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February 12, 1998


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'Any party which wants to rule India has to be secular in its true sense'

Nitish Bhardwaj playing Krishna. Click for bigger pic!
Riding high as Krishna in B R Chopra's Mahabharat, Nitish Bhardwaj clinched a seat from a state he had never ever visited before. And like Arvind Trivedi and Deepika Chikalia, he became yet another mythological trump card for the Bharatiya Janata Party. In Jamshedpur, Bihar, in 1996.

This modern day Krishna's charm seems to have waned for the BJP now. Something, however, he disagrees with vehemently. The BJP has given the Jamshedpur ticket to Abha Mahto -- JMM case approver Shailendra Mahto's wife -- and made clear that Bhardwaj's role has been restricted to campaigner.

Even if he is disappointed, the articulate actor doesn't admit it. In a hour-long interview withArchana Masih, at the WIAA club in south Bombay, Bharadwaj -- who defies the stereotype of the actor-politician -- spoke about his present role, the BJP's prospects, its agenda and the politics in Bihar.

To begin with, where do you think the BJP will make maximum impact this election?

Number one -- the policies of the BJP. The kind of rumour-mongering about Swadeshi is clear now. Industry is now facing the same crisis that the BJP mentioned years ago. Even today the BJP is not against multinational companies per se. Business and industry are very much for the BJP because the so-called economic liberalisation that started with Dr Manmohan Singh and the way it has ended has had bad repercussions. Many, many companies have folded up -- indigenous companies

Number two -- wherever there is a BJP or its ally's government, say in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Delhi -- the law and order situation is far superior than a Congress government. In Maharashtra it was a common thing to expect Hindu-Muslim riots now and then. It is not happening now. All said and done, the common man wants peace of mind and that's what he is getting.

So confidence in the BJP is the main strength in today's election. Confidence in the BJP as a party. Confidence that the BJP will not do anything that will harm the economy and a common man's life. Confidence in the council of ministers that the BJP will have, and in its prime ministerial candidate. Atalji, it's very clear, is far more acceptable to the Indian masses than any other candidate. All these points put the BJP and allies ahead of any other party.

Then I come to the negative points. Negative points of the United Front. Governments have collapsed due to the whim of a man. The Congress went according to that one man and people know about it. These negative things are also going to turn into political assets for the BJP.

How many seats do you expect your party to win?

I think even if the fever is high... I have just returned from my initial leg of campaigning in Maharashtra. Now in Maharashtra people are more literate than let's say Bihar and UP. The masses react in a subtler way than in UP and Bihar. The hungama and furore is much more in UP and Bihar. Whereas in Maharashtra it is calm, subtle, people have made up their mind. In spite of that, the two rallies we held in Ichalkaranji and Satara ... in Ichalkaranji, Deve Gowda had a rally in the afternoon and there were 1,500 people. We had our public meeting at night and there were 45,000 to 50,000 people.

Who campaigned with you?

Raj Thackeray and me. That's it.

In Satara, two days before our rally, Sharad Pawar, Chhagan Bhujbal, Ranjit Deshmukh, blah, blah... the whole band of so-called Congress leaders had a rally. Everyone in the Shiv Sena was worried that 'oh, they had 20,000 people,' and the same thing happened. There were around 40,000 people for our rally. We always check with the police. They have their own standard of measuring the gathering and they said approximately 40,000 people.

The way audiences are responding. The subtle, literate audience -- it is clear that there is definitely a want and a demand from the Indian masses. Before I went for this campaign, I thought the BJP with its allies, realistically speaking, would get around 240. After seeing the response in Maharashtra and from what my colleagues are telling me about UP and further, I think it is not going to be a problem in getting a clear majority.

What about the south?

In the south we will definitely gain. In the 11th Lok Sabha -- we were zero in Andhra, absolutely negligible in Tamil Nadu, in Karnataka we were the main Opposition till Bangarappa left and joined the Congress. With Mr Hegde's Lok Shakti with us, I think it is going to definitely make some elevation in the graph. The alliances are going to give us gain. It cannot be less than zero anyway.

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Where are you going to make maximum gain?

I think in Maharashtra. A bit more.

How many seats do you expect to win?

We should cross the 40 mark in Maharsahtra. In Gujarat we will definitely gain. The way the Shankersinh Vaghela episode has happened. The same kind of whimsical behaviour of the Congress has been seen by the people of Gujarat. This led to a kind of instability in industry. Whatever little time Keshubhai (Patel) ruled, people still have good memories.

We will also gain in Bihar. Definitely.

How many seats do you expect there?

Last time along with the Samata party we were 18 and 6, that is 24. This time we should cross 30. More than 30.

On what basis are you making that claim?

