November 2, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/ Jitendra Prasada

'The Congress should stop being moribund and inactive'

Two years ago, Congress President Sonia Gandhi launched her political career from the Sriperumpudur memorial of her late husband Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu. That was on the eve of the 1998 general election.

Jitendra Prasada On Thursday, Jitendra Prasada, the first Congress leader to contest against a member of the Nehru family for the party presidency, also launched his campaign from the very same memorial.

Incidentally, this is Sonia Gandhi's first outing at the party poll, her earlier selection bordering on nomination at the Calcutta session of the AICC, after Sitaram Kesri had been forced out of office.

Earlier, when Prasada arrived at Chennai airport from New Delhi, a few friends, including Seva Dal leader K R Harikumar, and a host of mediamen awaited him. Local Congressmen either feigned ignorance, or left of town.

If TNCC president E V K S Elangovan, a Sonia nominee of a few months' standing, left for his native Erode the previous night, three of his predecessors -- Thindivanam K Ramamurthy, K V Thangabalu and Kumari Anandan -- all left for Delhi, by an earlier flight.

Apparently, to complain to the high command -- Sonia Gandhi is away at Lakshadweep -- about the irregularities in the organisational election in the state, of the kind which Prasada himself hinted at during his media meet in Chennai later in the day.

Other than a meeting with the media, and a few friendly calls, including one on Tamil Maanila Congress leader G K Moopanar -- apart from being a surprise visitor to the TNCC office -- Prasada did not have many callers from the party.

"You should ask them," was his comment, when asked if the Congress workers and leaders, alike, were afraid to call on him. "I count on the media to convey my message to the partymen, and it is not a personal fight," he told N Sathiya Moorthy, in an interview, in between telephonic complaints to the Congress Election Authority, Ram Niwas Mirdha, on the non-availability of the AICC delegates' list, which constitutes the electoral college for the party president's polls.

Don't you think, it is ironic for you to have commenced your campaign from Sriperumpudur?

There is nothing ironic about it. Rajiv Gandhi was Sonia Gandhi's husband. But he was also my leader. Why, he was the Congress leader. If anything, my visiting the Rajiv Gandhi memorial should make it clear: that there is nothing personal in my fight.

But you have been charged with daring to contest against a member of the Nehru family.

What's wrong in my contesting? After all, I am a Congressman, and have always been a Congressman. The party constitution does not say there should not be a contest...

But there has not been any contest against a member of the Nehru family earlier.

But there had been contests in the past. Subhas Chandra Bose fought Pattabhi Sittaramayya in 1938, and even defeated him. Pattabhi was seen as Gandhiji's nominee, and the Mahatma himself said as much, later. Likewise, Purushottam Das Tandon defeated Acharya Kripalani, who was seen as a nominee of Jawaharlal Nehru. But Panditji saw nothing wrong with it.

Why this contest, after all?

I have nothing personal to gain from this. It is just to prove a point. That the Congress is a vibrant party, and is a democratic organisation, where party polls are transparent. That way, the Congress alone is a democratic party. All others are fascist organisations, where no such election is possible. There are either nominations, or selections at a coterie-level. I do not want that to happen in the case of the Congress.

Does it mean that the Congress is not democratically-run at present?

I do not say that. At the same time, unless the district Congress committee presidents and pradesh Congress presidents are made to feel that they are answerable to the ordinary cadres, who have the right to vote him out the next time he contests for a party post, the party itself cannot be vibrant.

Nominated leaders do not make for good workers, more often than not. For instance, take the case of Tamil Nadu itself. Here the party lost power in 1967, when Kamarajji was among our tallest leaders. Today, the party is nowhere in the state, thanks to the lack of accountability of the PCC and DCC leaderships, which are mostly nominated, from time to time.

You have complained that the delegates' list has not been supplied to you...

Yes. I stand by my complaint. Why go that far? In your own state, Tamil Nadu, two former TNCC president, K V Thangabalu and Thindivanam K Ramamurthy, have publicly stated that the AICC delegates list had already been prepared and finalised in Delhi. And mind you, the lower-level polls have not been held thus far in the state for electing these delegates.

How come then, there are not many Congressmen wanting to meet you now?

You will have to ask them.

Do you think that they are afraid of antagonising the powers-that-be?

I want Congressmen to get out of all such fears. That is one of the symbols of my contest. Maybe because Congress leaders are nominated, not elected, they could not afford to antagonise the coterie. That is one reason, why I want democratic elections in the party.

That is also why I want Congressmen to vote according to the dictates of their conscience. Yet, many of these leaders do keep in touch through other sources to say that they are with me, and that they share my ideas and views.

Is your contest itself, thus symbolic?

No. I am hopeful of winning.

You do not feel you will be isolated now.

No. But then, that is the kind of fear that is gripping the party leaders at various levels, and this is what I am actually fighting.

What will be your attitude and approach to Sonia Gandhi if you were to win the election?

It would not be one of isolation. I am asking for a collective leadership, and Sonia Gandhi is among the important leaders in the party with a following of her own. Her contributions to the party would be fully and properly utilised.

Where do you put the Congress three or four years from now, at the time of the next Lok Sabha election?

The Vajpayee government has failed the nation on all fronts, and the NDA is already showing signs of crumbling. The Congress is the only viable, and credible alternative, and we are sure to come back to power in the next election, whenever held. All other forms of alternatives have failed, too.

But the CPI-M and the rest are talking in terms of a non-Congress, anti-BJP combine?

It is still in a very fluid state. Likewise, even the Shiv Sena, an ally of the BJP, is talking in terms of an alliance of regional parties with TDP leader Chandrababu Naidu taking the lead. The question is simple. The BJP and the forces represented by the party should go.

Other things can wait. Only that the Congress should be prepared to stand up to such a situation, instead of continuing to be as moribund and as inactive as it has been in the past year after the Lok Sabha poll. That is the message I want to convey to the party workers.

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