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October 1, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ Rajesh Pilot

'If a leader is a leader, he cannot be sidelined'

There are a lot of similarities between Rajeshwar Prasad, more known as Rajesh Pilot, and the late Rajiv Gandhi. Like Rajiv, Pilot too has the image of being Mr Clean. Like Rajiv, he is most comfortable behind a car. Like Rajiv, he loves flying (Pilot retired from the air force as a squadron leader).

Rajesh Pilot Handpicked by Indira Gandhi, part of Rajiv Gandhi's cabal, Pilot has not been in much favour since. He staged a rebellion against Sitaram Kesri and, pre-election, was categorical that the Congress should not project anyone as prime minister.

And yet, no one has been able to keep him down for long.

Numerous speeches -- Pilot has been much in demand among Congress candidates in various parts of the country -- and many days on the road had given him a hoarse and cracked voice. Long hours of campaigning meant that meals were limited to handfuls of chana mixed with peppercorns and rock sugar (the latter for the throat). And lack of time meant that he spoke to Savera R Someshwar on the road, as he raced his car towards his next meeting.

What is your opinion about coalition governments?

I am personally against coalition governments till such time there is some similarity in ideology. That is a different issue. But, unfortunately, political situations are emerging in such a way that coalitions are also becoming a compulsion sometimes. We Congress people would like to have an ideological government. But, as I said, this is slowly becoming a bit of compulsion. So it cannot be avoided sometimes.

But the Congress has always manifested itself to be against coalitions. And suddenly, in the middle of the election, when Sonia Gandhi changes her stance; how does that go down with the people?

No, we are against coalitions yet.

But she has made statements saying she is open to the idea of a coalition government.

No, no, we are against coalitions. But in the national interest, if this is the only option available, then it becomes difficult to say or rule out any possibilities. So we have just said that in the national interest, if it is required, we are not totally averse to it.

Does it not reflect badly on the Congress? Does it now show that you have not strategised for this particular issue. Suddenly if you change something that is there on your manifesto…


How does it reflect on your party?

No, we are with our manifesto. We have only said that, well, in the national interest, if we are forced to come to some understanding with some political parties, that cannot be ruled out.

The Congress used to be only the only national party in India at one point in time. Why has it lost out on its mass base? In the last election, you had a pitiful performance in Bihar and Tamil Nadu. You did not even open your account in Uttar Pradesh, which is considered the deciding state in Indian politics.

You are right. The Congress is losing its base, as compared to the past. And sometimes, you know, you are forced… (interruption by party worker) Because of the regional forces coming up. Some parties which are spreading the venom of religion, other things… (interruption by party worker).

You were talking about why the Congress…

Yes… So sometimes the Congress took decisions which resulted in short-term gains like going with the BSP in UP. Then with some of the regional parties like Telugu Desam. Their focus is on regionalism and we lost our base. But we are trying to regain it now.

Is there any effort being made to regain the base?

Yes, yes, we are making an effort.

If you are making an effort not to tie up with regional parties and regain your mass appeal on a national level, why did you tie up with Jayalalitha?

The local unit was forcing us. And, because of that…

Wasn't the local unit against this tie-up?

No, the local unit was in favour.

What do you personally feel about this tie-up with Jayalalitha?

You know my views (laughs).

Tell me again.

It is a party decision. But I had my own views, which I gave to my party.

As a senior leader of the Congress, if you have a particular opinion, you should express it.

That's what I said. I have expressed my views in the party.

How about expressing it to the voters, the readers?

No, no, I had expressed my views in the party before the decision was taken. But then, the party has taken the decision now.

What were your views then?

(smiles) I've expressed them in the party.

You don't want to tell me what it is?

It does not look nice. (Long pause) I had my reservations.

Is this going to be the last election that the Congress will fight as a national party?

Who says?

Well, will it? Will India now have only regional parties?

I don't agree with that.


The Congress has the base, Congress has the ideology, Congress has the strength. We will rather gain strength in future.

There is a perception outside the Congress that it does not know what to do.


Why is nothing being done to change that perception?

It is not correct. The Congress knows what is good for the nation, what Congress should do and we are doing that.

What is good for the nation? What does the Congress think is good for the nation?

Rajesh Pilot The Congress feels the BJP has destroyed our institutions. India has a history of old traditions, institutions like the bureaucracy, the legislature, the judiciary… All three have been harmed by the BJP attitude, the BJP government. Then, the basic approach of the Congress was for the villages, for the poor, but the BJP has reversed that. So, if we come back to power, we will revert back to the pro-poor policy.

Another allegation against the Congress is that the poorer and uneducated the constituency, the better the chances of the Congress in winning that seat.

I don't know what is it that you are… I can't…

If a constituency is poor, if a constituency is not literate, then the Congress will definitely win that seat.

Has some BJP chap told you this?


