February 12, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/Sushma Swaraj

Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj is in the middle of a frenetic campaign for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh. On the second day of her 'Vote BJP' tour at Agra, she spoke to Basharat Peer about Mission Election and the BJP, her rivals, and memories of her famous (or infamous, depending on how you wish to see it) visit to Agra during the Vajpayee-Musharraf summit.

Ensconced in the comfort of her hotel suite overlooking Agra city, barely a kilometre from the Taj Mahal, Swaraj conceded that Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party could indeed emerge as the single largest party in Uttar Pradesh. Excerpts:

You are out on the campaign trail, so are Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Home Minister L K Advani. The BJP seems to have fielded all its stars and put everything on the line -- so what do you think of the party's prospects?

We, along with our allies, are confident of forming the government in UP. The BJP is contesting 319 seats and our allies are contesting 84. The alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal, headed by Ajit Singh, is proving mutually beneficial, especially in western UP.

Although the western belt has always been polarised and different parties have their pockets of strength, the BJP-RLD alliance is way ahead of our rivals. We are there in all the pockets -- in some places our following is greater than in some others, but the other parties will not be able to match us as an alliance.

The Samajwadi Party seems to present a potent threat -- how do you analyse its chances?

The western belt constitutes more than 120 seats, and the Samajwadi Party is not doing well in this region. If you look at the whole of UP, it could emerge as the single largest party -- but against that, we believe that once the results are in, we will emerge as the largest pre-poll alliance. Suppose a situation arises where the governor has to decide which party should form the next government -- in such a situation, the fact that we have a pre-poll alliance will give us the edge, and he will have to call on us to form the government.

How about the Amitabh Bachchan campaign for the Samajwadi Party -- do you see him turning crowds into votes?

Such crowds do not translate into votes. The aim of the people gathering at Amitabh's rallies is different. They want to watch Amitabh perform on stage. Actually, I am rather sad about it -- Amitabh is more than just an entertainer, he is an icon for our generation, and it is sad to see him being reduced to the status of a mere entertainer. He has fallen into a trap from which he cannot get out. I feel sorry for him. He has let my generation down.

Kalyan Singh is out in the field, campaigning against the BJP. To what extent do you think he will hurt the BJP's prospects?

Kalyan Singh's election campaign is entirely negative. People do not like negative campaigns. The question the electorate asks is: 'What can you do for us? Are you just using us to defeat somebody because you have a personal grievance?'

He must have realised by now (what) the strength of an organisation (is). He was a tall leader when he was in the BJP. Now he is a mere individual, who cannot make a dent in the BJP cadre. He does not even have much influence with the backward classes. It is only in his Lodh community that he wields some influence.

But even so, he is not the only Lodh leader, we have Sadhvi Uma Bharati as well. Now the Lodh community will begin to ask itself why it should vote for a man who has no chance of coming to power.

What, as far as the BJP is concerned, are the major issues in this election?

First, we are focusing on the performance of the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. After Rajnath Singh took over, the whole scenario changed. He worked for 20 hours every day, he met people from every segment of society, he has been trying to solve their problems. He has avoided confrontation and worked towards reconciliation. This is the time to pat him on his back. There cannot be any anti-incumbency factor.

Secondly, we are looking at the Central government's role in tackling terrorism. Since the country is fighting a decisive battle against terrorism, voting for the BJP will send a signal that the electorate, the country, supports the government's policies on terrorism.

If the BJP fails to form the government in Uttar Pradesh, what happens at the Centre?

I do not see such a situation arising.

But if it does?

It is a hypothetical question. We will see how things shape and act accordingly.

If it is not possible for you to form a government along with your allies, will you enter into a post-poll alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party?

We are confident that we will form the government with our allies. For us, the BSP is like any other rival. I do not think the BJP will go in for a post-poll alliance.

What role has the Ayodhya issue played in this election?

As far as the BJP is concerned, it is not an election issue. The prime minister, the home minister, the BJP president and the Uttar Pradesh chief minister have all made that very clear.

But the VHP says that it will start constructing the temple from March 15...

See, when the sants met the PM in Delhi recently to put forward their demands, he referred to the law minister the question of handing over the disputed land. We are now waiting for the report.

What if the law minister's report does not come before March 15?

He knows what the situation is -- the report will come before March 15.

What has been the response of the Muslim community to the BJP in this election? Have you been able to tone down their anti-BJP feelings?

There is a concerted effort by our rivals to make Muslims believe that the BJP is a communal, anti-Muslim organisation. It has created a mindset in the minority community. But the last five years of BJP rule have proved that the BJP is not anti-Muslim. There have been no riots or any anti-Muslim action during BJP rule. The feedback I got is that we are getting five times more Muslim votes this time. It is an achievement for the BJP.

Being here at Agra reminds me of the Vajpayee-Musharraf summit. What memories of the summit does Agra bring back to you?

Musharraf was stubborn. He wanted Kashmir as the core issue in every document that was to be signed, but at the same time he was excluding cross-border terrorism. How could India have possibly accepted that? All our leaders were unanimous in rejecting Musharraf's terms.

But it seems Musharraf had got the wrong feedback. Had he not been stubborn, had he agreed to move on from the undisputed issues to the disputed ones, things could have been different. Somebody seems to have told him that he could have his way. That is where he got it wrong.

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