Rediff Logo News Find/Feedback/Site Index
September 16, 1999


E-Mail this interview to a friend

The Rediff Election Interview/ Digvijay Singh

'Vajpayee has proved to be a non-performing PM'

Digvijay Singh Digvijay Singh never says no." It is well known all over Madhya Pradesh, that the charming Diggi Raja, apart from being the honorary monarch of Raghogarh, is also the emperor of PR. "He obliges everyone." "He kills his enemies with sugar, not poison." "He never turns a request down…"

Indeed a simple request for an interview with the chief minister who has been dutifully crisscrossing MP on a frenzied campaign schedule, was magnanimously granted. "Why don't you travel with me on my plane to Rewa and we can talk?" he suggested to Vaihayasi Pande Daniel and Archana Masih, pointing towards the tiny turquoise and white Spannair Beechcraft parked on the tarmac.

"Will you bring us back?"

"Yes, of course."

On the hour-long flight from Bhopal to the green, drizzly Vindhya Pradesh constituency that borders Uttar Pradesh, the cheerful chief minister was ever the gracious host. "Rai Singh, chai lao. Rai Singh biscuit lao. Rai Singh sandwich lao." "We are in for some rough flying."

Hospitality apart, a gifted raconteur, Digvijay Singh entertains his passengers – correspondents and a big time soyabean trader -- for every flying mile, with a selection of fascinating anecdotes about his career in politics, his opponents, his political bosses, his PR strategies and life as a CM. He smiles constantly and laughs often.

"I was too young and new in politics to have much interaction with Mrs Gandhi. But I will always remember the two things I learnt from her. To manage contradictions. To not make enemies…"

"I never believe in having security. Advaniji had once written to me asking me whether I needed Z plus security. I wrote back and said I needed A minus security. I never heard from him again. When (Punjab chief minister) Beant Singh was assassinated the mood was very sombre. I had a meeting with my cabinet. I told them there was no need for security. If Beant Singh could be assassinated in his office get then no amount of security will protect you. Secondly, I told them that this is a hazard of the profession. Thirdly, I told them to write their wills. And fourthly I told them to be sure to nominate someone for the by-elections."

"Rajiv Gandhi was a very good man. The brothers were very different. But I identified with Rajiv…"

"Once I had flown into Balaghat and when the helicopter landed an Adivasi told us to go away. He had had quite a few drinks and was a popular jyotish, with some power in the area. It took us quite some time to persuade him we were indeed his subjects too..."

In the 13th general election, the Congress is posed to make some gains in Madhya Pradesh. Not surprisingly, the man expected to skillfully orchestrate this gain is Digvijay Singh. Ever since he returned the party to power in the state assembly election last winter, he has won himself a place on Sonia Gandhi's A team.

Singh usually does what he promises. When the high command needs funds, it is said, a call is placed to Bhopal and he delivers. When a BJP bigwig needs a favour, he obliges. "He knows how to win people. He has good relations with the BJP. They often cannot face him because they feel obliged. He has made so many transfers for BJP leaders," says a journalist. "He is very efficient," say others.

This month, Singh, true to style, has promised a "surprise" to the Centre as far as MP's election results go. Many, except BJP leaders, find it hard to believe that he will fail.

Of course, other theories abound. "It is in Digvijay Singh's interest to have the Centre weak. He will try hard, but not hard enough," believe some MP watchers. Other local observers believe he will toil for 25 seats for the party, and not more than that. Yet another view taken is that "CMji" will put his full weight behind the 23 candidates who were his chosen ones.

Whatever the magical number he has chosen, Singh has a punishing schedule, often addressing several political meetings in different corners of the state on one day, sleeping just 2, 3 hours a night. On Saturday it was Rewa and four meetings in Bhopal. On Sunday it was Raipur and Chattisgarh. On Monday it was Raisen. Both the helicopter and plane are at his command, and he often switches vahans at midday.

