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'I may not have the numbers, but I will win'

July 04, 2007 10:11 IST
Why is Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat contesting the Presidential election?

Isn't it a forgone conclusion that United Progressive Alliance candidate Pratibha Patil will win by a comfortable margin? Aren't all the odds -- and the numbers, which are very important in the race to the Rashtrapati Bhavan -- stacked against him?

As they say, in politics, there are no simple answers.

The ways things stand now, it is safe to assume that even if Shekhawat loses, he would have made a strong political point.

And with the allegations against Patil increasing by the day, Shekhawat's goal is clear.

A close Presidential tussle, combined with the Bharatiya Janata Party machinery's ability to play the media, can mean that Patil's -- and the Congress' -- problems will last well beyond July 19, when the new President will be elected.

As a senior Supreme Court lawyer put it, even if Shekhawat loses, the BJP will gain because they will have an issue to take on the Congress.

"Notwithstanding the Supreme Court's denial to admit the public interest litigation against Patil, the issue is unlikely to die down," the lawyer, who did not want to be named for this report, said.

"Right now, the legal ground to entertain a PIL was not enough but there is a possibility in the future. Who knows, one day, a summons for her husband Devi Singh Shekhawat may come knocking at the doors of Rashtrapati Bhavan," the lawyer, an expert on the Constitution, said.

Many foresee difficult days for the Congress once Patil enters Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The BJP has already gotten into serious politicking, raking up as many issues against Patil as possible, thereby hurting Congress president Sonia Gandhi too.

A senior lawyer well-versed with politico-legal cases says the BJP can take the issue to its climax only after she gets elected.

But the Opposition party is not complaining. The charges against Patil will fetch them more dividends if they crop up when she is President.

On the other hand, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat has done his home work.

Born in a poor family in Khachariawas village in Rajasthan's Sikar district on October 23, 1923, he had to drop out of college after his father Thakur Devi Singh Shekhawat's death.

The responsibility of bringing up eight siblings led Shekhawat to join the police.

After he had risen to the post of assistant sub-inspector in 1948, Shekhawat decided to quit the force. He wrote to his senior: 'I beg to submit that I am getting a good chance elsewhere and, I feel that for my future prospects I should not miss the chance as I don't see any wider scope in putting with the thikana (police) services for my future prospects with such a low pay.'

'Under this circumstance I tender my resignation and hope that you would kindly do me a favour by accepting it as soon as possible keeping in view the meritorious service rendered by me in the recent past.'

Shekhawat, in an exclusive interview to rediff.com, stoutly denied the charge that he was suspended from the force for taking a bribe of Rs 50. Instead, he showed this correspondent some 20 certificates of merits earned in five years of service in police department.

He started his political career by borrowing Rs 10 from his wife Suraj Kunwar Kupawat and added his own savings of Rs 27 to campaign for the Danta Ramgarh assembly seat in 1952.

He contested for the next two decades from different constituencies like Srimadhupur in 1957, Jaipur in 1962 and Bali in 1998.

Out of Rajasthan's 11 assemblies since its formation, only once -- in the fifth assembly -- was he not a member of the House. He gave up active politics after he was elected India's vice-president.

People who knew him closely when he was chief minister of Rajasthan believe that Shekhawat is a Congressman in the Sangh Parivar's ranks. Although he was one of the founder members of the Jan Sangh in the state, he did not allow much of a role to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. During his rule, 30 Muslim communities were included in the list of the Other Backward Classes on the basis of their profession to make them eligible for reservation.

He started granting money to computerise madrassas. He started the Rajasthan Urdu Academy for promoting Urdu.

He also doubled the quota for Haj pilgrimage and he was the first chief minister to form the state Wakf Board under the Wakf Act.

He is a Thakur and knows the nuances of the caste system. He was always politically ambitious. He worked on maneuvering the caste system by keeping a fine balance within the largely caste-ridden, conservative and tradition-loving feudal society of Rajasthan.

He avoided social and political faultlines with his political style so well that even minorities like Muslims and Jains had no hesitation in accepting him as a true son of the soil.

