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September 17, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ Digvijay Singh

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

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel and Archana Masih

Part I: 'Vajpayee has proved to be a non-performing PM'

What have you achieved after you returned to power last year?

We have further decentralised the powers of the state government. I am downsizing my bureaucracy. And we have set up our district governance where we have given the powers of the state government and divisional officers to district level. And we have a district planning committee which acts as a district government. So all decisions are taken at that level and only very few decisions come to us at the state now. That helps.

And now from next year we are going for district planning. Every district will have its own plan and own priorities. That’s why in the last few months I have been concentrating on our decentralisation.

Mr V C Shukla has blamed you for refusing him a ticket. You have denied that. How much leeway did you have in determining who got tickets ?

You must be clear in your mind that it is a decision of the party. It is taken together. It is not my decision or anyone else's decision. Mrs Gandhi has been very fair in the whole thing. She has been highly democratic and all decisions were taken with the consent of other leaders also. So it is not my list or Mrs Sonia Gandhi's list or Mr Arjun Singh's list. It is our list. And we all put our heads together to come out and decide 40 names.

You have been considered the great survivor after your performance in the Vidhan Sabha election. Keeping that in mind, how much weightage has your word had it determining tickets?

Whenever an opportunity comes regarding MP, Mrs Gandhi always takes my view. But it is not that she only listens to me. She has senior people from MP. Two of her working committee members – in fact now four -- are from MP. And they all have a role to play. They all have her ear also. So we all work unitedly. There is no such thing as a complete domination of Digvijay Singh. I as a man… I am a team man. I am not a loner. I go along with what the decision is.

But they still say if something goes wrong in this election the knives will be out for you. Doesn't that worry you?

This is part of politics. After all, I am responsible. I can't shy away from this responsibility.

Going back to your equation with Arjun Singh, he said after the assembly election that the credit for the victory in MP must not go to one individual…

I agree. He is absolutely right. I totally agree with Arjun Singhji. It should be given to all the Congress workers, to our leaders, Soniaji… It is a team effort.

Do you think he has forgiven you for aligning with P V Narasimha Rao when he broke away from the Congress in December 1994?

He was never annoyed.

You are being nice.

(Laughs) What do you expect me to be?

The level of debate has been very bad in this campaign. Coarse. Why has it become so coarse?

I think mud slinging is a part of politics. It happens everywhere in the country and the world.

But it wasn't so coarse before.

The degree may differ. But it has always been like that. Mud slinging is a part of politics. You must understand.

But some observers say it could be because some of the leaders responsible are younger, more immature.

But what about Mr Vajpayee? He is neither young nor immature. (Laughs.) So many times he has said I am not going to raise the issue of a foreigner. But every time he comes back to the issue of a foreigner. Mr Advani, so many times he has said, this is not an issue. Now he says it is a major issue.

Mr Mahajan drawing parallels with Monica Lewinsky…

Mr Mahajan has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth. He has been doing that very often. He has been a great help to us. (Laughs heartily).

Isn't it because there is now a personalisation of politics?

Indian politics has always been personalised. We believe in hero worship. It has always been there. It is nothing new to this country. I think there is nothing wrong in it. To some extent it is there. You can't wish it away. It will always be there. Is it not personalised in other countries. What about American politics?

What about Chhattisgarh? Why has the statehood issue not gone forward? Would you blame the Vajpayee government for this?

They were not serious in fact. They were not serious at all. It could have been done. They had the opportunity. They had the time. In fact we had gone to the extent of saying that it should have been held before the last Vidhan Sabha election so that we could have separate elections also. It doesn't matter we can always pass it through.

But it is said the Congress does not want statehood either. Last year's resolution was an act meant solely to win the assembly election.

It was a necessary act. For the GOI it is a required necessity. The assembly must pass a resolution to support it.

It is also been said that nobody is particularly keen on a separate Chhattisgarh state. Even the people themselves don't want it. It is something that nobody wants to say no to.

(Laughs) It is not such a large issue as people think it is. You know this is something which has been accepted by all political parties so we have to now accept that.

That V C Shukla was denied a ticket because of his pro-Chhattisgarh stance?

Noooo. Nooooo. No. It is not correct.

But do you think a separate Chhattisgarh state it is an eventuality at all?

I will be happy if it happens. It all depends on how serious the GOI is because ultimately they have to pass the law. It is a Constitutional amendment.

A major reason for the Congress decline has been factionalism. That is the reason why the party has been reduced to asking Laloo Yadav for 14 seats and pushed to the fourth spot after the BSP in UP. Why hasn't the party been able to contain this?

We made a few mistakes. We deviated from the path of Congress ideology at times. We have always fought the fanatics. The fundamentalists. Somehow we compromised on the Shah Bano case. That was our undoing. I think we are again on the right course now.

