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The Rediff Election Interview/Murli Deora

'Elections are won on hawa, not on the work an MP does'

Murli Deora Meet the Great Survivor of Congress politics. His age sits slightly on him, but Murli Deora, president of the Bombay Regional Congress Committee and former member of Parliament from Bombay South, the smallest and yet the most affluent constituency in the country, is loath to talk about it. He would rather talk about what led to his defeat at the hand of the BJP's Jayawantiben Mehta, whom he had defeated years ago by a huge margin, in 1996.

Deora came into the BRCC job once held by Congress titan S K Patil, who used to be referred to as the uncrowned king of Bombay before his defeat in Bombay South in 1967 at the hands of George Fernandes then of socialist persuasion. In later years industrialist Ratan Tata's father Naval Tata contested from this constituency as an Independent, and actually managed to come second. Deora held the constituency for two consecutive terms, before he ran into Mehta.

Deora owes his ascent in the party hierarchy to his proximity to Indira Gandhi. At a time when she was being hounded by the Janata Party government and there were not many willing to bet on her chances of a comeback, Deora stood by her like a rock. For which loyalty he was rewarded with the BRCC presidency, a post he has held on to for 18 years, even as the state itself saw a succession of chief ministers.

More interesting is Deora's friendship with the movers and shakers of the American establishment, to which he got exposed when he went to Washington as a student in the 1960s. His closeness with former congressman Steven Solarz and former senator Larry Pressler, his association with Bill Gates who visited India last year at his insistence, have all seen spinoffs for the country. As Deora says, his contacts have stood him in good stead, even if his pocket burrough has let him down and may do so once again. Saisuresh Sivaswamy spoke to the man, widely considered to be the main fundraiser for the Congress party:

I had come to see you on the eve of the 1991 election, which you had won, and I recall the mood was very upbeat in this office. There were slogan-writers, makeshift poets, poster makers, the whole works. Today I find not many people around, in fact there is a dismal air about fighting the election. What went wrong?

No, that's not true, there were a lot of people here just some time ago, the kind of people you spoke about, they just left here. I work late, get up early, so I have this habit of resting in the afternoon. Everybody knows that 3 to 3.30 pm, that's my resting time. I break the day into two; I can work very well in the evening if I have half-an-hour's rest in the afternoon. I just relax here, listen to some soothing music on my system (he has a wow! CD player in his office), read something non-political and non-business, something just recreational, otherwise there are a lot of people in my office.

You don't agree that the mood is downbeat now?

Maybe you are right. Of late the people are less enthusiastic about elections, the people are fed up. You can't blame them, how much time can they afford? Second thing, the tickets are not yet announced, the nominations are not yet announced. Although nothing is left actually and the whole thing is only a formality, still they are not announced.

But surely there is no question of Murli Deora being denied the Bombay South seat?

You can't say. You see, nevertheless my campaign, my advertisements, my performance, everything has gone already. They are already in the newspapers.

You have been out of Parliament for two years (one and a half, he corrects me quickly). What difference has it made to your life, lifestyle?

The truth is, I am not attending Parliament inside the House, otherwise I am just like an MP. There's hardly any difference, people still call me up. I am still doing all the things I was doing earlier. I have the same influence. One does not do work by speaking in Parliament, one does work in the committees and outside the committees, which clout I still have fortunately. I have contacts...

Of course, I miss not having to attend Parliament, and not mentioning that word 'MP' on my card. But the one real thing I miss is, I was the first Indian to become president of Parliamentarians for Global Action. It is a very big organisation, it is the biggest parliamentary NGO in the world, 85 countries, 2,000 MPs, I was the first first elected president, international president. And I feel that I had done a lot of work for India in that forum. It was giving me lot of platforms, lot of connections with people.

Some of my colleagues who worked with me, I was the president, were heads of their country. Trinidad and Tobago president Robinson, he was my colleague. The president of Iceland, he was my colleague. Fujiwara, the foreign minister of Japan, is my colleague. Sylvia Hernandes, minister in Mexico, is my colleague. My treasurer, he is the minister of ODA in the British government now. So you get a lot of contacts, you can talk about India, you can brief about India.

