'People are going to give a strong anti-Congress verdict'
As the battle lines are drawn between the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance, the NDA is now beginning to smell power.
But there is a raging debate on who will lead the Bharatiya Janata Party and the NDA in the next electoral round, with Nitish Kumar (Bihar chief minister) publicly opposing Narendra Modi, and senior BJP leader LK Advani blogging about the feasibility of a non-Congress, non-BJP prime minister in 2014.
Neerja Chowdhury spoke to Naresh Gujral, Akali Dal MP, who represents his party in the NDA meetings, on how he views the evolving political scenario.
Gujral was the first Hindu MP to be elected on an Akali Dal ticket and the first Hindu general secretary of the party, which is seen to be the mainstreaming of an otherwise "jathedars' party".
Excerpts from the interview:
What is your reading of how the non-Congress and non-BJP parties will perform in 2014?
If you look at the Indian electoral scene in the last seven to eight elections, there has hardly been a pro vote for the party in power except in unusual circumstances. It has otherwise been an anti-government vote. Obviously when people vote, whoever is the main opposition gets the benefit.
Contrary to what politicians and the media are saying, I feel there is clarity in the minds of people today. They have given a clear mandate in recent elections, be it in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Tamil Nadu. Even UPA II got more seats than the Congress was expecting; people now want their problems to be solved.
We have a strange situation in the country today. We have food, 'jo sarh raha hai' (that is rotting), and drought but no storage. We have power plants but no coal and gas available. We have three plants in Punjab but do not know where the coal is going to come from. A day before Shinde (former power minister Sushilkumar Shinde) was shifted out of the power ministry I had gone to see him with Badal sahib (Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal). He told us to import coal. Coal will come to a port and to transport it will be at huge costs. Coal mines have been given to those with no connection to coal or steel as part of crony capitalism.
I am convinced that people are going to give a clear verdict. And when they give a clear verdict, it is going to be a very strong anti-Congress verdict. And obviously when it is an anti-Congress verdict, it is going to benefit those opposed to the Congress. And the principal opposition is the BJP, so despite their contradictions, they will benefit to a large extent. Where regional parties are strong, they will benefit.
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'Modi as PM before elections will break NDA'
Many believe that while the Congress will go down to 100, the BJP will also not do very well?
I believe that while the Congress will be around 100-110, the BJP will willy-nilly cross the 160-170 figure. That is why I am convinced that the rainbow coalition of Vajpayee (former prime minister) with people of all hues -- a Mamata, a Jayalalithaa, a Naveen, a Chautala, or the Asom Gana Parishad, or Jagan Reddy -- they will all come together. My feeling is that even Mayawati, to save her skin, will be part of it.
You mentioned a very important word just now, 'coalition of Vajpayee'. But there has to be someone who has to be the unifying figure; like Vajpayee was.
Vajpayee, though he was a unifying figure, would have been irrelevant for all his oratory, personality and liberal image, if the BJP had got 120 seats. The numbers will throw up a Vajpayee. But if the platform is low, you won't be able to see the leader. The platform has to be high enough.
With a platform, there surely has to be a personality to unify?
The ethos of this country -- for all that FICCI, CII may say about delivery etc. – is being humble and the perceived secular image (of the leader). That is how VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar and I K Gujral became PMs. That being the case, the real battle within the BJP, very frankly, would be between the two leaders of opposition.
Narendra Modi as PM candidate?
They would try to position him. They can't project Modi before the elections because then the NDA would break, whereas they need to enlarge the NDA before the elections.
The Constitution may not say this but the precedent is that the President calls the single largest pre-election formation. Given that, it is imperative for the NDA to expand its base. If the BJP projects Modi, the Janata Dal-United will walk out. That will leave the BJP only with the Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena. That is very small and meaningless.
My feeling is they (BJP) will not project anyone. That is why afterwards there will be a struggle, a battle. I don't see Narendra Modi coming in. If he does, then those who need Muslims in their states won't be able to join (the coalition).
The success of the UPA has been that they have painted Modi in such dark colours that now he is perceived to be communal, whereas things have been much worse in Assam, or in 1984. Even though an ethnic cleansing has taken place in Assam, nobody is saying the chief minister is communal.
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Image: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi
'LK Advani will always remain a marg darshak'
Not even LK Advani?
As I was saying, the Congress has succeeded completely. They saw Modi as a threat, because in large sections of the middle class he is seen as decisive, not corrupt and a good administrator.
So you see the 2014 battle for prime ministership being between the two leaders of opposition. You do not see Nitin Gadkari as a player?
He is too junior. (If you consider him), then there are others also, who have been party presidents.
And Advani? How do you see his role?
I don't see him as a PM candidate. When 60 per cent of your voters are under 35, they identify with a younger person.
But they identified with Anna Hazare who is quite old?
Not as prime minister, only as a 'marg darshak'. LK Advani will always remain a 'marg darshak'. He has decency, honesty, experience and we respect him deeply.
