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March 17, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/S M Krishna

'If the people who support me don't object to my wearing pants, I don't see why anyone else should'

S M Krishna The crowds at his home in Sadashivanagar in Bangalore waited patiently. As S M Krishna, president of the Congress in Karnataka and chief minister-in-waiting, spoke to them, advisors and strategists in the rooms upstairs give finishing touches to the extensive tours of the state that their leader will begin soon . M D Riti met him for an exclusive interview amidst all this activity.

How do you find the Congress in Karnataka now?

The Congress is in very good shape. The workers are enthused. (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi's image and the way she has conducted herself has really inspired party workers.

Do you think a Sonia wave will carry the Congress to power in Karnataka?

That is going to be an important factor, just like in Madhya Pradesh, where Sonia's influence saved Digvijay Singh. There was a time when the media dismissed Soniaji as a crowd-puller, but not a vote-getter. Madhya Pradesh has proved decisively that she can also get votes from the crowds she pulls.

So now the country has started taking Soniaji very seriously. I have seen the formative period of Indira Gandhi: I was an MP of the Praja Socialist Party that supported the minority government that she had led. I can now see a very close parallel between the evolution of Indira Gandhi and that of Sonia Gandhi. I see a lot of similarities. Soniaji is certainly shaping up very well.

Perhaps its just that the Congress needs a figurehead, dead or alive, to be able to do well. See what happened to the party after the death of Rajiv Gandhi.

The Congress has always had a figurehead, whether it was Indira Gandhi or Rajiv, and after them P V Narasimha Rao and then Sitaram Kesri.

However, I don't know what kind of attachment the party has with the Gandhis. There is an instant rapport between any nominee of the Gandhi family and the party workers. The minute Soniaji entered the hall at the plenary session of the Congress in Calcutta when Kesriji was president, there was some strange excitement in the air. The thrill that passed through the room was unbelievable.

What is the reason for this sudden popularity: Sonia's capabilities, her charisma or just her name?

A combination of all. She certainly has charisma, otherwise people would not flock to her wherever she goes. But she also has given the nation a programme, and proved that she is not seeking power. I think that is her greatest advantage.

So do you see yourself as chief minister of Karnataka after the next polls, with Sonia as your prime minister?

I certainly see Soniaji as prime minister of India in the near future. When she is ready to take over, the nation will definitely respond. But I don't know when that will happen.

Perhaps it also depends on how long this coalition government at the Centre would last. But as far as the chief ministership is concerned, that will be governed by the traditions of the Congress, which is that we authorise the party president to choose someone.

It is usually the custom that the person who leads a party to victory at the poll is offered the chief minister's post: even the Congress made state president Veerendra Patil chief minister when he had led the party to a great win in 1989. Besides, there is now a trend in Karnataka of projecting future chief ministers much before the poll.

The Congress has consciously steered clear of this trend. We never projected Sheila Dixit as Delhi chief minister or Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan. When the Congress gets a majority, then the party high command applies its mind to choosing a chief minister. Until then, everyone is a chief minister-in-waiting.

Will Sonia play a major role in the Karnataka assembly election?

She will play a decisive role in the Karnataka election. The Gandhi family has a special attachment to Andhra and Karnataka. This election will be very crucial for Sonia.

Your image of being an English-speaking, trouser-wearing, US-educated politician has come in the way of your being made chief minister or party president until now. Do you think you will be able to overcome that disadvantage now?

Every politician wears trousers, operates from his drawing room and has a certain personal style. I have survived in politics for 37 years in spite of or maybe because of whatever style I have, and that is no mean achievement. I have won many elections and lost a few.

If the people on whom I depend for support don't object to my wearing pants, I don't see why anyone else should. Anyway, a person's qualifications and foreign education should be an added advantage to the party and not a disadvantage. Such a person may have a larger perspective and vision.

Besides, a man who wears a dhoti is not necessarily totally involved with or committed to the people. He might still grab land or harm the people in other ways.

Do you think Sonia picked you because she was more comfortable with a person who speaks English and has Western background?

I speak good Kannada also. In fact, I am known better as a good orator in Kannada than in English. You have heard me yourself many times. So I don't think that would have been a consideration at all for Soniaji.

Was caste a major consideration in your being chosen, then?

Caste must have been a consideration along with others: it must have been one of the many factors that Soniaji took note of, such as perhaps my popularity.

Were all the crowds who came to receive you on your return from Delhi to take over as party president genuine fans or rented supporters? The ruling Janata Dal in Karnataka alleges that they were all hired.

If they were hired, would they have waited without lunch or tea in the airport until after 2000 hours to hear what I had to say as soon as I alighted from the aircraft? Their patience proves they were all committed party cadres who came from all over the state. All this shows that Congress is united and derives its strength from workers all over the state.

Will the party go to the poll alone or as any other party's ally?

The Congress always goes it alone. We are strong enough to manage without anyone's support.

What about former prime minister H D Deve Gowda's recent meetings with Sonia?

My impression is that they were only courtesy calls, and this impression is based on authentic information. However, I was not involved in those meetings, so it would probably be better to put that question to Soniaji.

What will be the Congress platform at the forthcoming poll?

S M Krishna At the state level, the Janata Dal has been a total disaster of wasted opportunities and internal strife. At the Centre, the country is in a mess. The central government has lost its bearings, and has no single command. The country is completely disillusioned with it.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee might have gone to Pakistan in a bus. Well, I went to Pakistan in an aircraft, with 35 MPs, and it made no difference. The nuclear device they exploded created Deepavali for two days. The euphoria did not last beyond that. On the other hand, it has done so much damage to the Kashmir issue, which had been put on the back-burner and has now been brought to the centre-stage again. The economy is in a bad shape.

In other words, you believe the Congress might win in Karnataka only because of the Dal or the Bharatiya Janata Party's goof-ups, not because of your party's strength.

Elections are always fought, apart from manifestos and candidates, in a particular atmosphere. In November, we will go to the poll with a state government that is almost in coma, and at the Centre, a rudderless Union government. The people are quite politically aware, and will react to all this: that will definitely help the Congress, because we have a united leadership and a single command.

Come on, you know that the Congress is no more united than the other parties. It was infighting that finished the Congress in Karnataka in the last poll in 1994.

Whenever the central leadership is weak, infighting has marred the Congress's chances of coming to power. But whenever there is a strong central leadership, as it exists today, this problem will not arise, because the central leadership will take care of such fights.

Do you mean that all of you like being treated like a bunch of naughty schoolboys who need to be kept in line by a stern leader? Don't you sometimes wish you had a little more democracy at the state level?

This is how we have survived for so long. Other parties just unite and divide repeatedly. We certainly don't want the kind of internal democracy that the Dal has been practising. One should not go on fighting just to prove the point that the party has internal democracy.

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