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August 18, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ Arun Nehru

'I have been talking with the BJP for almost 10 years now'

This election, it seems, is all about pulling rabbits out of hats. Like the BJP's surprise nomination of Gandhi kin Arun Nehru from Rae Bareily, or the Congress retaliating with T N Seshan in Gandhinagar. But it is Nehru's candidature that has set the cat among the Congress pigeons in UP. What made Rajiv Gandhi's cousin, an Indira discovery, opt for the BJP? Pritish Nandy finds out.

How does it feel to return to the cut and thrust of active politics?

I never went away. It was a sabbatical. In Indian politics, you must always remember one thing, Pritish: everyone at the top, irrespective of the party they belong to, is talking to each other. Confabulating. Discussing. Negotiating. It is not that I was away all this while. I was talking with the BJP for almost ten years now. I wanted to join the party at a point of time that was most effective. This was it.

Why? Because you see the BJP as the emerging force in Indian politics?

Why emerging force? The BJP is all set to sweep the polls. It's a one-horse race this time. No one can stop it. The North has already been conquered and with the DMK and the TDP as allies, the South is also won. I had given the BJP and its allies 300 seats. The research polls seem to be giving it 10 per cent more. With 330 seats, it would offer India a clear five years of rule. Stable, consistent rule. With no fuss, no problems.

What do you see as the Congress numbers?

Originally I gave them about 140 seats but now as time goes by and we come nearer to the polls my guess is that the numbers will be less. A tide tends to pick up more seats as you get closer to the day of voting. That is how the newspaper polls are showing 330 seats for the BJP and its allies as against the 300 I had predicted. This will bring the Congress figures further down.

For instance, I had predicted three or four seats for the Congress in UP. Now I think it will be lucky if it gets even one! In Bihar I had given them an identical figure. That is now in doubt as well. The Congress may not eventually get a single seat in either of the states!

You mean Sonia Gandhi will not win her Amethi seat?

Even if she does, it will be a very tough fight. Sanjay Singh has been there, working round the clock. It will not be as easy as they think. Amethi is no longer a safe sweat for the Congress. In fact, if you ask me, Sonia may not even stand from Amethi.

Why? You expect her to stand from Bellary?

In all probability. That is a safe seat for the Congress. Not Amethi.

Are there no safe seats for the Congress in UP and Bihar in your view? A seat Sonia Gandhi can fight from?

Frankly, no. Not in this election. But she is welcome to fight from Rae Bareilly if she wants. It will keep her pinned down there for a while.

In words, you expect the decimation of the Congress?

In this election, yes. But politics is a curious thing. The party can always swing back. There can be a split or Sonia can pack off and go and then everything will change again. Nothing remains the same in politics, you know. Every few years, every few months new windows of opportunity open. Right now, it is Atal all the way. The country is not prepared to look at anyone else.

Do you expect the Nationalist Congress Party to do well?

Yes, Sharad Pawar and Purno Sangma are good, clever chaps and I am sure they will not let this opportunity pass. They will get the numbers strong enough to negotiate hard after the elections. I would say they will get around 12 to 15 seats, which is no mean number.

My reading is that the allies of the BJP will bring in at least 100 seats, some of them in biggish chunks. The DMK in Tamil Nadu will possibly bring in the largest number. Anything between 20 and 24 while Jayalalitha will get about 6. Then comes the Samata in Bihar who are likely to do very well. Say, 14 seats or so. Together with the BJP, they will take away most of the Bihar seats leaving Laloo in trouble. The TDP in Andhra Pradesh should bring in about 10 to 12. The Shiv Sena in Maharashtra an equal number. And the Trinamul in West Bengal about the same. Naveen Patnaik's lot will have another 8 or so. They will all, of course, demand the sharing of power at the Centre and that will not be such a bad thing. Coalition politics will continue. That is not likely to change in the immediate future.

Consensus politics, in other words? More bitterness. More negotiations. More infighting.

There will hardly be any chance for that. With over 330 seats, the BJP and its allies will have a closer mandate and the smaller parties, sensing this, will try and renegotiate their positions and come closer to the ruling group. No, I don't think you are going to have much tension this time. It will be plain sailing with a clear mandate for Atal. In fact, there is not much demand for anyone else this time. Everyone wants the prime minister to campaign in their constituency. Kargil has ensured the mandate.

You do not expect the Congress to improve its position anywhere?

Maybe Punjab. Maybe Kerala. Maybe Madhya Pradesh marginally. And possibly Karnataka. But in stakes like Rajasthan, Gujarat and West Bengal, the Congress is likely to be wiped out. As also in UP and Bihar. In Orissa I do not give it more than 3 seats. Originally I said 5. In Tamil Nadu it will do as disastrously. No, if you ask me, I do not see it doing much better anywhere this time. The Congress will have to rediscover itself, find a new leadership for the next battle. This time it is over. They have no chance.

You have given one seat to the Congress in Delhi. I presume you expect Manmohan Singh to win. After all, he is the most likely person for the prime minister's job if Sonia Gandhi decides not to take it.

That will not be an easy seat to win. As for Manmohan Singh, I think it makes no sense to talk of who will be the prime minister unless one has a reasonable chance of winning the polls and, as far as the Congress is concerned, that does not exist. It has no chance of winning. The BJP will walk away with the coming elections and then it must try, this time, to give the nation a good, effective government.

The Rediff Election Interviews

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