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August 31, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ Cho Ramaswamy

'The issue before the voter is: who is going to be the PM?'

Cho Ramaswamy needs no introduction to the politically inclined. His Tamil satirical magazine, Tughlaq has been spreading mirth for years now, lampooning as it does the quirks and foibles of the political class. A keen political commentator, he has seldom been wide of the mark in his assessment of the prevailing situation. Shobha Warrier caught up with him for a pre-election tete-a-tete.

What is going to be the issue in elections 99? Will Kargil be the main issue?

Kargil will definitely be one of the issues. But the main issue would be the suitability of the two candidates, one of them openly projected and the other somewhat indirectly projected or left to be understood: Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi. I think the major issue in the minds of the voter is: who is going to be the prime minister? Is it going to be Vajpayee or is it going to be Sonia Gandhi?

Why is the Congress reluctant to project her as the PM?

Well, Sonia Gandhi has messed up her own image. First, she succeeded in creating a myth that she was out to serve the Congress and help rebuild it to its past glory. But when Vajpayee's government fell, the way she ran about trying to muster support for her candidature, well, shattered the myth. Also, she openly claimed that she had the support of 272 MPs when she had much less. All this created the impression that she was out to grab power somehow.

Number two, Vajpyee was seen as a man who had been asked to climb down for no fault of his. It was not on any big issue that he was brought down. Later, the Kargil conflict happened and the general opinion is that he handled it rather well. On the military front, Pakistan was definitely defeated. And it was a huge victory in the diplomatic front. All these added together, even the Congressmen now realise that Sonia Gandhi may suffer terribly in comparison with Vajpayee. That is why they are not openly projecting her as the prime minister.

It was also reported that the Congressmen are worried about the thin attendance of her rallies. Is it because the curiosity factor is lost?

Yes, her rallies seem to be thinly attended these days. The curiosity is definitely gone.

Vajpayee has repeatedly said that he didn't want to make Kargil an election issue. Who do you think will use it eventually, the Congress or the BJP?

The congress has already made it an election issue by harping on it again and again and trying to fault the BJP for the alleged intelligence failure. Now that they have made it an election issue, the BJP has to respond. So, they have responded by blaming the Congress for all that had happened in Kashmir from 1947 till now. Naturally, this has led to Kargil becoming an election issue. I think it is the making of the Opposition. They thought it was a convenient stick to beat the BJP with. But it is going to be a boomerang.

Who will benefit from using the Kargil conflict as an election issue?

I do not know whether the people are going to be swayed by the allegation that it was an intelligence failure which lead to the Kargil conflict. I think the people would ultimately think that whatever may be the reason, once the conflict was there, it was handled very well.

Do you think the same passion over the Kargil conflict will last till the elections?

Since there is no other issue, I think this will remain so. But I don't think that this alone will decide the election. One of the other factors that can play a role is: people may be unhappy with those who have caused this election. The Congress is the primary culprit there, the first accused. People would think that the Congress was unnecessarily trying to pull down every government which was not theirs.

Generally the economic situation seems to be brightening up which is advantageous to the BJP.

Do you foresee another hung Parliament?

It need not necessarily be a hung one because the BJP and their allies together may manage a majority. I am not very sure now. Who can predict all these things at this stage? Even exit polls go wrong. What I say is only my perception.

Do you feel the BJP is managing seat-sharing well? They seem to be having problems everywhere. Will it not affect the image of the NDA?

If they get it over and done with soon, people will accept it in their stride because these things always happen whenever an alliance is struck. But if it continues for a longer time, it may have its own negative impact.

If we look at what is happening in Karnataka, do you think it was right on the part of George Fernandes and Hegde to invite J H Patel to join the NDA?

Knowing fully well that the BJP had been criticising the Janata dal government in Karnataka for the last two years, it was not right on their part to have initiated the move in this regard without the consent of the BJP. Also, the BJP had started campaigning that the people should teach a lesson to all those who pulled down their government and Janata Dal was one of the parties which did it. Knowing all this, Hegde and Fernandes ought to have consulted the BJP before making these moves. Unfortunately they do not seem to have consulted the BJP.

Anyway, since that's happened, the BJP at least should have taken the initiative to see to it that these things were not thrashed out in public but in private. They should have averted from making this a public debate.

Do you feel both Hegde and Fernandes did this to consolidate their position in Bihar and Karnataka?

Naturally. They have an advantage because their bargaining strength vis-a-vis the BJP goes up. You can't find fault with the political parties for trying to increase their bargaining strength. But they should have been able to see what kind of repercussions it would create in the ranks of the leading partner of the alliance.

In Orissa also, the BJP has problems with the Biju Janata Dal. It seems NDA has more problems than the Congress.

Problems are there with every party. The Congress did not make up its mind vis-a-vis Jayalalitha till the last moment. First she offered five seats and the news was out. Then, emissaries after emissaries came to Tamil Nadu. Manmohan Singh and A K Antony came twice. So, this went on for quite some time. It happens because everyone feels that the position of the parties will be so tight in the next Parliament that a couple of seats more would lead to an enormous increase in clout.

Do you think the people of Tamil Nadu will punish Jayalalitha for blackmailing the BJP led government from day one?

I have not yet had any feedback from the various regions of the state. It will take some more time for me to assess the public opinion. But my desire is that they should.

The DMK first gave nine seats to the PMK and the TRC and then began the seat sharing exercise with the other parties. Why do you think the PMK got a special treatment?

I think they (DMK) suffer from a complex. In the '98 elections, the DMK-TMC alliance ignored Ramadoss in spite of his attempt to get into that alliance. He would have been satisfied with three or four seats then but the TMC was not prepared to give up any seat. Then Karunanidhi said, if that is the case, I am also not giving any seat. Because of this clash, Ramadoss was left high and dry and he went to Jayalalitha's alliance. Ever since, Karunanidhi has been regretting the decision. The general perception is that with the PMK, the DMK-TMC alliance would have fared better. So, this time karunanidhi wanted to be doubly careful. So, he called Ramadoss first and saw to it that the relationship was cemented. Meanwhile Ramdoss went on record saying immediately after the fall of the government and the dissolution of the Lok Sabha that he would go to the party which gave him the maximum number of seats.

See, he is like Kanshi Ram. When he spoke like that, perhaps Karunanidhi got a little bit nervous and called Ramdoss first.

'The BJP stands to gain because of the division of the anti-BJP votes'

The Rediff Election Interviews

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