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The Rediff Election Interview/ Aslam Sher Khan

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'Making Kesri Congress president was like giving a knife to a monkey'

Aslam Sher Khan is worried. He is not perturbed over his hasty decision to join the party he once hated, the Bharatiya Janata Party. But he is worried about the alienation of the minorities, especially the Muslims from the political mainstream.

After spending years in the Congress as a champion of minority rights, he felt in December that the party's support base among the Muslims had shrunk considerably. This, he says, so troubled him that he did not wait to be pacified by the Congress leadership. Instead, he plunged headlong into the BJP.

While many snigger that the former hockey star has since been confined to the sidelines in the BJP, Khan sees himself as that party's most important Muslim leader. He says his mission will be to woo the Muslims to the BJP.

But is that going to be easy, considering the BJP's anti-minority image?

"It is not difficult," says Khan, who served as a minister for minority welfare in the Prime Minister's Office under P V Narasimha Rao. "The BJP can offer solutions to the Muslims in the country under its Hindutva plank," he feels.

The 53-year-old politician -- who first made waves in the seventies as one of Indian hockey's finest defenders -- spoke to George Iype this week.

Why did you suddenly join the BJP?

I did not join the BJP suddenly. I have been pondering about it for many months. I have been feeling thoroughly disappointed in the Congress because the party treated minority rights as a joke. When an election was called, I felt that by contesting the election on a Congress ticket, I would not do any justice to my poor Muslim brethren across the country.

So you joined the BJP to contest the election and seek social justice for the Muslims.

I joined the BJP not essentially to contest the election, but to ensure that the minority rights are taken up by the party. Joining the BJP is much more than being a member of Parliament. What I am trying to doing in the BJP is to plug the wide gap between the Hindus and Muslims in the country. If the minorities want a stable government, they should not fear the BJP; they should vote for BJP. All these years, the Congress and other parties have been taking us Muslims for a ride.

I feel disappointed because when I was in the Congress, the party always promised something great for the Muslims, but never did anything concrete for their social, educational and economic upliftment. Is there a single Congress government that worked for the protection of the Muslims?

Who invited you to join the BJP?

Advaniji and Vajpayeeji. They asked me if I was interested to become part of the BJP. I said "Yes."

Are you going to contest the Lok Sabha election?

I wish to contest if the party is willing to field me. I have contested four elections. I lost two and won two. The basic problem now that I encounter in the BJP is that I am familiarising myself with a new set-up. The BJP leadership asked me for the constituency of my preference. I told the party leadership that I wish to contest from Chandni Chowk in Delhi as it is a Muslim-concentrated constituency. But it has been given to another BJP candidate.

Are you dissatisfied that you are not getting the constituency of your choice?

No, not all. It is up to the party leadership to decide. There are other constituencies like Betul and Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh from where I can contest and win easily. But I will accept any constituency given to me. I cannot run away as I am a responsible party leader. I am not worried about losing the election just because I joined the BJP. I am a sportsman and I know the game of losing and winning better than others.

Do you think the Muslims are more inclined to vote for the BJP for the first time?

There has been an overwhelming response to the BJP's prime ministerial candidature Atal Bihari Vajpayee among Muslims across the country. There are 120 constituencies in India where Muslim votes are very crucial and decisive. The BJP hopes to make a dent in these Muslims majority areas.

Why did you leave the Congress? Were you dissatisfied with the party and its leadership?

Firstly, I blame the leadership, particularly Congress president Sitaram Kesri, for my leaving the Congress. The Congress is now a rudderless party. Both P V Narasimha Rao and Kesri were/are very poor Congress presidents. Making Kesri the Congress president was like giving a knife to a monkey. Kesri did nothing for the party's sake. He cultivated a small group of leaders around him who became the ultimate arbitrators of Congress policies.

Secondly, I left the Congress because I felt it was the one party that cared least for Muslims in the country. I had been fighting for the dignity and self respect of Muslims within the party for many years. It is a shame that despite ruling the country for 45 years, the Congress has done little to rescue Muslims from their poor social status and economic misery.

I had the honour of heading the minority welfare department in the PMO under P V Narasimha Rao. As a minister I realised that the Congress government was never interested in the welfare of minorities in the country. On the one hand, the Congress professed publicly that it is the only party taking up the minority cause, but when it came to practice, I found there is utter negligence within the leadership on the issue.

It was amazing. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh with a 20 per cent Muslim population, I found there are hardly any welfare programmes aimed at them from the state government. The Congress's 15 point programme for minorities was such a negligible affair that there was not even five per cent implementation of the programmes.

Where is the secularism here? Is this utter neglect of the minorities called secularism and protection of minorities?

So you felt the Congress leadership absolutely failed to protect the minorities in the country?


Then both Vajpayee and Advani promised you that a BJP government will launch new programmes for the minorities.

Yes. They have assured me that a BJP government will not only protect the Muslims but embark on a series of welfare programmes for them.

Do you think the BJP will be able to protect the minorities?

