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September 27, 1999


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The Rediff Election Interview/ Ananth Kumar

'The future chief minister of Karnataka will be my leader Yediyurappa, the man who built the BJP brick by brick...'

The lobby of his constituency office is refreshingly devoid of all camouflage. Big photographs of the man himself adorn the walls, which are unoccupied by pictures of Vajpayee or Gandhi. Ananth Kumar strides out of his office, his new garb of long, flowing khadi polysilk churidar-kurta, adopted ever since he went to Delhi as a member of Parliament, enhancing his bearing and stature.

The general election in Karnataka is over, but the assembly election in his constituency are still on. The aviation minister is busy trying to smoothen out the glitches in the Bharatiya Janata Party-Janata Dal-United association by introducing contesting JD candidates to BJP cadres. The man whom Ramakrishna Hegde describes as a possible future chief minister of Karnataka, spoke at length to M D Riti.

Would you describe the BJP-JD-U alliance as ailing?

It will be a proving alliance. Whatever difficulties we faced in the seat adjustment have been sorted out by and large. Our alliance is going to succeed in Karnataka because we are driven by the aspirations of the people to have a Vajpayee-led government at the Centre with a similar government in the state.

Anant Nag says the quest for power will be the only factor which will finally keep the alliance going.

I think he is referring to his own quest, not that of the alliance. It is sad that a man of his calibre is now so twisted because of his own personal search for power. However, a broad-based ideological alliance like the National Democratic Alliance, with a clear pre-electoral programme, cannot be reduced to being described as a power-hungry coalition.

But then, why has the BJP not taken any action against rebels contesting against the official JD (U) candidates in over 20 constituencies? Even the high profile rebels like Rajanna who stood against J H Patel in Channagiri have not been issued show cause notices, leave alone expelled from the party for going against its diktat. This almost implies tacit support of their contesting from the BJP.

Firstly, this happened in only 21 out of 224 assembly constituencies. This amounts to less than 10 per cent of the total, and it happened only because the seat adjustment discussion between the two parties went on until the very last day. Secondly, Rajanna contested as an Independent, and not as an official BJP candidate. Neither we nor the JD-U have taken action against rebels from our parties, because we could not come to an understanding in these areas and demarcate the areas between ourselves.

Don't you think all these are clear pointers towards your alliance heading for the same kind of split, if and when you form the government, as happened at the Centre?

You can look at a half open door as half closed too. Let us be optimistic and look at it as a good beginning. To be honest, we at the state level were not ready for this alliance. But by the last day for withdrawal of nominations, we had resolved almost all our differences. This is a long way to go in a short time.

But the leadership in both parties are still making unpleasant remarks about each other. The BJP's state chief B S Yediyurappa openly told me that the BJP could easily have won a majority in Karnataka if it had contested alone without the JD-U's support, and that this is an alliance forced by circumstances.

Similarly, Hegde openly calls the BJP greedy. If this is the situation before the ballots are even counted, it looks as if Anant Nag could well be right when he says only the thirst for power will cement your two parties together.

I don't want to join issue over this subject. Yediyurappa has just represented the misgivings of everyone in the party about the alliance. But he has honoured his commitment to the alliance in every way.

But even at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh baithak in Bangalore a couple of days ago, he continued to say the same things again.

That is only hearsay. The performance of various organisations that draw inspiration from the RSS were assessed, and several of their programmes were planned at the baithak. The activities of the BJP as a political activity were not high on our agenda.

You were there at the baithak. Are you saying that Yediyurappa never spoke against the alliance or the JD-U?

I will only say that was not on the agenda.

But don't you think it's better to sit in the Opposition than to form a government dependent on the support of so many coalition partners who may let you down at any moment?

When the people empower us to govern, as I am sure they will this time too, why should we sit in the Opposition? When a group of parties with a clearly agreed-upon pre-electoral programme go to the people, and get a positive mandate for them, the direction that they must take is perfectly obvious, and it is not towards the Opposition benches.

Politicians this time around seem to have really gone to town denigrating women politicians who are in the fray. Apart from the much publicised statements of George Fernandes and Pramod Mahajan, we also had the Malleswaram JD-U candidate M Raghupathy saying, at the launch of your electoral campaign a month ago, that Vajpayee was a poor bachelor victimised by three women, Sonia, Jayalalitha and Mayawati.

I believe one should not make any personal comments while campaigning. We should speak about the real issues before the people, and what we promise them today, and thereby elevate the level of campaigning.

