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September 2, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/Dr Manmohan Singh

'The BJP's vicious campaign against Sonia will backfire'

It's just 6.30 in the morning. But the sun is already up, spreading its warmth across the nation's capital, and Congress politician Manmohan Singh's entourage is on its way to campaign in a distant locality in South Delhi, his constituency for the election to the thirteenth Lok Sabha. In the 20 minutes or so it took Dr Singh to reach the destination, the former Union finance minister and the architect of India's liberalisation programme held forth on politics in an interview with Amberish K Diwanji. Excerpts:

Does your entry into electoral politics imply the emergence of Manmohan Singh the politician over Manmohan Singh the economist?

I have been in politics since 1991 when the then prime minister, P V Narasimha Rao, invited me to be the finance minister. So there is no question of emergence.

No, but all these years, you were still seen primarily as an economist who was in politics. Now the image is that of a politician who is an economist.

Politics and economics cannot really be separated. One needs politics to resolve economic problems.

How does it feel to be in electoral politics?

It is quite challenging. One gets to meet people from all walks of life, of different backgrounds. South Delhi is a huge constituency with people from all parts of India. There are both rich and poor people.

In a way it is also very sad when one sees all the poor people and hears their problems, that after all these years there is still so much poverty in India and so much more remains to be done.

Do you feel confident of victory?

That will only be known on the day of the results [smiles]. But certainly the workers of the party are enthusiastic as never before and charged up for battle, the campaign is going well, and I am hopeful of victory.

What made you enter the race, since you are already a Rajya Sabha member with two years to go before your term ends?

It was really a decision of the party leadership. They felt that my presence will help the Congress party's image and improve its performance in quite a few constituencies.

Yet, does not your candidature send out a message to the middle class to take a more active interest in politics?

It certainly does. We need more people in the Lok Sabha who can understand complex issues that need to be debated and decided upon. We need more people who understand public administration to legislate on our future laws. And I hope that my presence encourages more people to take to active politics rather than the people we would rather not have in the Lok Sabha.

Do you find the campaigning tiring?

Very much! Elections are really meant for people much younger than I (Singh is nearly 70). At my age, it is difficult to keep up and do all that is necessary.

For years there was a perception that your liberalisation policies had hurt the poor. So what is your thrust when you meet the poor?

There is no evidence that liberalisation hurt, or hurts, the poor. The best proof of that comes from the fact that both the opposition parties after the Congress government have followed the same economic policies that we initiated in 1991.

Of course when I meet the poorer people in my constituency, I don't talk about abstract economics. Their needs are basic -- jobs, food, water, education. My endeavour will be to ensure that at least such minimum needs are met if I am elected.

Is Kargil an issue in the current elections?

It certainly is. The A B Vajpayee government cannot escape its responsibility for allowing the Pakistanis to come in. In 1998, Defence Minister George Fernandes had warned in Parliament that we would have to be careful about Pakistan's intentions, and yet these very people let their guard down to allow the Pakistanis to intrude into our territory.

We are proud of our soldiers who so bravely sacrificed their lives, but it would not have happened if this government had not gone to sleep. Ask the families of the 500 who were killed how they feel. Ask all the young widows, mothers and children of the men who died.

The BJP claims political instability caused the intrusion. Yet, the Congress government was in power at the height of the insurgencies in Punjab (1984) and Jammu and Kashmir (1991) and never did the Pakistanis even think of intruding into India in those days. Even if the Lok Sabha had not been dissolved, the Kargil issue alone would have forced this government to go.

Do you hold Vajpayee responsible?

The problem with Vajpayee is that he cannot understand complex matters. His absorptive capacity is very limited. I have found that his concentration lapses after five minutes. Complex matters cannot be narrated in just five minutes and I have never found him able to understand them. He is no doubt a fine poet, but to run the country you don't need poets, but capable men.

What do you have to say about the general campaign so far?

It has been a vicious campaign, revealing a fascist mindset. The statements by the likes of Pramod Mahajan and George Fernandes, who are making such cheap remarks against Sonia Gandhi, will only backfire because negative campaigning has never worked in India.

The Constitution of India makes no distinction among the citizens of India on the basis of sex, race, caste, religion or place of birth. The BJP forgets that no one can become the prime minister of India if the people do not want that person to be prime minister.

Regrettably, Vajpayee, who claims to be a great moral leader, did not say one word about this kind of campaigning [this was before Dr Singh had had a chance to glance at the morning papers where Vajpayee called for restraint].

What do you have to say about the opinion polls so far?

It is really very, very difficult to hold authentic opinion polls in India. We are a very large country and a sample of just a few thousands, when the electorate is in hundreds of millions, is simply too small to be representative of the country and the people. Hence their predictions have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

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