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January 13, 1998


The Rediff Election Interview/ George Fernandes

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'Laloo's alliance with Kesri's Congress implies it is an alliance of criminals'

George Fernandes He still spits fire. Even after half a century in politics he is as forceful as ever. He has switched parties and is now on the wrong side of the secular divide. But he doesn't shy away from a debate on his secular credentials.

Samata Party supremo George Fernandes, now a friend of the Hindutva brigade, calls Sonia Gandhi names; asks why she was not sent to jail on charges of Foreign Exchange Regulation Act violations; threatens that he will expose her before the Indian public in an exclusive election interview with Rediff On The NeT's Rajesh Ramachandran.

What will be the impact of Sonia Gandhi's campaign, particularly in rural north India?

Frankly, I don't believe she has anything to do with the politics of India. The Congress has landed itself in such a pathetic state that it needs a foreigner, just because she happened to marry an Indian who has the Gandhi surname. They need her today to revive the Congress's spirits. And the Congress activists recovering their spirits is not similar to the voters being influenced by this lady.

I have a number of questions as far as she is concerned. This lady was not a citizen of India for 17 years after her marriage. She became a citizen only when her husband was going to be the prime minister. I want to know why she was not willing to be a citizen of this country. And I want to know why she agreed to be the citizen of the country after 17 years of her marriage? This country is not up for grabs for anybody. This country cannot be treated as anybody's playground, whether related to anyone by marriage or politically involved otherwise.

Second, without being a citizen of this country, she became a director of Maruti. She took a monthly salary from Maruti, took bonuses from Maruti. Maruti was a racket. She was an insurance agent and walked away with millions of rupees as commissions on account of insurance of Maruti enterprises. I want to know why no action was taken against her for FERA violation.... Any other person would have been sent to jail. Why was she not sent to jail?

Then comes the Bofors racket. In that racket, her bosom pals Ottavio and Maria Quattrocchi have had much of the kickbacks coming into their accounts and from there into various other accounts.

What does this lady have to say about this? There are more questions.

We have the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation... We have the multinationals of the world heading the foundation. The chief executive officer of PepsiCo is the chairman or president or whatever they call it of the North American chapter of the foundation. What are they doing? Is this foundation acting as an agent for the multinationals to get their entry into India? All this rackets must be exposed and the people have to be told about what kind of a person the Congress has finally found to revive its spirits.

Will these be made into election issues?

These are not election issues, but these issues need to be raised because the hypocrisy and crookedness of some of these people need to be exposed.

The fiery socialist leader with strong trade union moorings and Leftist inclinations has turned saffron. Do you agree?

I don't think there is any shift in my political or ideological or pragmatic position. Insofar as our seat adjustments with the BJP is concerned, there is nothing new. This was first tried out by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, who was my mentor, who was perhaps the most outstanding socialist this country has produced.

Back in 1963 in the aftermath of the Chinese aggression, he said the national government of the day and the party that is running it, the Congress, was a national disgrace and that we should go in for an all-inclusive seat adjustment.

The 1967 election were fought on the basis of such a seat adjustment in which even the Left parties participated. And, after the 1967 election, there was what was known as the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal governments in the states where various parties came together on the basis of a common programme. These governments included parties from the Jan Sangh to the Communists.

Then came the 1971 experiment, when a grand alliance was formed in which the socialists, the Jan Sangh, the Congress-O, Charan Singh's party and others came together. Came the Emergency, we were either in the underground or in jail.

I went underground and I had the RSS and the Jan Sangh people working with me in the underground. And most people, with any inclination to oppose the establishment, found themselves in jail at that time.

When I came out of jail, I was no more the chairman of the Socialist Party but a part of the Janata Party which included the Jan Sangh and also the RSS, if you want to call it so. We had a government together. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the foreign minister, Lal Kishinchand Advani was the information and broadcasting minister, I was the communication minister for three months and thereafter the industry minister for two years.

Came 1989 and V P Singh came out of the Congress on the issue of corruption. We worked out an electoral understanding with the BJP. The Marxists were not a part of the understanding insofar as elections were concerned but in the post-election scenario the BJP and the Marxists supported V P Singh to form the government.

And V P Singh's government was run entirely on the basis of the support from these two factions. So we have been a part of this kind of an electoral adjustment or even unification exercises in the past and I did not lose my socialist conviction or concerns like human rights or decentralisation of political power... These were mainly my ideological and political convictions that I have had long before this kind of electoral understanding became the order of the day in Indian politics. I did not shift one inch from my position.

That was all before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. By aligning with the BJP, do you condone the demolition of the mosque?

I did not condone the demolition of the mosque nor do I condone it today. In fact, there were a large number of people, including the outstanding leaders of BJP itself like Vajpayee who condemned the demolition. Thereafter, there have been a number of developments.

The most important thing is, how long are we going to keep the Babri mosque as a kind of cut-off date to decide our political activities in the country? How long are we going to treat any political party as an untouchable? Because touchability and untouchability have to be decided by the people and should not be confined to a few leaders who use such arguments just to keep a political party or an ideological formation outside the political office.

I personally feel there is a very great danger in the kind of politics that is now being pursued where December 6, 1992 is considered a cut-off date. I have a question, a question which nobody has yet cared to answer or dared to answer. If that is the cut-off date, for how long will you hold on to that position?

The BJP has 25 to 30 per cent of the votes today, it has emerged as the largest single party in Parliament. It is running governments in various states. We are doing business with that party in various states where it is in the government, we'll do business with that party if it is in government in Delhi. So, how long are you going to use this as an argument?