The way the fever is going against Laloo Prasad Yadav. See the way he tried to combine his forces to form a Secular Front -- it failed. It failed. The Laloo charisma is fading. I have always thought of him as a good marketing manager.

Have you ever had a chance to interact with him?

Yes, I did. Once. Only once. I attended the Bihar assembly session just one day before we had a huge rally at the Gandhi maidan, Patna. It was Atalji's rally. According to police sources it was the biggest-ever rally after Jayaprakash Narayan's rally in 1977. A day before the rally I was there, and what you saw in the UP assembly, I saw much before in the Bihar assembly. Same thing. Someone on top of the table. Pointing a finger at the speaker and talking rudely. Breaking the mike etc. That kind of behaviour reflects the level of the legislators in those parties.

So you think this could be the beginning of the end of Laloo Prasad Yadav?

Yes, I do. Yes, I do.

Why do you say so?

Because that man is totally engulfed in all sorts of things. I mean the whole world is laughing at Bihar. Biharis who are outside the state and were neutral to polling, now they are saying they want to vote by proxy -- by mail. They want to vote for the BJP because they have seen Rabri Devi becoming chief minister of a state which needs probably the most efficient person, and the best administrator in India among the legislators. We need that kind of a person to rule Bihar today.

The state has gone to the dogs a long time back. It is a write off from the Indian economy. People are fleeing the state. You go to Punjab and Haryana, all agricultural labour is Bihari. My driver is from Bihar. He told me, "Sahab, mujhe yahan se le chaliye, kahin aur naukri dila dijeye." They are living under constant threat and fear.

What have the governments in the last 50 years given society, especially in Bihar and UP? Casteism? In Bombay we cannot even imagine what casteism means. When you go into the interiors of Bihar and UP, you really come to know what casteism means. They just kill you.

But Laloo losing power sounds a difficult proposition. After all, his is the party in power and we all know that Bihar accounts for some of the highest incidents of booth capturing.

But now the Election Commission has become very active. More than 50 per cent booths in Bihar and UP have been declared sensitive. Which is welcome, it is a good sign. In my constituency last time -- Jamshedpur -- which is the most civilised town in Bihar, I have seen booth capturing with my own eyes. All the men and women were just standing outside with their parchas and the booth was gone. Finished. There were armed people standing outside.

But how much can the Election Commission do?

It is up to them (the Election Commission).

But Laloo will still have the upper hand.

Probably. Upper hand in terms of gundagardi.

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And in terms of gathering votes?

I have a lot of faith in the Election Commission this time, more than even my own election last time. They are bent upon seeing that there is a fair election as far as possible.

But we must also remember that this is an election without the intimidating presence of T N Seshan.

No, no, no. Seshan was a man who first showed that 'my post also has these kind of powers that I can implement.' But having said that, in my election last time in Jamshedpur -- Seshan was totally ineffective.What did he do? Because eventually the chief election commissioner is going to sit in one place. And Dr Gill and Mr Krishnamurthy have seen the flaws of the last election.

See there are two aspects, one is power, second is implementation. They have seen power in the last election, implementation was not complete. Probably, now they will put more force on that. All that big noise about the power of the CEC, everybody knows that now. I'm sure they will try to implement much more.

So you think incidents of booth capturing will be less this time.

Hopefully. Hopefully. The fever, if it was so in the rally last February -- the way people were listening to my speech, Shatrughan's speech, Atalji's speech. Pin drop listening. Clapping, whistling at whatever appealed to them. I told them that today you are sitting here because you don't want Laloo's government. But what happens when the elections are announced? Why do you start looking for a person from a particular caste? And there was pin drop silence. They were all sorts of people there -- Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Dalits, Kurmis, Kohris, you name all the castes.

I firmly believe it is the citizen's responsibility to elect the right legislators. In Sanskrit we say Yatha raja, thata praja (like king, like subjects). But today if you want a good king it is the subject's responsibility in selecting that representative. So people should go the booth and vote. If there are people in their hundreds or more at a booth how can you capture it? Booth capturing is a phenomenon where 10 to 11 people go to cast their vote. I think in a place like Bihar only a revolution can happen.

Do you think revolutions can really happen?

All you need is one person because the fire is already there. All you need is a chingari (spark). You need that one man like Chanakya.

But in Laloo, the oppressed of Bihar found a man they could identify with.

But they have realised that the man they identified with is the wrong man. Only identifying the masses in terms of their behaviour, their speech pattern and their clothing is not enough. People want employment, security and peace of mind. Somebody asked me 'how come there are so many Biharis in the IAS?' I told them that all elite Biharis sent their children to Welhams and Doon School. They are not living in the thick of Bihar. People who do, cannot prosper.