The chief minister, however, seems a stranger to fatigue. Full of beans, it is quite apparent he enjoys politics. Sunburnt a dark brown from the campaign, the 52-year-old leader, who trained as an engineer, seems to take the tamasha very much in stride. "I love travelling around. I hate sitting at a desk. When I first became chief minister hundreds of files came to me a day for signing. That's why I had files distributed around and now only few come to me for signing."

"Yes, I am very religious" he says. "My mother was very religious. My father was an atheist. I learnt that from her." Locals say he has built more temples in MP than any BJP government ever had.

At Rewa, Singh jumps off the aircraft, issuing a dozen organisational commands as he plunges into the throng. A capable orator, he wraps up the meeting in about 45 minutes and flies back to Bhopal where he addresses meetings in four different locations. parted company with him at the Kayastha Amrit Mahotsav. He waved gaily and kurta sleeves rolled up, cheerfully embarked on the task of wrapping silk shawls around rows and rows of Kayastha bozoorgon (respected citizens).

What are the main issues of this election?

Stability is a major factor. That is the main issue. And non-governance of the BJP coalition.

You were very confident of your party's performance in the Vidhan Sabha election. How confident are you this time?

As confident as I was last time (laughs).

How many seats do you think you can win?

I am expecting about 25, 30.

What is the basis for this tally?

Three things. Number one, in the last election we did not have the leadership of Mrs Sonia Gandhi. We had the leadership of Mr Sitaram Kesri. Number two, after the results of the last Vidhan Sabha election, the extreme enthusiasm in the Congress camp has carried us along. In 1991 we got 27 seats. If you see the tally of the Vidhan Sabha election, the leads we have got in 26 parliamentary constituencies, we should be getting 25, 30 seats.

Is Kargil an issue?

It's not an issue. It's not an issue at all. In fact it is going against Vajpayee. You must have seen the latest Outlook, which has the article about Brigadier Surinder Singh’s letter. It seems they were very complacent about the information that they had been receiving. And I think people are realising that.

What about the fact that voters say Vajpayee is better known and more acceptable than Sonia Gandhi?

There was sympathy for Vajpayee in the last election. He was not allowed to function and after 13 days he had to resign. There was an element of sympathy. This time the people have seen he has proved to be a very weak prime minister. A non-performing prime minister who was easily brow-beaten by his colleagues and his alliance partners. No one wants a weak leader.

In Kargil there was a major debacle. A complete failure of intelligence. All kinds of intelligence – RAW, Military Intelligence and IB. People say they did report but the government did not take cogniscence. Mr Vajpayee was more worried about maintaining friendship with the Pakistani prime minister on a personal level. He had his own agenda.

Sonia Gandhi is an unknown factor in the villages of Madhya Pradesh.

In the villages, people are more concerned about the capability factor. They are convinced the BJP cannot rule. The BJP coalition is a mismatched combination. It is solely for power and not on the basis of any ideological basis. They are totally for power. These coalitions don't work. They have never worked since 1977.

I feel in the villages Kargil is not a factor. Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been given an opportunity and people feel he failed. That is why there is a feeling that the Congress is going to become the single largest party or in the majority. We certainly will be better off than the BJP.

You are one of the brightest…

Say that again. Say that again…

You are one of the most unchallenged … (laughs) and brightest chief ministers. So much hope is riding on where you bring Madhya Pradesh in this election. Does this frighten you?

Let me tell you that as a person I have never been sort of overburdened by all these things. I do my duty. I do my best. And leave the results to the Gods.

In this election if things get reversed then your status as the brightest hope of the Congress gets marred.

(Laughs) That is part of politics. You have to take it as it comes.

In your first term, you were hassled by the other Congress leaders of Madhya Pradesh. This time you are a free man – fully in charge of MP Congress politics. What is your agenda, now that you don't have that burden?

I never had that burden. None of the senior leaders ever troubled me. I could carry out my agenda without any problems. Two of our senior-most leaders – Madhavrao Scindia and Arjun Singhji -- they went out of the Congress between 1996 and 1998. They never troubled me. I didn't have any problems.

