'Parties like ours and others like the Lok Janshatki Party will ensure that the BJP remains on the straight and narrow path,' says Shiromani Akali Dal leader Naresh Gujral
Naresh Gujral, 65, is a member of the Rajya Sabha from the Shiromani Akali Dal and the son of former prime minister I K Gujral.
He has emerged as a point person for his party in Delhi thanks to his wide network of friends and a deep understanding about the functioning of the political durbar in the capital city.
For the past few months, he has taken on the role of negotiating with prospective allies on behalf of the Bharatiya Janata Party in a bid to expand the National Democratic Alliance.
Gujral has an old association with Odisha Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal chief Naveen Patnaik. He also enjoys a good rapport with Telugu Desam Party chief Chandrababu Naidu and the Chautala family in Haryana, which heads the Indian National Lok Dal, as he befriended them during his father’s stint as the prime minister.
Realising that these parties were initially wary about the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, the usually low-key Gujral was roped in to build bridges with them.
Gujral’s tastefully done-up bungalow on Amrita Shergill Marg in Delhi was the venue of several meetings between BJP leaders and their possible allies. TDP’s Naidu, for instance, did not want to be seen hobnobbing with the BJP on its territory and insisted on a neutral venue.
In an exclusive interview with Rediff.com's Anita Katyal, Gujral admitted that he had played a role in roping in more partners for the BJP and expressed confidence that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance would form the next government at the Centre.
There are reports about growing anti-incumbency against the Akali government in Punjab. How do you perceive the overall situation in the state?
I accept that there is anti-incumbency against the Akali government in Punjab but we are making a conscious effort to address the grievances of people. We are conscious that our government has to focus on two main issues: creating more jobs and diversifying our crop pattern. And we are working in that direction on different fronts.
For instance, no industry was willing to come to our state because Punjab has always been deficient in electricity. But by this year-end, Punjab will have surplus power as the power plants being built by the private sector will start functioning by then.
Even Pakistan Punjab’s chief minister was interested in buying power from our state.
We also saw the Indian industry’s who’s who turning up at the Invest Punjab programme and they are all eager to do business here. They all know that Punjab has a healthy market
Punjabis are great consumers of goods. Also, the infrastructure here is great. The roads are as good as those in Gujarat. In the next three years, every major town in the state will be connected by six-lane highways.
Our state government also realised that unless there is a substantial land bank, industries would not come to Punjab. So, the state acquired huge tracts of land by giving farmers 30 per cent higher compensation than the prevailing market rate.
The Malwa belt or the cotton growing area is being developed as a centre for textile related industries, new Chandigarh will be turned into a medical tourism hub while Mohali will be the knowledge/IT hub. Infosys, Max, Fortis, Medanta will be setting up shop here.
Then, ITC wants to invest Rs 500 core in a state-of-the-art food processing plant. All this will result in the creation of jobs.
At the same time, we are encouraging farmers to diversify their cropping pattern. They are going in for cultivation of maize and basmati rice which requires less water. Dairy farming is another growing sector. At the same time, cooperatives have been set up to help farmers market their products.
All these plans and schemes will fructify within the next two years when assembly polls are held in Punjab. You will see, we will do very well.
How will your party fare in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls?
All our internal surveys show that we have not lost our vote share. We may not have increased it but we have not gone down.
On the other hand, it is the Congress which is fast losing ground. When the Lok Sabha elections are held, we will ensure that our party gets a substantial number of seats so that we have a say in the next NDA government at the Centre. We hope the BJP realises that the Shiromani Akali Dal has been its most trusted and loyal ally.
Your party and you particularly have played a crucial role in reaching out to prospective allies.
It is a fact that we have helped in expanding the NDA -- whether it was by talking to Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu or the Chautalas in Haryana.
Since many of these leaders are known to me personally, I played a role in reaching out to them and helped expand the NDA. The alliance with the TDP is almost finalised. Seat-sharing talks in Seemandhra have been completed but there are minor hiccups in the Telangana region...these should be sorted out soon. The BJP has to listen to its local unit which has certain reservations.
You also enjoy a personal relationship with Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Is it true that you have been in touch with him? How confident are you about his support after the elections?
I have known him for several decades. You must understand that the Akali Dal represents the minorities. Naveen Patnaik and even (West Bengal Chief Minister) Mamata Banerjee understands that we are the insurance policies against the BJP’s communal agenda.
Parties like ours and others like Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshatki Party will ensure that the BJP remains on the straight and narrow path, it will not be allowed to push its Hindutva agenda beyond a point.
You must remember, both Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee have been part of the NDA before.
But they left the NDA. Both Patnaik and Mamata have reservations about the 2002 Gujarat riots and Modi’s communal agenda.
Let me quote George Bernard Shaw who had said “the wisest man is my tailor as he measures me afresh every time.” The same goes for politics.
The situation has changed dramatically since the last time they were in the NDA.
As for Patnaik and Banerjee, they are both nationalists and honest leaders who want to do something about the backward areas in their states. They want the country to progress and want their share of the national pie for their states.
Moreover, we are all united in fighting against corruption.
We are very clear that instead of following the present government’s policy of giving tax concessions to states, these rebates should be given to backward and border areas so that industry and infrastructure is not concentrated in a particular region but comes up in areas where it is most needed. They have also been part of the NDA before.
You mentioned earlier that the Akali Dal has been the BJP’s most loyal ally. Is there some apprehension in your party that the BJP may be taking you for granted?
There is no question about being taken for granted. Punjab Chief Mnister and Akali Dal patriarch Parkash Singh Badal is a father figure of the NDA. Its allies look up to him.
In fact, he can emerge as a unifying figure who can bring in other allies into the NDA’s fold.
Whether it is the Odisha chief minister, the West Bengal chief minister or even Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, they all have a great deal of affection and regard for Badal.
Then again it was the Akali Dal which prevented the Congress from converting the political debate along secular and communal lines by raising the 2002 Gujarat riots. We did not allow it as we succeeded in reminding the nation about the dangerous role played by the Congress in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
Will the 1984 riots be a major issue in the Lok Sabha elections?
It may not be an issue in the elections but people in Punjab realise and appreciate the fact that the Akali Dal has always stood for justice, for the riot victims and has continuously fought for them.
Then again, both (Akali Dal’s Member of Parliament) Harsimrat Kaur and I have never shied away from attacking the Congress party’s first family.
Despite my father’s long association with the Congress, my relations with the family are zero. The party even used the income tax authorities to attack me.
However, I do have cordial personal relations with several Congress ministers, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He is an extremely honest person but he paid a heavy price as power and responsibility were divorced in the current dispensation.
In a parliamentary democracy, the buck has to stop somewhere. But here we had a situation where orders came from 10 Janpath (Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s residence) but there was no accountability.
The prime minister looked on helplessly while Congress managers were busy filling the party coffers at the State’s expense.
To what extent will Narendra Modi’s projection as the prime minister help the BJP-SAD alliance in Punjab?
Modi is definitely attracting the youth. He will play an extremely important role in building the mood because the young have been feeling frustrated and helpless with the present state of affairs. Modi brings the hope factor while the Akali Dal has the organisational strength to convert that support into votes.
Image: A BJP supporter waves the party's flags