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|October 18, 1999||
The Rediff Election Interview/ Ramakrishna Hegde
'There was no consultation over the names. It was George's duty, if not courtesy, to do so'
T he exclusion of veteran Karnataka leader Ramakrishna Hegde was the surprise element of the recently sworn in Union Cabinet. That the 70 member Vajpayee ministry could not spare a portfolio for the Janata Dal-United politician was nothing short of a humiliation for Hegde. And the leader has made no attempt to conceal his grouse. In an emotional conversation with Krishna Prasad, he eloquently voiced his disappointment.
Is this the worst moment in your political career: rejected in your home state, ignored at the Centre, and stabbed in the back by friends?
Oh, no. No. I've been through worse. The worst easily was when I was expelled from the very party I had built, the Janata Dal. This was disappointing at best -- being kept out of the Union Cabinet only because your own party did not forward your name to the prime minister.
How are you feeling today, better than the day before yesterday?
I'm a free bird. There are few occasions when a politician, when a minister, is free. Free of the constraints, free of compulsions, free of the responsibilities of office. I'm free now, and I'm grateful. To that extent I welcome the fact that I was kept out of the Vajpayee ministry.
But is the bird free enough to fly somewhere else?
No, it's enjoying the freedom just now! The bird'll come back to the place it originally flew from.
Did you have any idea, any hint whatsoever that such a plan was afoot?
No, there was just no inkling. It came as a pleasant surprise.
Yes, because of the freedom which has come just when one wasn't expecting it. I had been hinting for the last five-six months that everyone, including politicians, especially politicians, should retire from politics, and will-nilly that has come about, although it has come in a manner I don't like.
Who do you hold responsible for the slip-up? Vajpayee or Fernandes?
George (Fernandes), having taken the responsibility as the NDA convener should have consulted every constituent, and explained who was in and who wasn't before the swearing-in.
He should have at least had the courtesy, the basic decency, to tell me, 'Look, there are elections coming in Bihar. We need to prepare the JD-U, and we therefore need to accommodate one more MP from there,' and I would have understood. After all, becoming a minister is no one's birthright. But there was no communication whatsoever. He didn't even consult me on who to take from the JD-U in Karnataka.
So are you disappointed with the choice of the dalit MP Srinivasa Prasad?
No, that's not the point. The point is there was no consultation, no deliberation over the names. It was George's duty, if not courtesy, to do so.
Have you seen this backstabbing streak in George before?
George and I go back a long way. I've known him for 40 years, and each person has his pluses and minuses, strengths and weaknesses. But this was a little too much.
You seem to have your worst problems with Kannadigas. Just when you seem ready to take the next step up, somebody intervenes. First it was Deve Gowda, and now it's George.
(Laughs). Probably they think I might become an obstacle to their ambitions. Deve Gowda's first task after winning the vote of confidence was to throw me out of the party.
Does your plight sadden you more or does the plight of Deve Gowda delight you more? (the former prime minister and his sons have all lost)
No, I'm not the vengeful type. I don't wish ill on anybody, even on my worst enemies. We all have to reap what we sow.
Was George afraid that you might become a threat to his position as NDA convener in a post-Vajpayee scenario and so conspired to keep you out?
That's a hypothetical question, and I don't answer hypothetical questions. But I'm confident that Vajpayeeji will complete his full term of five years. I don't want to think about what happens to the NDA after that.
Has the prime minister or Advani or any of the BJP bigwigs called you after the exclusion from the ministry?
No. None of the top four have called me. (After a pause) Probably they have been busy with the ministry-formation. But other BJP leaders have.
You talk of George's 'indecency' in not calling you, but so wasn't Sushma Swaraj by the BJP leadership? Does power get so heady that parties and politicians forget even the basic courtesies of life?
I know. That was terrible. I mean, here was a lady who was originally not inclined to contest the polls, but who didn't think for a second when the party asked her to take on Sonia Gandhi. And yet she wasn't even told that there would be no place for her in the ministry. Terrible. She was here to see me, you know, with her husband.
Is it true that you were first asked by the BJP to stand against Sonia, but you didn't want to, which is why Sushma's name was proposed?
No. I was never in the running. In fact, it was I who proposed Sushma's name. That's why the leadership flew her to Bangalore in the dead of night, and to Bellary. But for me, she wouldn't have stood from Bellary.
Do you subscribe to the popularly held view that the BJP leadership in Karnataka prevailed upon the prime minister to drop you?
It may not be true. (B S) Yediyurappa (the Karnataka BJP chief) spoke to me after I was dropped. He swore on his children that he wasn't responsible for my exclusion. ("He spoke to me and said the same," interjects Hegde crony M Raghupathy.)
But there are many who believe that the BJP dropped you to prop up Ananth Kumar. One Brahmin instead of another.
(Guffaws angrily) Let them. I've not stopped them. ("Neevu summane kooth kollri" -- You shut up and keep quiet -- says Hegde to Raghupathy, who counsels him against speaking on the subject.) If he's deserving to be a leader of some stature, let them do so. It's not my problem. If they think he's so good, then why did they demote him from the civil aviation ministry?
In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake to hastily cobble together the JD-U and tie up with the BJP?
We had no option. My idea was to create an umbrella party of smaller parties like the Lok Shakti, the Samata Party so that there would be better coordination, better articulation of demands, and a better deal for all.
But you failed in your very first objective?
Yes, no coordination.
But did you have to do it so close to the elections?
That was the only thing acceptable to (J H) Patel (the former Karnataka chief minister). I don't think he would have joined the NDA in any other form.
Haven't you paid the price for carrying the burden of a very unpopular chief minister who not only took you but also the BJP down with him?
No. Patel is not at fault. I could see what was happening in Karnataka from the word go. I could see that the JDU-BJP understanding was not working. It was not executed properly. From the beginning, BJP local leaders kept making noises that wouldn't have pleased voters. I knew that the tie-up would only get so many seats and no more. I said so openly, and said it would hurt us very much. In fact, I said it would hurt the BJP more than it would hurt the JD-U because it was the one state in the south where the BJP had a good chance of forming the government. But the local BJP men did not listen.
Would your situation have been different if the BJP-JD-U alliance had stormed to victory?
Certainly it would have helped. But they kept harping on the anti-incumbency factor. We got 20 seats and the BJP 43. If anti-incumbency were to blame, we wouldn't have got those seats. Look at Punjab. Not one Akali Dal leader, including Surjeet Singh Barnala, who has some stature of his own, has been voted back. Now that is anti-incumbency. In Karnataka, we lost because voters threw out politicians who didn't perform or keep contact with them.
Yes, including Patel.
Would Vajpayee have accommodated you if the BJP-JD-U had won in Karnataka?
No. I don't think that was a factor at all. My exclusion from the ministry has nothing to do with our showing in Karnataka. I wasn't leading the campaign there. If I was, then I'd myself have resigned from the caretaker Cabinet and taken moral responsibility for the defeat and made it clear that I didn't want to be included. The fact is, I didn't campaign for the alliance too much, and Patel was too sick to do so.
So is the Janata Dal-United now back to the Samata Party?
That depends on what the Lok Shakti does. We have a national executive committee meeting later this month and we will decide there.
Will you stay on the in NDA if you're placated?
What's there to be placated? As I said earlier, a ministry is no one's birthright.
But surely, with the WTO so crucially poised, it would have been in Vajpayee's interest to keep you in as commerce minister?
(Shrugs) I have done my duty. The papers and documents are all there. The next incumbent will take it from there.
Are you seriously contemplating your threat to retire?
(Laughs) Retirement is not a threat. Suicide is.
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