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January 10, 1998

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The Rediff Interview/ Pranab Mukherjee

'The BJP's new-found secularism is a reckless exercise to hoodwink the people'

Pranab Mukherjee He has never won a Lok Sabha election, yet he is one of the most powerful leaders in the Congress.

The only time he contested an election, he lost. But nowadays ticket-seekers from every nook and corner of the country troop into his 13 Talkatora home in New Delhi.

He was close to at least three prime ministers, building new bridges every time the political equations change in Delhi.

Congress Working Committee member and manifesto committee chairman Pranab Mukherjee is running the party's road show.

Waiting with the former Union ministers and governors, it took a while to get into the Mukherjee's office. But the wait was worthwhile for Rajesh Ramachandran as the former Union minister spoke for an hour on various subjects, including how Tamil Maanila Congress chief G K Moopanar lost in the prime ministerial race and his personal relation with former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao.

Do you feel the Jain Commission report on Rajiv Gandhi's assassination will make the people vote against the Congress in the south, from where you got the highest number of seats the last time?

Not at all. Why should the people go against the Congress? Jain's is a passing reference. As far as the Congress is concerned, we have abundantly made it clear that we don't share that perception. Moreover, it is only a small section of the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham leadership and a small part of the administration under the DMK government who helped, aided, abetted and strengthened the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. And the LTTE is primarily responsible for Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. The Tamil people have nothing to do with it. So there is no question of such a problem.

Rather we will point out that at one point of time we wanted a Tamilian to be the prime minister. We suggested that Moopanar should be made the prime minister after H D Deve Gowda stepped down. Who opposed it? Even after Gujral's resignation we suggested that Moopanar could be made the prime minister. But they, including a Tamil party like DMK, did not favour the idea. So it is absolutely wrong to say that as a result of the Jain Commission report people will go against us.

If you favour Moopanar so much, why has he not aligned with you now?

That is a different question. He has formed a separate party. And his party has an adjustment with the DMK. He feels he would continue with it.

We supported Moopanar not because he is close to us. We supported him because of the fact that the prime minister should be somebody from the United Front and surely we cannot support the Leftists.

Deve Gowda had to go. There was no ready leader available from the Janata Dal. So at that point of time it was suggested that if Moopanar is chosen we would have no problem in extending support. It was because he was part of the United Front and that the government had to be led by the United Front and not by the Congress.

Is there a leadership crisis in your party?

Not at all. We have an elected president. We have a working committee which represents the collective leadership. Sonia Gandhi is also participating in the campaign and is taking active interest. I don't consider that there is any leadership crisis in the party.

There is a perception that Sitaram Kesri is not acceptable as the party president. And that having his picture on the posters would make it difficult for the Congress to get votes. Do you agree with it?

We should not go by the perception of a section of the media. After all, we should not forget the type of treatment the media meted out to Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi at some point of time or other. So let us not go by that. The media has built up Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the prospective prime minister. What could be done? It is their ball game and they will find out when the results would come out. Then they will find whether their perception is held by 640 million voters or not.

The Bharatiya Janata Party is talking about fielding Muslim candidates. How do you react to the BJP's new-found secularism?

The BJP's new-found secularism is nothing but a reckless exercise to hoodwink the people. The BJP, of course, is known for shifting its stand; changing its policy; changing its programme.

Sometimes they talk of Hindutva, sometimes they talk of Ram, swadeshi, holy Ganges water, holy gomata. Because they are not sure that they can inspire confidence in the people on the basis of their political, economic and social programmes.

This forces them to adopt a slogan or a programme which is basically communal. Otherwise, how can a political party come out with an agenda for the destruction of mosques and construction of temples? They do so because they think this can rouse the communal sentiments, and convert it into an electoral advantage.

So the BJP's secularism is itself a contradiction. If the BJP were a secular party, then there was no need of raising all these issues. Then it would have been a straight normal democratic fight between various political parties. They are not secular at all. It is nothing but a hoodwink.

Will you be able to get back Muslim voters this time?