The Congress has always been a party that really understands the Indian ethos of carrying every community and caste along with it and that itself is one of the major factors for its long tenure. Everyone feels comfortable in the Congress. Whether it's the Dalits, or the minorities or the upper castes.

For example, the OBC reservation – the Mandal Commission – was initiated by Mr V P Singh but he took the decision in such a way that they were widespread riots all over the country. When Mr Narasimha Rao took the decision, it was accepted. Because people had more confidence in the Congress leadership. That we carry all the castes and communities along with us. While Mr V P Singh tried to divide communities, society. That was the major difference between the two.

Apart from MP, the Congress is almost finished in the Hindi belt. If Sonia Gandhi asked you for your suggestions to revive the party, what would you tell her?

Bring back the Congress on its old track. This pro poor, pro Dalit, pro minority party which is moderate in its thinking and yet keeps in mind the interests of the poor. The Congress stands for 90 per cent of the people, who are not fanatics, not fundamentalists. In fact Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the BJP are trying to be moderates. But ultimately under the skin they are fanatics, fundamentalists.

How have you been able to contain the factionalism in the Congress in Madhya Pradesh?

Simple, I don't react. I always say I am a punching bag. Anyone can come and give two punches and the punching bag stays where it is. I have been a very successful punching bag.

At one time Arjun Singh believed an alliance with the BSP would help the Congress. But you did not support that belief. Do you think the fact that the Congress has no alliances in MP has kept it strong and unified?

There has been a school of thought which wanted to compromise with the BSP because the BSP and the Congress basically stand for the downtrodden, for the upliftment of the poor, the Dalits. So it could have been a natural alliance. But then I personally feel the Congress always stands to lose whenever it goes for a piggyback ride. It has happened in Tamil Nadu and other areas. The Congress must build up its own strength.

Okay in UP we cannot fight 85 seats. Let us fight 20 or 30. But on our own strength with our own clear cut ideology, our own clear cut programmes. Then slowly get on with it.

It is believed the Congress is strong in perhaps 25 seats in MP, and it is said your strategy has been to work for those 25 seats.

Shouldn't I do that?

Why aren't you working on all 40 seats in the state?

I am working on all 40. If you see my tour programme I have been to all the 40 constituencies. I am not ditching anyone.

But are you not giving emphasis on some?

There are certain seats where we are winning, some in which we are on the borderline and some in which we are way behind. The last push that has to be given has to be given in the borderline seats rather than in the seats where we are way behind. That does not mean we are ditching them. But it so happens it is like that.

How hectic has your schedule been? You are looking very sunburnt..

Very hectic. You see in the last Vidhan Sabha election we had polling on one single day. So the time was limited. Now it is in three parts and extends over more than 45 days. So the last time campaigning was on for 22, 23 days. This time it is 45 days. Twice the amount.

Sunburnt? You remember the black buck. It becomes black during this period only (guffaws). Its coat changes only during this period.

Which is the bigger challenge for you? The Vidhan Sabha election or the general election?

Every election is a challenge. I had a higher stake in the Vidhan Sabha election.

But that was a personal stake. Victory this time could elevate your political profile on the national stage.

Let me make it clear I have always said a good CM is a failure in Delhi politics. A successful Cabinet minister has always failed in state politics. I know where my roots are and where my strengths lies. I am the last person to look that side. I am quite happy with MP.

Don't you see a role for yourself at the Centre?

I have a supportive role to play there. I would not like to go away from MP. I am very happy here.

But now you have a better chance at the Centre.

A chief minister is so overawed with the state. You had Mr Deve Gowda as PM. He was doing very well as a CM, but he could never get out of the Karnataka image. The issues are different. A CM who has been there for a long time gets a mind set which really doesn't work at an all India level. Sharad Pawar was a very successful CM, but he was not very successful in Delhi.

If the Congress does badly this time it would be the third time that the party does badly in a general election under your leadership. Does that not remain at the back of your mind?

I have done my best, but the issues are different. They are more national. The Indian electorate is extremely politically conscious because it could differentiate between the Lok Sabha poll of March 1998 and the Vidhan Sabha poll of November 1998. Within six months they differentiated.

Are not the days of dynastic politics over? Have we not had enough of the Nehru family?

You must understand a Birla son takes over the Birla company. A Tata son takes over a Tata company. In the political hierarchy also every politician wants to put up his child. This is probably part of our Indian system. This has carried on. It is percolating in the USA also. Mr Clinton wants to put up his wife (laughs).

Don't you think it's time for young leaders like you to lead the party?

It is not that. It is not that. There is something called fate and there is something called opportunity.

Do you believe in fate?

Of course, I do believe in fate. More so after Narasimha Rao became the PM.

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