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The Rediff Election Interview/George Fernandes

May 07, 2004

In his capacity as convener of the ruling National Democratic Alliance, Defence Minister George Fernandes is going to be a busy man once the general election results are out.

If the exit polls are any indicator, the NDA may fall just short of a simple majority, leaving it to Fernandes to gather the required numbers.

Will it be Mulayam? Will it be Mayawati? Will it be Sharad Pawar?

He may have already begun doing the calculations, but won't say so. Also, he has been a little preoccupied with his election from the Muzzaffarpur Lok Sabha seat in Bihar. He is angry with the Election Commission for letting goons rule the streets on polling day.

In an exclusive interview with Chief Correspondent Onkar Singh at his home in New Delhi, Fernandes denied he is in the race for the prime ministership. He ridiculed others like Pawar, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mulayam for being in the queue.

Are you satisfied with the polling and the manner in which you conducted your campaign?

I had a very good campaign and tremendous support from the people of my constituency. My only regret is we could not convert the massive support which the people gave us into hundred percent votes. This happened because my party is not primarily in a very good state in Muzzaffarpur. Nevertheless, I am confident I will win by a comfortable margin.

NDA leaders claim there is a Vajpayee wave. Do you feel the Vajpayee factor is really working for you?

I do believe the people are rallying around partly because of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's personality.

If what you say is true, then why is Mr Vajpayee being forced to address more rallies then he would have done otherwise?

I think he has energy which is on display. He is extremely happy that he has the opportunity of not only leading the National Democratic Alliance in the Lok Sabha polls, but also to lead the country soon after the results are declared.

Are you confident you will get the numbers?

I am more than certain we will get the required numbers, maybe one or two seats less or more. But we would get the magic number and would form the next government at the Centre. At least, we in the NDA are clear about it.

Do you feel the progress made in the India-Pakistan peace talks is contributing in getting votes to the NDA?

I have seen everywhere that the kind of effort that is being made to resolve Indo-Pak problems, peaceful borders between the two nations is being appreciated by the people. We have established a meaningful relationship with China as well and we have a peaceful border there as well. 

In the case of China, there hasn't been a bullet exchanged between the two countries for the last five years.

In the case of Pakistan, not a bullet has been exchanged between the two armies in the last nine months and this is certainly making an impact on the people of India.

It is making an impact not only because of the situation on the borders with Pakistan and China, but also the realisation that when there is peace the money that goes normally for purchase of weapons and the lives that are lost during conflict is being saved.

The money saved would go into national development.

The lives saved would help build the nation.
The President has been taking keen interest in the welfare of the armed forces of which he is the supreme commander. He has been to Siachen and the Line of Control. What do you think of the President's gestures?

Dr A P J Abdul Kalam has been an active President from day one. By visiting Siachen, the Line of Control and other places Dr Kalam is doing an excellent thing of boosting the morale of his forces, of which, as you pointed out, he is the supreme commander.

I am very happy we have a President who takes interest in activities of the children, the aged and the armed forces.

Do you think Pakistan will take advantage of the lull on the border and try another military adventure?

There are no indications of that at the moment.

The global terrorism that one is fighting is hurting every country today. No country can think it is safe. Last week we had a series of terrorist attacks in various countries.

What is the government doing about the Indian workers killed in Iraq?

If people want to look for a job outside India they are welcome to do so. If he wants to take the job knowing fully well the risks involved in such jobs then he is responsible for it. No such information has come to the Government of India or at least to the ministry of defence that Indian workers are getting killed in Iraq.

Some NGOs supporting the NDA are using posters of President Musharraf shaking hands with Prime Minister Vajpayee. The Congress claims this is unethical. What do you have to say about it?

I have not seen the posters myself, but if there are such posters as you claim then there is nothing wrong with them. Because Atalji has shaken hands with Musharraf and there is nothing unethical about it. I personally see nothing wrong with it. After all, this is the reality which the whole world knows about.

What do you feel about Sharad Pawar's aspirations to become prime minister of India?

Why single out Pawar? There are so many of them. Laloo has also made a claim. So has Mulayam. Then we have Sonia Gandhi. Let them all stand in queue.

Do you aspire to be prime minister yourself?

No, I am not in the race for the office of prime minister of India.

What if you emerge as the consensus candidate?

Not even in that situation.

Do you feel the NDA will need the support of parties like the Samajwadi Party to form the government?

I am certain we would get to the number -- we may get a seat or two more or less. But we are forming the government.

Mr Vajpayee says Mr Mulayam Singh is not an untouchable. He is a close friend of yours as well.

I have heard what Atalji has said about Mulayam. He (Mulayam) is a friend of mine for many decades. I flew to Lucknow for his swearing-in ceremony, but that does not mean we are building bridges in anticipation for his support to form a government.

Are you concerned about the complaints of rigging in Chhapra in Bihar?

Everyone is concerned about these complaints. I saw pictures of some Election Commission officials with Laloo Yadav in leading newspapers. They could be seen smiling. This raises suspicion about the independence of the working of the Election Commission or at least some of those who are working for the Commission.

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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