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February 28, 1998


The Rediff Election Interview/George Fernandes

'If my father is a rapist, I cannot, should not, defend him only because he is my father'

Samata Party supremo and former trade union leader George Fernandes has a fiery reputation. But when his party has allied itself with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the volte face surprised a great many people. Prem Panicker quizzed Fernandes about his change of stance and his future plans.

Mr Fernandes, when the Vajpayee government sought a vote of confidence 18 months ago, you had, on the floor of the Lok Sabha, you launched an impassioned attack on governance by coalition, while arguing Vajpayee's case. Now your party is involved in an alliance as large as the United Front, and you are hoping to form a coalition government at the Centre. A rather drastic turnaround, isn't it?

I have to make a correction here, I have never expressed myself against a coalition government. What I had attacked, at the time, was the notion of the United Front, as it then stood, forming a government.


Because the basic problem with the governments headed first by Deve Gowda, then by Inder Gujral, was that they were sustained by outside support by the Congress and the CPI-M. In other words, they were puppets of these two parties, midgets fronting for the CPI-M and, more importantly, the Congress.

Both those parties had their particular bee in their bonnet, their own individual agendas. And this was the intrinsic reason that those governments fell. It was also the danger I warned about, on the floor of the House.

This individual agenda -- what exactly are you referring to?

Let's not mince words -- the Deve Gowda government fell for no reasons other than Sitaram Kesri's 40-year-old relationship with Ashok Jain of The Times of India. Kesri, in fact, was on the board of directors of one of the group companies as far back as 1967. Deve Gowda refused to oblige the Kesri-Jain combine on several issues -- hawala, the receipt of foreign funding by the Congress, the Congress party's funds in foreign countries, Kesri's own funds abroad....

And, of course, the chacha-bhatija relationship between Kesri and Laloo Yadav meant that Kesri sought Deve Gowda's intervention when Laloo was in trouble and Deve Gowda told him, Kesri, to go to hell. So Deve Gowda had to fall. It was that simple.

And Gujral?

Well, first, why did Gujral become PM? By virtue of the fact that he is related by marriage to Ashok Jain. Jain's son is married to Gujral's sister's daughter, Gujral's sister's son is married to Jain's daughter. So it was all nicely in the family. An acceptable candidate for Ashok Jain, so Kesri used his party's muscle to push his candidature through.

With that kind of backing, why then did Gujral go for a toss?

Look first at what they achieved during his tenure. Laloo Yadav was released on bail. Bofors was brushed under the carpet. Joginder Singh was removed and R L Sharma, who is no more or no less than a family retainer of the Gandhi household, was brought in as CBI chief.

But there was one thing the puppet masters couldn't do, and that was to bring the courts under control. So Kesri -- and Sonia Gandhi, who is only interested in burying Bofors once for all -- came to the conclusion that they had achieved everything they could from the back seat, now they needed to be in the driver's seat.

You are saying here that the Congress under Kesri was confident of being retained to power? That was not the public, or media, perception at the time...?

No. First Kesri proposed a formula whereby the Congress would form the government, with United Front support. And what is more, Gujral was okay with it. But three parties blocked it -- the DMK, the TDP and the Left parties. And between them, these three had around 93 seats, so if they opposed a Congress government, then there was no chance of it surviving. So then the Kesri-Sonia combine realised there was nothing to lose, that it was better to gamble and lose, rather than not gamble at all and lose anyway.

Back to where we started -- how are we to believe that a BJP-led coalition will be any better?

Because it will not be a coalition of inconsequential elements. Rather, it will be a coalition headed by the single most important political player in the country today. And the parties supporting it will be the smaller elements. Earlier, the smallest element ruled, which is the very antithesis of democracy. Besides, if you look at the BJP-led front, almost all the elements are parties with clear anti-Congress leanings. And this forms that adhesive, the binding force.

Despite the fact that the BJP-RSS agenda differs markedly from, say, that of the AIADMK, BJD or your own party's.

That is precisely why the BJP front will rule on the basis of a common minimum programme, which will smooth out those angularities; the nuances will then not matter.

And the RSS will not call the shots? Isn't that rather far-fetched?

The RSS is outside Parliament, outside the government. The government is the House, the Cabinet. Let me give you an example -- when Mulayam Singh Yadav first became CM in UP, he handed over the cement factories to the Dalmias for a pittance. I was in the government at the time, yet the Hindu Mazdoor Kisan Party, of which I was president, opposed it. I addressed a huge rally in Lucknow against Mulayam. The point here is, the job of a political party is to correct its government where needed, not support it blindly.

If my father is a rapist, I cannot, should not, defend him only because he is my father.

The connection being...?

My point is that the RSS does not suit the agenda. And if the BJP-led government strays from the CMP, then the coalition parties will oppose it.

Really? Isn't it more realistic to assume that the bits and pieces players will remain content with the loaves and fishes of office, rather than raise waves?

No. Because, face it, the smaller parties -- like mine, why mince matters? -- are always looking to extend their spheres of influence, to attract more public attention. If the government. I am part of functions well, fine, I get my mileage by being a part of it. If my government functions ill, I got mileage by opposing it -- so you can be sure I, and the other coalition members, have everything to gain and nothing to lose by playing watchdog.

Which brings us back to your CMP. Could you elaborate on its elements?

It is yet to be finalised. Typically, the CMP is draws up before a coalition government takes office. What you get during elections is only the manifestos of the individual parties.

Manifesto, CMP -- besides the terminology, just how much of a difference is there?