Coming back to the BJP, what are the major issues through which the party can influence the electorate?

Number one is stability that any country needs for its growth. A clean and transparent government. All said and done, people are talking about the 13 days of governance by the BJP. We could have done horse trading, but we didn't. Which unfortunately had to be done in UP. But there was a definite purpose because it is the same picture as Bihar.

Parts of UP which are near Delhi, you go and see how people live there. There are broad daylight abductions of business people. People are living under fear and what would have been the true meaning of President's rule in UP? It would have meant Mulayam Singh's rule. Like Laloo, he has put Yadavs in the police. Kanshi Ram had given a nara, "jis jaat ka CM, us jat ka DM.".

Let us admit the BJP is the only party which has many more people with cleaner images and education. Then comes the minority factor. They have also realised that in the past 50 years, they were just used as vote banks. The kind of reservation policies the way they were implemented was not right. Even the makers of the Constitution had said these policies should be implemented for the first ten years and reviewed thoroughly. But a review has never taken place. Review of those policies should be for the benefit of the masses. Not for vote catching.

When I went for an election campaign in a village, a section there belonged to a caste called puran (old) caste. They were not listed as a scheduled caste/tribe. Now everybody is jumping on this bandwagon for special privileges, but like Gandhiji said if you really want to develop the personality within a man, it can only be done through education. That should come true.

Somebody may occupy a chair in a higher position due to reservation but he may not be the suitable man to occupy that chair. That chair has responsibility attached to it and we have to deliver that responsibility for the betterment of the masses. If you don't know how to handle that responsibility, it is not going to work. So the minorities have realised that they have got all those things which were like peanuts. They haven't really achieved anything.

But you cannot deny that the past few weeks have seen a sudden surge of the BJP embracing the Muslims. The azadari procession in Lucknow, iftar parties...What proof is there that the BJP's enthusiasm for the Muslims is going to last?

If I have to be very very realistic and honest, then the only answer to this is any party which wants to rule India has to be secular in its true sense. The Congress is not secular in its true sense.

What is this 'true sense?'

True sense means really implementing policies. Framing policies for the development of those communities. The Congress has always done gimmickry. After Nehru, Shastri was probably the best prime minister so far, but he was there for a short time and he faced a war.

From Indira Gandhi's time onwards it is only gimmickry that has worked -- Garibi hatao. Has it gone? Garibi does not go by shouting from the dias. It goes by forming right policies. Give them education and they will eradicate their own garibi. They will find more avenues. Today there are more than 40 per cent living below the poverty line. And more than 55 per cent below the poverty line in Bihar itself.

After that, Indira Gandhi's assassination worked in their favour. The moment there was an issue -- Bofors, Rajiv lost. Then Rajiv's assassination. Did it make a major dent in any other party? It didn't? Now it is this new gimmickry -- the Jain Commission and now the entire issue is not a part of their manifesto. Why? Nobody is talking about the Jain Commission now? 26 people are sentenced to death, how many people are from the DMK?

Then they realised who will campaign? Some Congress colleagues in the eleventh Lok Sabha were saying, 'The only thing we are telling Chacha Kesri is don't come into my constituency, we might lose.' So this new gimmick of getting Sonia Gandhi. She used to tell Rajiv Gandhi not to join politics. What has she done for the Indian people? The same Amethi from where the entire Gandhi clan used to contest from, during Rajiv Gandhi's tenure some 10,000 crores (Rs 10 billion) were pumped into the constituency for industrialisation. Ninetyfive per cent of those industries are now locked. What did she do to revive them after his assassination?

She even says that Rajiv Gandhi before his death had said that to demolish the Babri Masjid, people would have to first kill him. If you want to prove that then you have to go to the heavens and ask him that. This gimmickry is a cruel joke with the Indian masses.

What percentage of votes can she cut from the BJP?

The Indian people are very emotional. I do realise she may make a little swing in the electorate. But it is too early to say because the real campaign has not yet begun.

Do you consider her a threat enough?

No. The initial glamour of the Gandhi family is there because the Congress has given them that glamour. They are using her to win the election. They are using the Gandhi family to survive. Before her entry political analysts had predicted 75 to 80 seats, now probably they can can get up to 100. She might cut into the United Front vote, not the BJP. The UF is now a spent force.

But why do you say she won't cut into the BJP vote bank?

Because where she is making an impact is more in the south. In the north we are yet to see. That is why I said it is too early to comment. In the south it is the UF which will lose votes. We are as it is zero, so whatever is there it will be a bonus for us. Politics should be done for people, not for power alone. I understand politics is a game for power because you need power to implement your policy. But the politics of India the last 18 months is not as it should be.

The Nitish Bhardwaj interview, continued

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