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November 23, 1998


The Rediff Election Interview/ Bhairon Singh Shekhawat

'This election will not affect the Vajpayee government'

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Bali

As I try to enter the Mahavir Metal Industries guest house, a guard stops me. I tell him I have come from Bombay to meet Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.

The guard smiles and says that many reporters have tried to interview Shekhawat since the assembly election campaign began. It is extremely difficult to get an appointment with the Bharatiya Janata Party leader, he says.

Hearing this conversation, Raj Purohit, a Bombay MLA and minister in the Maharashtra government, intervenes and offers to set up an appointment with the BJP veteran.

Shekhawat found some time for me before setting out to campaign in his constituency, Bali, not to be confused with the Indonesian province.

How many seats do you expect to win?

We are confident of getting a comfortable majority and forming the next government.

On what basis do you say this, considering that the BJP suffered a serious setback in the general election eight months ago when your party won just five Lok Sabha seats?

After our defeat in February, we corrected many of our mistakes. I have personally met my party workers and boosted their confidence and morale. The most important reason for our victory is that there are nearly 46 rebel candidates against official Congress candidates. This is going to be an advantage for us.

Why do you think the BJP did so badly in the general election?

I think we failed because we did not work hard enough. We thought we would win easily as the BJP wave was all over the country. You must also note that wherever we lost, the margins were very low. So, it was not a very bad defeat after all.

You have spoken about the rebel factor affecting the Congress' chances. But in your constituency there is a BJP rebel, Amrit Parmar, in the fray. Don't you think he will affect your chances of victory?

Agreed he was with the RSS earlier. But you must realise that he left the BJP and joined the Shiv Sena. This has angered many traditional BJP voters. Parmar is not a serious threat for me.

Don't you think the rise in prices may affect your chances?

I don't think price rise is a major issue. If you go to the markets now, you will find that the prices of many essential commodities has fallen.

In fact, the Congress tried to highlight this issue, but could not gain much ground.

Mr Shekhawat, on the campaign trail in some constituencies in Rajasthan, I found that price rise was a major issue for voters.

Today there is inflation because of the wrong policies adopted by the Congress party. If you recall, when Rajiv Gandhi came to power, he said he would bring down prices in 100 days. But he did not do anything. In fact, after 1991 till 1997, the Congress and United Front are solely responsible for the price rise. They never kept a check on prices.

So you think the Congress is responsible for the current rise in prices?

Of course! Their economic policies for the last 45 years are the reason for the prices of essential commodities sky rocketing today. Also, you must realise there is a recession going on and that is one more factor.

Is it true that you stated at public meetings that if people do not get onions, they should eat some other vegetable?

No, this is not true. I said the production of onions is less today in our country because of the bad weather and crop failure. India is one of the largest producer of onions and when there is a shortage in India, it is certainly a temporary problem. But the onion prices are stabilising once again because the new crop has come into the market.

People say you did not intervene to resolve the staff strike at Rajasthan University. And because of the strike, nearly 200,000 students will lose one year. Why didn't you interfere?

I am not responsible for the strike, and all these problems. The university comes under the governor who is also the chancellor, and the vice-chancellor. They have to look into this matter, not me. How can I be blamed? I cannot interfere.

Don't you think as chief minister, it is your responsibility to avoid hardship to the students? The students feel you have shown least interest in resolving the matter.

I have interfered within my rights and explained my position to the students.

One of the major grievances of the students is that no action was taken against anybody after the death of the final year student, Nishant Bhardwaj. Why?

An inquiry has been set up and they are looking into the matter.

Students feel you should have taken action against former vice-chancellor R N Singh who is a friend of yours, and also against O Rajagopalan, the VC when Nishant died.

Action has been taken and the inquiry commission is looking into the matter. I cannot comment further on the issue.

Do you think the result of this assembly election in the four states will affect the BJP government at the Centre?

No. The central government's performance has nothing to do with state elections. It is a different matter altogether.

Assuming that the BJP loses all four states. Don't you you think that will make the Vajpayee government unstable?

No, this election will not affect the BJP government at the Centre. It will be stable, no matter what the results are.

How far has the Pokhran blasts helped the BJP in Rajasthan?

The people of Rajasthan are proud that the nuclear tests took place in their state. It is very important for the country's defence and it has happened for the benefit of the country. The BJP has certainly gained after the blasts.

But villagers in Pokhran are unhappy that their houses developed cracks after the blast. They are also happy with Prime Minister Vajpayee's statement that they should sacrifice for the nation's sake. Will this resentment affect the BJP's chances?

The BJP has compensated the villagers fully. So what is the point in being unhappy and not satisfied? As far as the election results are concerned: People from only one village are unhappy with the BJP.

Voters in Bali say you only visited the constituency thrice after winning the election in 1993. Is this true?

No, this is not true. I have visited the constituency many times. I have visited the constituency whenever I have passed this way.

You also contested the last election from Ganganagar, but stood third. This time you are only contesting from Bali. If you lose this election, don't you think it will be difficult for you to become CM again?

I will not lose. I have faith in my voters.

Assembly Election '98

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