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February 11, 1998


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The Rediff Election Interview/Manmohan Singh

'The responsibility for all actions of the Cabinet -- including those relating to Ayodhya -- was that of all members of the Cabinet. I hold myself equally responsible for what happened'

Dr Manmohan Singh is today a frontrunner in the sweepstakes for the prime minister's job. That is, if the Congress succeeds in winning enough seats to spearhead an anti-BJP coalition.

Dr Manmohan Singh His integrity, his track record, his remarkable success as the finance minister who brought India back from the edge of bankruptcy and introduced crucial structural reforms, have earned him a reputation few can match. But that has not made it easy for Singh to defend the Congress which is going through trying times. Trying to resurrect itself from the ashes of its own past. With a little bit of help from Sonia Gandhi.

Speaking to Pritish Nandy, Dr Singh explains where he stands in the power sweepstakes, and why Narasimha Rao was denied a ticket by the Congress party.

Why has the Congress failed to get as yet an official fix on its prime ministerial candidate?

Well, the Congress has taken the position that the leader of the party will be elected only after the new Lok Sabha is formed. That's the only democratic way to go about it, I would think.

But that leaves you without a face on your posters? Your party always printed posters for your candidates with the prime ministerial candidate's face beside the campaigning candidate's. As the man who would lead the nation if the Congress won, what happened to the tradition?

There is no dearth of competent leaders in our party. They feel that the candidate can be elected by the elected members once the Lok Sabha is formed. Till then, we have decided to campaign without a face.

Do you mean that, for so many years, the Congress was selecting its leader in the wrong way?

No I did not say that. In those days, every time the nation went to vote, the Congress always had a prime minister in power and it was the prime minister's face which was (you could say, naturally) reproduced on the posters. But this time the Congress is going to the elections without being in power. So it has no existing prime ministerial candidate to promote.

But in the election held after 1977, the Congress had no prime minister?

At that time, no one had any doubt that Indiraji would be the official prime ministerial candidate. It was always clear that she was the party's undisputed leader. Plus, she was prime minister before Morarji. So she was the automatic choice.

By that argument, Narasimha Rao should have been the automatic choice?

Yes, but he is not fighting the election.

Why? Why is he not fighting the election?

You know very well that for certain reasons he was not given the party ticket to contest the election this time.

Everyone thought he did not get a ticket because the Congress wanted to atone for Ayodhya and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. But now your party has officially declared that Ayodhya is not the reason for denying him a ticket. In that case, what is the reason?

Look, whatever the decision that was taken at the time of the Ayodhya tragedy, was the collective responsibility of the Cabinet. It is unfair to make him alone responsible for it. However, as an act of atonement, the party felt that some price should be paid and that is why the Congress president decided that -- as a gesture -- Narasimha Rao should be denied a ticket.

I would however, like to affirm that the responsibility for all actions of the Cabinet -- including those relating to Ayodhya -- was that of all members of the Cabinet. I was also in that Cabinet and I, therefore, hold myself equally responsible for what happened.

So you feel that the Congress has been less than fair to Narasimha Rao?

Well, I think he should have been given a ticket.

Don't you think that the people who have played a role in the communalisation of India should have been all denied a ticket? Be it Ayodhya or the anti-Sikh riots. How come leaders who played a prominent role in these riots have been welcomed back by the party? People like H K L Bhagat, for instance.

Until the cases are decided by the courts, how can we hold anyone guilty? However, simply because people had generally come to the conclusion that some of these Congressmen were responsible for the riots, the Congress decided not to field them in the elections. We were merely bowing to public opinion.

If your party does not consider anyone as guilty till the courts judge him or her to be so, how come even before the court had passed judgment in the Rajiv Gandhi murder trial you were demanding the DMK's scalp? When the courts finally passed a judgment on the case, there was not even a single mention of the DMK! Whereas you had dropped a perfectly stable government for no reason at all. And, that too, not for the first time.

Look, what did we say in the case of the Jain Commission? What we said was, here is a commission of inquiry set up to inquire into the murder of one of India's most beloved leaders. A former prime minister. A future prime minister. That Commission came to certain conclusions which exposed the involvement of certain sections of the DMK leadership. What we said to the government was that this matter should be investigated and while this investigation was going on and a report was to be prepared, the leaders of the DMK should stand apart from the government.

But was that reason enough to drop the government? Was there reason enough to drop the earlier government led by Deve Gowda? Or it simply this that the Congress is too greedy for power and cannot stay without it?

We went out of our way to see that there was no election. The government fell not because the Congress dropped it but because the government was so rigid about not keeping the DMK ministers out. It fell because even before the Jain Commission report was out and placed before the House, the home minister said the report was rubbish. When the Commission's report was placed before the House, they said that everything it had stated was wrong. This is no way to have a commission of inquiry!

Before that, why was the Deve Gowda government dropped?

We had objections to Deve Gowda because, in our view, he was using the reins of the government to disrupt the Congress party, to bring about a rift within the Congress party, and to bring about a split in the Congress party. When he refused to listen, the party had no choice.

If your party is so easily splittable, as it indeed is, why blame someone else?

The government was in power because of Congress support. It was unfair to engineer splits in the party that was sustaining the government in power.

Just as the Jain Commission has tried to implicate the DMK in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, an earlier commission -- the Thakker Commission appointed to inquire into the assassination of Indira Gandhi -- had pointed the needle of suspicion towards a Congressman whom you have now given a ticket to fight the election? Isn't that curious?

If you are pointing your finger towards R K Dhawan, he was removed from all party posts the moment his name came up in the context of the Thakker Commission. There was an internal inquiry against him. When that inquiry found him not guilty, it was only then that he got a ticket to fight the election.

Why does your party speak with a forked tongue? On one hand, the Congress apologises for the anti-Sikh riots. On the same day, it brings back into its fold a man like H K L Bhagat accused of leading these riots!

He has not been given a ticket in these elections.

But that is not going to console those Sikh families who lost their near and dear ones in those riots.

First of all, I would like to say that I do not consider anyone like Mr Bhagat or anyone else as guilty unless the courts say so. Mr Bhagat has left the party, come back and so forth. But this is the first time the Congress has denied him a ticket. Isn't this enough punishment even though the courts have not taken a position on his alleged guilt?

But the courts have also taken no position on the DMK's alleged guilt? In fact, the recent court judgment which declared the death sentence on a record number of people did not even mention the DMK as one of the parties responsible for Rajiv's assassination!

But they could have stepped down till the judgment came out. They could have resigned.

Mr Singh, the Congress has apologised for Operation Bluestar, anti-Sikh riots, Ayodhya, the demolition of the Masjid, the Bombay riots. How much will the Congress keep apologising for?

Dr Manmohan Singh I do not know what is the difference between a regret and an apology, Pritish. We have said that we are sad that these events happened. But that does not mean we as a party were responsible for these unfortunate happenings. Let us take the case of the Babri Masjid. It is well-known that the Masjid was destroyed by a conscious, well planned act of vandalism on the part of the BJP and its associates.

Even as your government helplessly watched...

Well, our only crime was that our government took at face value the promises of the BJP leaders that no harm will come to the Masjid. That we took at face value the assurances they gave to the Supreme Court of India that nothing would go wrong at Ayodhya. So that is the reason for our regret. That's why we regretted -- or what you call apologised -- because our government could not prevent the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

How come all the Congress leaders close to Narasimha Rao have now quietly migrated to the BJP?

You should not take people like Mr Maurya seriously. Every party has people like them who come and go at will. This does not mean they were part of any secret conspiracy to allow the Masjid to be destroyed. They change their parties like people change their shirts. This happens every time, at election time. People who do not get tickets feel dissatisfied and leave. You should read nothing more into this.

There was no secret agenda?

No, I do not believe so. I think it is just part of the usual comings and goings at election time. We should not worry too much about such people. They do not make or break the Congress party.

The Election Interviews