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February 20, 1998


The Rediff Election Interview/ Arif Baig

'The BJP is not willing to accept any Muslim. They only want people with Muslim-sounding names'

Arif Baig Arif Baig's home? I'll take you there." The man climbed down the neem tree and made himself welcome in the front seat of our car.

Arif Baig, the Congress candidate from Bhopal, served the Jan Sangh and its progeny, the Bharatiya Janata Party for 22 years before leaving the party just before the 1996 election. A former BJP vice-president, he is now pitted against a former party colleague, Sushil Chandra Verma.

Baig entered politics in 1962, was elected an MLA in 1967 and has been an MP twice, the only Muslim in the BJP's history to be elected to the Lok Sabha. In 1977 he defeated Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma in Bhopal -- that first result over the BBC on that cold March morning set the trend for the Congress debacle to follow.

In his large and rather overly done up living room -- with a fountain tucked in a corner behind him -- Baig spoke to Archana Masih about his misgiving with the BJP and his chances this election.

What are your chances of winning the Bhopal seat?

I want to tell you clearly that the Congress party's chances are very bright here. The BJP has won the last three elections from here. SC Verma, the BJP MP, has been a high profile IAS officer (he is a former Madhya Pradesh chief secretary). He still remains an IAS officer. He has the same shaan and shaukat of his earlier days. Neither does he like to meet common people.

After having represented Bhopal thrice, he has not raised any issues in Parliament. He doesn't say anything there. He doesn't even mingle with his party workers. This is the reason for his unpopularity.

Then why has he consistently won the Bhopal seat?

There is only one reason for this. The Congress party here has never been united in any Lok Sabha election. After the past experiences -- the party leadership decided to field a candidate who was not embroiled in any kind of groupism. Since I joined the party only in 1996, this was my positive point. Now my party also looks united, my opposing friend already has so many problems, so I am sure I will win from here.

What are the issues you are taking before your people?

The first issue is bridging the differences between Hindus and Muslims which has been created by the BJP. After my entry into the party, the BJP has not been successful in doing this. Moreover, the BJP can make no allegation against me because I have been with them for 22 years; for 14 years I was their all India secretary. When I left the party, I was one of its top leaders.

Another point in my favour is my victory over Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1977 in Bhopal. Doctorsahab, in his entire lifetime, only lost one election, to me. Now even Doctorsahab is with me, and I have his blessings.

The people of Bhopal are also looking for change.

What were the reasons for you leaving the BJP?

I have given 22 years of my life to the BJP. Those were the days when I was young -- now I am 60. I feel very unhappy to say that even after spending so many years with them, the BJP is not willing to accept any Muslim. They only want people with Muslim-sounding names.

In those 22 years -- I never missed any namaz during the day. I kept fasts during Ramzan. They didn't like that style. I never spoke against Muslims from the party forum. I always felt that if a devout Muslim became friends with a devout Hindu their friendship would be very strong.

I was influenced by the dedication of the BJP -- their organisation. I wanted to dilute this communal element in the party. So I felt that Muslims should enter the party. I set up the BJP's minority forum in 18 states. I was the only Muslim to have entered the Lok Sabha -- twice -- on a BJP ticket. Two times! The BJP had no other Muslim candidate like me.

They sidelined me because I was a Muslim and raised issues about Muslims from the party forum.

But the BJP is wooing Muslims these days?

This is a pretence. If the BJP was serious, then it would have given tickets to Muslims in the party's strongholds and ensured their victories. You ask the BJP if they are serious about the Muslims. If not, then it is a pretence.

You have spent so many years with the BJP, what do you think is their agenda?

What Govindacharya said about Atal Bihari is correct. He is a mask. He is being used.

Is Mr Vajpayee only going to be the BJP's 'mask' till the election?

Unfortunately, the BJP is unwilling to take the country's 200 million strong minorities. I have 22 years experience with them. They are unwilling to take Muslim brothers with them. It took me a minute to leave the party.

What about Mr Vajpayee? Is he secular?

Personally, both Advani and Vajpayee are very good people. But they have their compulsions. The RSS is the BJP's mother institution. The BJP works according to the RSS. Whatever the Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal say, Vajpayee will be compelled to dance to their tune.

The BJP is a national party. Ashok Singhal (the VHP leader) and Raju Bhaiya (Professor Rajendra Singh, the RSS general secretary) don't have to face elections. They can go to any extent, but Advani and Vajpayee have to face elections. You cannot come to power by alienating 200 million minorities.

Akbar could understand this -- of his 9 ratans -- 5 were Hindu. Raja Todarmal, Birbal, Raja Man Singh were all with him because Akbar knew if he wanted to be a good ruler, he would need to include them too. But intelligent people like Advani and Vajpayee can't understand this.

So, this 'soft image', according to you, is just a momentary phase for the BJP?

They are just using Vajpayee. They are not serious about Vajpayee. If you meet Atalji personally, he is also unhappy, very unhappy. He is a mass leader, a brilliant orator. The BJP is only using him. Compared to the other leaders in the BJP, Vajpayee is a moderate towards Muslims. But Vajpayee is not all powerful. He is helpless and the hardliners don't want to see him powerful. This is the reason the BJP will never be powerful.

Bal Thackeray has understood this -- he included a Muslim twice in the government ministry. He has changed his attitude on Ayodhya. He too has understood that to rule you have to take all your subjects with you. Our society comprises of all segments. If you maintain this attitude, it is not correct.

How many seats do you think the Congress will obtain in Madhya Pradesh?

We should get 30. People have understood that each time they have had a stable government it has been given by the Congress. Our chief minister is very popular -- he has encouraged Panchayati Raj. All local development is being seen to by the Congress. Farmers are also happy.

What affect will the Multai firing have on the election?

These are momentary happenings. It had nothing to do with party or my government. In view of the election, it was the BJP itself which made it assume such proportions. This was a conspiracy. Powerful people do this -- wasn't it done during Advaniji's rally? I condone this event. Violence bears no results.

With 27 seats in the last election, what has been the reason for the rise of the BJP in MP?

Only one reason -- the lack of organisation in the Congress. The Congress has to bring back the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. I want to revive the Congress in MP and serve the people. I want to work with the Seva Dal, so that I can make a strong organisation in answer to the RSS.

What are the constituencies that the Congress is confident about in MP?

Hoshangabad, Vidisha -- definitely.

It is said you left the BJP because you were not given a ticket for the 1996 election?

It is not true. When I joined the Congress, P V Narasimha Rao was willing to give me Chandni Chowk, but I told him I had joined the Congress unconditionally. Instead, I helped Jaiprakash Agarwal to win that seat.

Campaign Trail/Arif Baig

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