Natwar seems to have frequent loss of memory

Updated: Aug 13 2006, 05:30am hrs
Union minister for tourism and culture Ambika Soni feels tourism will generate more jobs than the IT industry, is upbeat about the prospect of wellness tourism in India, wants the National Heritage Sites Commission to adopt more monuments and at the same time wants physical frisking of tourists at the Taj Mahal to stop. In a freewheeling discussion with The Indian Express Group reporters and editors over lunch at the Express office, Soni talks about tourism, the Natwar Singh controversy and Sonia Gandhi. Excerpts:

On joining the government

I have worked in the party for more than 35 years, at different levels and have developed a sense of comfort in the party. This time also, I did not want to join the government, but Mrs Gandhi told me this could be a new experience. In any case, people will offer this to you, once, twice, and after that they may say, what the hell! and I may regret at a later stage. So I decided to join.

Synergy between the party and the government

The PM and Sonia have a very high level of understanding. And coordination between the party and government happens at the highest level. You have a core group, a CWC with the PM, and there is no contradiction between any section of the party or the government.

Now doing a less important job

Not at all, I am enjoying my new role as a minister. And though I dont meet Sonia two to three times a week as I used to, I meet her once a week and she gives me inputs on tourism.I like my ministry very much.

Natwar Singh

Natwar Singh has handled himself well. When the controversy began earlier, I was handling it. At that time, the party position was that the Congress had nothing to do with it, and Natwar is another person, nothing to do with the party in this matter. That position is unchanged. He seems to have frequent loss of memory. From morning to evening, he changes his statements. I dont know how it is all going to end. But some of the letters he has written are on record. As a political activist, I also write hundreds of letters, but there is a format to such letters. These letters are different. People in public life do not write these letters, unless they want to.

Sonias letter to Saddam Hussain

It is absolutely according to norms. We have had bilateral relations with political parties, our delegations go there, we receive different delegations, and whenever such delegations meet each other, they meet heads of parties, and in this case Sonia Gandhi.

American pressure delayed cabinet formation in 2004

How can a country delay another countrys government formation Nothing of that sort has happened. In fact Natwar becoming foreign minister was a foregone conclusion. Even before we came to power, he was handling the partys foreign affairs cell and helping the congress president receive foreign delegations.

Will Natwar be pardoned

It would depend upon the replies he gives, it is not up to me, but the partys leadership to decide. But what he said about the PM was the biggest act of indiscipline and what he said about he cabinet is a matter of defamation for every single member of the cabinet.

Sonias public utterances

She has a sense of timing. Her own instincts work. Remember, she is the UPA chairman too and her statements are binding on the government if she makes statements too often, that would preempt a free and frank debate on issues. Let everyone talk and discuss issues, whether right or wrong.

Advice to Natwar

For a person who claims to have enjoyed the affection, patronage and understanding from Nehru, Indira and Rajiv before Soniahe let his temper, anger and frustration out. He has talked about the PM and cabinet, the way he did. He has been a visible foreign minister, and has had a long innings, but he has damaged his credibility more than anyone elses. He has often made speeches from party platforms what am I, a 70 year old man doing here and he has got huge applauses for it. Maybe he should heed his own advice and just retire.

On the tourism budget

The budget is worth Rs 830 crore, which is about Rs 60 crore more than we had last time. We have to spend Rs 20 crore more on publicity. We have also started this Rural Tourism Scheme hoping to dovetail it into the Bharat Nirman schene.

Profile of the tourism ministry

More than the budget, what is important is the profile. Tourism should be treated as an economic ministry. Weve worked out figures which say that it will generate more employment than both IT and agriculture, and it is the biggest mobiliser of resources. And infrastructure goes without saying because the jobs will come only from the creation of infrastructure. And it is an area where our Left parties have absolutely no problem with even 100% FDI. They have included it in their list of non-strike industries So this should be looked at as an economic ministry, and Im lobbying, cajoling and persuading people (without much success as yet) for this.

The face of India

I met home minister Shivraj Patil the other day to ask him to sensitise the immigration process because you dont want to enter India and face the sort of immigration we do....he said zaroor karenge (We will certainly do it).

Callousness towards our heritage

I went to a museum in Nalanda and our convoy of ten cars came to a screeching halt in the courtyard and I saw there were stone statues in the courtyard which one of the cars nearly reversed into. I thought they were fakes but they were the original statues! I insisted that they be placed in the inner courtyard. All this only demonstrates that we have so much that we dont value it. Also, the ASI budget is Rs 62 crore. This means Rs 6,000 per monument. What can you do in that amount

A National Heritage Sites Commission

I have just sent a bill to the Law Ministry last week National Heritage Sites Commission Bill , that would do primary surveys, make databanks of all monuments, then create some kind of an apparatus, maybe volunteers of high schools could adopt some monuments Then we are looking at public-private partnerships. Like Humayuns Tomb has been done by the Aga Khan Foundation. Jantar Mantar is being looked after by Park hotels, ONGC has put in Rs 10 crore towards Hampi.

On the Taj

The Taj Mahal went through periods of concern, and the Supreme Court stepped in due to the Taj corridor etc. so they are very sensitive to things done in and around the Taj.

About10,000 people are hand-frisked there which most people didnt like. We need permission for different kinds of security checks which we havent got. Weve filed a PIL to get permission from the Supreme Court,to eliminate physical frisking.

New Kinds of Tourism

The thrust of this years tourism campaign will be on Kerala, because Wellness tourism is really catching on in a big way. The other thing is Medical Tourism. One thing the government has already done is a medical visa for one year for the patient and a companion. Im talking of online visas, advanced passenger information. The ministry of external affairs has identified a few embassies who are outsourcing visa personnel to make the visa process faster.

ITDC Turnaround

The Ashoka Hotels, ITDC, have made a profit of Rs 3.45 crore in the last quarter, whereas we were losing crores, and this is a very big thing. Weve decided to make Ashoka a heritage hotel. There was a proposal to lease them and I said why not make them up to the highest starrage and then think about that.

All of them started making profits after that! We might even look at the possibility of the National Museum later on being run professionally.

On the controversy over the celebrations

This year, we are celebrating 150 years of the First War of Independence (1857). There was some controversy over the committee appointed to oversee the arrangements. It was a rather unfortunate remark by historian Ramachandra Guha about the possibility of politicians misusing funds.

The budget is only Rs 10 crore and not Rs 150 crore as has been reported. All political parties are represented in the committee and we have two journalists as well. I dont think it needs several historians.