His pan-Rajasthan appeal helped first the Jan Sangh and later, its offspring, the BJP, to expand its influence in Rajasthan.

When he was in charge of the state government, he maintained and nurtured a group consisting of people loyal to him, quite in the Congress style.

It was not that Shekhawat has not courted controversy. Once, his son-in-law Narpat Singh Rajvi put him in serious trouble when he was alleged to have misappropriated funds from a government land scheme.

Although Shekhawat has been a staunch opponent of the despicable sati tradition, his nephew Pratap Singh faced the serious charges of glorifying sati.

However, he was acquitted in the case in 2004.

It is to Shekhawat's credit that at 83, he has been able to remain aggressive and active.

Even in the Presidential election, he just might end up having the last laugh, whether it be in victory or in defeat.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt:

How do you manage to develop friendly relations with such a wide range of people in Indian politics?

We can be opponents of each other's ideology, but we should not be an enemy of each other. I don't allow ideology to become a hurdle in my friendships. If you don't keep ill-feelings for anyone in your heart, you can make great friends.

The difference in ideology between friends does play a part in one's career but it should not stretch into life.

How do you look at all those changes in India and in you in the last 50 years?

My nature hasn't changed. I became a policeman, then I did farming, then I became an MLA and then I become an MP. I have fought elections from many places because my party was new. I used to contest from constituencies that my party was unable to reach.

In many elections merely to popularise my party I used to stand from two places simultaneously.

On the other hand, I find that the world has changed completely. People are still in misery and we need to change their lives by changing our thinking.

India has changed a lot. When I was studying my village had no roads, no buses, no trains. We had to walk a long way to attend school. The main concrete road was almost 30 km away from my village. Now, my village has got everything. Buses and trains have connected us well.

What were your early years like?

I have struggled a lot. In 1952 I voted in favour of the abolition of the jagirdari system. I believed that land should remain with the tiller. I supported the Jagirdari Abolition and Resumption Bill.

But my party, the Jan Sangh, expelled me and one of my colleagues for voting in favour of the bill. We were an eight-member party in the assembly.

(Jan Sangh founder) Shyama Prasad Mukherjee came to Rajasthan when this crisis developed. I showed him the party manifesto where it was promised that the Jan Sangh would support the bill.

The two of us who were suspended were taken back into the party and those who suspended us were kicked out by Shyama Prasadji.

Any regrets about your stints as chief minister?

In life we all do have regrets. The government makes schemes but it does not reach the people. It is difficult for the fruits of governmental schemes to reach the poor.

I had the Antodaya Yojna for poverty alleviation. The Yojna provided an easy credit facility to poor people. It succeeded when I started it, but nobody took it forward in later years.

Did the Roop Kanwar sati episode test your leadership?

I was in the United States when the event took place. When I came back, at the airport my party people and supporters of the sati tradition had gathered in huge numbers. They told me to support their cause. They told me that Roopkunwar has turned a sati and I would have to visit her pyre in Deorala.

I had with me all the information relating to the event. The American newspapers had reported the incident. It hurt me deeply when they described Rajputs as a primitive community.

The supporters of sati were protecting the pyre in Deorala with swords. Ten thousand people were present when I was taken there. She had done it to uplift her soul, they claimed.

I criticised the tradition of sati and said, "I am not in favour of sati."

In Jaipur, a 40,000-strong procession screamed 'Shekhawat murdabad'. The BJP executive meeting was held in Jodhpur. I was in a train and the supporters of sati kept screaming against me. The police told me the situation was tense and that I should pacify the supporters of sati.

I invited them to talk to me and requested that I be allowed to speak first. I said, "I am sure all of you have sisters, mothers and wives at home. Please raise your hand -- those who have." All of them raised their hands.

Then I said, "My quarrel with you is on the same issue. It is wrong to say that the woman who is not a sati has sinned. My father died young. I was hardly 16-17. I have eight siblings. If my mother had thought of committing sati, imagine what would have happened to me and my brothers and sisters? We would have been beggars."

"It was my mother who made rotis for us and we overcame our hunger in those troubled times. I would not have become chief minister if my mother had turned a Sati. I would have been a beggar with a begging bowl."