My contacts with people like Larry Pressler, Steve Solarz, Gary Ackerman, Keith Vaz, American senators, Congressmen, media, that helps. So, I miss that, by not being an MP. Naturally, not being an MP, I can't be president now. My place has been taken over by the leader of the Opposition in Namibia, Moses Katijuanga.

Why do you think you lost the 1996 election? Two years later you may have a different perspective on it now, than was the case in 1996 itself? What did you do or not do?

The last time I lost only because of minority votes because of the Babri Masjid, riots and bomb blasts. So there is a clear-cut division, there was a clear-cut division between the communities. I worked very closely with them during the riots and the bomb blasts, but some people are happy with me, some people are not happy with me. Some people say I have done a good job, some people say I have not done a good job, some people say I could have done more, they expected me to do more. They think I am very influential, very powerful, I could have prevented this, I could have prevented that, but the truth is I could not prevent many things. I tried my best, I am talking of riots.

The press then reported that you were playing bridge when the city was burning. Was it true?

No, it is not true. That report was not for me, I know for whom it was meant, but not for me. Nobody cares what somebody writes about. There are bigger issues involved on people's voting and all.

Did Marzban Patrawalla, the Congress rebel turned Samajwadi Party candidate, take away the Muslim votes that would have otherwise come to you?

Yeah. those votes would have otherwise come to me, but it was not Marzban Patrawalla. They were the votes belonging to the Samajwadi Party and Muslims were voting for the Samajwadi Party. Marzban Patrawalla was the instrument, but if somebody else was there he would have taken the votes. Anybody could have stood from there, they would have stamped on the SP, it was like that. They did not vote Congress.

Patrawalla has since rejoined your party... Do you think you will win back the minority votes this time?

Yeah, he has come back, he is working for me this time. He accompanied me last week on my campaign, he is working very well. I have been in this city for the last 30 years now, in 1968 I was the corporator here, the youngest corporator then. I never differentiate between votes on religious and linguistic grounds. I don't care who is Hindu and who is Muslim, I think they are all the same. I have a friend called Noorani, I used to think he is a Sindhi, but he is a Muslim. It doesn't matter to me. People say I am a Marwari, I do not care that I am a Marwari or Gujarati or Maharashtrian. I am a Bombay man, born here, lived here, educated in Bombay, brought up here, so...

My question actually was if the minority votes would come back to you this time. The Babri Masjid is still a fact, that has not been erased. The riots are still a fact, the blasts are still a fact. So why should Muslims vote for you when nothing has changed?

They are realising to a great extent that it is not the Congress, even though some of them are upset, they realise now that I did my best to help them. We have improved also, maybe there were some areas where we went wrong, so we have corrected ourselves.

So what do you think is going to happen to you in 1998? You don't appear too optimistic about your own chances this time?

I always have been tense on the eve of battle. When I won by 150,000 votes I was as nervous as I am today. I always believe that you have to fight with your last breath in the elections, then leave the rest to God and the voters.

Do you think the Bombay South voter is fickle? They voted the uncrowned king of Bombay S K Patil, then socialist George Fernandes defeated him from here, Ratan Tata's father once stood as an Independent and came second. Then they voted the BJP in 1996. Your voter does not seem to know what he wants?

It is the most enlightened constituency in the country. You have the most affluent people of the country living here. At the same time, very very poor people live here. At Tardeo, MP Mill compound, very poor. Just above that, very rich, Usha Kiran, and others on Carmichael road. So you see the contrast, the rich and the poor. Diamond trade, cloth trade, umbrella trade, metal markets, everything is here.

But do the rich vote? How do you explain the saffron turnaround by your constituents?

You see, the people think Mr Vajpayee can become prime minister. The BJP's plank is stability, but they are fooling the people. First of all, when you talk to them privately they themselves say they can't form a government on their own. They can never form a government with their existing allies, because in one-third of the country the BJP does not exist. In every state they have a bloody alliance, every state. And every day you are reading that Lakshmi Parvathi has gone, Mamata Banerjee has gone, Hegde has come, Aggarwal in UP has gone, George Fernandes has come, you know...