What is your vision for Madhya Pradesh?

Digvijay Singh I am a confirmed believer in the Gandhian concept of gram swaraj. Village democracy. That has to set in. More involvement of the people and less bureaucracy. The bureaucracy should be there as a guide. As a supplement to the efforts of the people and to give them guidelines. Rather than perform themselves. We would like Madhya Pradesh to use its natural resources to create more employment.

My greatest grouse against the Government of India is that in a state like MP which has 33 per cent of its land area under forest – I can't do anything without the permission of the GOI. For example, I have been asking them for permission to get private investment for commercial plantations, but they are simply not agreeing.

For example, mining. We are one of the very rich mineral states. Amongst the major minerals, we cannot decide our own royalty. It is the GOI which fixes the royalty. The last royalty was fixed in 1994. It should have revised in 1997. This is 1999, they have not revised our royalty.

The whole thing is heavily loaded against the state. So I am having problems with the GOI. For example, diamond mining. It provoked a lot of interest. Lot of controversy. Now we have gone through very transparent procedure, where some people are very keen to do diamond mining and the state will benefit. They reduced the mining royalty from 20 per cent to 10 per cent without asking us, and they have not really been giving us any weightage to what we have been telling them.

Basically my vision for MP is a highly decentralised form of governance. More involvement of the people. Better utilisation of our land resources. Better utilisation of our natural resources and a literate, healthy state.

Twentyfive per cent of MP is dominated by tribals, how much of these plans involves them?

We are the only state that has implemented the Bhuria Committee Report for tribals, and we are one state which is transferring all our royalty from mines and forests to the tribals. No other state does it. So whatever profit comes in from the tendu pattabeedi – leaves, all that is transferred to the people. We are the only state that is doing it. In all other states it goes into government coffers.

Left to me, I would hand over the total management of the forest, land and water resources to the tribals. I firmly believe they would benefit better than us. For example, wherever we have given them the management of forest protection, they have performed exceedingly well. The results have been exceedingly good. But when the laws are such it becomes impossible to function…


The Forest Conservation Act is such that I cannot do anything without the permission of the GOI. And the GOI's permission is not forthcoming.

What about industrialisation? It is understood you have a good rapport with the Ambanis, why then does MP not have many industries?

People don't know that in the tally of industries in the country, we are sixth. We are not all that far behind. What I would like to have is good communication. There are no good air connections as you must also seen. Although we are well connected by train. But then no one wants to take a train. Everyone wants to take a flight and we are not at all well connected.

We are a land-locked state. We don't have a coastline. In spite of those disadvantages, we have a number of industries coming in. Whoever has come, has come to stay. And we are extremely happy with the response.

What industries have come in during your tenure?

Bridgestone has come. Then the oil refinery has come. You name the company, all the big companies have come.

Have you been able to use your friendship with the Ambanis for your state?

My friendship with the Ambanis is very personal. The old man likes me and I have great respect for him. He has no stake in MP. The first thing they wanted to do was agro industries in the barbi farms in Hoshangabad. If I wanted to, I could have easily negotiated and given it to him in return for friendship. But then I went for a whole transparent procedure, went for bidding and they were the highest bidders and it was given to them.

Friendship is one thing. I don't mix it with throwing away the interests of the state. That cannot be compromised. For example with de Beers, the Ambanis were partners, when de Beers did not agree – they were insisting that we should allow our diamonds to be sold through the central organization in London – we said no. It should be auctioned in the state. They said they are not coming. I said don't come. I cannot compromise the state's interest.

So my friendship with the Ambanis… I have great regard for that man. And whenever I am in Bombay I have a meal with him. It is most rejuvenating. He shares his economics and what's happening in industry and I tell him about the political side. We share a great relationship. (Smiles.)

'We compromised on the Shah Bano case. That was our undoing'

The Rediff Election Interviews

Tell us what you think of this interview