August 9, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/M Venkaiah Naidu

'The allegation of petrol pump allotments will not stick to us'

On his 53rd birthday on July 1, M Venkaiah Naidu became the youngest person and the first among the crop of post-independence leaders to head the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The appointment, as expected, saw some quick changes in the party structure. Naidu brought in a 72-member team -- which he described as a 'combination of experience, dynamism and youth' and stated that the party would not be president-centric.

In an exclusive interview with Sheela Bhatt, Venkaiah Naidu counters the latest petrol pump allotment scandal dogging his party and stresses that the BJP is still driven by ideology. Excerpts:

Is there really any major difference between the Congress and the BJP?

There are only two major national forces competing with each other, though the importance of regional parties is no less. So far as the perception of the people goes, they say the BJP still has character and its leaders have quality.

In the last four years not a single, single, I am insisting on the word, charge has been made against any of our ministers. Allegations were made about the Unit Trust of India, but that was a system failure. The finance minister was not involved. Even in Tehelka, no transaction has taken place and the government was not involved at any stage. In the petrol pumps case, the government is nowhere in the picture.

We have improved the system. From 1983 to 1995 Congressmen, mostly district Congress presidents, were appointed in the selection committees along with representatives from oil companies.

After we came to power Petroleum Minister Ram Naik improved the system and replaced party nominees with retired judges. The allegation of petrol pump allotments will not stick to us. Just before you arrived, a few bishops from Ram Naik's constituency came to meet me. They said they would vote for him in the next election also.

He formed the dealer selection boards and asked members to give marks to the applicant. Each member had 100 marks, but Naik saw that oil companies prevailed upon the judge, so he changed the rule and gave 200 marks to the judge of each committee. Again there was a problem because there used to be a tie, hence Naik insisted that the judges should have a veto.

There was transparency in the whole thing. I am not denying that allotments might have been made to some BJP people, but the media has picked up only their names. I wish seniors of the government or party should not have taken any favours. But I am saying go through the entire list. If something has gone wrong they can go to court.

You know in this country everything... hawa main chalta hai [everything is up in the air]... later you don't find any substance in the issue. Manmohan Singh, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Sushil Kumar Shinde, vice-presidential candidate, Motilal Vora, AICC vice-president, Oscar Fernandes, Congress general secretary, and almost all leaders of various parties, including Leftists, wrote to Naik asking for a favour in the allotment of petrol pumps. Now, they are the people who are opposing us on the same issue. What is this? Bankruptcy and political double standards. They want to take the country for a ride.

What next?

I have asked my party not to go to court. The government has cancelled their allotments, still I have told them not to get involved at all in this issue. I want them to set a certain standard. The prime minister had the moral courage to cancel it [the allotments]. No government has done it in the past. BJP workers are not debarred from getting allotments, but when a minister or governor's son gets it the perception is that he must have used influence.

My first question was if there is any major difference between the Congress and the BJP.

Number one is that even today the BJP is driven by ideology.

You did not find much political success in your native Andhra Pradesh. How are you going to be successful at the all-India level?

First of all, understand who I was in Andhra Pradesh. We had a nominal presence in the South. After becoming an MLA for two terms I became the party president and expanded [the party's reach in the state]. Today the BJP in AP has 11 MLAs, 7 MPs, 261 municipal councillors, 13 municipal chairmen, 12 vice-chairmen. Of course, we are at the third position.

You have not been able to get the BJP to the number two position in your own state. Now how will you get your party to number one position at the national level?

This is an absurd argument. And more important is that no individual is responsible for the BJP's success or fall. I said on the first day -- I preside and my team decides. We have a collective leadership. A generational change has taken place in my party. I am a worker who has become the president. Our leader is Vajpayee. I know what I am. Vajpayee is the leader of the country, leader of the government, leader of the party and leader of Advaniji! If people say I am under their shadow, I am proud of it.

Though you are the chief of such a big party, you are always introduced as an Advani loyalist.

What can I do? I am a BJP loyalist. It's a fact that Advani's influence is there on me because I have worked with him closely. But I was drawn into politics because of my admiration for Vajpayeeji. You go through my bio-data. There is no position that I have not held in the organisation. I have been the state president, vice-president, general secretary. I have also been a minister and now I am president.