Let me tell you, the closest alliance the BJP has is with the Samata Party, with George Fernandes. Now he is the man who broke the Janata Party government in 1979 over the issue of dual membership of the RSS. How is he with them? The other day Ramakrishna Hegde and George Fernandes were debating, and they said they don't agree with Article 370, they don't agree with the common civil code, they don't agree with Ayodhya. Then what do they agree on? They are still fighting together, but very soon they will fight among each other also. You will see that.

So in no circumstances can the BJP ever come to power, form the government, and god forbid if they form one, it will not last three months. It cannot. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala, Meghalaya, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, you see in how many states they don't have one single seat. One-third of the country, they have not opened their account in. So they have alliances with anybody. The AIADMK OK, Mamata OK, let somebody come, but these alliances do not last. All these alliances and defections, I have very strong views on defections, I don't know what they are doing, these Congressmen who could not win elections, or some of them who were not getting tickets, the BJP is bringing them and giving them tickets. Giving them their winning seats!

What is the use of that? They should know that if these leaders can leave the Congress they can also come back to the Congress. It is on record, those who have defected have always come back.

But let's talk about the Congress. Why is it in such a sorry state? The BJP would not have gained if the Congress had not been on the retreat for so many years now?

Total mishandling by the leadership, total, these last five years. I realise it now, the P V Narasimha Rao government had as ministers some of who were very corrupt. Narasimha Rao was a good prime minister to hold the country together in difficult times, but politically he was very bad, political handling was very bad. And the truth is, some of his ministers were very corrupt.

But is that the only reason why the Congress lost?

One reason. One major reason. The other reason is things like the Babri Masjid. Big solid chunk of our minority votes have straightaway gone.

Will the party ever recover from this?

We will recover. People will soon realise there is no alternative. Of all the parties available the Congress is the only party who can win back the confidence of the majority or minority, Yadav or Harijan, backward or forward whatever you say. They have to come back to the Congress.

Will this election result in more bad news for your party?

You will be shocked at what I am telling you. I am very hopeful in this election. After Sonia's campaign, marked improvement in our chances.

But the general opinion is that while she won't make the Congress win, she will make the BJP lose.

I don't agree with that, since if the BJP loses the Congress has to win. There are areas, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, UP, Gujarat, where if BJP loses the Congress wins. You see her campaign, where she goes, what she says, she is going about in a very systematic manner. She started from the South, she has virtually captured Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, believe me. I spoke to people in Cochin, they have never seen such a meeting, those are people who were against her. Similarly, in Ranchi, Assam, Nandurbar here...

I know for sure, because I had organised Mrs Gandhi's, Mrs Indira Gandhi's meetings, you see the same type of people coming with flags, walking for four hours, six hours, to attend the meeting. Indira Gandhi was a great orator in Hindi, Sonia Gandhi may not know Hindi, but she spoke very well, although she spoke very little. But she has conveyed a lot, in four or five meetings. She is ready to confront the problem, like Bofors. Now these bobbies are not talking. What happened, who is preventing them? There were six governments including the BJP, why didn't they bring back the Bofors documents? What is preventing them? This cannot be tolerated for long.

Do you see a similarity between Indira and Sonia Gandhi?

The style is very similar. I worked very closely with Mrs Indira Gandhi, very similar and aggressive. I have seen them together then hundreds of times.

But is Sonia politically oriented?

She may not be politically oriented. Nobody is politically oriented from birth. But now she is oriented, she has spent 30 years in the family. She will give us a near majority this time, wait and see.

Let's leave party politics aside and talk about you. How and why did you enter politics, join the Congress party?

I came back from America after studies in 1966, I was the president of the Jaycees, the Junior Chamber of Commerce. In 1966 I started a lavatory block near the airport, which is still there. And at Hotel Ambassador there was an awards ceremony, S K Patil, who was then in my job, gave me the award, then I organised a meeting of Nani Palkhivala, who said, 'punishment of wise men who refuse to take part in the affairs of government, is to live under the government of unwise men'. This was Palkhivala's speech. And after that I thought I must be in public life.

