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August 20, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ Sunil Dutt

'People speculate, they did not even spare Sita'

Just back from Kolhapur and Sholapur in the afternoon, Sunil Dutt hardly showed any signs of fatigue. Thrice member of Parliament from Bombay North-West, Dutt is back in the fray after staying away from electoral politics in the last two elections.

Pitted against the current MP, Madhukar Sarpotdar of the Shiv Sena, Dutt says he is happy to be back. Yet, he gets deeply upset about the lingering speculation that he didn't contest last time on Bal Thackeray's persuasion. "This is a question I have been answering for the past four years. It makes me feel very small," he stresses.

In his quiet office in Bandra -- adorned with pictures of his late wife Nargis, his children and a painting of his mother above his chair -- the former actor-director-member of Parliament spoke to Archana Masih:

How does it feel to be back to the fray, back to your constituency, your people?

I never left my people or my constituency. I was always with the people. Not only in my area, but the whole country. I was always there whenever I felt there was something I could do for them. This is what I feel politics is. You must help your people when they have problems. We must stand for the rights of the common people. This is how I function.

In the past few days after your candidature was announced, have you had a chance to gauge public sentiment in your constituency? Are your constituents happy to have you back?

But I have always maintained contact with them. I have always been meeting them.

But isn't representing them in Parliament something else? Surely, it has a different meaning for a voter?

Yes, yes. I have always felt they know that I represent them every time.

Then they surely must have felt your absence?

I have not yet gone to them this time. Currently I am meeting my party people, right from the block level. The women's organisations, students' organisations, youth organisations. The Seva Dal. I see a lot of enthusiasm. They are all charged.

Essentially, after the Congress's defeat last time -- does their enthusiasm stem from the fact that you can wrest this seat back from the Shiv Sena?

I must say that our candidate didn't fare badly the last time. To lose against the odds, by a few thousand votes, is not a bad result.

After a candidate loses, nobody remembers the margin of defeat, whatever it might be. The truth is that the Congress lost Bombay North-West last time.

Yes, even one vote matters.

...So do your party workers seem confident, now that you have agreed to fight for this seat again?

I think they're very happy. The totality of victory is of a party. I don't understand why individuals should take credit for this. Even when I was making films, I gave credit to everybody. Everybody contributes. Cameraman, scriptwriter, background music, sound recordist, other performers. In the same way in a political party every individual contributes. It is the collective victory.

But the Indian voter in the past has voted for the candidate rather than a party. For a three-time MP like you, isn't it the association with the people that has made you win each time?

In my honest opinion I am flattered if people feel that my coming over here will result in a change. But I will admit that it all depends on the right leadership. In the last two terms we didn't have the right leadership. I must tell you that that greatly affects the thinking and the mind of the voter. Today we are very happy that we have the right leadership in Sonia Gandhi. She has already proved this in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

Delhi and Rajasthan were big forts of the BJP. You cannot deny her the credit for this [victory]. The people are more aware now because of television and new media like the Internet, so all this is going to help us.

To some extent a candidate's background also counts. Both as MP and when outside Parliament. Whether he's committed, involved with the people. Whether he believes in the philosophy of his party. I'm never away from the people. I work for cancer [patients]. It's a dreaded disease that can affect anybody. So I am not only working for the Congress people. Or only for Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs. This is what we inherited from Mahatma Gandhi. I also started a movement on drug abuse.

In the '80s there was a fashion among the youth to take drugs. Today, at least there is an awareness about it in the country. We are now working towards increasing AIDS awareness. We run a school for spastic children. So people know what work I have been doing.

As a member of Parliament I will still do all these things. It is not only essential to speak in Parliament.

There was much speculation that you didn't run for election last time because of Bal Thackeray's intervention. That you opted out to make way for Sarpotdar...

This is the only question the media is interested in. I have been answering the same question for the last four years. I can only say that Bal Thackeray is a good friend of mine. He helped me at the time of my difficulty. It does not mean that I have sold my conscience. It doesn't mean that I have sold my ideology. Neither did he ask me. There were no preconditions. That is why I admire and appreciate him. If he had put some preconditions, I would never [have agreed].

People speculate. They did not even spare Sita. The media and the people only know that here is a former movie actor who has been MP thrice. Do they know my pain during Partition, how I struggled without begging from anyone? That when my wife was suffering from cancer, he forgot his own pain and understood the pains of millions of people. All this builds the character of a person. These kind of speculations are very petty. They do not fit in an MP's scheme of things who represents not only his constituency, but might give opinions for nation-building.

Politicians change three or four parties when they don't get a ticket. But I didn't leave my party. People must know that this man's son was rotting in jail for 15 months. His own party was responsible for putting him in prison, but he still didn't leave the party. He differed from the party, but didn't leave it.

Party is an ideology. Party is not an individual. People spend millions to become MPs, but I resigned after the Bombay riots. That too when my own party was in power that time. You tell me, will a BJP or Shiv Sena MP ever do this? I once took out a morcha in '85 against my own government because I felt the slum-dwellers were being neglected. This is me. That's why I feel small when asked such questions.

Then what was the reason for you not contesting last time?

My not contesting was for a different reason altogether. At that time I was against my leadership. It was my leadership that put my son in jail. How could I expect that they would help me win, though they were giving me a ticket? They wanted to prove at that time that this man's son is in jail and he [Sunil Dutt] is no good either. This was a total plan to destroy me.

If the party gives me a ticket and the party high command is against me, they will definitely see that I lose. So many times they have defeated their own people. They do not think of the party. If they did, they wouldn't do this to a man like me.

It is important for the people to know me. Know what I stand for. I come from a middle-class family myself. I did not inherit richness. I was five years old when my father died. My mother brought me up. That's why I compare my struggle with hers. Hers of course was much greater. She is a source of great inspiration.

What about your own struggle?

I take my tragedies and struggles in my stride because I inherited this strength from my mother. My wife. My kids have stood by me like a rock. Also the love of the people of my country. I am proud of it all. India makes you larger. It makes you think in a different perspective.

In '87 when I walked with my daughter from Bombay to Amritsar, at that time Punjab was burning. I had no one in Punjab, but felt for the people there. In '88 when I felt something had to be done about nuclear disarmament, I undertook a journey from Nagasaki to Hiroshima. During the Bhagalpur riots I spent four days with the people there. Also, after the earthquake in Latur and Osmanabad, I was there for four-five days. I don't go there for publicity. I go there because I feel it is my duty.

Sunil Dutt's photograph: Jewella C Miranda

PART II: 'The attack on Sonia's origin is hurting rural women'

The Rediff Election Interviews

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