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November 19, 1998


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The Rediff Election Interview/Nawal Kishore Sharma

'The bottom line is that people are fed up with Shekhawat's government'

As election day nears, the Congress is looking increasingly confident of sweeping Rajasthan -- but such gains are not without attendant political headaches.

Thus, the big question doing the rounds of party circles is: who will be the chief minister once the party comes to power?

The popular choice is Ashok Gehlot, credited with turning the fortunes of the party around in the state and spearheading it to what, in the opinion of pundits, should be a comfortable win against the BJP.

The Jats, though, comprise a very important segment of the electorate and this community appears to be plumping en masse for Parasram Maderna.

And then -- as is inevitable in any political race -- there is the dark horse, in the person of Nawal Kishore Sharma. A Brahmin by caste, he has been a Congress faithful for 57 long years, and has held pretty much every party post there is to be held -- not forgetting a stint as minister in the Union Cabinet.

Known for his proximity to the Gandhi family, Sharma is, curiously enough, contesting the assembly election for the first time. Though he had earlier contested, successfully, the general election from his home town Dausa (now Rajesh Pilot's constituency), he is now standing for election in Jaipur Rural.

"I am not in the fray to become CM," he says in all seriousness. "But if the job is given to me, I am competent enough to do it."

So busy is Sharma campaigning that the only time it was possible to meet him was at about 0700 hours. Excerpts from an interview conducted by Rediff On The Net's Syed Firdaus Ashraf:

Your political career has been spent on the national stage. So why the sudden shift, at this late stage, to the state level?

I had health problems during the last Lok Sabha election and so could not contest. My supporters therefore pressurised me into contesting at least for the assembly this time, saying they did not want me to withdraw completely from representational politics. Since I am in politics to serve the people, and since this is what they want, I decided I must do as they ask. And I can serve them equally as an MLA, I don't have to become an MP to do so.

The BJP has announced its chief ministerial candidate, but the Congress has not. Why?

I have been with the Congress for 57 years, and in all this time, there have been plenty of instances when we did not declare the chief ministerial candidate. As far as I remember, when the Congress is not in power in any state going to the polls, it never projects a particular person as the chief ministerial candidate. So this is nothing new, really.

The Congress did well in Rajasthan in the parliamentary election. So do you think the assembly election will be a cakewalk?

No, elections are never a cakewalk. Today even astrologers can't predict such things. But I think we will definitely win, with a comfortable majority as well, I am confident about that.

There are nearly 46 major rebel candidates from the Congress in the fray. Isn't this likely to hamper your party's chances?

I don't think so, no. After all, there are BJP rebels too. The bottom line is that people are fed up with Bhairon Singh Shekhawat's government. They want a change, and rebels cannot give them an alternative government. Today, the people believe only the Congress can provide good governance in the state. Of course, the rebel presence will have some effect, but not enough to decide the outcome.

Still on this rebellion, isn't it true that the Congress has given tickets to people who had left the party and then re-joined, which in fact goes against your party's Pachmarhi resolution?

This is a misconception. It is not true that former rebels have got tickets this time, there are only one or two examples, and they got tickets on merit.

So what are the basic issues you are fighting the election on?

I could write a book on the failures of the Shekhawat government, but it is enough to say that his non-performance is the central issue. His government has proved to be ineffective, corrupt, and a complete failure on all fronts.

But isn't it true that over the last week or so, the Shekhawat regime has sincerely tried to bring down prices?

No, that is not true, the prices of essential commodities haven't come down noticeably. The people suffered, and they continue to suffer. What the government has done is scale down wholesale prices, but that does not help the people, it only helps the traders. What concerns the people is the scaling down of prices in the retail market, but that is not happening.

There is speculation that the Jat community will throw up the next Congress chief minister...

I don't believe in all this talk of caste and community. After the results are out, the Congress legislators will meet, in the presence of observers from the party leadership, and democratically elect the next chief minister, so there is no need for this speculation now.

The BJP has been banking on the nuclear blasts in Pokhran on May 11 and 13. Do you think it has had a significant effect on the electorate?

I welcome the Pokhran blasts -- but I don't believe they will have any impact on these elections. For one thing, this is an assembly election, and the issues are different, they are regional. For another, the BJP cannot take the credit for the blasts, it was the Congress that initiated the process.

The Congress, however, never protested despite so many problems -- rapes, student unrest, whatever. Will this give the electorate a perception that the Congress is not a force here?

Who said the Congress did not protest? Of course we did, in all the districts in the state, in a democratic fashion. Our party cannot and will not resort to violent protest since that only causes more trouble for the people. It is a matter of shame that under Shekhawat's rule, Rajasthan has come to be known as "Rapistan" -- a land where women are not safe.

If the BJP loses here, will it affect the government in Delhi as well?

Of course it will. A negative verdict here will underline the dissatisfaction of the people with the Vajpayee government in Delhi, and I have a feeling it will lead to the fall of the central government. Besides, I believe the central government should resign if the BJP fares badly in the assembly election.

If the Vajpayee government does not resign, will the Congress actively pull it down?

That is for the party high leadership to decide.

Given the chance, will you become CM of Rajasthan?

I am not in a position to answer this question. At the moment, the question doesn't even arise. But if given a chance, I am sure I will prove to be competent for the job.

What is the mood among your party workers?

They have been hugely enthusiastic ever since our performance in the Lok Sabha election. In fact, it is the BJP cadres that are demoralised, as they know they are on the losing side. And at the same time, there is a lot of infighting going on inside that party, further harming their morale.

But there are more Congress rebels than those from the BJP.

Like I said earlier, the rebels are not really an issue. The fact of the matter is that despite Vajpayee himself coming to the state to campaign, there is no enthusiasm among the BJP rank and file. You find their campaign lukewarm, because they know they are on the losing side.

You have 57 years in politics to your name. With that experience, can you tell us where Shekhawat went wrong?

I think he lost his grip on the party, the bureaucracy, and the people. He seems unable to enthuse his workers. I don't know whether it is because of illhealth or old age.

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Assembly Elections '98

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