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The Rediff Election Interview/Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh

November 24, 2003







It is after 11 pm and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh is speeding from Dhar to Indore after finishing his 12th public meeting of the day. He is clearly tired and pops a few homeopathic pills into his mouth.

"I take these ten minute naps while traveling which are good enough to keep me going," he says, lowering the temperature in his black Scorpio.

The day is not over yet. Sonia Gandhi is arriving in the state the next morning, calls have to be made to the Pradesh Congress Committee in Bhopal for updates and there is just one more week before the toughest battle of his political life gets underway.

If Digvijay Singh is nervous, he does not show it.

Political observers and opinion polls may show him on shaky ground, but the man who has held power in what was till recently India's largest state, for 10 years is confident of another win.

In an exclusive interview to Senior Associate Editor Archana Masih, he spoke about his success and failures, his fiery BJP challenger Uma Bharti and why he will return to power for a third time.

You have been a veteran of so many electoral battles, how tough is this election?

All elections are tough, so is this one. Which one is easy?

There surely must be some different challenges this time.

Every election throws up different challenges. Last time it was the anti-incumbency factor, this time it is roads and power.

You have known Uma Bharti for years, what is your assessment of her as an opponent? Earlier the BJP did not have a chief ministerial candidate as...

No, the last time we had Mr Sunderlal Patwa as the chief ministerial candidate. It is nothing new.

Earlier, there was the impression that these senior men from the BJP were being pitted against the dynamism of Digvijay Singh.

That time also Vikram Verma was one of their potential contenders.

After the bifurcation of Chhattisgarh, what difference has it made to governance in Madhya Pradesh?

My biggest problem is power. After the division of the state and the creation of Chhattisgarh, most of my power stations went to Chhattisgarh and that has made my problem more acute. Earlier, we were little short of power, but not so much.

And in terms of governance?

In terms of governance there is no problem. Earlier there was no problem; even now there is no problem. No one is talking about governance. Everyone is only talking about roads and energy.  

Even in those two sectors, we have taken whatever steps that had to be taken. Reforms have already been initiated. We are going for 100 per cent meterisation. We are going for the upgrading of the transmission system. We have gone ahead and reduced our transmission losses. Our plant load factor has gone up substantially. Per unit consumption of power in the state has gone up than what it used to be during the BJP's regime. 

But in the agriculture sector we are roughly about 2000 megawatt short of energy, and to meet that contingency, we have to go for selective power cuts in the rural and urban areas.

Your government is being attacked about roads and power. Have you been able to convince people you mean business on these two fronts?

My thrust in the last ten years has been more investment in the social sector. More decentralisation. Improved governance. More empowerment of the local bodies. Simplification of rules and procedures. This I feel we have accomplished.

The concept of district governance was highly appreciated by the honourable prime minister at his chief minister's conference. Now the BJP has put it in its agenda that they will do away with district governments. This is something the honourable prime minister praised. It is a complete reversal of their earlier stand.  

I have always felt the BJP is extremely poor in governance and their vision for development. Whatever their main strength has been to communalise and try to polarise the electorate into Hindus and Muslims, which they could successfully do in Gujarat. But here because there were no riots, polarisation has not taken place.

Do you think the BJP has abandoned Hindutva in your state because you are a devout Hindu?  

It could be. I have always felt a good Hindu will always respect other religions and people of other religions. That is our Indian ethos. Our religious upbringing is you have to give equal respect to all religions. This is in-built in me because this is how I have been brought up.

What does Hinduism mean to you?

First of all, there is no such religion like 'Hinduism.' This 'Hindu' word came from the Persian because all people living this side of the river Sindhu, Sindh, were called Sindhus and because in Persian 'S' is pronounced as 'H,' so we all became Hindus.

Our religion is Sanatan Dharm or Vedanta Dharm, whatever you call it. This is more of a way of life, your personal belief.

What schedule do you keep during election campaigns?

My working hour during non-elections is also (the same). I sleep between 12 and 1 and wake up at 4.30. From 7 in the morning, I do my exercises, my puja and start meeting people.

You have a darbar every day?

It's not a darbar. I meet everyone. Every morning, I meet (people) without appointment between 7 and 9.

In your own assessment, when you look back at ten years in power, what negatives do you find?

We have done exceedingly well on all other issues, except in roads and power. We have not been able to make the kind of investments which were necessary. Obviously, because we had in our scheme of things decided to give more attention to social sectors than basic infrastructure. That has consciously been done. Now the social infrastructure is ready and is functioning and delivering, we are concentrating on physical infrastructure.

How long will it take to get this on track?

It is already on track. For example, we have roads worth Rs 2,500 (Rs 25 billion) crores being constructed. We have plants generating stations of 3500 megawatts under construction, which will be completed in the next four years. What the BJP is saying we will give you power in the next five years, we have promised to give in three years. We  have given a schedule in our election manifesto.

Basically, whatever had to be done has been done. There is nothing much to do. The question is the tendering procedure; the lack of good contractors delayed our road project for a very long time. Otherwise, by now, most of them would have been constructed.

