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October 2, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ Siddhartha Shankar Ray

'The BJP is selling something which gives indigestion to the people of Bengal'

Tara Shankar Sahay in Calcutta

You must be crazy, you want to meet Manuda now, he is campaigning round the clock, looking for him now is like looking for a needle in the haystack," boasts Sudip Haldar, a Congress activist in the Dharamtolla area of Calcutta. He and his party colleagues, mostly in their early twenties, would have everyone believe that Manuda, better known as Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the former Union minister, former Punjab governor and former West Bengal chief minister, is more busy than he actually is.

Ray's election office is housed on the premises of the Majestic cinema theatre on Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road. The theatre was burnt down last year after a short-circuit.

You are advised to wait, Manuda might just make a belated appearance in a couple of hours. It is late in the evening. I hear somebody say Ray will undertake a padyatra on Dharamtolla Street and its vicinity soon.

An hour later, you hear a prolonged din and you rush outside. The Congress candidate can been seen a couple of hundred yards away in an open jeep, the vanguard led by slogan-shouting workers, 500-strong. In a jiffy, Ray and his workers vanish into a side street.

No dice, you are told, try your luck next morning.

You badger Ray's personal assistant Chandan Mukherjee for an early appointment the next day. He hems and haws, you remind him you have come down from Delhi. He says to be ready by one in the afternoon.

Ray's 2 Beltola Road home behind the Bhowanipore thana is imposing, the high wall and the large iron gate highlight the occupant's importance. At 79, Ray is also a top flight lawyer always wooed by clients, eager to procure his legal acumen in exchange for a reported king's ransom.

You are ushered into his chamber which is neatly stacked with law books on either side of the wood-panelled walls in glass cases. The working table, extra-large and done in good taste, smacks unmistakably of wealth and power.

You expect him to be immaculately dressed in his customary navy-blue blazer with silver buttons, gray slacks, wine-red tie on a pale-blue shirt and Gucci shoes. That is not to be.

Instead, the six-foot plus frame is decked up in the Bengali bhadralok's attire -- cream silk kurta, dhoti and cream nagrai shoes.

Before he settles down on his expansive chair, you quickly reassess things. Quite apparently, Ray has smoothly resettled into his lawyer's vocation where he is firmly entrenched in the upper crust. Though he has professed a studied disinterest in state politics since he quit as chief minister in the mid-1970s, the reported invitation by the state Congress leadership to help out during its time of trial appears to have recharged him.

His enthusiasm and verve have come to the fore like those halcyon days when he was said to be a leading advisor to Indira Gandhi. He gives instructions on the phone to party activists to be present at his hastily-summoned public meeting in the Cossipore assembly segment of the constituency. Then he swivels his chair and tells this correspondent, "Shoot, I have 15 minutes for you."

Why have you suddenly jumped in the fray?

I did not want to contest. Congress leaders like Barkat (A B A Ghani Khan Chowdhary), Priya (Priyaranjan Dasmunshi ) and Somen (Somen Mitra) requested me to contest to help out the party when it is passing through a grim phase in the state. In fact, the entire state Congress leadership asked me to contest and so I am here.

The Congress was once a mighty outfit in West Bengal. Today, it has almost ceased to exist. What are the reasons?

I don't want to comment.

Whom do you hold responsible for the party's non-existent state in Bengal?

You know there are various reasons. Obviously, the central and state leadership come under scrutiny. There were some developments which should not have been there. But I don't want to take names.

Sonia Gandhi is the Congress president. Do you blame her also for the party's overall decline?

No. She has been there for a short period. She has inherited the present state of affairs in the party. On the contrary, she has enthused Congressmen all over the country and I think her campaigning in this state will have a positive impact. I think her presence is attracting a lot of young people. That is a good sign because after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, the party suffered, there was drift and disarray.

What is your prescription for fighting the National Democratic alliance in West Bengal? What do you think about the Mamta Banerjee phenomenon?

The BJP's political outlook is basically communal and it will not be accepted in Bengal. It is clear it is against our ethos. The BJP is selling something which gives indigestion to the people of this state. You cannot really sell the unsalable.

As far as Mamta is concerned, she has made an alliance with the BJP which I think is shortsighted. The BJP can never get a hold on Bengal. For that reason, I think the BJP-Trinamul alliance is very temporary. Mamta is bound to go away.

