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November 27, 1998


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The Rediff Interview/Ashok Gehlot

'The central government will not survive'

After attending hundreds of election meetings in Rajasthan, Pradesh Congress Committee chief Ashok Gehlot can barely speak, his voice is a croak.

That, however, is a small price to pay, for thanks to his exertions he has emerged as the strongest Congress leader in a state that had stayed with the BJP for eight long years. He proved his abilities when the Congress surprised everyone, winning 18 out of the 25 seats from the state in the last general election.

Many say he is the chief minister in-waiting, even though he is not contesting the assembly poll. Gehlot himself says, "It is not important for me to become chief minister. My priority is to replace the BJP government in Rajasthan and see that the Congress party rules the state."

Others in the running for the job are Jat leader Paras Ram Maderna, former chief minister Shiv Charan Mathur and, of course, former Union minister Naval Kishore Sharma who is contesting his maiden assembly election.

Gehlot took time off to speak to Syed Firdaus Ashraf, in Jodhpur a day after the votes were cast.

The exit poll has shown that the Congress will return to power in Rajasthan. If the actual results bear this out, what will be the Congress government's first priority?

The development of Rajasthan. The BJP had completely ignored the development of the state in the last eight years. Ever since the Congress lost power, there has been no development work going on. And people have realised that the state and the country can progress only under the Congress.

Also, you see, there were so many rape cases during the BJP rule in Rajasthan, that women just don't feel safe anymore. This will be an important issue, to make our sisters feel safe once again. Besides that, electricity is a major problem in Rajasthan. Due to the negligence of the state government on this front, farmers and labourers have suffered badly. So we want to restore proper power supply to the state. These are some of the many issues that we plan to tackle.

Do you expect an absolute majority in the election?

Yes, a two-thirds majority, surely.

But don't you think the nearly 46 major rebel Congress candidates in the fray could hamper your party's chances?

No, it will not have a major effect. In the last assembly election, because of the wrong distribution of tickets, those rebels won as Independents and became ministers.

The Congress rebels feel after that they can become ministers by standing as Independents rather than become ordinary Congress MLAs. But the people of Rajasthan now want an alternative to the BJP, which only the Congress can give and not these rebels. And the situation is so bad for the BJP that many of its ministers will lose the election this time.

What is the reason that the Congress could become an alternative to the BJP only in Rajasthan, whereas it is almost finished as a party in UP and Bihar?

We always took the people of Rajasthan into confidence about the Congress's policies and principles. In spite of being in the Opposition, we kept the morale of our workers high and fought on issues against the BJP. There was complete chaos in Rajasthan but we never restored to violence. The people realised these things.

But can you tell me one thing? Why don't you advise your partymen in UP and Bihar to follow the same tactic?

Yes, I think we need to follow the same principles in those states as well. Janata ke sukh dukh mein hamesha shaamil rahna chahiye, jo hamne Rajasthan mein kiya hai (we should be involved with people's grief and happiness).

Today there is a general perception among the people that the Congress party is the only party which can control the prices. And they are the ones fit to rule. Why is it so?

Yes, it is a fact because the BJP is a party of Banias (shopkeepers) and traders.

Do you seriously believe that the BJP is only a party of Banias and traders?

Of course. Even if I don't feel so, that is the general perception of the people.

Is there any basis to prove your statement?

You see, there is the Essential Commodities Act, by which all the essential commodities can come under government review. After coming to power at the Centre, the BJP withdrew the orders under this act, so no action could be taken against traders. And importantly, Prime Minister A B Vajpayee was saying that if we do not withdraw this act there will be problems for traders. This was the first time that the country's prime minister has defended traders! Anybody who is involved in black marketing or milawat should be punished. So I would like to know if this government is for the people or for the traders..

Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat has denied your allegation that he said if people don't have onions they could eat apples. What is the truth?

No, he made this statement at a media conference. The journalists then asked him, if you don't have water to drink will you drink milk? For which Shekhawatji had no answer. The CM also said, 'When the people don't have rotis, why will they eat onions?' So, I wonder, is tara ke statement koi CM de sakhta hai Bharat mein...

Will you accept the CM's post if it is offered to you?

You see, it is up to the high command to decide. But my first priority is to see that the Congress wins in the state. For eight years the BJP has been ruling Rajasthan, and I will see that the next government will be of the Congress and not the BJP.

Why did the Congress lose the post-Babri Masjid election in Rajasthan, when it could win in Madhya Pradesh while in UP Mulayam Singh and Mayawati won in alliance with each other?

I told you, it was because of the wrong distribution of tickets and therefore the situation worsened for the Congress.

It is being said that one of your rivals from the Jat community (Maderna) is going all out to see that you do not become chief minister?

I don't believe in the caste factor. The next CM must not be chosen on a caste basis, that is my personal belief. I just want him to be a Congressman. By the way, it is up to the party high command and the party to decide as to who the next chief minister will be.

How far will the election influence the central government's stability? Do you think it will lead to the fall of the BJP government?

Of course, the central government will not survive, it may lose its majority in Parliament.

But the prime minister has said the assembly poll outcome will not affect his government.

This statement proves that he is not confident of his government's survival. Today, there is hardly any crowd at Vajpayee's meetings. The BJP workers are providing vehicles to attend Vajpayee's meetings, but still nobody is willing to come. And compared to that, when Soniaji is addressing a rally people are flocking to the ground even when we are not providing vehicles to them.

In fact, at some places, people are showing slippers and shoes to Vajpayee. I personally feel sad that the people have lost respect for the prime minister. And the reason for this is that his government has failed on all fronts.

So what has gone wrong in the last eight months?

In Rajasthan the BJP government failed on all fronts. And more importantly, they have messed up things at the Centre because they could not control the prices. The people are disappointed with the BJP.

But what was the reason for its popularity in the first place? Isn't it true that the Congress also failed earlier on many fronts, which was why the BJP came up as an alternative?

No, the BJP rose on communal politics. You see, today they are not taking the name of Lord Ram and Hindutva. Instead they are trying to exploit Saraswati Vandana and Vande Mataram. But it won't work because the people want food at low prices. And the BJP is shamelessly stating that inflation was no issue in these election. So, I feel the BJP will surely lose the election as it doesn't know to govern.

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