I went as a student leader to Washington, I was invited to have tea with Bobby Kennedy, he was the attorney general, the date 4 August 1963, and I saw a plaque on his table, that read 'some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things which never were and say why not?' I talked to him on this, I remember, and that convinced me that those who have something to offer to community and society must come to politics.

Now you are sitting in my business office, it is not the Congress party office. Some of my closest friends are the richest men around. Dhirubhai Ambani and I were working together, did you know? Now where is he and where I am? Friends of course, but money-wise? Because I have chosen to be in public life. Maybe I would have made some Rs 100 million, but I was more interested in public life. And I believe that politics is the best forum to translate your ideas into action.

I will give you some examples. Every day people come here for jobs, but when one such boy came here I could not get him a job. Finally, I got him a job as a diamond cutter, par aagaya vaapas. I sponsored Rs 8,500, got him training at a computer training institute, after six months the fellow came back with a box of pedas saying he got a job. When did I write a letter, I asked him, I don't remember. Sir, you did not write a letter for me, you got me the computer training. For someone who could not get Rs 1,700 as salary, he got Rs 4,200 as starting salary.

That night I had a very disturbed sleep. The next morning I was walking on the lawns with C Subramanian, the former Maharashtra governor, and I discussed it with him, and decided to start the Gandhi Institute of Computer Education and Information Technology along with the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Bill Gates came here for this programme. Two centres in Bombay, and we have trained 1,700 boys and girls. One centre in Madras, one centre will be ready in Delhi next week.

If I was not a politician I would not have been able to implement all this. With my contacts, talking, whatever you call it. Now we have a programme that will take 50,000 youth, give them training. So the idea came, the excitement was there. Somebody came and gave me a Rs 100,000 cheque, what do I do with it? I gave it to the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Bill Gates gave $ 1 million. Rs 25 million is already collected. Rs 15 million from HDFC, the Tatas, Mittal. The last election, the so-called richest Indian, L N Mittal, he came here, he said he wanted to give a Rs 2 million cheque. I said give it in the name of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, I don't need the money, it's there.

I was walking with Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 in Trombay, after the riots, there was no ambulance, Rajiv Gandhi said, Murli you are a very resourceful man, you know what is a wireless ambulance, I have one working in Bombay today, first in India, telephone 430 8888, wireless ambulance, totally free. I raised money for the Golden Hour project of which I am the chairman, and we have got so many ambulances all over the city, totally free.

When you get ideas you put them into action. Twenty years back I was mayor of Bombay. Dr Mahler, then DG of WHO, passed through, and that was the theme, immunise and protect your child. That time my young son was born, and I did not know what is the meaning of polio immunisation, I tell you that. I started the first public awareness campaign on immunisation at that time, I went to all the schools, had a comprehensive programme on polio and immunisation, today you see the legs of the school children of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, hardly one of them has polio. So you get an idea, you put into action, you feel so good.

I was walking with Rajiv Gandhi in Charkop, Kandivili slum, part of the Prime Minister's Grant Project, he was PM at that time, he said just see this young girl. she was almost blind. She has had an eye operation since, I had seven eye camps examining 30,000 people, giving 24, 25,000 glasses, getting 11, 1,200 people operated, and by whom? Dr Ashok Saraf... even the President of India comes to India to see Dr Ashok Saraf for his eye. So, you feel great, you are part of the system. I went to municipal schools, I saw young children drop out, why? Because they did not have a uniform. I now have a uniform project which was inaugurated by Rajiv Gandhi, 14 years back.

I am a businessman, primarily I am a businessman. I saw the hazards of industrial licensing. In 1970 I got married, I was on my honeymoon in Germany, and I remember I put up my plastic factory at that time. It took me two years to get the licence to make that factory. Licence! Small industry, it was, to boot. I was always fighting bureaucratisation, licensing. I was chairman of the Small Scale Industries Board, I was member of the LIC board. I have never taken one rupee as board fees, I have not taken a car for myself, but we could do so much for the small, medium and large-scale industries. Delicensing, economic liberalisation, I am very active in the parliamentary committees, you can see that.

The Murli Deora interview, continues