How do you respond to Mamta's oft-repeated claim that 'the Congress is the B team of the CPI-M in West Bengal'?

(laughs.) She is fond of catchy lines. I don't know what a B team is. The Congress certainly does not play second fiddle to any party. It has its own identity, policies and programmes,

How do you rate the Trinamul's Sudip Bandopadhyay as an opponent?

Maybe you have seen the response which my campaign is eliciting in this constituency. The voters know my political track record and they respect me as a lawyer. They know what the state of the Congress was when I was the chief minister. There was stability in the state and it was also well off economically. So Sudip or the CPI-M or whoever, they better watch out.

What do you feel about the anti-Congress lobby's appeal to voters in this constituency that you should be disenfranchised for being responsible for the many encounter killings in Calcutta when you were chief minister?

Maybe, the reference is to the Baranagar tragedy which was seen as a revolt by the people. It happened when Parliament was on. There was not a single question raised in Parliament on the issue and there were no complaints by anybody. That was in 1971 and then the election took place in 1972. The CPI-M raised it when I was the state Congress president.

The CPI-M had nothing else to say against me. Its charges against me were totally fabricated. A commission of inquiry into the matter also found there were no allegations against me. (Chief Minister) Jyoti Basu may go on saying things against me, but I am not concerned.

How do you assess 23 years of the CPI-M-led Left Front's rule in West Bengal?

They have finished Bengal, Jyoti Basu and his cohorts. Bengal today is totally bankrupt. Industrially, it is zero. Jyoti Basu will remember that Bengal was previously a first-rate manufacturing state. Later, Maharashtra overtook Bengal because of the Centre's incentives to it. But look what has happened now. Bengal is a second-rate trading state. Its prosperity is gone. Rs 25,000 crores is the state's liability today.

On top of that, Jyoti Basu is taking another Rs 20,500 crores in public debt. That comes to almost Rs 46,000 crores. How will his government repay it? There are 49 public sector undertakings in Bengal, of which 39 have accumulated losses of Rs 1,127 crores.

Besides, revenue receipts are much less than revenue expenditure. For example, this year's budget shows that revenue receipts are about Rs 11,500 crores but revenue expenditure is Rs 19,000 crore plus. Who is going to meet the shortfall? Please ask Jyoti Basu.

You have been India's ambassador to the US. How do you feel about Washington's persistence in trying to make New Delhi sign the CTBT and NPT?

There has to be better understanding between the two countries about India's problems. We also have to understand the difficulties of the US. Once such an understanding exists, I don't see any problems. As far as the total banning of nuclear weapons is concerned, we agree but we want all countries to follow suit without any discrimination whatsoever.

What is important is the destruction of nuclear weapons and so the discussions must go on without any hostility. We must have friendship with the US, that is my view. Also, one should read Rajiv Gandhi's address to the special session of the UN in 1988 on the banning of nuclear weapons. He had suggested the right thing.

What do you feel about Jaswant Singh's handling of the external affairs ministry?

He has followed the traditional policy. He has done nothing new.

Do you have any observations on the Kargil conflict and the BJP's claims about it?

I don't know what claims the BJP has made on Kargil. All that we have done is recover our areas which had wrongly been seized by Pakistan. For 11 months, the Vajpayee government did not have knowledge that Indian areas were taken by Pakistan. The BJP and the prime minister have to answer our three questions.

First, when did the Pakistani intrusions take place in our area -- 750 km wide and eight km deep into India territory?

Second, when did the central government come to know about it?

Third, if the government came to know about the intrusion after 11 months, how was it allowed to happen? The Pakistani intruders brought heavy guns and Stinger missiles and also built concrete bunkers and had six months of food supply. Why was the government sleeping? It is our valiant soldiers who have to be praised for the Kargil conflict, certainly not the Vajpayee government. Its claim in this regard is utter political nonsense.

Please comment on the illegal infiltration in West Bengal.

There should be no victimisation while deporting illegal immigrants from West Bengal. I mean, only people belonging to the minority community should not be singled out for victimisation and exclusively targeted. I remember during World War II, when Germans in England were being arrested, the British government appointed a powerful committee to go into each German detention. Of course, those who are guilty should be sent back. But deliberate victimisation of the BJP kind, no.

Advani (the Union home minister) is himself an accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case and, therefore, he is not in a position to talk about illegal immigration in Bengal or anywhere else.

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