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The Rediff Interview/Pramod Mahajan

'Sonia Gandhi is an unopen envelope. Nobody knows what is written inside'

Pramod Mahajan Pramod Mahajan spearheads the Bharatiya Janata Party campaign in Maharashtra. He is also one of the party's most important national leaders today, who has played a crucial role in forging new alliances, bringing in dissidents from other political parties. What does he see as the BJP's chances in the coming election? Will Sonia Gandhi's entry change his party's campaign strategy? Is his party slowly changing colours? Pritish Nandy finds out.

Will the entry of Sonia Gandhi change the course of the coming election?

I don't think so. Sonia Gandhi cannot be more powerful than Rajiv Gandhi, who could not give the Congress more than 200 seats. He tried twice. In 1989 and 1991 when, despite the so-called sympathy factor, the Congress could not get more than 200 seats. Now, after 7 long years, how do you expect the same sympathy factor to get them more than 200 seats? No, I do not think she will make any difference. Except that the Congress today does not have a leader who can attract a public meeting of, say, 2,000 people. Here comes this mystery lady who evokes curiosity. Maybe she will attract 100,000 people to come and see her campaign. It will be curiosity that will draw them, not politics.

Why do you say that? She will be the face on the posters. Not Sitaram Kesri.

Frankly, Pritish, it is too early to assess her as a politician. And, unless one assesses her so, it is difficult to predict what her real impact on the electorate will be. Her face is not enough. She has, till today, never addressed a public meeting for more than five minutes. She has never handled a press conference, never faced any journalist. So I do not even know how she will face basic questions on national issues.

Till today, Sonia Gandhi is an unopen envelope. Nobody knows what is written inside. Once we know, we can make a proper assessment. Till then, we do not want to comment on her as a person. Nobody knows whether she will actually campaign. How she will campaign. Whether she will contest the elections or not. Everything is uncertain as of now.

Will her entry into politics rake up old issues, old wounds? Bofors, HDW, Westland... all the old deals, the scandals, the scams which the BJP made political capital of?

Once she enters politics, it is only natural that everything will come up. Starting with her refusal to take Indian citizenship for so many years to all issues relating to corruption during the Rajiv Gandhi era...

Do you see this as a strategic blunder by the Congress where old issues get an opportunity to spring up again? Or do you think it will help them increase their seats in Parliament?

It is too early to say. Till now, my impression is that this election is not revolving around issues. It is revolving around the idea of an able prime minister and a stable government. The Congress is clearly unable to offer a stable government and, as far as an able prime minister is concerned, Atalji is way ahead of everyone -- including Sonia Gandhi -- in all the newspaper polls. So I do not think Sonia Gandhi can make any material difference to the election outcome.

What is the agenda before the nation? What are we going to vote for?

See, this is the 12th Lok Sabha election. Up to the eighth Lok Sabha, seven elections were won by the Congress with a comfortable majority. Sometimes even with a brute majority. The Janata Party won one election. From the ninth Lok Sabha onwards, we have had three hung Parliaments. People are now tired of this instability and want a capable government that can run its full term. And they think the BJP can provide this.

Congress victories ride piggyback on dead Gandhis. Indira Gandhi's assassination gave them a landslide mandate. Rajiv Gandhi's murder improved their numbers. Isn't Sonia Gandhi tempting providence too much by joining politics?

Politics is always a high risk profession. It is everybody's personal decision whether they want to take this chance or not. Yes, it is a risk. But everyone in politics takes this risk.

I would also disagree with you that Rajiv Gandhi's assassination improved the numbers. In Uttar Pradesh, if my memory serves me right, there are 85 seats. Before Rajiv's assassination, 45 seats were polled and 40 after his assassination. The Congress got four out of the 45 seats polled before Rajiv's death. One of them was his own seat. After his death, only Kalpnath Rai won in UP. Just one Congress seat out of the balance 40! So where was your sympathy vote?

In Gujarat, if I remember right, almost all the seats went for polling after the assassination. Yet the BJP managed to get 52 per cent of the votes! What sympathy vote are we talking about?

How many seats do you expect to win in the forthcoming election?

Between 225 to 230 seats. Our alliance partners will bring in another 80 or 90 seats. But you must remember one thing: This is too early to assess the results. The kind of response we are currently getting, I will not be surprised if the BJP gets a clear majority on its own.

Are you joking? Where will the seats come from? What are the arithmetics?

Let the polls come close. I will give you the state-wise numbers. At this stage, I am only indicating broad patterns, outlines, trends. We are clearly ahead of everyone.

What about internal dissensions? Your own seat is being claimed by a party dissenter, who is hellbent on fighting you. Plus, the number of unscrupled alliances you are forging nationwide -- with people like Jayalalitha -- and those you are bringing into the party -- from Sanjay Singh to Suresh Kalmadi to Mani Shankar Aiyar -- don't you think you will soon reach a stage when the BJP will lose its shining image and start looking like a Congress clone?

Disgruntled elements are always there. I am not worried about my seat. In 1996, I stood after 12 years and got 48 per cent of the vote, though I had virtually no contact with my constituency. And there was no BJP wave either! Gurudas Kamat and Ramdas Athavale got only 25 per cent of the votes each. So, even in a one to one contest, I am safe. I have been in constant touch with my constituency during the past 18 months. They have also seen my performance in Parliament, in national politics. They know I am miles ahead of the rest. Also, this time, I am with a winning party.

But there is a reason for disgruntlement. The BJP has changed its political style, its manifesto, its moral code. How do you expect supporters to stand by you?

For a political party there are no soft options. Analysts can say what they want but we have to look at ground realities. For so many years they have accused us of being isolated. They called us untouchables. They said that the BJP will always remain within striking distance of power but can never make it.

We are trying to show people that this is not true. Look, we are not untouchables. Everyone is ready to join us, align with us. We are the central focus of all political activity in India today. Our alliances (whatever you may say) are bound to increase our reach, our influence, our impact nationwide.

But I agree with you, we must be very cautious about the kind of people we are admitting into the party. There we cannot afford to be so careless. You may think many people are joining the BJP. But when the tickets are given out, I assure you, you will see that not more than two per cent will go to these new entrants. This is an affordable price to pay in politics.

Why do you have so many critics within the BJP who accuse you of being a lobbyist for large business houses, who resent your lifestyle, your growing political clout? They also accuse you of masterminding the strategy of bringing in riff-raff from the Congress.

Pramod Mahajan Disgruntled elements will always remain. But let me tell you frankly, I was never a fund raiser. I was not the treasurer of the BJP at any point of time. Like all political leaders I also collect a little money for the party. I come from the commercial capital of India. So I know many industrialists. That is not a crime. I am voted from a constituency which has 200,000 Muslims, 200,000 dalits. So you cannot accuse me of representing only the interests of the rich and the powerful.

I have led Maharashtra politics for the BJP for the last 13 years. I have openly stated that even if five per cent of the workers do not want me, I am ready to step down. Which other political leader can say this? This is my level of confidence in those who work for me and the BJP. Why should I worry about my critics?

As for bringing in people into the BJP, my house is always open to dissidents of other parties. My leaders know that. I do nothing behind their back.

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