Light years of difference. A manifesto is not meant to be implemented -- it is merely a gift-wrapped candy box for public consumption. For instance, when I was industries minister in the Janata Party Cabinet. I wanted to take over some industries. Morarji Desai, my PM at the time, opposed it -- and his worst critics acknowledged Morarjibhai as an upright person. So I fought with him. I said Morajibhai, it is part of our manifesto and Morajibhai retorted, George, a manifesto is put to bed once elections are over!

And the CMP?

It is a live document, Every member of the coalition has a stake in it. A manifesto is a document by a party, prepared to attract votes -- but a CMP is a programme prepared by a government, it is the basis of governance. Besides, when a party wins power on its own, its MPs are least bothered whether the manifesto is implemented or not. A CMP, though, has all the coalition partners monitoring it, it is in the public gaze all the time, Therefore, it has a better chance of working.

Why do I get the impression your prefer governance by coalition to single party rule?

I do prefer coalitions, as against single party rule, there is no secret about my preference.

Could that be because the party you lead has no hope of our ruling in its own?

As to "ever", when the BJP had just two seats in Parliament, did you think it would reach this position? But my support for coalitions is based on the belief that if it is strong, then it works better than single party rule. I don't understand why people use the word coalition as a pejorative. Look at Norway.

The PM, a friend of mine, heads a centrist coalition. In a house of 180 members, the rival socialists have 66 members, the PM's coalition has 45 -- but it works. Look at Israel. Tiny place, about the size of Pune, population-wise, yet it has defeated 200 million Arabs. And its government is almost always a coalition. The Zionists and the radical Labour Party are on opposite ends of the political spectrum yet they have even shared the prime ministership -- two years to the Zionists, two years to Labour. So I see no reasons why a coalition based on a programme is untenable.

You said the CMP is not finalised. But surely, you must have a stand on the Babri Masjid dispute. The BJP wants to build to temple there, you were among the first to oppose the demolition. How does one have a common programme on this one?

As far as that goes, like I said, a manifesto is merely for public consumption. A temple is Ayodhya will not be part of our CMP. No way.

What then? Restoration of the mosque?

I am inclined to support the call for a national monument at the site. One that will erase the memories, wipe out the blood. A monument for all people, one that will remind us of our national, not communal, identity; one that creates a feeling of nationalism.

What other major issue can you think of? For the CMP, I mean?

The states. First, I am in favour of creating a hundred states -- why, as early as December 1955, at the formation of the Socialist Party in Hyderabad, I had moved a resolution calling for the creation of 50 states. And the population has doubled since then, so a hundred states is not far off the mark.


It's like in a school, there is one teacher to 150 students, and nobody learns anything. One teacher to, say, 25 students, they all benefit -- there is more individual attention.

So you hope to have this in the CMP?

Well, my good friend Bal Thackeray is opposed to it, but let's see. In any event, I believe in greater autonomy for the states. I think the Centre should concern itself only with defence, external affairs, finance and communications and leave the rest to the state. And if you notice, most members of our alliance are agreed on this.

Then why not simply dump the Westminister model and opt for a Presidential set-up?

No, I am opposed to that. Today, if the government messes up, there is still the President. Look at another way, the government forms a buffer between the President and the people, whose expectations can never be met anyway. Today, it the government that carries the blame for failures. But if you go for the Presidential form and the President fails, what is left? The army! And that is too great to risk to take.

Frankly, do you believe that a BJP government will be less corrupt than any of its predecessors?

I always maintains that all governments everywhere are corrupt. Look at Japan -- very honest individuals, but I've lost count of the number of PMs jailed for corruption. Why, even in the Vatican there is corruption -- a bank owned by the Church was totally hijacked. Corruption is in the nature of the beast.

But yes, I believe that a BJP-led coalition will be considerably, considerably less corrupt then the Congress, which has elevated corruption to an art form. With a dozen parties looking over each other's shoulders all the time, yes, I believe the government will be considerably cleaner.

In the past 18 months in particular, cynicism has become the norm. Faith in our parliamentarians, in government, is dead. How is it possible to repair the damage? Is it possible at all?

Yes, it is possible. All it takes is one law -- to introduce transparency. Let me give you an example. When Chandra Shekhar was PM, he sent me to Sweden to bring back the Bofors papers. I tried to meet the PM, who is a friend, but I found his door shut. I tried to meet another friend, Anita Gradin, minister for foreign trade. No luck.

Then someone told me I could approach the Supreme Court. When I pointed out that I was not a citizen, I was told that both their Supreme Courts, the constitutional one and the civil and criminal one, could be approached by any citizen of the world.

So I approached the court and told them my problem. They said, "We are not concerned with whether your friends meet you. Put in an application for what you need." So I went back to Anita Gradin's office and submitted a handwritten application. Twenty-four hours later I had my papers. You introduce that kind of transparency here, and much of corruption -- that of the ministers and, worse, of the bureaucrats, will be stopped.

And that's it, the magic formula?

Well, if you as a media person, or even any ordinary citizen, is given the right to ask, at any time, for any document concerning any deal I have made as a minister, how can I be corrupt? And there is one other thing -- every single criminal has to be treated on par.

A thief who robs your house has to be on par with the PM's son who robs the country, treatment-wise. Treat all criminals as criminals -- as they say in Urdu,Hamam main sab nange hain. And that is how it should be.

Look at Laloo Yadav -- For the crime he is accused of the statutory sentence is 20 years in jail. And, yet, when he is released on bail, the PM meets him, the President has tea with him, pictures are splashed in all the papers. Now tell me, with the memory of those pictures fresh in his mind, which cop will dare arrest Laloo? Which judge will dare try him?

No, I think there has to be equality before the law. That, and transparency. If you can ensure these two, then the credibility we have lost will be restored.

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