Second, if the demolition of the mosque and therefore its reconstruction is the sine qua non of all political understandings in the country, is there any political formation in the country today which is going to rebuild the mosque after coming to power at the Centre? Whether it should be rebuilt or not is not the question. Whether you'll rebuild it tomorrow and keep the country together, is the question.

Politics is about possibilities. Politics is not only about idealism and our own conviction. If you don't want the country to be engulfed in a thousand-year conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims, then I believe the manner in which these parties are treating this, they are doing big damage to the country.

And I do not want to be a part of that. I believe that, in politics, dialogue is the most important thing. And when dialogue ends, you are in a confrontation mode which could have disastrous consequences. And, in India, I don't want to have a repetition of those countries which went through similar civil wars, the most important of them being Lebanon.

In the present situation, is not the BJP the major player in the politics of confrontation?

I don't think so. I think the BJP, if it were playing the politics of confrontation, wouldn't have tried to reach out to the people in the manner in which it does.

The BJP has an organisation, it has an ideology -- you may disagree with the ideology. But all the centrist parties are totally bereft of ideology. You can have a Laloo Yadav, he can rob the exchequer of Rs 100 billion, but he becomes secular. You can rape every third woman in sight in Bihar, but that is secular rape, because Laloo Yadav rules there. You can rob every public institution in Bihar but it is secular robbery and therefore it is acceptable.

So, in the name of secularism, in the name of some of these slogans, if you are making India's politics --and particularly the politics of those who are today occupying the central space -- totally meaningless and making a mockery of the democratic structure and the institutions and everything, then I am afraid these arguments don't carry us anywhere.

Yours was the first party to hug the political untouchables. In a way you made the BJP no longer untouchable...

I am happy if I am given the credit for creating a situation where political dialogue was again made possible, where confrontation was defused and we got back into a situation where people were ready to discuss. I am happy if people want to credit me with that achievement.

Didn't your personal credibility suffer because of this?

I don't believe so. I am continuing to do what I meant to do all my life. In December last, I had in Delhi, right here in the lawns of my house, an international convention on the situation in Sri Lanka.

I didn't care who agreed with or who disagreed with me. My concern was the rights of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. They are at the receiving end of the State terror there. I had always supported their right to assert their religious and linguistic identity which have been denied by the Sinhalese government.

Our home minister wrote a letter to me and said I was becoming an agent of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and that the LTTE has financed this conference with money from the US and Australia.

He never came with proof, but as a tool of some or the other he dared to make such a charge against me. The hall where we were to hold the conference, the FICCI hall, was denied to us. We lost the money which we had deposited to book the hall. I couldn't care less who thought what about me. We went ahead with our convictions. So I have my convictions. My convictions go into fighting for the Tibetan people at one end, they go into fighting for the restoration of democracy in Burma at the other end.

There is no human rights violation anywhere in the country where I don't figure in as a person who goes and helps those who are at the receiving end of terror. Whether it is the Naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh or anywhere in the country. I respect their rights. I respect their convictions. I don't agree with their violent methods but I support them when they are at the receiving end of State terror. My convictions as a trade unionist, as a socialist, as a human rights activist remain what they were all through my 49 years of political life.

With such a background and also being the BJP's ally do you accept the saffron agenda?

No. I don't accept their agenda because if I accept their agenda then I would be part of the BJP. I am the Samata Party. The Samata Party is the socialist party of this country. We claimed the heritage of the socialist movement of this country. We claim the heritage of Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, Dr Lohia, Acharya Narendra Dev and others. And there is no shift whatsoever from that heritage. And there shall never be.

But the BJP treats you only as a state party which is effective only in Bihar. And the BJP is reluctant to part with seats for your party to contest outside Bihar...

That is not correct. We are one of the seven nationally recognised parties. We may be among the smaller ones of the nationally recognised parties, but then big and small in politics is only a matter of time. And there isn't anything absolute about it, and therefore I am not worried about it.

It is not true that the BJP has taken the extreme position that we are a Bihar party and therefore they don't share any seats with us. We have been discussing about seats in a number of states, and I am personally certain that we'll be able to have an overall seat adjustment which may not be hundred per cent to my satisfaction but which will be satisfactory.

How do you intend to resolve your problem about having a common minimum programme?

I have always held -- and not just now, but ever since this question of coalition politics emerged in India, way back in 1967 -- that most people seem to be ignorant of the political history when they discuss the common minimum programme.

In 1967, it was after the election that we went in for a common minimum programme. It was known as the Samyuktha Vidhayak Dal programme. In each state the parties concerned sat together and formulated a programme and formed a government. So it is my conviction that, when a party goes to the people, it should go with its programme, not a common programme because each party has an identity. Election is a time when the people are exposed to the various aspects of the policies, programmes and leadership of political parties. So a common minimum programme should emerge only when we reach a point when a coalition government is inevitable.

But is this not the right time for you to extract promises from the BJP, because if they get a comfortable majority, they may not care much for your programmes?

I don't think that we should take major political decisions on the basis of some hypothesis. They may, they may not. I see three possibilities.

One is that they may get an absolute majority, the other is they will get a majority and yet will choose to go in for a government with some of its allies or those with whom they have had some seat adjustments. Third is the BJP will not get a majority but together, all of us together, have a majority.

Now, if the last is the development, then it is inevitable that there will be a common minimum programme. If it is the first, then it is obvious that the BJP will implement its own programme. If it is the second, then the allies will have the option of discussing and accepting a common minimum programme or staying out of the government.

I am not at all worried as to what kind of a post-election scenario will emerge. We'll deal with it as it comes.

George Fernandes interview, continued

The Rediff Election Interviews

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