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September 9, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ Ram Naik

'In a democracy, the people also look at the Opposition's performance'

If there is one seat where no senior BJP-Shiv Sena leaders need to campaign rigorously, it is Mumbai North, represented by Union Minister of State for Railways Ram Naik. He has been representing the seat since 1989, and straddles it like a colossus.

Naik came to Bombay from Sangli in western Maharashtra in 1955, and began work as a clerk in the Accountant General's office. Moving to the private sector, he worked as company secretary before resigning in 1969, opting to work as an organising secretary for the erstwhile Bharatiya Jan Sangh.

In spite of being a senior politician, he was only given a junior ministry in Vajpayee's council. However, he has no grievances about it. In fact, he feels there are limitations when the BJP is running a coalition government, and told Syed Firdaus Ashraf about these problems.

You have won this constituency since 1989. How did you do it, given the fickleness of voters?

Winning an election is itself an achievement, and so far I have won the assembly election thrice and Lok Sabha elections four times. One important aspect is that in every election, I have been increasing my vote share. In Bombay no MP has been elected more than three times.

Even stalwarts like S K Patil, the uncrowned king of Bombay, or V K Krishna Menon, right-hand man to then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, were elected only twice from here. Another stalwart, Comrade S A Dange, who established the Communist Party of India, even he was not elected thrice.

I am the only person who has been elected four times to Parliament from Bombay. Moreover, none of these stalwarts had been an MLA like I was. So, I think the credit goes to the voters for my achievement.

But, in 1998, you were elected by a reduced margin.

Yes, the margin was reduced, but my votes had gone up. In 1996, my victory margin was high because it was a triangular contest. In 1998, there was a direct fight and therefore the margin was reduced. My popularity or support among voters did increase, the criterion which should be applied is whether my votes have increased or not.

Do you think once again, with the division in non-BJP votes between the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress, you will better your performance?

Yes, definitely. The Congress is divided right from the top to bottom. In fact, they were finding it difficult to find a suitable candidate against me before settling on Chandrakant Ghosalia who stood against me in 1989 as well. At that time, there was a Congress government at the Centre and in the state, and three out of six MLAs in my segment were from the Congress, and two were from the Janata Dal. I was the only BJP MLA in my constituency. In spite of all that I won.

And in this election we are ruling the Centre and state. So I am in a much better position than him. And, the NCP has not put up its candidate against me.

Your constituency is one of the largest in the country, and it is urbanising rapidly. A lot of things are yet to be done. Apart from the railway problem, recently the Mira-Bhayander area witnessed water riots. How do you propose to tackle all that?

First of all, Mira-Bhayander is not part of my constituency but comes under Thane. But the overall perception is that this is a growing constituency, and the basic problem of a growing constituency is that it does not have civic amenities. Every growing suburb has that problem. However, in my constituency, we have formed a scheme worth Rs 2.3 billion for supplying drinking water. It has been approved by the state government and it is in operation. By the end of next year, the scheme will be completed. Similarly, there is a problem with the railways and we are working on it to solve the problem.

But Mr Naik, compared to former railway minister Ram Vilas Paswan who converted Hajipur into a railway centre, you have not done much for your constituency in spite of being railway minister.

(Laughs) Then people would rank me along with Paswan or Jaffer Sharief. I am here not to look at the place where I stay. All over India, the number of people travelling by train is 120 million. Out of that, the number of commuters in Bombay alone is 5.9 million, and I have been taking care of these commuters. As leader of the Opposition, I was demanding the setting up of a railway corporation.

Now we are in power and we have formed a joint company with the Maharashtra government and the railways. And, we have taken up so many projects. It is important for me to improve Bombay's suburban railway system rather than improving individual stations, say, like Goregaon.

That is not the way Ram Naik looks at the situation. Ram Naik looks at issues and not at one or two stations. So, there is a difference between Ram Naik and other railway ministers. I look at problems at large and then tackle the problem.

Coming back to Vasai's chronic water problem, can you tell us why the region cannot satisfy the water demands of everyone?

The problem is there is no water storage available. Water is available in the next tehsil, Palghar. From there pipes have to be laid and damns have to be built, and this work is going on. Water is available in Thane district as a whole. The entire Bombay district gets water from Tansa and Vaitarna which are in Thane. In the same way, Surya river is from where water will come to Vasai. That water is available and laying of pipes is going on.

There is a lot of resentment against the state government. And, there is a general feeling that people may vote your party for the Lok Sabha, but not for the Vidhan Sabha.

I don't think this is the right assessment. People will surely vote for us in both the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections, because they look at the problem as a whole. Pawar's leadership has failed all over the state. And the leadership he is giving to the state is Chhagan Bhujbal, and no one can believe Bhujbal means business.

You see, they have behaved in a very irresponsible way in the legislature. The people have noted their performance. Don't think in a democracy people only look at the government's performance. They also look at the Opposition's performance. Moreover, our performance in the last four-and-a-half years has been good. Be it drinking water problem or price stabilisation of essential commodities.

The price of rationed goods has not been hiked in Maharashtra when all over India their prices were hiked. We had promised to the people that the price of rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene -- which is supplied through ration shops -- won't increase and we have kept that promise.

But that does not seem to be the people's perception?

(Interrupting) That may be your perception. The people's perception will be known when the results are out.

The BJP has always been rightist. Now, by assimilating partners like the Trinamul Congress, and has become a centrist party. Where does your party stand now, and more importantly how do you explain these change to your cadres?

Actually, those who thought we are a rightist party were wrong. All along we have been taking pragmatic decisions in a pragmatic way. What we have been advocating was integral humanism as a whole. Man has economic needs. But at the same time he has social needs, like education and health. These are also not different from leftist views.

But issues like the Ram Janambhoomi, Article 370 and Uniform Civil Code are not being discussed anymore. What happens to all these issues? Will they ever come back on your agenda?

First, it is not an issue today as the matter is pending in court. Second, the present issue is national security. Third, we are in a coalition era. So, we have to form a common minimum agenda with our allies. We have to ensure that what is agreed by all would be presented to the people. So some issues are not relevant now. The issue is not Article 370 today, but whether Kashmir will remain with us.

Is one-party rule over?

As of now, it is over. And it will remain so till the next two-three elections.

What happens if the BJP comes to power on its own?

I don't entertain such thoughts. I would love to have a majority on our own, but even then we are duty-bound by the common manifesto.

Despite being a senior party member, a junior portfolio was given to you. Were you upset?

My voters and supporters also feel I should have been made a Cabinet minister. But I know the limitations of a coalition government, that keeping the government going is the need of the hour. First I was given charge of the ministries of railways and parliamentary affairs. After one month, when the prime minister thought somebody has to look after planning and programming, I was chosen for the job.

And when the Lok Sabha was dissolved, Advani was looking after the home ministry by himself, and I was given additional charge as minister of state for home. So, the prime minister has reposed so much faith in me. Sometimes I feel had I been an independent minister I wouldn't be able to do all these things. So I am happy that my merit is appreciated by the people and my leaders.

The Rediff Election Interviews

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