Advani in his blog said that a non-Congress, non-BJP PM was feasible in 2014. What do you make of it?
What he told me was that at an official dinner two Congress ministers had told him that the situation was very bad and that the next coalition would be a 'khichdi' and he was reacting to that. The reality is that the Congress and the BJP would together be 270 and the others would be 270.
But the rest are divided. Mayawati cannot go with Mulayam, or Mamata with the Left, or Jayalalithaa with the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam. When they cannot unite, they have to take the help of either of the major parties. And if this support is from the outside, it lacks stability, and would be doomed from the beginning. That is the crux of Advani's blog. There cannot be a third front. The numbers do not add up.
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Image: L K Advani
Photographs: Courtesy: http://www.bjp.org/
'Pawar is not trusted; he cannot be a unifying factor'
What about the feasibility of what Advani has said that there can be a non-Congress, non-BJP PM?
If BJP has the numbers, it will have the PM. But equally important will be the role of BJP and NDA chief ministers.
What if within the enlarged NDA, the regional parties unite and demand their PM this time?
One scenario is that the BJP has 135 seats and the rest come together and say we want, for example, Nitish Kumar as PM, but we are willing to give the BJP key ministries like home, finance, foreign affairs.
The second scenario is that the BJP has 170 seats and leads the government. This time there is no way the ally will allow them to keep the key portfolios. They will have to share them with the allies. This has never happened before.
This change will come, and I think they (BJP) are reconciled to it. That is the dynamics of the new politics.
Who are regional leaders who can be a unifying force of the regional parties?
Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik have united already. Mamata will go on her own. Badal saheb and Om Prakash Chautala (Indian National Lok Dal) are one and they have a good rapport with Nitish Kumar. Nitish also has a good rapport with Mamata. Jagan Reddy is still an unknown player.
What about Sharad Pawar?
He is not trusted. People feel he will play a googly at the last minute. Recently, when the Nationalist Congress Party boycotted the cabinet meetings, it was conveyed by his people that he was serious this time about pulling out (of the UPA). But they go to the brink and then pull back.
It was said at one of the NDA meeting that even if he has taken a boarding card for Delhi, he can be found sitting on a plane to Bombay! He cannot be a unifying factor. Badal Sahib can play a limited father-like role, but he is not in the fray. Nitish is a sober player and can play a role to an extent.
The BJP today has neither a clear leader nor a clear 'naara' (slogan) with which it will go to the polls. Whatever you say about the Congress, whatever its deficiencies, it has Rahul Gandhi as its leader and 'youth and change' as its 'naara'?
What you say is not true. Punjab has Sukhbir Badal, a young leader. Maharashtra has the two Thackerays, Uddhav and Raj, and there is a move to bring them together. Jagan Reddy is young. Jayalalithaa is not seen as old, nor is Mamata. No youth leader can match Narendra Modi. There is no challenge from youth to the BJP CMs in Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh.
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Photographs: Rediff Archives
'Anna, Ramdev have influence in small towns and cities'
And the 'naara'?
Our biggest slogan will be price rise because of huge corruption. Before the Punjab elections we had a survey done on what the issues were before the people. Number one issue was price rise. Much will depend on how successful the opposition is to amalgamate corruption with price rise, and the mismanagement of the economy and crony capitalism. Our 'naara' will be that we will give a 'saaf, suthri sarkar' (clean government).
You in the media may push Anna and Ramdev up one day and down the next. But they are held in high esteem in the country. They have influence in the cities, not just in the metros, but also in small towns, and we saw this in Punjab -- they have damaged the Congress. Their reach is to the 'shareef', and Hindustan is still a 'sharafat-pasand' and god-fearing 'mulk' and the scams are being done by a small group.
Is the credibility of the NDA not great in combating corruption?
As I said, it will be an 'anti', not a 'pro', vote, though we will have a road map on issues.
Coming now to Punjab. It is being said that Sukhbir Badal has taken charge of the government.
Mr Parkash Singh Badal is firmly in control and Sukhibir is getting trained under him on how to handle complex political issues, though he understands complex economic problems better than his father.
For the first time he has formed a Punjab Economic Development Council under the deputy chief minister, which is an empowered committee, with the who's who of India as its member, and they all come to the meetings. The idea is how to bring infrastructure, IT, industry into Punjab. They are acting as the brand ambassadors of Punjab.
We will be surplus in power in one year with 5000 mega watts of new power generated. Sukhbir's biggest success has been that VAT collection has more than doubled.
Today, for any politician to be successful, he has to have deep knowledge of economic issues and how to resolve them.
He has also tried to broad base the party?
Today we have more Hindu MLAs in the assembly than the Congress. The Akali Dal is becoming truly a Punjab party. We said we must broad base the party,we have more educated people in the party today than any other party, and the highest number of youngsters. The Jathedar politics is over in Akali Dal, though they are given their due respect.
Image: Ramdev with activist Anna Hazare
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters