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January 29, 1998


The Rediff Election Interview/Raj Babbar

'I have never advocated this kind of understanding with the Congress. I doubt their credentials. I mistrust them'

Rajiv Babbar The secular parties failed to come together in Uttar Pradesh, despite every effort. This will almost certainly see the Bharatiya Janata Party strengthening its hold over India's largest state. But, in Maharashtra, the opposite has happened.

The Samajwadi Party, the Congress, the Republican Party of India and the Janata Dal have formed a common front to take on the might of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance.

Movie star and Samajwadi Party neta Raj Babbar tells Pritish Nandy why this is the time for secular forces to make an impact on the politics of Bombay.

How do you rate the chances of the Samajwadi Party in Maharashtra? Do you think it can actually make a dent in the Sena-BJP votes now that it has forged an understanding with the Congress and the RPI? Or is it just a cry in the wilderness?

We are only contesting three seats in Maharashtra. Two in Bombay, one in Thane. In Bombay we have promised to join hands with all the secular forces so that we do not cut into each other's votes. This includes an understanding with the Congress, the Republican Party, the Janata Dal and all other secular parties that want to defeat the BJP at any cost. We are confident that both Suhail Lokhandwala and Tushar Gandhi will win.

And in Thane?

In Thane it may not be so easy because the person who was fighting has left the party. Rajaram Salvi. He has left the party and joined the BJP.

What about builder Akhtar Rizvi? He left your party in a huff, angry because you unfairly denied him what looked like a winning ticket. Why don't you nominate him for the seat? He is an old SP loyalist.

Akhtarsaab has understood the situation. He is hurt because he did not get the seat he wanted. But I think he now realises why we gave the seat to Tushar Gandhi. We have to win the seat and Tushar Gandhi's name is a very strong name for us. On the one hand you have a party whose proclaimed leader is Nathuram Godse. On the other, you have a party fielding the Mahatma's great grandson. It is a straight fight between the killers of the Mahatma and those who stand by Bapu's principles. That is why we chose Tushar Gandhi. It is important for Gandhi's great-grandson to win.

Of what value is the support of the RPI, now that the Dalits are split among themselves?

The workers are with us. They have always been so. The leaders of the RPI keep fighting among themselves but the workers know us, we know them. They respect us. We stand by them. That is what matters ultimately, Pritishji.

Do you think the Muslims and the Dalits owe allegiance to your secular front? More and more Muslim leaders are making friends with the BJP and the Dalits today are a fragmented lot, with Namdeo Dhasal having joined forces with the Sena.

It is not only the Dalits and the Muslims who are supporting us now. In our two Bombay constituencies, even the Marathis and the Gujaratis are with us. They see the new understanding between the secular parties as a viable, winning option.

If that is so, why have you failed to bond such an understanding in other parts of India? Most importantly, in Uttar Pradesh, where the Samajwadi Party has lost its strategic advantage because it was unable to forge an alliance with other parties like the Congress, the BSP and the Janata Dal who are out to defeat the BJP.

In Maharashtra, we make a difference in about 48 assembly seats. We have a strong presence in these constituencies because of the support we get from the minorities, the backwards and Dalits. That is what made this understanding possible. We may not be able to win these 48 seats but we can play an important role in the winning and losing of these seats. Similarly, we have a very strong presence in 15 Lok Sabha constituencies.

This is what the other secular parties like the Janata Dal and the Congress have realised. They have realised that the Muslim votes are with Mulayam Singh and that the minorities and the backwards have a lot of faith in him. That is why they are coming closer to us.

But do you personally feel comfortable with this understanding with the Congress which has such an ugly and disastrous track record despite its secular claims?

I do not want to talk about my personal beliefs. Simply because you are right, I have never advocated this kind of understanding with the Congress. I am not exactly thrilled by it. Not because of the Congress but because of the kind of people who have led the Congress in recent years. I doubt their credentials. I mistrust them.

But there is a bigger issue, a bigger cause in front of us and that is why I have agreed to go along with this understanding. Here we are fighting the forces of communalism. We cannot afford to be defeated. So my personal views are not important. What is important is that this secular front must win more seats in Maharashtra.

Do you think Sonia Gandhi's emergence as the star campaigner for the Congress will strengthen the march ahead of the secular forces? Do you see her as helping you guys to do better in the election?

This much I know, the Congress worker is pepped up. I do not know how many votes she can win the Congress but the party is certainly looking somewhat better equipped to face the election. This is avery positive sign.

Do you think you might have a post-election scenario where the Congress and the Samajwadi Party become part of an alliance or a coalition where they govern India together?

Frankly, I do not see a coalition like that. It is not a coalition even now. It is just an understanding.

A strategic understanding?

Absolutely. This whole election is about strategy. Nothing more. Not about coalitions or alliances. Just simple strategic understanding.

But could this understanding eventually translate into a coalition?

I can't say what will happen tomorrow. The Congress has to first prove its credentials. As a secular party. As a reliable ally.

How can you call it a secular party when it apologises for the Sikh riots and, on the very same day, welcomes back to the party the very man who inspired it -- H K L Bhagat, who was clearly identified by the victims as the man responsible for murdering thousands of Sikhs in Delhi. Isn't this Janus-faced, opportunistic and patently false?

I do not want to comment on this. All I would like to point out is that they have finally admitted to their guilt, their crime. That is a good beginning. They may be double-faced. They may be guilty. But they are at least ready to now admit their faults. Maybe this will make things better in the future.

Do you think such an opportunistic understanding can be durable?

It will be durable as long as we are ready to fight back communalism together and not compromise. That seems to be the mood in this election. Let's see where it leads us.

The Election Interviews