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The Rediff Interview /G Venkatswamy

'How can we even think of electing a brahmin as President?'

The run-up to the election of the next President of India has become "caste-ridden" and controversial after a section of Congress leaders led by G Venkatswamy insisting that the country's 10th President should either be a "political sufferer or freedom fighter."

Venkatswamy, who heads the 150-strong Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Forum of Parliamentarians, is vehemently opposed to Vice-President K R Narayanan's candidature for the country's top post. His argument: "Narayanan has failed to prove useful for the cause of dalits in India."

He also abhors the idea of former chief election commissioner T N Seshan becoming India's President. "During this 50th anniversary year of India's Independence, how can we even think of electing a brahmin as President?" asks the senior Congress leader from Andhra Pradesh.

In an exclusive interview, Venkatswamy tells Rediff On The NeT's George Iype, why dalit MPs are hardening their position on electing a successor to President Shankar Dayal Sharma.

Why do you oppose Vice-President K R Narayanan's candidature for the Presidency?

I am not personally opposing Narayanan's candidature. As a committed and loyal Congressman I have high respect and regard for him. But it is the unanimous view of the SC-ST Forum of Parliamentarians that our country's next President should be a dalit. But not merely a dalit alone. S/he should be either a political sufferer and freedom fighter.

Why are you insisting on these two conditions?

To fulfill the wishes of Mahatma Gandhi in this 50th year of India's Independence. It was one of the great aspirations of Gandhiji to see that we should elect a dalit to the country's top post. And we, the MPs and the people of India will be honouring and fulfilling Gandhiji's great vision if we succeed to elect a dalit as President.

Vice-President K R Narayanan is a dalit and has good credentials to occupy the post.

Narayanan is a dalit. But he is neither a political sufferer nor a freedom fighter. The SC-ST Forum feels that in the last five years, Narayanan has failed to prove himself useful particularly for the cause of dalits in the country. We are not questioning his credentials. He is a man of integrity and impeccable credentials. But the dalit MPs's resolution insists that the next President should be a freedom fighter and political sufferer.

But the Forum's general secretary H Hanumanthappa resigned in protest against this resolution..

That is still perplexing me. It was Hanumanthappa who moved the resolution. The resolution was, then, passed by all dalit MPs including Hanumanthappa unanimously. The next morning he resigned from the Forum, giving the chairman -- me -- no reason. I suspect that Hanumanthappa's action arose from a deep political conspiracy to thwart our movement.

But Hanumanthappa has alleged the resolution was tailored to help you make a claim to be the first dalit president of the Republic.

I have time and again stated that I am not in the race to become President of India.

If the Congress leadership asks you to contest the Presidential elections, will you say 'No'?

I will abide by the party's decision.

Can you suggest a few names who are both freedom fighters and political sufferers and thus could be Presidential candidates?

We are searching for suitable candidates. The SC-ST Forum does not belong to the Congress party alone. Dalit MPs from all parties are its members. We hope to arrive at a consensus on a dalit candidate soon.

But if a consensus emerges among the Congress, the United Front and the BJP on Narayanan's candidature, what will be your reaction?

I cannot predict what the Forum will do then. But I do not find any consensus of the sort you mentioned emerging among the major political parties.

Do you oppose T N Seshan's candidature?

I do not think any political party will support Seshan's candidature. As for the Forum, we cannot even think of a person like Seshan -- a brahmin -- becoming the next President of India.

Don't you think at this juncture Sonia Gandhi should take over the Congress leadership from Sitaram Kesri? ji want Sonia Gandhi to be our leader. Let us wait and watch.

Don't you think the Congress should make Kesri the next President of India to pave the way for Sonia's active entry into the party?

No comment.

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