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November 21, 1998


The Rediff Election Interview/ Shyama Charan Shukla

'You can't be sure what'll happen in politics. There are so many manipulators and people who are trying to undercut'

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The polls have gagged Congress veteran and thrice Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shyama Charan Shukla. You can see the struggle on his face as he tries to dam his bubbling brook of bitterness against party colleague, Chief Minister Digvijay Singh.

Of course, 'tis famous this running fight between Shukla and Singh. And, to a point, amusing. Every time Singh totters, Shukla -- who reads in the CM's actions a clear conspiracy to isolate him and younger brother Vidya Charan Shukla in the party --allegedly irons his best bandh galla and updates his list of possible ministers in the hope that he would make it to the Sachivalya at Bhopal once more.

Singh, for his part, recognises the threat in this elderly, baritoned, six-foot-plus personality. And does his very best to cuddle up to the Congress high command and limit the Shuklas to their homeground, Raipur. Small wonder, then, that there is this brook of bitterness within Shukla. Small wonder, then, that, despite the poll and the need for partymen to be pals, it bubbleth over. Not overtly, mind you, but definitely not covertly either.

It seeps out through a shabbily camouflaged refusal to answer. Through unconnected responses. And, finally, through a promise to 'discuss matters at length' on November 26, after the voting, ostensibly for want of time.

Or, is it that Shukla is really in need of time? Is it that the BJP challenger, 53-year-old Neena Singh, who is incidentally the first woman Shukla is facing in his electoral career, is making him restless?

Rajim, with its 141,000 electorate and a seven-cornered fight, has been faithful to Shukla six times out of seven. But it does appear a bit shaken up this time around. "He won't be able to maintain his margin," even ardent supporters admit.

Excerpts from an interview that Shukla gave Chindu Sreedharan in Raipur a little before he left to woo voters:

What is your stand on Chhattisgarh? Would you rather it was bifurcated?

I have always felt there should be a rational approach to dividing the country. Are smaller states good for the country? Or is it that the Hindi-speaking areas should be split up into various states?

Are you saying that Chhattisgarh should not be separated from the rest of MP?

No, no… (an irritated pause). If other states are being created, the Chhattisgarh state will be viable. There is no problem as far as the economy is concerned, we can make it work. It is sufficiently developed now and resources are there. There is no difficulty that way. I am only concerned about the side-effects because this will generate… (pause again)

We will be happy with Chhattisgarh… but there will be many more small states, whereas Maharashtra will continue as a giant. And Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and West Bengal with its 40 MPs, will continue as big entities. So in national politics, for better balance, there should be more smaller states if they (the BJP) goes about this. But the BJP goes on ad hoc-ism. Wherever they find something advantageous, they start doing it. So their approach is not very correct -- that's my stand.

My question was about your personal preference; whether you wanted a separate Chhattisgarh or wanted to continue as part of MP.

No, no, Chhattisgarh state is a good state since they have already decided on it. We ….(pause) will make it work. But we don't want to be left without any voice at the Centre, being a small state. So other states should also be reduced in size.

Others like?

I told you, states like Maharashtra. There are many demands for Vidarbha, for Marathwada, for Konkan… So also in Karnataka, there are many demands for smaller states.

How would a separate state benefit the people?

No, no, there might be -- (catches himself). It depends on the leadership. If they had a good leadership in Madhya Pradesh, which is now being divided, the state would have forged ahead. But unfortunately, there was no stable leadership. There are problems. In Chhattisgarh also, if there's good leadership for 5 to 10 years, the state will go ahead fast.

How would you rate the Congress chances in Chhattisgarh?

The Congress will always win a majority in Chhattisgarh.

Could you elaborate?

The Congress has a stronger base here. In fact, the Hindi speaking areas, that's all Congress.

Was or is? Can you say the same now?

Even now it is strong. I mean, among the people it is strong. Reacting against some politicians or MLAs, some people may have moved away from the Congress. But they have always come back.

How has the corruption charges against the Digvijay Singh government affected your party's poll prospects?

