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November 28, 1998


'The Congress will not topple the government at the Centre'

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Huge crowds throng the Congress office. Dholaks are being beaten to herald victory, luddoos distributed to all and sundry. There are cheers and shouts renting the air as results pour in of a complete Congress sweep.

And in the eye of the storm is Ashok Gehlot, Rajasthan Congress president, seen as the general who led the Congress charge. In his office, at least 50 people are present without any reason. But it is now time to play fawning courtier to Gehlot so that some of the spoils of victory come your way. Gehlot's assistants keep running up to him with news of a win or two.

Looking extremely happy, though somewhat harried with the crowd that keeps surrounding him, Gehlot took time out to answer a few questions from Amberish K Diwanji. But he remained mum on whether he would be the state's next chief minister, which is what many expect, and hope for.

To what factors do you attribute the Congress victory?

There are many reasons for our victory. But the primary factor is the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, which has completely revived the party. People now see the Congress as a party poised to return to power and to lead India. Also, the people of India have seen the other parties such as the United Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party. None of these parties have shown the ability to govern and rule, and the people realise that only the Congress can really govern.

What were the main issues before the electorate?

The issue of price rise was extremely important towards the latter stage. But over the past five years, the primary issues were bhay, bhook, aur bhrastachar (fear, hunger and corruption). All these issues had become a bone in the BJP's throat. People have seen the BJP's misgovernance. No class of people were happy with the BJP: not the poor, the farmers, labourers, dalits, women, OBCs, not even the small traders.

Then there were five other issues before the voters. These were the high costs of electricity, water, the law and order situation, the oppression of dalits and women, and panchayati raj.

Even in 1998, when the whole of India was under the Vajpayee wave, the Congress won in Rajasthan clearly showing that Vajpayee had no effect in this state. The people's negative feeling towards Shekhawat had manifested itself in March 1998, and become clearer today also.

Due you think your victory is due to the anti-incumbency factor, which is what the BJP claims?

If that were the case, the BJP should have been sweeping Madhya Pradesh where reports indicate that the Congress and BJP are in a neck and neck race. The victory is because in the state, people did not want the Shekhawat regime to continue while at the central level, they had seen the inability of the Vajpayee government to rule. The price rise only proves the latter point.

Did you expect such a sweeping victory?

Yes, I did. I had always said right from the beginning that the Congress would win an absolute majority in the state. We will win at least 140 (a 2/3rds victory), and may even break our earlier record of highest number of seats which stands at 142 in 1980. The BJP may get 50 seats. If it had not been for some important rebels, we would have won 150 seats and the BJP less than 40.

Do you think your victory was due to good distribution of tickets?

As the state Congress president, I considered it my duty to be extremely honest in distributing tickets. I gave tickets only to candidates on their ability to win. Usually, during ticket distribution, tickets are given to people by leaders who seek to build their own lobbies. I gave tickets on the basis of the feedback I received on the candidate's popularity and this was appreciated by Sonia Gandhi and the high command, who gave me total freedom in distributing tickets. I even gave tickets to people who were against me, and this won their confidence in my fairness.

What will be the priority of the new Congress government?

First and foremost, we will bring out a white paper on the economic mismanagement of the economic situation by the Shekhawat government so that the people are informed of the reality. Our priorities are as per our manifesto to provide a transparent government and resolve the people's issues.

Who will become the chief minister?

(smiles). Observers from the central unit will come down to Jaipur in a day or two to take the opinion of all the elected legislators on the choice of leader. Then only will the announcement will be made. I guess it will all take a few days before the chief minister is announced.

Where do you think the Shekhawat government failed? Will you take action against cases of corruption?

We will not launch a witch hunt against the previous government. We are not a vindictive party. Of course, where there are specific charges of corruption, the Congress government will take action.

The Shekhawat government failed on many fronts. It made great plans for development but these remained only on paper. The fault was that the Shekhawat government was totally dependent on Independents to survive, and was too busy keeping the government alive to do any actual work.

Shekhawat has twice before not been able to complete his full term as chief minister, and I think he was obsessed with completing five years in office this time, so much so that he believed that just being in office would give him victory.

One complaint has been that Shekhawat's government is a bureaucracy-led government.

Bureaucrats are like a horse that politicians ride. It is for the political class to give direction and keep control of the reins. We have never had any trouble with the bureaucrats.

I will give you an example. In the late 1980s, I was home minister when a tragic incident occurred. A scheduled caste bridegroom was forced to dismount from his horse by some upper castes people. I immediately took action by suspending the officials in that district, which move was praised by Shekhawat as Opposition leader. So how come he himself has not been so stern with difficult bureaucrats?

Do you think the BJP underestimated the Congress in the election?

Yes, they did. The BJP kept believing that given the Congress culture of infighting, we will never be able to put up a united fight against them. They depended on rebel Congress candidates to spoil our victory chances, all of which proved wrong. The BJP lived on this hope, and that is why they did not work more decisively in the elections.

After the March 1998 results, had Shekhawat accepted his government's mistakes, apologised to the people and sought their forgiveness, then today's results might have been different. But Shekhawat did nothing of that sort, just tried some populist tactics that failed.

What happens at the Centre with the Congress sweeping Rajasthan and Delhi and perhaps holding Madhya Pradesh?

The Congress will not topple the government at the Centre. I have said this earlier also. The people have accepted the Sonia Gandhi approach that it will not cause any government to fall. However, in case the BJP government at the Centre should fall due to its own contradictions, then we will not fail in our duty and in our responsibility to the people. We will take charge if called upon to do so.

Assembly Election '98

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