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February 17, 1998


The Rediff Election Interview/Suresh Kalmadi

'But I am not the BJP! I am the Pune Vikas Aghadi'

Suresh Kalmadi The pleasant chill of a Pune winter night is part of the hectic activity in the Kalmadi household. Suresh Kalmadi, satrap of Pune and former railway minister, is all geared to protect his constituency. He is known in the city for his high-profile life, not least the National Games he organises and the Pune Festival around Ganpati time.

But in the cool air, there is also the heat of uncertainty. Breathing fire within his stronghold is his former mentor, Sharad Pawar. Vithal Tupe has been put up as the Congress candidate against him. Having abandoned Pawar and the Congress to form the Pune Vikas Aghadi, with strong support from the Bharatiya Janata Party, going with the mood of the country, Kalmadi knew that he had hit a winner.

The former pilot and Rajiv Gandhi acolyte had this former Peshwa territory well in hand. Or so he thought. Then, Sonia Gandhi started campaigning for the Congress and singlehandedly changed every poll equation in the country. The Congress was not down and out, the BJP was not all-powerful. There was a joker in the pack.

Now, Kalmadi has to work extra hard to make sure that he is not left out in the cold. Within the ranks of the BJP there is discontent that this outsider, this former enemy, is now a prized possession. Standing as an Independent is Avinash Dharmadhikari, who has the support of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and those among the BJP who are disgruntled with the leadership's poll alliance. Kalmadi, though, is sure that the BJP cadres, disciplined and obedient, will go with him.

Besides Pawar's revenge, Kalmadi's biggest fear is, in fact, his biggest attraction at present. What he gains from being part of the BJP, he may well lose in terms of the Muslim vote. A large constituency in Pune, of almost 150,000 Muslims, is certainly looking at Kalmadi with new suspicion. The common refrain is, "why should we vote for a man who has taken support from the BJP?"

In the 1996 Lok Sabha poll, Kalmadi beat BJP candidate Girish Bapat by an easy 80,000 votes. This year, while he may well win, that margin could reduce drastically. Pawar, Sonia and Dharmadhikari have seen to that. Ayaz Memon speaks to the leader about his politics:

With Sonia Gandhi making such a dramatic impact, do you think your decision to quit the Congress was premature?

I don't think so considering all that was going in the party in the last year-and-a-half. The Congress has gone to bits and it will be very difficult to patch it up. The Congress had always stood for stability, but in the last l8 months the party itself has become so unstable that it can hardly help the country. Post-election, I see a power struggle within the party which will lead to a split again. This man Sitaram Kesri is too shrewd. He is allowing Sonia Gandhi do the campaigning for more seats which he can exploit later. But I think even this game is doomed.

Mrs Gandhi has come too late. The Congress is beyond repair. In states like UP, Bihar West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, which make up for more than 200 seats, the Congress is unlikely to get even into double digits. They don't have an understanding with regional parities so I don't see how the Congress can win even with Mrs Gandhi's support. And after the election, Kesri will put all the blame on her.

He has done this to Narasimha Rao within 48 hours of saying something else. Kesri has this strength because the entire Congress Working Committee is with him. Making him president of this committee was Narasimha Rao's biggest mistake, and all Congressmen are paying a price for this today.

The most scandalous part of this is that 9 out of 10 in the working committee are nominated, not elected members of Parliament. They are all running their personal agendas, which does not matter to Kesri as long as his whim and ambition is looked after.

Having said all that, if the Congress does form the government, will you go back to the party?

No. I am an independent candidate now. So many people have joined the BJP, but I have preferred to go my own way. There are a few like us -- Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, George Fernandes, and Ramakrishna Hegde -- who have not joined the BJP, but are willing to collaborate with them to provide a strong and stable central government. The country needs strong leadership. It was clear that no single party would get a clear mandate, so we have gone to the country now with this arrangement with the BJP to try and get stability based on a Common Minimum Programme which is exactly what Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced during his 13-day tenure as prime minister in 1996.

But the BJP manifesto is regressive. It goes back to constructing a Ram mandir on the disputed spot in Ayodhya plus all the other contentious issues which you have fought all your life. How do you reconcile to this?

Is the BJP going back? This is their party line and was always part of their manifesto. But even they have to go with their allies, so I don't see them doing anything drastic or desperate. I don't perceive their manifesto as a threat.

Nevertheless, this will affect your Muslim voters who have still not got over the destruction of the Babri Masjid...

But I am not the BJP! I am the Pune Vikas Aghadi. It's one of the reasons why I have not taken the BJP symbol. The Muslims in Pune are with me. They know the amount of work I have done for their benefit, they also know me as a man with secular beliefs. I have helped get 55 Muslim corporators. We have a Muslim deputy mayor, the chairman of the education committee is a Muslim, I helped raise Rs 5 million for the Kabrastan Committee.

More than that, Muslims in Pune will remember that I was one of the few politicians who had gone to the Babri site to implement the court order when the problem was at its most severe. We were pelted with abuses and stones, but we stuck to our task. I am the one who raised a voice in Parliament about the Babri Masjid demolition and S B Chavan almost threw me out of the party then. I am convinced about Muslim support.

Why did you go grovelling to the Shiv Sena for support?

Those reports are rubbish. I declared my manifesto and an agenda for Pune city at a meeting a few weeks ago. That meeting authorised me to meet other political parties to ensure their support to see this agenda through. To that end, I met many political leaders from other parties (not the Congress), but not more than once. There was a demand that I take the BJP or Shiv Sena symbol, but I preferred to be on my own, and have even got their support. What's wrong with that?

It is believed that Sharad Pawar is determined to scuttle your ambitions. How did this love affair turn sour?

Well, to be honest we have been drifting apart for a few years now, ever since his nephew (Ajit) came along. The nephew has no political experience and however much respect we had for Sharad, we could not have the same respect for somebody who was a rookie. We have also had some problems in the AICC election.

At one time it seemed there was no alternative to Sharad in the state or party, but now things are different. The final break has come now, and I think it is the logical conclusion following the growing differences between us. He does his own thing and I do mine. But we still respect each other and don't fight in public like a few others. In any case, there is one good which has come out of this -- Sharad and V N Gadgil have come together!

Do you see yourself being marginalised in national politics even if you win?

Suresh Kalmadi has always played a major role in national politics.

Even as an Independent, without support from a major party?

As an Independent, I see my role being enhanced. Everybody knows my abilities.

The Rediff Election Interviews

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