Is it true that you wanted Advani to become party president?

Yes. I went to the PM after losing the assembly election in UP and Uttaranchal. I told him that things were going badly. The opposition was taking us on. Somehow we were not able to manage their onslaught. I said the best thing was to send Advani back to the party and I would join him as general secretary. The PM said the idea was good, but he couldn't spare Advani's services.

I told him that I still had age in my favour, so someone else should be president. He said no, consensus is in your favour. I was so emotional to hear that. I was a little worried also because I want to fulfil their expectations.

The beauty about Mr Vajpayee is that he takes collective decisions. Even on the petrol pump issue he consulted me. Even I take ideas to him and he accepts.

How do you understand the Vajpayee-Advani relationship?

What do you want? Some juicy story? He is the PM who had the courage to give the deputy's post to somebody. He has the conviction to recognise the services of Advaniji. We know the PM's word is always final.

What is your political thrust?

Rural. We will expand our social and political base further. We have enough support from the urban middle class, now we will go to the villages. Second, we will take care of organisational weaknesses. Thirdly, we will try to reach those sections of society, which are not with us.

What about governance?

We have performed well, but not communicated well to the people. It's a wrong perception. We have gone nuclear, our inflation is at the lowest, our foreign exchange [reserve] is the highest. We have gone for crop insurance -- the Kisan rate card -- so much has happened. We have revolutionised the insurance sector and FDI terms have been relaxed.

We have failed to project tour work. We know this LPG (liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation) is going to stay.

Are you going to win in Gujarat with so much internal bickering?

I have three crore members. There will be some problems in the party. Come on, I am not claiming I don't have any problems. But we will sort out our problems in Gujarat, which have risen because of the resignation of the minister [Haren Pandya]. The party's own survey shows that we will get 65 per cent of the votes and a two-thirds majority. While an independent survey shows that we will get 56 per cent votes and Congress will get 30 per cent.

But the riots in Gujarat have blurred that perception.

It is because of the propaganda of pseudo-secular people and the English media. 4,800 people were murdered in cold blood in 1984. Wasn't it a shame? If one man dies it's a shame. But let the people of Gujarat decide and give the final verdict who is right and who is wrong. In 1969, 460 people were killed in Gujarat. In 1985, 210 people were killed when Madhavsinh Solanki was chief minister.

Some forces outside also are not able to digest India standing on its own. When they win they are secular, if we win we are communal and Hindus. What kind of argument is this?

Some feel you provoke the Hindu communal and religious sentiments and then ask for an election, how can you do that?

We don't provoke sentiments. When Rajiv Gandhi was Congress president, the election in Mizoram was conducted. The Congress manifesto said Mizoram would be ruled according to the gospel truth of the Bible! Let them deny this. I'll show them the copy of their manifesto.

Rajiv Gandhi went to Ayodhya and said he would bring Ram Rajya. And when I talk about Ram Rajya it's communal, your Ram Rajya is secular -- and you can go for an election within 45 days of the genocide of Sikhs in Delhi. You can encash those deaths. I have the cutouts with me. It shows a Sikh firing at Indira Gandhi and blood flowing out -- it is revolving with the help of an electronic technique. Everywhere cutouts were put up and mass hysteria was created to get votes.

Sikhs are not a minority according to you and because Muslims are larger in numbers and are more useful to your vote bank, you are opposing the election in Gujarat. My government has increased Hajj [annual pilgrimage to Mecca] subsidy, given computers to madrassas. On the carnage in Godhra, the Congress is silent and for the Ahmedabad riots their protest is violent. We say both are bad.

Lastly, the Congress is already in power in 14 states. Sonia Gandhi can become prime minister of India one day. Do you think it is an impossible situation?

In all these 14 states we will get anti-incumbency votes in the next general election. Give me the one state out of these 14 where they won because of their strength. It was of course not a mandate for Sonia Gandhi. I can tell you one thing, that the people of India will never, never, never accept her as prime minister of India.

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