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February 26, 1998


The Rediff Election Interview/Ramdas Athavale

'If we win Bombay North-Central, the Sena government should resign'

The seat -- Bombay North Central -- is a prestigious one. A Shiv Sena stronghold, it encompasses Sena Bhavan and Chief Minister Manohar Joshi's assembly constituency, one that the Congress definitely wants to win.

Dalit leader Ramdas Athavale, the Republican Party of India-Congress-Samajwadi Party combine's candidate from the seat was a minister in the Sharad Pawar cabinet, and was even accused by his detractors of selling out Dalit interests.

Athavle running from an angry mob In fact, last July, when the Dalit-centric Ramabai Nagar in Ghatkopar went up in flames after a bust of Dr B R Ambedkar was found desecrated and Athavale went there to offer his condolences to the families of those killed in police firing, he was manhandled by the irate mobs. This time, of course, Ramabai Nagar does not fall within in electioneering ambit

The alliance among the Congress, the RPI and the Samajwadi Party -- an electoral first in the state -- could spell trouble for the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in the state. And Athavale's own constituency where he is fighting the Sena's Narayan Athawale, should see an interesting battle.

Ramdas Athavale tells Savera R Someshwar why he will win this seat easily.

What made you enter into an alliance with the Congress for this election?

The main aim of the Republican Party of India, in this election, is to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance in the state. To achieve this aim, we have tied up with the Congress -- this will strengthen our position and enable us to give a better fight to the BJP-Sena. And our alliance with the Samajwadi Party will ensure that all the Muslim and other minority votes come to us.

The Congress have tied up with us because they want to win Maharashtra back and they know they cannot do it without RPI support.

All in all, the RPI-Congress-SP alliance is one that will benefit all the three parties. In the last election, the RPI allied with the United Front and contested 11 seats in Maharashtra. We did not win a single one. And since the votes were divided between the Congress and the RPI, and the fact that the Congress did not have our support, they lost 18 to 19 seats. Now that we are together, there is no way we can lose the election.

What makes you think that traditional Congress voters will support you, considering that you represent the RPI which stands for a totally different ideology?

Traditional Congress voters are strongly against the BJP coming to power. If not for any other reason, that is why they will vote for me. In this constituency, as far as these particular elections are concerned, there is no caste factor. I am appealing to everyone -- be it Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Mali, Dalit, Koli... And the people will definitely support me.

After all, this is not the first time the RPI has allied with the Congress. We had an alliance with them in 1990 too, so the Congress leaders, workers and masses will work for my victory.

What about the symbol? Considering that the Congress symbol is better known, don't you think it will create confusion among the voters if it is not visible on the ballot paper?

What confusion? All the parties are promoting the RPI symbol of Rising Sun in this constituency. They have it on their banners, placards, everything... The symbol for the RPI, Congress and SP in this constituency is the Rising Sun. Even the slogans raised by the Congress workers say that.

Now that both the Congress and the Shiv Sena have been indicted by the Srikrishna Commission in the Bombay riots, do you regret your alliance?

The Congress has been found guilty only because it was in power in the state during the riots and it did not handle the situation well. The Shiv Sena has been accused of much more heinous crimes.

How do you rate your chances of winning the Bombay North Central seat?

I will win this seat. At the moment, I am not concerned about the margin -- we can look at that later. Let me win first. This is a prestige seat for us. It is Chief Minister Manohar Joshi's constituency. It is the Sena stronghold. If we win this seat, the government should resign; the Sena will have to hang its head in shame. In fact, Sharad Pawar has already warned his workers that they will have to face dire consequences if they lose this seat.

How do you propose to tackle the lack of unity in the RPI?

Consensus problems are faced by every party, not just by the RPI. This normally happens when a party has more than one strong leader and the RPI, as you know, has half-a-dozen. Today, there are no differences between us; we are fighting the election on a united plank.

What about in Nagpur and Vidarbha?

There is no problem there. Everything is fine. The RPI workers are doing their best to put up a good fight in the election.

What is your opinion about Mulayam Singh Yadav?

He is a strong leader. He has fought against the BJP and protected the Babri Masjid in the late 1980s when he prevented the shilanyas from being performed and even ordered the police to fire on the unruly BJP workers. Besides, he heads a secular party.

What makes you think the SP is secular?

It is called the Samajwadi Party. And it is against the BJP.

Does secular mean opposing the BJP only?

That... ( laughs)

But Mulayam Singh has been accused of violence, of doing anything and everything necessary to win the election?

Where? In Sambal? Nothing happened there.

How could you have aligned with the Congress when you differ on something as important as the economic policy that should be followed by the country?

We are not against privatisation -- what we are saying is that we will allow privatisation only if a certain amount of jobs are reserved for the scheduled castes. The Constitution says everyone is entitled to employment; we want that right to be implemented. Land and industry should be nationalised. There should be social and economic equality. As far as multinational companies are concerned, I have no problem if the money is invested in India and the profits remain in the country. But if they want to take the money out of the country, we will oppose MNCs tooth-and-nail.

Do you think political parties actually stick to their manifestos after the election?

We do. And the Congress has assured us that they do whatever they have stated in their manifesto.

Considering that your policies are dramatically different from the Congress, why haven't you formed a common minimum programme?

That... ( silence)

Why did the RPI reject Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde's offer of his post to an RPI leader if your party aligned with the BJP? Wasn't this better than Sharad Pawar's similar offer, which is dependent on the Congress coming to power in the state?

We had given Munde a counter-offer. We said we would make him chief minister if he would join the RPI. Why did he not accept the offer? We are against the BJP. We will not support that party at any cost.

Have you restricted your campaign to your constituency only?

No, I went to Bombay, Thane, Raigad. Then I came back to my constituency to make sure that no stone is left unturned as far as my winning this seat is concerned.

Why have you avoided Ramabai Nagar?

Ramabai colony is the RPI's home turf. We do not need to campaign there. All the votes will come to us anyway. Besides, Gurudas Kamat of the Congress is fighting that seat and he has already done a padayatra there. There was no need for any more campaigning.

But the people of Ramabai Nagar say they are disgusted with the RPI and will not vote for them...

That must be the opinion of one or two people. I have received no such information. The people from the colony are meeting me every day to express their support.

Do you think the BJP-SS government will collapse after the Lok Sabha election?

It may, especially if the RPI-Congress-SP combine comes to power at the Centre.

What, in that case, will be your alliance's strategy?

I don't know. I think we would go for a fresh assembly poll.

How you do expect your alliance to fare in these elections?

We will win more seats than last time. Sharad Pawar has already announced that.

The Rediff Election Interviews

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