were an RSS worker and many of your group's leaders were arrested or forced into hiding?
Modi: I got an excellent opportunity to learn and understand democratic values. In the Emergency we came to know what it means to not have democracy. And it shook me. This played a significant role in making me what I am.
WSJ: Do you see yourself as a future prime minister?
Modi: I don't carry the burden of the past or the madness of the future. I live in the present. My present is my Gujarat, the 60 million people of this state, the villages, the poor farmers, the children – to change their destiny. I can't think beyond that.
WSJ: Your critics say you should apologize for the 2002 riots. Why won't you?
Modi: One only has to ask for forgiveness if one is guilty of a crime. If you think it's such a big crime, why should the culprit be forgiven? Just because Modi is a chief minister, why should he be forgiven? I think Modi should get the biggest punishment possible if he is guilty. And the world should know there isn't any tolerance for these kind of political leaders.
WSJ: You're a very controversial figure. People who praise you often get into trouble. Does that bother you?
Modi: [Anti-corruption activist] Anna Hazare once wrote a public letter of appreciation to me. I saw it on TV. I wrote a letter to him. I said, “You've made a big mistake and now people will harass you. Just don't get into the business of praising me.” In the next three to four days everyone pounced on Anna Hazare. I always take it in jest.
WSJ: Some might accuse you of granting these sorts of interviews now to do an image make-over. Your response?
Modi: If I wanted to make over my image, I could have given 10,000 interviews in the last 10 years. I haven't done anything wrong that I need to make up for. I am what I am in front of the world.