Why not? Why should you dub the BJP as an anti-minority party?. The good thing about the BJP is that they do not claim to be the champions of the minorities in India. They now have a chance to prove that they can improve the lot of the minorities. It is a golden chance which I believe the party leadership has understood well. We have now to choose between two parties -- so-called secular parties like the Congress and Janata Dal who claim to be the guardians of the Muslims, but treat us as vote banks. The other is the BJP which is all set to protect the Muslims, if given a chance to govern this country.

We, the minorities in India, are not bothered about who rules us. The BJP, Congress, Janata Dal etc. What we want is a party that can deliver the goods. And I think under the present political and social circumstances, the BJP is the best bet. The fight will be between the BJP's genuine concern and Congress's pious platitudes.

But the BJP's track record in protecting the minorities in India has been dismal.

Was the Congress's track record in any way better? The Congress treated the minorities as a vote bank, but the BJP does not do so. The BJP is solely dependent on its Hindutva agenda and they are asking the minorities to support this agenda. I am sure the BJP has nicely incorporated and packaged the minority welfare in the Hindutva agenda. If stability, secularism and minority welfare in India are the core points of Hindutva, what is wrong with that ideology?

Do you firmly believe in the BJP's Hindutva plank?

Yes. If Hindutva can consolidate the country on the strength of Hindus along with the support of the minority communities, India will prosper. Hindutva can do wonders for the country if it can take along with it the cause of the minorities.

But the BJP and its sister organisations are blamed for the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya.

It is not the BJP, but the Congress brand of politics that is to be blamed for Ayodhya. It was the Congress government that slept while the mosque was being demolished brick by brick. Now the Congress is ready to offer apologies to the Muslims on Ayodhya. I should say instead of apologising, the Congress should own responsibility for the demolition.

Now that you have joined the BJP, are you against the BJP's agenda of building a Ram temple at Ayodhya?

Building a temple is not an election issue for the BJP now. I have been assured by both Vajpayee and Advani that the temple issue will be amicably settled after a BJP government comes to power at the Centre. It is a question of a century-old dispute between two religions. We hope to find an answer for it soon after a BJP government comes to power. The Mandir is already there. The mosque is no more there. After coming to power, the BJP will chalk out a mutually agreeable solution to settle the Ayodhya issue.

Don't you feel that after coming to power, the BJP could change its colours?

Why? It is not easy to change the colour of a party after it makes a commitment to its allies on basic policies and programmes. The BJP is not coming to power alone. There will be a number of regional parties that will join hands with the party. A BJP-led coalition government will have to seek a consensus on every decision and that will happen to the Ayodhya dispute also.

You worked as a minister under both Kesri and Rao. What are your impressions about them?

Kesri is a very small time, petty trader from Bihar who indulges in all sorts of natak (dramatics) to impress people. He can go to any extreme and low level for his survival. As a minister, Kesri was worthless. I used to go to him with files. But he kept them on his table without caring to open them for months. Kesri claims to be a minority rights champion. But can you name a single programme that he effectively launched for the welfare of minorities in the country?

Rao was an able prime minister. He had the vision and the ability to lead the country. But his problem was that he was a very bad party leader. Rao did not know how to take along with him other Congress leaders. There he failed, miserably.

You are a well-known leader from the Muslim community. Do you feel comfortable with the fact that you are now in the BJP?

Why not? I am very comfortable with my BJP identity now. There is no tension in my public life now. I do not miss anything in the BJP. The only thing I miss perhaps in the BJP is the high-flying life which was possible in the Congress.

Do the BJP leaders treat you as an equal?

The BJP leaders are very modest and sincere. They care for me. In the Congress, I always used to be tense because if I did not know which side of the fence I was. In the Congress, every day it was an effort to be close to Rao, Kesri or Sonia Gandhi. For instance, if you are not on Sonia's side in the Congress now, your marketshare is gone. This stooping down before different leaders is not there in the BJP. This low level of indulgence is not there in the BJP. They are highly professional politicians. They respect you. And they treat me as an equal.

How do the other Muslim leaders react to you joining the BJP?

My Muslim colleagues and supporters now believe that I have taken the right decision at the right time. They know I have not joined the BJP for any ulterior purposes. No Muslim leader looks down on me with contempt just because I joined the BJP. In fact many Muslims are joining the BJP. Every week, some 200 Muslims are joining the BJP.

Are you forcing Muslims to join the BJP?

I have never forced any Muslim to join the BJP. But I bring up the subject before them, to convince them that it is no longer anathema for a Muslim to join the BJP. I am trying to convince them that the BJP is not a bad party.

Will the Sonia factor swing votes for the Congress?

Whom is Sonia campaigning for? For Jaffer Sharief in Bangalore, Arjun Singh in Madhya Pradesh, N D Tiwari in Uttar Pradesh and Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra. All of them are corrupt Congress leaders. She is giving the message to the nation that "I am campaigning for the most corrupt leaders in the country."

The Rediff Election Interview

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