Shambhu Srivastava began his career with the Communist Party of India but moved to the George Fernandes-led Samata Party in 1994, which eventually merged with the Janata Dal-United.
As a close associate of Fernandes and national general secretary and spokesperson of Samata Party, Srivastava was a visible figure in Delhi’s political circles during the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance regime.
He dropped out of sight when he moved to his home state Bihar after being elected as a member of legislative council in the state assembly. However, Srivastava has resurfaced on the national scene as convenor of the proposed Samata Manch which aims to bring together old socialist associates of Geroge Fernandes and those opposed to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, on a common platform.
The new platform, to be launched at a convention on October 23, is an anti-Congress forum as opposed to the anti-Congress, anti-BJP platform being envisaged by other regional players and the Left parties. In fact, Srivastava emphasises that the BJP is a part of this effort as no anti-Congress force can succeed without the saffron party’s support.
In an interview to Rediff.com’s Anita Katyal, Srivastava speaks about the need of breaking out of the communal-secular paradigm and focusing on the Congress party’s poor performance and its track record in fuelling communalism. Surprisingly, he played down Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots even though he had lashed out at him then and even demanded his resignation.
You are getting together old socialists, once associated with George Fernandes, on a common platform. Can you tell us more about it?
Old friends of George Fernandes, socialists who are scattered across various political parties, held a day-long discussion on the current national scenario after which we decided that non- Congressism is the historical necessity of the day.
We, therefore, decided to launch a new platform (not a political party) called Samata Manch which will hold its first convention on October 23 in New Delhi. At least 300 delegates from 18 states will be attending it.
Former BJP president Nitin Gadkari will also participate and address the meeting. Basically, the platform will bring together George Fernandes’s old socialist associates -- the thread of non-Congressism binds them.
Is this forum different from the non-Congress, non-BJP forum being proposed by the Left parties and other regional parties?
This is a purely a non-Congress platform. The division between communalism-secularism is only a trap by the Congress to pressurise other regional forces to join them and cover up their sins. The non-Congress non-BJP platform may speak against the Congress right now but it will ultimately end up supporting the Congress -- that’s their ultimate destination. We will happily support such a forum if its leaders openly state that the Congress is as communal as the BJP.
Two elements need to be kept in view given the present situation. One, we believe that any non-Congress force must have BJP in it; and two, it must have a common minimum programme which reflects regional aspirations properly and respects federalism.
You must understand that democratic institutions today are under attack from the Congress. The prime minister criticises the Comptroller and Auditor General, look how the Joint Parliamentary Committee on 2G scam was undermined, the Central Bureau of Investigation misused and the Intelligence Bureau politicised. Whenever the Congress is under attack on the issue of corruption, it starts undermining democratic institutions.
Moreover, there is nothing socialist or Nehruvian about Congress policies -- its economic and foreign policies have taken a right wing shift. The Congress is no longer a centrist party.
The Congress is essentially using the communal-secular divide only to cover up this rightist shift in its policies and keep regional players with them. Also, take a look at the deteriorating economic conditions in the country.
You mentioned you are approaching old socialists. How come Samajwadi Party leader Mulayum Singh Yadav does not figure in your list of delegates?
First let him vote against the Congress-led UPA government. He made an impressive speech against foreign direct investment in retail but did not vote against the government.
Are you suggesting is that the Congress today is a bigger threat than the BJP and it needs to be defeated?
Yes, we are today witnessing a similar situation we witnessed in 1977, 1989 and 1998…that’s when all non-Congress forces combined and salvaged the situation and restored democracy. In our view, a similar situation has again arisen today when it is imperative for non-Congress forces to come together.
Your platform is basically meant to help the BJP….
We are setting up a platform on the basis of non-Congressism with the BJP in it. Our job is to get together regional leaders who are of socialist ancestry. It will work as a platform for regional parties, socialists and the BJP where they can discuss issues like the CMP and sort out their differences. At present, this is a platform… at the time of elections let’s see how things shape up.
We cannot do without the BJP… this is a more viable arrangement. Keeping BJP in is a more viable option if the non-Congress option is to succeed.
It appears that the BJP is using you because it does not have the credibility to approach these regional players and old socialists on its own.
The BJP cannot use us…nobody can use us. We are concerned about the current national situation. We are not working on behalf of the BJP… I categorically deny any such statement. I have no reservation in saying that the BJP is as communal or secular as the Congress. I will say that Congress is the mother of communalism. In the eighties, it was the Congress which propped up Bhindrawale which gave rise to Sikh communalism. Till today there is no justice for all those killed in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. What is the Congress’ claim to secularism?
Then there was the Shah Bano case…the Congress government reversed the judgment. Liberal voices were suppressed, resulting in Muslim fundamentalism. Who ordered the shilanayas at the Babri Masjid/Ram Temple at Ayodhya? All three types of communalism -- Sikh, Muslim and Hindu -- have been Congress’ gift to India, they were the products of the shortsightedness displayed by the Congress in the eighties.
Where do you place the BJP in this debate, especially the ideology espoused by its mentor, the Rashtriya Swaymsevak Sangh?
As I said earlier, the BJP is as communal or secular as the Congress. We find no difference between the two. But what we want to know is whether the debate in India will be confined to the secular-communal divide…what about economic issues or the strategic shift in the country’s foreign policy? Aren’t these issues important?
Please don’t think that we are condoning the BJP but what we are asserting is that all sins committed by the Congress are being condoned in the name of defending secularism. As for the BJP/RSS ideology is concerned, what is written and what is practiced by the party is different.
You have made a convincing case against the Congress. How is it that the BJP is not able to convince other regional players with the same arguments on its own steam?
Maybe, the BJP does not inspire confidence… also, because the national debate is centered around communal vs secular issues. Maybe, the BJP is not able to shed its communal tag. It is also important to understand that the BJP cannot come to power on its own…they need the support of other players and other players will make sure that it does not deviate from the path of secularism. We will never compromise on the issue of secularism.
Do you support a Modi-led BJP?
We are going with the BJP…it is entirely their decision who they want as their leader. As far as we are concerned we don’t make a distinction between Modi and other BJP leaders. As for the 2002 Gujarat riots….we always condemned them. But you find that a large number of accused have been jailed and the cases are still going on. I wish civil society activists who were active in Gujarat had been as active in pursuing the anti-Sikh riot cases. How come they did not do anything about the Muzaffarnagar riots? They think the Congress is secular…despite evidence to the contrary, they are openly partisan.
But you have to admit that Modi is a polarising figure.
There is nothing special about Modi which distinguishes him from other BJP leaders. Modi failed in Gujarat just as Akhilesh Yadav failed in Uttar Pradesh and Rajiv Gandhi failed in controlling the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. All three are equally guilty.
Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi
Photograph: B Mathur/Reuters