May 11, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/ Congress leader Ambika Soni

'The poll results will make the NDA sit up and think'

The much-touted 'Number 2 in the Congress' has not gone to Ambika Soni's head. In spite of her crammed schedule, she calls to say she will be delayed for the appointment, and would one make himself comfortable?

Refreshing change -- when many of her senior party colleagues baulk at the request for an interview and pretend to be busier than they actually are.

Soni, the Congress leader who, among other responsibilities, looks after party chief Sonia Gandhi's office at 10 Janpath, is regarded as the latter's closest political aide. She spoke to Special Correspondent Tara Shankar Sahay about her party's likely performance in Thursday's assembly election, its future strategy and its relations with other parties.

Is the Congress upbeat following the results of the exit polls which say it is poised to recapture power in Assam and Pondicherry?

Well, exit polls are not known to be hundred per cent correct, they are just indicators. But frankly speaking, it has been more or less clear throughout the (poll) campaign that voters in all five states (except Pondicherry where they want the ruling party to be retained) are most dissatisfied with the governance of the parties in office.

So, given that background, we also highlighted issues which were of grave concern to the people, whether it was the farmers issue, the price rise, the Tehelka expose or widespread corruption in the Vajpayee government.

Madam Sonia Gandhi was our star campaigner and in her speeches she also highlighted the issues agitating the minds of the people.

The voters have obviously responded to what we have had to say. The exit polls show that the voters have responded very positively to the Congress whether in Assam, where the BJP entered into an opportunist alliance with the AGP or West Bengal where the BJP has not even been a spoiler of votes for the Congress-Trinamul combine.

What does this mean for the NDA government at the Centre?

There are perceptible and palpable signs of panic in the NDA coalition. Mr Vajpayee first asserted that the results of the assembly poll would be a referendum on the government's performance and popularity. Now the prime minister says the results should not be any reflection on his government. This is insulting the voter's intelligence.

At the very least, the results are going to be an indictment of the government. It certainly is an indictment of the central government's policies on agriculture, the Budget, the lack of restrictions on higher import duties which is adversely affecting the indigenous farmers. The government deliberately ignored the safeguards which would have given succour to our farmers.

Then there is the issue of widespread corruption. They (the NDA) might say the Tehelka issue is gone and the Congress has not been able to cash in. But the people were very, very bothered about the Tehelka disclosures, since they saw it on television with their own eyes -- this business of NDA politicianss receiving illegal gratification.

Congress members felt Tehelka would be the nemesis of the Vajpayee government?

It should be. People think that those in public life are only concerned with their own personal interests. And this has spoilt the image of those working in politics. A few black sheep have spoilt the image. What happened in Tehelka? People's apprehension, conjecture, supposition, took concrete form as the expose showed these politicians accepting bribe on television. It shocked the Indian psyche.

Why is the Congress not in favour of toppling the Vajpayee government as has been articulated by Madhavrao Scindia recently?

That's because we don't have the electoral arithmetic. Democracy is all about numbers. If we had more than 200 seats it would have been a different story. But certainly, every time assembly elections have taken place right from November 1988, the Congress has been winning states. And now after the results of these five states are out, the Congress is going to control the major states of this country. It will make the NDA sit up and think.

Does the Congress visualise a realignment of political forces after the poll?

Of course, we do. There will be victory and defeat and this imposes tremendous responsibility on the party leadership concerned at all levels. The Congress president has repeatedly emphasised that the party structure must be enthused, their energies channelised along constructive programmes and the Congress must become an effective political instrument.

For us, winning elections is not enough. Our party president ensures that party functionaries and government ministers are involved in implementing our policies and promises.

You along with the Trinamul are fighting the CPI-M in West Bengal. What will be the Congress-CPI-M relationship at the central level?

We have always fought the Left Front in Kerala, we have fought it in Tripura, we have fought it even in West Bengal. First we fought it in the united Congress and then with the splinter groups.

We have had floor coordination at the central level with the CPI-M, this is the normal practice. We have floor coordination with the RJD and other parties also. There is nothing unusual about it. Everybody fights to keep his place under the sun and for political space.

So how would you describe the Congress-CPI-M relationship at the Centre?

There is no formal relationship. But on an issue like secularism, parties like the Congress and the CPI-M have a similar viewpoint. I don't dispute the secular credentials of the Left parties. When our party was in power for almost four decades, the Left parties always supported our foreign policy. There has been issue to issue support at the national level. But it has not prevented us for fighting for our political votebank and we have done that all along.

Does the Congress still stand by the Pachmarhi declaration?

During our plenary session in Bangalore, we clarified some of the issues which had been raised during our Pachmarhi conclave. Some of the issues had been misinterpreted. By and large, we still stick to the original position. Barring exceptional and extravagant circumstances, our party believes in forming the government by itself.

Will the Vajpayee government last under the present circumstances since the political grapevine is harping on TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu being wooed by the Opposition parties?

I don't know anything about that. We are fighting Chandrababu Naidu very keenly in Andhra Pradesh. And in the last assembly and parliamentary elections, he (Naidu) would have been defeated but for the last minute unholy alliance with the BJP -- which he wanted to make but did not have the courage to publicly admit.

It was a 'chat mangni, pat byyah' kind of affair in which the voters hardly have any time to react. And in many seats, our margin of defeat was minimal. I don't know what political realignment is taking place. But we have said that this Vajpayee government has no moral right to rule since it has compromised national security.

There are no permanent friends and enemies in politics, will the Congress accept the possible return of Nationalist Congress Party leaders back in its fold?

The Congress has always stood by its policies and programmes, we have our own ideology. People have been leaving the Congress over the years and when they realised that they couldn't make much headway in other parties they have returned. But I don't see anything on the political horizon which would suggest the NCP rejoining with the Congress. Our policies, programmes and leadership is very identified.

There is no vindictiveness against Sharad Pawar and other NCP leaders for ditching the Congress?

If the Congress leadership had followed a vengeful and vindictive path, so many who had left and returned, wouldn't have done so.

Why is your party peeved with Home Minister Advani with his reference to AIADMK chief J Jayalalitha?

Yes, certainly. Maybe it is the fact of the BJP being rejected in state after state. But Mr Advani has no business passing value judgements on something which only the judiciary has a right to pass judgment on. He, as a BJP leader has no right to say something in his capacity as the Union home minister.

Where is the Congress headed from here?

Since Madam Sonia Gandhi became Congress chief on April 6, 1998, the party's endeavour has been to restructure, restrengthen and reinvigorate the Congress at all levels especially at the grassroot level.

Under her leadership, the Congress has made gradual but notable progress. Our party members and leaders fully support Madam Sonia Gandhi’s umbrage at the prime minister's speech on the last day of the Budget session of Parliament. Mr Vajpayee attacked our party chief. The Congress chief's speech reflected the anger of the entire party against the prime minister and his government. By all indications, the resurgence of the Congress has already made the BJP and NDA leaders press the panic button.

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