No, I won't say anything to that question now. I will answer that after the poll.

Despite all the wealth that Chhattisgarh possesses, it has remained a backward area. Why?

The reason for this backwardness is the backwardness in the minds of the leadership. People are simple and good-hearted here. So many things do not get done. For example, the rice research institute, which was started by me in 1976 and which, was on the level of the Manila institute. I was making it on international standards. The next government just abandoned the project! They handed it over to the agricultural community. They could not realise what damage they were doing to the country.

With the promise of a separate state, the BJP has stolen a good march over you. How much has it gained this way, do you think?

As far as the people are concerned, they are not influenced by it. The Congress was active on the issue much before the BJP took it up. Congressmen were always active in the separate state movement. We passed a resolution in the Vidhan Sabha. So the people don't really credit the BJP for it. The promise will have hardly any effect.

If the Congress was really interested in a separate state, why did you not do something towards it? Your party was in power long enough. Why did it take the BJP to do that?

(Pause) All these arguments are not very material for the people. They are doubtful about the sincerity of the BJP, whether they could actually go ahead with it. They were not able to do anything about it in the six months they have been in power. They did not create it before the election. The people are very much sceptical about it.

The real issue in this election is only price rise. Not Chhattisgarh. For Chhhattisgarh the credit goes to both parties equally. The BJP is carping and hoping on it. They'll be sorely disappointed.

The people are more concerned with what they eat everyday, and what price they have to pay for it. Not Chhattisgarh.

Your party's rule has not brought much benefit to Chhattisgarh. It still remains terribly underdeveloped. Don't you think this will go against you in this election?

You see, the whole state is backward. Not Chhattisgarh alone. In fact, Chhattisgarh is more developed than some parts.

And the people wouldn't bother about the corruption charges either?

Corruption is an issue. There's no doubt about it. That is why the voters would go for individual candidates (than the party). Some BJP candidates also have a very bad reputation.

How many seats do you expect in Chhattisgarh?

We will get a majority.

Thin or clear?

Oh, we will get a clear majority here definitely, and most probably, in the state also.

What's the basis for your confidence?

The tradition of the Congress. Because of our freedom fight participation. And the work the party has done in the state. Whatever has been done here has been done by the Congress. Whenever there were other governments in power -- like the Janata Dal in 1977-78 -- hardly any work was done. In fact, there was a backward slide.

What has the Digvijay Singh government done for the region?

Beg your pardon?

What has the ruling Congress government done for this region?

Congress government...? They have done some... some irrigation projects. On the whole, the rural development programme of the Congress should have made an impact.

What will the post-election scenario in MP be?

We will have a majority in Chhattisgarh and in Jabalpur; Chhindwara and the rest of the Hindi-speaking area, we will have a slight majority. And in the Malwa region… I cannot be sure about that, but the chief minister is very hopeful about it. If Malwa gives some seats to the Congress, then we will be in a good position.

The Congress way of distributing seats looks lopsided. For instance, in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, seven of the unreserved nine seats have been given to Brahmins. Wouldn't it have made better sense to give those to backward classes, considering the large number of OBCs?

That was a coincidence. Two seats were decided very late. Both of them were pending candidates. And both were upper castes. We had no hand in it. The people who were sitting there, they should have seen the pattern of seats. They did not. There might be some reaction against that. The candidates I proposed were all OBCs. It could have been deliberate mischief so that "we" are damaged. That's what I feel -- otherwise, there is no rationale for the move.

As you are sure that the Congress will win in Chhattisgarh, what chances do you give yourself as the first CM here?

That depends basically on the Congress high command.

But being one of the most popular Congressmen around, don't you think it is quite possible?

You can't be sure what'll happen in politics. There are so many manipulators and people who are trying to undercut.

Why is it that Sonia Gandhi is avoiding Raipur? The last two times she was here, she did not speak in the city.

I don't know what's happening.

Do you suspect some foul play?

I can't say anything.

Assembly Election '98

The Rediff Interviews

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