Speaking of issues, did any of the political parties really bring any major issues before the people? All that the Congress talked about was Sonia and the BJP just kept on about Kargil.

The main issue in this election is a pro-BJP wave. There are wave elections and waveless elections. In 1977, there was the anti-Emergency wave. In 1989, it was an anti-Bofors wave. In 1999, it is a pro-Vajpayee wave.

The issue this time was, who should govern the country? A man who has a clean track record of 45 years of parliamentary politics, who has performed spectacularly over the past several months, an experienced hand, a statesman par excellence, an astute politician of international standing? Or a novice whose only claim to fame is that that she is the daughter-in-law of the Gandhi family, with no parliamentary experience, with roots in a foreign land, who took 16 years to decide whether to be a citizen of this country or not?

Why are you making this into a straight contest between Sonia and Vajpayee, almost like a presidential election? Is it to combat the personality culture of the Congress that the BJP too has become so personality-oriented? Previously, your party's face was that of a huge institution, now we only see Vajpayee's face everywhere.

The format of any election is decided by the electorate. Because the Congress propped up by the back door a candidate of foreign origins, as their prime ministerial candidate, the people took strong exception and said Vajpayee is their choice. Vajpayee is not just a political personality, he has now become an icon of national pride, good governance, clean politics and consensus.

If he is an icon today, it's because you have made him one.

It's not the BJP, it's the Indian people. You cannot make a man an icon by any amount of imagination, engineering or management. Do you think the 1,000 million people of India will agree to make any old person their icon?

Has the BJP consciously changed its image of being a hardcore Hindu organisation? One sees the party looking less and less right wing, and not speaking so much of Hindutva?

Images are always given to us by the media. Actually, we are what we were and what we will be. There is no material change. The BJP was never communal. We have always been most secular. Wherever we came to power, we have maintained an excellent law and order situation, and maintained true national unity.

Who will get the Muslim vote this time? Would Kargil have overshadowed Ayodhya by now?

For the first time, people have risen above the petty considerations of caste, region, religion and language, and realised that this is neither a corporation election nor an assembly election, but a national election which determines the destiny of the nation. With that idea in mind, people have voted truly secularly this time. The Muslims will vote with the national mainstream for us.

To what do you attribute your own rapid rise? Is it because you are very close to L K Advani, and are regarded by many as his successor and shishya?

In my party, grassroots leadership is always encouraged. If you look quickly at Venkiah Naidu to Uma Bharti and Gopinath Munde, you will find they are all my contemporaries. It is not the rapid rise of one individual leader, but the natural evolution of a whole series of leaders, with the encouragement and blessings of our top leadership, including Atalji and Advaniji.

We are the only party where we have a second rung, a third rung and even a fourth rung leadership blooming and blossoming, not like the Communist Party of India-Marxist, with its 80-plus leaders withering away.

Can we take all these assessments as the observations of a possible future chief minister of Karnataka?

The future chief minister of Karnataka will be my leader Yediyurappa, the man who built the BJP brick by brick in the state through the farmers's movement and through the people themselves. The BJP has made it very clear that he is our chief ministerial candidate, and there is no debate about that. As I am one of the party's most sincere workers, I am very happy with this decision.

Do you think your coalition partners like Ramakrishna Hegde and J H Patel will sit back quietly and let you make him chief minister?

The people have recognised chief ministerial material in him, as evidenced in various popular opinion surveys conducted over the past few weeks. Moreover, in coalition politics, the leader of the major party always becomes the head of the coalition government. My colleagues like Hegde have been in politics for long, and will understand this better than juniors like me, and will readily accept these facts.

The JD-U now says the original understanding was that you would divide the 224 assembly seats as 112 each for the BJP and JD-U, and that you sabotaged this equation to give yourselves the upper hand?

I have never heard these figures so far. As one of the key participants in the formulation of this arrangement, I know that there was only one agreement and that gave the BJP 129 constituencies and JD-U 95 constituencies.

Why have you opted out of state level politics by contesting continuously for Parliament three times? Even Hegde acknowledges you as the only alternative or successor to Yediyurappa in the BJP's Karnakata unit, and as a potential chief minister yourself. You could reach the top in this state very quickly.

Vajpayee and Advani adore me more, and want me there. They have given me a particular role at the Centre and I am happy to fulfil it. I have no personal ambitions in this matter, except to genuinely serve the people of the country and the state.

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