For example, the national highways. This is a national highway [the road from Dhar to Indore], but the sector between Sardarpur and Dhar is very bad. In spite of our best efforts we have not been able to get funds from the Government of India because it is their responsibility. In their national highways they are spending Rs 2 crores (Rs 20 million) per kilometre, but in our state's national highways, they hardly give us Rs 10 to 20 lakhs (Rs 1 million to Rs 1 million) per kilometre. 

You have worked with different governments at the Centre. How is your relationship with the NDA government?

The NDA government is running on its own momentum. There is no direction, there is no leadership as such. Each ministry is working in its own cocoon. It's functioning just because it has to function.

Where is the direction? Where is the content in the Government of India? So far as the honourable prime minister is concerned I have no problem. He has always tried to help me out. But the surface transport ministry is just not clearing our projects.

For how long?

It is almost a year now. The welfare department did not release my family welfare funds till we had to raise this issue twice or thrice. They have still not given us the total amount.

I don't know who has briefed the honourable prime minister that we have not utilised their funds. Our utilisation is one of the highest in the country – in the prime minister's Grameen Sadak Yojana [rural road plan] or in any other area.

Have you responded to the prime minister's charge that you have under-utilised funds?

I have been trying to say it in my own way and bringing it to the honourable prime minister('s notice), but then, of course, he is being pressurised by his party.

What is your biggest USP when you go for the polls this time?

My credibility. What I said, I delivered.

And you think people believe you?

I do.

What are your party's weaknesses that you need to focus upon?

Yes, there are few areas.

What would they be?

I can't pinpoint as such but every constituency has strong points and weak points. It all depends on the candidate and the configuration of candidates who are contesting. I am going to almost all assembly segments without being charged of being partisan. I am going there on the strength of my own assessment and convenience.

What about your own constituency?

I don't contest that election. My workers and my voters, they contest.

You have a four time MP to contest against you, is it a battle this time?

Hardly a battle.

Will you be spending more time in your constituency this time than you did earlier?

I am addressing two meetings on the 26th I think and then the 29th.

Who are the people who manage your campaign?

During campaigning, we have a core team working in the Pradesh Congress Committee. In my constituency, we have our workers.

What if you lose this election?

I have told you already (in an earlier interview) that I will not seek any post as repentance.

What would this repentance mean?

There is a world beyond all this also. I have been in politics for 30 years, so I might as well take a sabbatical.

Your state made a presentation at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in January. How serious is your government about attracting investments from NRIs?

Very serious. The first Special Economic Zone in this country has come up in Madhya Pradesh and is drawing great response. So is the case in other areas also.

People don't know there are hardly any power cuts as far as industry is concerned. This is the holy cow for us because this is where we get our bread and butter.

How many sabhas have you done today?


How do you sit through all of them?

Usually a candidate speaks and I speak. Here it was different [he addressed a meeting in Dhar, where six people spoke before him].

What difference does your presence at a meeting make? What does it do?

There is no way to measure that. It enthuses the candidate, the workers and the campaign sort of picks up.

What is your experience of working with Sonia Gandhi? What kind of a manager is she? Is she hands on? Does she give you enough freedom to function?

She's excellent. She's totally non-interfering and gives us total support. At the same time she keeps a very close track of what is happening in the state. She has been very good. We chief ministers draw a lot of support from her.

Compared to Delhi and Rajasthan, the assumption is that Digvijay Singh is on a sticky wicket. That Shiela Dikshit and Ashok Gehlot may pull through, but not you.

I love to take challenges. It's not the first time that I am on a sticky wicket. Everyone said so last time.

You are confident of making it through?

Yeah. I've learnt the art of playing on a sticky wicket.

How many seats are you looking at?

125 to 135.

You call Uma Bharti your sister and have known her for years and years, what are her strengths?

She's a rabble rouser.

Apart from that?

I'll have to think about it.

What provoked you to file a defamation suit against her? Why did she ruffle you so much?

She leveled such baseless charges. After all, in the present political context where politicians are being seen in very bad light, these charges may stick if I don't react. So I had to do that.

In the BJP who are the leaders you admire?

Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Does it stop there?

And to an extent Dr Murli Manohar Joshi.

In your own party?

I really admired Rajiv Gandhi a lot. Of course, Soniaji now.

This is the first election in Madhya Pradesh after Madhavrao Scindia's death. He was a charismatic campaigner, what impact has his absence had on the Congress campaign?

His presence would have contributed, but Jyotiraditya Scindia is also a very dynamic person. He has been able to fill that void to a great extent.

Your wife campaigns for you in Raghogarh?

Only in Raghogarh.

Have you consciously kept your family away from campaigning?

I would like to say my wife keeps her own counsel as far as this (politics) is concerned. She does not interfere and does not allow me to interfere in her household affairs.  

What is it that makes you angry?

It is very difficult to make me angry.

But Uma Bharti did make you angry?

Not angry. Sad.

Where did you meet her last?

Where did I meet her?

I think at the Orchha temple.

If you had any message to give her, what would that be?

Look after yourself.

No best of luck?

Just look after yourself. Play cool.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda. Image: Uday Kuckian

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Sub: Don't blame others for your failures

In the last 55 years after independence, Madhya Pradesh had Congress Government most of the time. Why there was no roads and power all these ...

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