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'Kesri cannot hold the Congress to ransom'

Rajesh Pilot The ongoing organisational elections have launched a bitter battle within the 111-year-old Congress party.

Sitaram Kesri, the Congress chief, is accused of trying to remove all the hurdles in his way by appointing his allies as returning officers in party units across the country. Bogus enrollments, rigging and favouritism are the order of the day as the pro-Kesri and anti-Kesri groups battle each other.

On June 9, some 7,500 Congress delegates across the country will cast their votes to elect the new party president. Congress Working Committee member and former internal security minister Rajesh Pilot has thrown his hat in the ring "to infuse youthful vigour and vitality to the oldest political party headed by an old leader."

In an exclusive interview to Rediff On The NeT's George Iype, Pilot, outlines his agenda for the Congress party's revival.

What prompted you to challenge Sitaram Kesri for the post of Congress president?

I was neither eager nor ambitious to grab the Congress president's post. But my supporters forced me to announce my candidature. They told me if I do not take the plunge now, the party will further deteriorate. As a loyal Congress worker, I do not have the courage to witness the party crumbling in this 50th year of India's Independence. Therefore, I made up my mind that this is the time I should strike and take over the party leadership.

But will you succeed in your effort?

I am confident that I will get elected. After I announced my decision to contest the polls, I have been getting a great number of telephone calls and letters from Congress workers and leaders across the country praising my resolve.

But I am also saddened by the dishonesty among many Congress leaders. It has hurt me deeply. Privately, they would call me up say: "Rajesh, you have done the right thing. I am with you." But in public and at Congress Working Committee meetings, these leaders keep quiet and behave as if they have never met me all these years. More than 90 per cent Congress leaders are against Kesri's leadership. But they do not have the guts to speak out. My main concern, therefore, is to make them leaders of courage.

If you get elected as party president, what will be your agenda for the party?

My main theme is the revival of the party which is directionless and is drifting into a morass. Today, the Congress is a fireball. I promise to douse those flames. Today, there is no inner party democracy and accountability in the party. I promise to restore them. Today, the party leadership is unable to face national issues and challenges. I promise to face the challenge.

Kesriji cannot hold the Congress to ransom like this. There is no ethics and moral values left in the Congress. I pledge to bring back these values to the party.

In short, my agenda will be transparency, inner democracy and accountability. I will weed out corruption and criminalisation of politics from the party. People who indulge in corruption will have no place in the party. I will also restore the age factor. I will put an age limit after which a Congress leader cannot hold the party president's post. My efforts will be to drive the Congress through the tradition that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru taught us.

Are you happy with the way organisational elections are being held?

Not at all. I would say that bogus enrollments and favouritism could have been avoided if Kesriji knew the meaning of inner party democracy. Organisational elections are meant to strengthen the party, but unfortunately what has happened in many states is dictatorship by the Congress president's supporters.

You mean to say that Kesri is clearing all hurdles in his way by appointing his own men as returning officers.

He is doing that. But he may not succeed in his mission because I expect Congress leaders to cast their votes conscientiously. I do not blame Kesriji alone. All of us responsible for this. In the CWC, when matters of importance are being discussed, everyone keeps quiet with anger in their minds. If I show courage and speak out, I am branded a rebel.

To tell you very honestly, whatever dangers we face in the Congress is because of our collective faults. We Congressmen are not true to ourselves. Often, we are so dishonest with each other that we shake hands with daggers drawn.

Don't you think the party polls have divided the Congress considerably?

The party polls have not divided the Congress. There have already been divisions in the party. It has now come out in the open with more accusations, allegations, resentment and unhappiness. The inner party polls have opened the floodgates of the pent-up feelings that Congress leaders have been keeping in their minds all these years.

Will you withdraw from the contest, if Kesri appeals to you?

My decision is final. No Congress leader including Kesri can stop me now from contesting the polls.

But will Kesri's supporters really vote for you?

If they are guided by their conscience and if they care for the future of the Congress party, then they have to vote for me. Otherwise, they may just manipulate the polls and get Kesriji re-elected.

Isn't your decision to fight against Kesri largely inspired by the support of former Congress president P V Narasimha Rao?

Not at all. I am one Congress leader who stand by myself. I don't want to be branded as belonging to the pro-Kesri or pro-Rao groups. Remember that I was the only Congressman who has questioned the leaderships of Rao as well as Kesri. Now, I do not think Rao has much support in the party.

Do you think Sonia Gandhi's entry into the Congress will help revive the party?

The Gandhi family has contributed to the party and the nation. I have great respect for the Gandhi family. I do not want to comment beyond that.

Will it make any qualitative change in the party if Sonia is made the Congress president?

No assurance can be given on that now. It is up to her to decide to become an active member of the Congress. Her help may contribute to the revival of the party.

Is Sharad Pawar going to contest the polls?

I have not heard from Pawar for long. As any other Congress leader, Pawar is also welcome to contest.

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