How would you like to be known? You are a Presidential candidate. How should we introduce you?

Mere naam se hi meri pehchan hain! (My name is my identity!)

But what is your core belief?

I believe in Rajdharma. I am a deeply religious person but I have never discriminated on the basis of caste, creed or religion.

You are dubbed as a Thakur who is biased in favour of your caste...

(Laughs) Dekha kya Thakur kya hota hain? (Have you seen what a Thakur is?) I was wearing trousers till 1952. After that I began wearing a dhoti.

Nobody who is a caste-biased Thakur would wear a dhoti. Let critics call me a Thakur or a Brahmin, it doesn't make any difference to me.

I am an emotional man. I have cried many times. Once when I was chief minister, two Muslim groups had fought and four people died. They were not allowing the last rites of the dead to be performed. I could not eat that day because the dead were not buried with dignity.

Why have you not resigned before becoming a candidate for the Presidential election? The Congress wants you to vacate the official position.

Let the Congress say whatever it wants. In the last so many years, five vice- presidents have contested. None of them resigned nor were they asked to resign. I am fighting the election as an Independent. Before becoming vice-president, I had resigned from the BJP. I am the vice-president of the country and not of any party. I hold a Constitutional post. Has anyone accused me of partiality?

When Pratibha Patil has clearly got more support in terms of votes, how do you think you will win?

I may not have the numbers. Lekin janabhavna mere saath hain (The feelings of the people are with me). Main jeetoonga (I will win).

I am confident that I will win because victory is possible in the given circumstances. In the election of the President no whips are issued. The voters are free to vote. There is no pressure on them. Members are free to vote as per their conscience. It is a secret ballot. I haven't even decided if I will travel all around country to campaign or not.

What will your agenda be if you win?

I won't say now. I will let you know when I win. If I win, then, I will work for people's welfare. I have traveled all over India. There is not an issue of Indian life about which I an not aware of and spent time in. Do visit me when I win.

And what will you say if you lose?

I never think like that. I have not thought about it. I have the confidence that I will. I will win.

Will it not be a bit difficult to succeed a hugely popular President?

Not really. I can't sleep if I don't talk to people! My doors will always open for the people.

In a scenario where it seems that you are expected to lose, what gives you this confidence?

My past! I have 50 to 55 years of work behind me. That gives me the strength. In Rajasthan, I implemented some novel schemes. And, as vice-president, nobody has blamed me of partisan behaviour. I have kept in touch with people all over the country.

Rather, the BJP people used to allege that I have deserted them.

Sushma Swaraj said lightly in the Rajya Sabha that she felt jealous to hear others praising my non-biased approach in conducting the proceedings in the House.

How do you keep fit at 83?

I don't go to any gymnasium. I have a strong physique. Main kamzor nahin hoon. When I climbed the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the journalists accompanying me told me that I should now conquer new heights. I said: "Age is no bar for me."

If you have the power to make decisions, you can achieve a lot. I have gone through two open-heart surgeries. I had an angioplasty while two or three times I had minor aliments. But not even once did my passion to work diminish. I love reading, talking to people and traveling.

Your image is that of a strong regional leader and not of a national leader. Don't you think India, which is young, would like a different leader in this era of globalisation?

Obviously, a person will be born in just one part of India. Do you mean a person born in Mumbai can be a national leader and not one who is born in a corner of Rajasthan?

India needs a person who can connect with Bharat. Any leader who can carry the poor people along can be a national leader. My age is not at all a negative factor to lead. If you can connect, you can be a leader.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said a lot of mudslinging is on in this Presidential election. Do you think so?

(Pauses) I have fought 20 to 25 elections. In elections such things happen.

Don't you think the dignity of the Presidency and of the Presidential election itself had been eroded by the politics being played out?

Why was such a controversy raked up? Why is the decorum of the event being affected? You should ponder over it. I need not comment over it because everything is appearing in the newspapers.

You had close relations with Pratibha Patil. You have visited her home in Jalgaon and seen her institutions. How do you feel fighting against her?

This is politics. Idhar bhai-bhai bhi ladte hain (Here even siblings fight against each other).

Sheela Bhatt