South Delhi is poor? Tell me. Bombay is poor?

Bombay was with the BJP last year.

Bombay is with the Congress. Hyderabad is poor? Hahn? Secunderabad is poor?

What will happen if the Congress wins with a majority this time?

The Congress will get a majority.

In that case, who will become the prime minister?

Whomsoever party wants.

Has the party decided?

Elected MPs will decide.

Do you think Sonia Gandhi will become the prime minister?

She is the party leader. She is the Congress president. But it will be the MPs who will take a decision.

But the Congress has also been giving an impression that Dr Manmohan Singh might become prime minister. What do you want to say about that as someone who knows the party and understands the way it works?

I think we have inner party democracy. There will be a free opinion after the election and then party will decide.

So you don't want to express your opinion.

Nahi, nothing can be said at this moment. The Congress president herself has said that the elected MPs will take a decision.

In your honest opinion, for someone to occupy the seat of prime minister, do you feel one needs a certain amount of experience either as MP or as MLA?

It is a question of (elected) MPs electing an individual.

Yes, but should that individual have experience? Is experience vital?

When I joined the party from the air force, I did not have any experience.

But you worked your way up over more than 20 years.

God is kind.

You've been around for more than 20 years. You've been an MP for four or five terms. Would it be different if someone with experience aspires to be prime minister?

I have found that experience always helps an individual.

I'm talking of a very specific instance, when an individual is given the responsibility of running a nation, a nation that is as huge and as diverse as India.

That is why I said that experience helps a person.




Experience helps a person.

Nothing more than that?

(laughs) I think I have said a lot.

You were seen to be very close to Sharad Pawar and it was expected that you would leave the party along with him.


Well, what happened?

I was very straight in my views.

What were they?

I have stated my views in the working committee.

And what were they?

I said nobody should be projected as prime minister. It is the MPs who will elect the prime minister. Ultimately, party took the decision. So why should I leave the party? If the party is agreeing with my view, should I leave the party?

Do you think Sharad Pawar made a mistake by leaving the party? What is going to happen to him politically?

I think his heart was not there. His heart was not there. It was his decision.

Politically, what kind of future do you see for him?

I don't know. What situation emerges, I do not know.

Why was there no effort made from within the party to prevent Pawar from leaving?

It was made.

Who spoke to him?

I spoke to him.

And what did he say?

He was bent upon leaving (the party).

Were you the only person who spoke to him?

I don't know.

Were you asked to speak to him?

No, I spoke to him on my own. As a friend.

But, officially, was there any effort made?

Officially, I don't know.

What is your opinion about what has happened in Kargil, and what is happening in Kargil right now?

I have said it in my speeches.

What is your opinion as an ex-IAF person?

About what?

About what happened in Kargil? About how the situation was handled?

The government handled the Kargil situation in a very haphazard manner. There have been lapses on the part of the government. And I must tell you, the first discussion in the next Parliament will be Kargil.

Do you think we suffered an unnecessary amount of casualties in Kargil?

There have been lapses on the part of the government.

If the situation was handled properly…


Well, if it was, would fewer lives have been lost?

I won't go beyond that. The situation was badly handled. There were lapses on the part of the government. (long pause) Because the army's involved in it.

What do you think about the future of the Congress in West Bengal?

It is improving.

Do you think Mamata Banerjee will rejoin the Congress?

It is improving (laughs).

Can you tell me something more than that?

I can't say whether she is joining or not joining, but we are back in West Bengal. Now it is improving.

Is the Congress negotiating with Mamata?

I don't know. No idea.

Is the style of functioning the same within the Congress as it was, say, five years ago?

Basically, the Congress functions in a manner which is written in the constitution. We have inner party democracy. We do give our opinions. Ultimately, the majority takes the decision. And the majority decision is implemented.

How is Sonia Gandhi's style of functioning within the Congress? Is it true that suggestions from certain senior leaders are being ignored? And that she accepts advice from only certain people?

This is not correct.

You have worked with both Indira and Sonia Gandhi. How different are their styles of functioning?

I have not worked very closely with Indira Gandhi, but I find Soniaji objective. She tries to understand the issues. She takes a majority decision and consults everyone. So that is a good beginning.

You were handpicked by India Gandhi. You worked with Rajiv Gandhi. You, Arun Nehru, Arun Singh... Today you are the only one left in the party. Are you disappointed with what it has evolved to? Why haven't you left?

I have been brought up in this party. I've the blessings of Indiraji and Rajivji. I was made a minister in their government. So I have a sentimental attachment to the party. They might have left, but I cannot go. What I am today is because of my party.

Why have you taken to maintaining such a low profile in recent times?

No, I have been giving my views on a regular basis.

You have been avoiding the press then.

Not exactly. But I have been busy. Now I will be travelling all over the country. I will be talking to the press.

But you have been a little quiet, haven't you?

