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The Rediff Election Interview/Mani Shankar Aiyar

May 12, 2004

ani Shankar Aiyar, the Indian Foreign Service-diplomat-turned-Congressman, is contesting the general election from Mayiladuthurai. His main opponent is Maniyan of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. It is said Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa will try her best to see that Aiyar -- who was roughed up by AIADMK activists recently -- is defeated. 

Contributing Special Correspondent Shobha Warrier spoke to the eloquent Aiyar on the scenario that is likely to emerge on May 13.

What is the next Lok Sabha going to look like?

I am an Aiyar, but not an astrologer! My estimate is, it is going to be very close. Whatever the number of seats the NDA gets, and the non-NDA gets, it will be almost equal. There's going to be a matter of 15 to 20 seats. Since a large number of those who are with the NDA are not communal forces; they are opportunistically in alliance with the BJP, it is possible that they would leave the NDA and join the non-NDA.

Mr Arun Jaitley and Mr Pramod Mahajan are capable of fishing in any pond. I don't know what they will do. It is going to be tremendous political drama, I think.

Why is it that the Congress party is so dependent on one particular family? Don't you have any other leaders in the party?

We are not dependent on one family; we are dependent on our biggest electoral asset.

Why should I take not take advantage of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi when senior politicians of the Congress -- and all of them from UP -- for the last 15 years, have not been able to make any impact?

Even Sonia Gandhi could not help the Congress become strong.

Strong? The Congress went from 5 states to 16 under her leadership. We deteriorated from something like 20 states under people like Narasimha Rao, who is supposed to be a venerable senior Congress politician who knows 18 languages but cannot make up his mind in any one of them.

If the Congress party had not been such a disaster under Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri, Sonia would never have come into politics.

She came in only because there was a red alert going all over, and I was the pebble that started the avalanche. I met her on the 17th of December (1997) and told her, I am not with the party any more if you don't take over the leadership. I am walking out. She gave many reasons why she should not come into politics.

I said to her this was the last time she was seeing me as a Congressman and walked out of the room. I resigned from the party the next morning. Within 12 days, so many of them resigned. That was how she came into politics, a most reluctant debutante.

Do you see victory for yourself on the faces of the people of Mayiladuthurai?

I think the most unreliable judge of his own performance is the candidate because by definition, you can see only those who come to see you. You never get to see those who don't come to see you because they don't vote for you.

In Tamil Nadu, those who see you greet you back but that doesn't mean they will vote for you. I think I am the most unreliable judge of my own performance. But I can tell you I see warmth in all the faces I see around me. If the evidence of my eyes is to be believed, it is not an election; it's a walkover!

You first came to Mayiladuthurai after quitting the IFS, and these people are quite different from those you had encountered till then. How difficult was it for you to understand these people and vice versa?

There was a severe language problem (Aiyar was born in Lahore, then in India, went to Doon school, and later to Cambridge). There were many, many cultural adjustments to be made, and even today, 13 years after having been associated with the constituency, I find it difficult. There are a lot of usages and customs, even in the political culture of the place I am not familiar with, and therefore without intending to, I upset people and insult them!

But I was very conscious of the fact that I was moving from one world to quite a different one. In the process of learning, I was confident that I could learn.

I was posted in Pakistan during 1978 to 1982 and that was when they hanged (Zulfiqar Ali) Bhutto, and they dissolved the national assembly. So, the major politicians of Pakistan came to Karachi with nothing better to do than have tea with me. So I came away with very close friendship with a large number of Pakistani politicians, and I found that it was a breed with whom I could interact.

Then, when I returned to India and had the opportunity of working with Rajiv Gandhi. Then, of course, I had to interact very widely with Indian politicians across the country, and I found them a reasonable lot with whom it was possible to interact. So, I had the confidence that it would work out. By and large, it has worked out although I run into trouble from time to time.

Did you at any point of time feel that if you had chosen an urban constituency the understanding would have been better?

No, not at all. I was in fact advised by (R) Prabhu (Congress candidate from Nilgris) that I was making a big mistake by picking a rural constituency in Thanjavur. He asked me, 'how can you possibly go there? Why don't you pick Madras South or something like that?'

Now, looking back, I didn't choose this; it happened. Fakir Mohammed, my predecessor, suddenly died at the age of 52. He died by the end of January 1991, and the DMK government was dismissed a day or two later.

Then, the incident with Chandra Shekhar and the Haryana police took place (The Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi, which  supported the Chandra Shekhar government from outside accused it of spying. In pique, Chandra Shekhar resigned, provoking a general election).

Where I thought there would be a by-election, the general election turned up. Because the vacancy was here, and my ancestral village is only 20 km from Kumbakonam, Rajiv was able to take up my case. With great difficulty, he overcame objections from some people and gave me the ticket.

Till today, there is resentment in certain circles that I have been helicoptered in and thus wrecked the political prospects of several people over here.

You won that election.

The first time, I may have won anyway. But the margin by which I won, one-and-a-half lakh votes, was entirely because of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. He was due in my constituency on May 22 (the day before, he was assassinated). After his assassination, there was no way the DMK could win.

The irony is that the DMK candidate who stood against me then is now coordinating my campaign here.

Is this what politics is all about?

This is part of what politics is all about. After I got elected, I started meeting people and solving their problems. I made it a point to spend 10 or 12 days in a month over here. I was keen on promoting the industrialisation of the constituency. That was my single biggest mistake.

I started with aquaculture. While there was a huge investment that took place, sending land prices shooting to higher than the central business district of Singapore. It turned out to be a mistake. I found out that the efforts to industrialise a constituency, when there existed no industrial culture, would not be successful. I then switched my attention to the problems of the poor.

How much of the MP's fund have you utilised?

Every penny.

You said after you mingled with politicians, you found them a reasonable lot. What was your impression of them before?

It is a very complicated, complex relationship the bureaucrats have with politicians. I always wanted to be a politician but didn't know how to make it.

How is your relationship with the DMK, PMK and MDMK against whom you have spoken in very harsh terms till recently?

I have been pitted against these people all these years. There are teething problems, and I am not going to deny that. But we are trying to overcome that.

It is said Jayalalithaa hates you more than anybody else.

I am told, but not directly by the media, that I am hit list number one!

When she came to Mayiladuthurai on April 9 and spoke, she didn't mention me once. She has fielded what she believes is a strong candidate against me. I am grateful for the confidence she has thus reposed in me.

It shows she thinks that I am a strong candidate by importing Maniyan from Vedaranyam to come and fight against me.

By curious coincidence, that's what G K Moopanar also did. He too came to the conclusion that nobody locally could beat me. So he got P V Rajendran from Vedaranyam. He won. So maybe Jayalalithaa is making some calculation that nobody in Mayiladuthurai can beat me but anyone from Vedaranyam can!

You were once asked to stand on a stool for an hour or so while Jayalalithaa spoke.

That was again a media story. That is rubbish. What had happened was that she got information before reaching the place where she was delivering a speech that her candidate had misjudged the height and breadth of the step leading to the dais. Because she had some problem with her knees, she was unable to climb the stairs to get onto the stage.

So the solution she found was that while she spoke from where she sat, Balan and I should stand next to her, and the only way it could be done was with us standing on a bench. The media was very hostile to her at that time. It was made out as if she was the headmistress and we were two errant schoolboys! That was nonsense!

Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj | Image: Rahil Shaikh

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