We do hope to have them back. The lack of communication and misunderstanding which cropped up after the demolition of the Babri mosque has been removed to a considerable extent.

At the Congress's Calcutta plenary session, we expressed our regret for our inability to protect the mosque. We are not responsible for the destruction of the mosque, but at the same time we were in power at the Centre. We believed in those persons who should not have been trusted. We misplaced our trust on some unscrupulous elements which led to the demolition of the mosque, for which we have expressed our regret. Therefore, I do feel that the Muslims would be in a position to support us in this election.

And Sonia Gandhi's active participation would also inspire confidence in the mind of the minorities as the family has a special appeal to the minorities.

Don't you think the Congress had made a very costly mistake by not expressing regret earlier on the Babri mosque issue?

I don't know whether it has been costly or not. There is no need for a post-mortem. Anyway we have expressed our views now and I think that it is possible to carry conviction with friends in the Muslim community.

How do you justify the withdrawal of support to the two successive United Front governments at the Centre?

Was there any obligation on our part to support the United Front government? Did the Indian electorate give us a mandate to support it? Why can't you look at it from the other side, that a group of parties which did not exist before the election -- the Indian electorate had not even heard their name -- could continue in the government for one-and-a-half years, courtesy the Congress. And it is because of the Congress that another round of elections did not take place within weeks. The logical corollary of the Indian electorate's mandate was that another round of elections was inevitable.

We supported the United Front on two grounds. First, to avoid elections within weeks. Second, to make an effort to have a consultation of the secular forces to have a confrontation with the communal forces. The United Front miserably failed to do that. It is as simple as that.

Who is responsible for Mamata Banerjee's alliance with the BJP?

She herself. Who else?

Can you afford Mamata's desertion in West Bengal?

If somebody wants to cut her nose to spoil the feast of others, what can we do? In the country's political history, we have seen these kinds of things. She simply indulged in reckless adventurism. Can you find a parallel in politics where a person's only philosophy is that ''I don't accept anyone. I don't obey anyone.'' You show me one instance. The language she used; the way she behavedů. Can you find a single instance or parallel of this sort in any other national party, whether it be the BJP or the Communist Party of India or the Communist Party of India-Marxist or even in the Janata Dal? She herself is responsible for all this.

Do you expect to win on your own and form a government or will it be a coalition government?

I don't think that there would be another coalition government. The Indian electorate has seen through the game. I am sure they are going to give their mandate in clear terms. It will not be a fractured mandate. And, of course, it will be in favour of the Congress.

Do you rule out a coalition with Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the rest of your allies?

That is a different story. They are our partners. If it is needed, we can have it, there is no harm in it. But the Congress will get enough members on its own to form the government. Whether our partners will participate in the government or not does not depend only on us. It depends on them also. The TMC is not participating in the DMK government in Tamil Nadu. So was the case when we had an alliance with the DMK and the AIADMK. They never participated in the central government, and we never were in the state government. So it would depend on the situation prevailing at that point of time. You cannot prejudge anything.

Is it not very interesting that the Left is going soft on the Congress? They say the BJP is their primary enemy. By defeating the BJP they should be helping you out. Do you need it?

They are making charity out of non-existing resources. They are saying that where they are not strong they will help the Congress. Where do they exist except in three pockets? The influence of the Left parties is confined only to 65 Lok Sabha constituencies out of the 543 all over the country. And in all these 65 constituencies, the Congress and the Left have a close fight.

Of what help can they be for us in Andhra Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh? They don't exist in these states... Where they don't exist, where they don't have any capacity, how does it matter whether they support us or not? And where they have the capacity to put up a fight, there the BJP does not exist and the fight is between the Congress and the Left -- in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.

Moreover, in the states where we are fighting them, we would fight them bitterly. There is no question of any softness or hardness, we are engaged in a political battle. Their statement means nothing; it is just rhetoric.

'The BJP is pathetically trying to catch hold of some breakaway groups, like a drowning man trying to grab some straw'

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