Rajesh Pilot Basically, there is a difference of opinion between (Sitaram) Kesri and me. I contested again him. So that is why you must have felt I am very vocal in talking about it. But now, she (Sonia) is handling in a manner which, with every one of us advising her. So there is not much that you can raise and talk about. At that time, I had opposed Kesri's presidentship.

So you feel the present Congress leadership is better?

She is putting her best efforts.

How were the candidates's list decided this time? There was a lot of unhappiness about how the tickets were distributed.

There was an open discussion.

Do you have strong differences of opinion with Natwar Singh?

I said so in a public meeting. I said that hamare sambandh zyada madhur nahin hain.

Yet you campaigned for his son?

I campaigned for the party.

Why have these differences arisen? Is it a difference between youth and seniority?

Way of functioning (pause). What is seniority?

Seniority as in age. Is it a difference between youth and age?

Seniority as per age or seniority as per in the Congress?

As per age. Because your ideas about how the Congress should rule would be different from, say, someone who is 70 plus.

That might be.

What is happening to the young leaders of the Congress? Why is it that they have disappeared…

Nobody has disappeared.

Why is the Congress not encouraging a second line of leadership?

I have been always saying this in the party. The second line of leadership must be developed.

But if one is not being given any kind of responsibility, how can it be developed? What is going to happen to the Congress five or ten years down the line? Is it still going to be the dynasty?

This is one of the problems in our party. We are trying to improve upon it.

A fortnight or so ago, Maneka Gandhi formally introduced her son at a political meeting.


Is this how it's going to be? Priyanka versus Varun or Rahul against Varun? Is this the future of the Congress?

No. The Congress will get up on its own ideology, on its programmes.

And on the Nehru dynasty.

Well, that…

Don't you need to let them go now? Don't you think more experienced leaders need to come to the forefront?

You see, that family has done some sacrifices during the freedom movement.

So have many other families.

But the achievements of this family came into the light. Others must not have come into light. So that kind of sentiment is there among the people. But that is no contention. That is not the only factor. We have total inner party democracy. What I feel right, I'll speak.

And then you will get sidelined.

So what? Doesn't matter. How does it matter?

Doesn't it really matter if one stream of thought is ignored?

For how long can they really sideline? For how long can they sideline?

It could cost you your political career.

No. If a leader is a leader, he cannot be sidelined. Nobody can sideline a leader. A leader has a base, a leader has ideology. I was a minister under Narasimha Rao when I ordered the arrest of Chandra Swami. Was I sidelined? Could he sideline me? I'm still a member of the working committee. That is not the point. But a leader has to be strong on his ideology.

And not be scared of the consequence?

No one should be scared of the results if he is on a cause. You see, when you are on a cause, then you don't bother about results.

What will happen to the Congress five to 10 years down the line? Where do you see the Congress going?

We'll bring it up.

Who's we?

We, the younger generation.

Since you have realised this flaw in the Congress, are you bringing up a line of leadership behind you?


Who are these people?

I will only say that the second line is coming up now.

Who are the leaders to look out for in the national level?

There are many leaders.

Give me some names.

Well, (long pause) Ghulam Nabi Azad. Madhavrao Scindia. They are all leaders.

But who will be there after these people?

There are people in every state.

What happens at the national level? Then again, like today, there will be state politics instead of national politics…

There I agree with you. But, you see, I cannot answer this question.


The line of leadership at the national level should bring it up. These are those people who are at the helm of affairs in the party. They should decide.

Have you seen potential in anyone?

I can't answer this question because it is totally a personal question. It is not good that I should give my opinion about who should be a leader and who should not be a leader.

I am interested in your opinion.

The Congress leadership will come up with their view.

In your opinion, in your very personal opinion?

I can't give my opinion. Politically it is not correct.

For whom?

For me it is not correct.

Where is the Congress taking the nation?

You see, I'll tell you, there is nothing wrong with the party. Party is good. Party has a good ideology. But there are some lapses in our party which we are trying to rectify.

Could you elaborate?

Like I have said, the party is good. It has a very good ideology. The only thing is, some old traditions of the Congress are being ignored which we must maintain. And that is, inner party democracy should be strong, functioning should be transparent, accountability should be there in the party and we should enroll good people in the party. Winning elections should not be the only motto. Motto should be to serve the people.

What do you mean by good people?

Honest, dedicated, hardworking, followers of Congress ideology -- such people.

So you say that it does not matter if the Congress loses a few elections, but it's time to start strengthening the party.

Losing elections and winning elections is also a criterion. But that should not be the sole criterion for a political party.

What's your personal ideology?

I feel till such time as we don't get back to the Gandhian way of politics, value-based politics, till we do not usher in that, the future of the country is dark. Your politics is an important factor, your weapon. And if you do not usher value-based politics, then you are damaging the party.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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