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February 26, 1998


The Rediff Election Interview/Harubhai Mehta

'The party machinery is not properly geared up to transform the Sonia enthusiasm into votes'

Can you imagine a Lok Sabha candidate taking time off his busy campaigning to have a chat with a journalist where he was put up? That was exactly what happened when Harubhai Mehta, the senior Congress leader and veteran lawyer, dropped in at my hotel room.

Sometimes, V Gangadhar discovered old friendships do not fade away that easily. Mehta had not forgotten those days in 1969 when Gangadhar was the sole reporter covering nonstop for nine months, the Jaganmohan Reddy inquiry commission probing the Ahmedabad comunal riots. He was then a lawyer appearing for one of the groups and often gave Gangadhar a lift on his motorbike.

Mehta, who was formerly with the CPI and then CPI-M, joined the Congress in 1972 and was the party MP from 1984 to 1989. This time he faces a formidable BJP opponent, Harin Pathak, but hopes to draw support from the Muslims, Dalits and the working class. He has always been identified with the poor and had been the lawyer for several trade unions. He was cautiously optimistic about his chances, particularly after the enormous success of Sonia Gandhi's visit to Ahmedabad.

Suddenly the UP developments have overshadowed even the Lok Sabha polls. As a politician and a lawyer, how do you view the situation in UP?

They negate the BJP plank of stability and strong government. Kalyan Singh, who came to power through corrupt deals and defections, fell by the same methods. As you sow, so you reap!

Do you think the Congress would have fared better if it had continued its alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Party?

Certainly, There would have been less split in the votes. But the unfortunately myopic vision of some Congress leaders led to the breaking-off of the alliance. The BJP will certainly benefit from this. Some local leaders had major ego problems. Perhaps they thought the party would lose its identity by aligning itself with the RJP.

What are the major issues of your campaign?

Communal amity, which was destroyed when the BJP was in power. They moved several local mosques and madrassas on one pretext or the other. Deserving Muslims candidates were not considered for suitable government jobs. There was the gradual, subtle process of introducing Hindu elements in school text books. Illustrations of women had to have a tilak on their foreheads. The BJP government also wound up the State Textile Corporation which resulted in the closure of 11 textile mills. The Keshubhai Patel government had no time and heart for the problems of the poor and the slum dwellers.

Any major problems with your campaign this time?

There is still a lot of goodwill for the Congress. Look at the response to the Sonia Gandhi meeting. But the party machinery is not properly geared up to transform this enthusiasm into votes. Here, there is better organisation among the BJP cadres.

How many seats can the Congress win in Gujarat this time?

We had eight in the 11th Lok Sabha. This can go up to 15 to 16. Sonia Gandhi's visits boosted our chances. The BJP is running scared.

Is it an advantage or a disadvantage that the Lok Sabha and assembly polls are being held simultaneously?

In the case of Gujarat, I think it is a disadvantage. People tend to focus more on the assembly election which revolve around local issues. Further, resources tend to get split up. Normally, there should be better co-ordination between the Lok Sabha and assembly candidates. But that does not happen so easily.

What is the RJP's role in this election?

They are concentrating in the assembly polls. As for the Lok Sabha poll, they are nothing more than a nuisance value. The Vaghela government was more of the slogan mongering type, they took on too much within too short a period. But unlike the BJP government, they were not communal. The Keshubhai government victimised the Congress, but not the RJP.

Did your choice for the Ahmedabad seat create any controversy within the Congress?

No, mine was a unanimous choice. The local and central leadership were behind me. But we can do much better if the party machinery acted more energetically. The BJP is not invincible in the urban areas.

The Rediff Election Interviews

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