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He is the urbane, moderate and educated face of the BJP, but his critics accuse him of lacking street-smart political skills. But lately, Jaitley has been credited with planning and executing the BJP's electoral victories in some states by applying common sense to booth level administration and intelligent propaganda using the media.
He is known to be a supporter of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi [Images] and has convinced his party to use the Gujarat chief minister's image as the unique selling point of the BJP's media campaign in Gujarat.
Currently, Jaitley is in charge of the state and is camping in Ahmedabad to supervise the party's overall strategy during the crucial elections later this month.
He spoke exclusively to rediff.com's Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt.
How different is this year's election compared to the 2002 election?
Gujarat has tried and tested Narendra Modi in the last five years. This election will be held on the substantially positive plank of Modi himself. It will be based on the ideology of the BJP and the various issues related to it in the context of Gujarat. Secondly, the issue is related to leadership. Modi versus who? Thirdly, the development agenda of the Modi government has found huge favour with the people of Gujarat.
Earlier, you had told the media that the development plank and the positive agenda are not working out well with the public.
It is true that positive campaigns alone do not carry the kind of appeal that negative campaigns tend to carry. Here, we are in the government and so we have designed the entire campaign which is comprehensive. The ideological issues are being projected in a straightforward manner and that involves criticism of the Congress' stand on terrorism. The leadership issue is the combination of the positives of Modi and the negatives of the vacuum Congress suffers from. The development agenda shows the positives of the Modi process and we are also showing the negatives of the Congress, which has not been able to achieve much in their 40 years of rule in the state.
You are projecting Modi as the leader but he does have this other side, too. It is alleged that he follows a dictatorial style of administration. The BJP rebels have spoken out against him.
We don't find any of these traits in his personality. He is firm, he is tough. He has the ability to face criticism. Being firm and tough is different than being dictatorial.
As far as the rebels are concerned, don't forget that the main rebel Gordhan Zadaphia was offered a place in the state cabinet. It was he who walked out. Even after Suresh Mehta lost an election, efforts were made to involve him in the government, but he walked out. Finally, in the last six years, no Indian politician has been criticised, at times unfairly, as much as Modi has been. Those with dictatorial tendencies do not tolerate criticism. Modi has broad shoulders to have accepted that. When Indira Gandhi [Images] was criticised, she imposed curbs on the media. Here everybody is free to criticise Modi and in fact, people have criticised him.
You are from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad and have worked your way up from the lower ranks. You know the importance of the institution of political parties. This time, you are personalising the entire democratic election. In some areas, it is Modi versus the BJP. Why undermine the party?
This question is based on a lack of understanding about the BJP's functioning in Gujarat. Atalji is the tall leader of the BJP. At times, he had the final say and sometimes, the organisation also has great importance. In Gujarat, Modi is certainly the most accepted leader who has wide acceptability within the party. But at the same time, the party functions strongly. Even during the allotment of tickets, the entire state unit of the party sat together for four weeks and discussed each and every constituency. The party takes its decisions in that manner.
Are you candid when you claim that Modi does not take decisions in a dictatorial fashion?
Is your question implying that the party is strong only when the leader is weak? There is no such presumption. In Gujarat, the leader is strong and the party is relevant.
In your career of over three decades, have you ever come across any leader saying so many damaging things about another leader in the same party, the way Keshubhai Patel has done? Patel has evoked so much emotion when he spoke against Modi. Still, both continue to be in the same party. Have you given a hearing to Patel's grievances against Modi?
The party has full respect for Keshubhai. The party has always been in constant dialogue with him. The party has listened to every word he had to say. The option of whether or not to work in this election rests entirely with Keshubhai. We will keep trying to convince him, to come out and campaign, till the very end. In any case, he has already said that he is very much a part of the BJP and he has even made a public statement to this effect.
As Gujarat gets closer to the voting day, Modi is talking more about Miyan Musharraf, Sonia's Italy [Images] and Taslima Nasreen [Images]. Are you not adopting the Hindutva line again?
Well, I don't think you can deny that Modi has the right, as a citizen and as a leader, to speak on each one of these subjects. The issue of Taslima is a live political issue in India. India is a country where a few million Bangladeshi immigrants are staying and they are burdening the security and the economy of our country. The Congress wants them to stay on in India because it suits their vote bank politics. Taslima, who is a victim of religious persecution, is being given this treatment because the fundamentalists want her to leave. Why should the BJP and Modi not be allowed to speak on the subject? Is the geographical location of the speech relevant when you take a position on an issue?
Aren't you going back to the 2002 policy of raking up the Hindtuva issue?
If the Centre kneels down before Islamic fundamentalism, as they have already done in the case of terrorism and Afzal Guru, and to some extent in the Taslima issue, the BJP will certainly speak out. We are guided by nationalist considerations. If you term nationalist considerations as Hindutva, then we welcome this definition of Hindutva.
What is it about Modi that clicks with the people?
What clicks is his boldness, his clarity of thought, his decisiveness, his ability to implement decisions, his ability to face criticism and still stand by his convictions, his incorruptible image and his nationalistic approach.
My gosh! You are painting him as a god of politics.
I am just painting him as a strong nationalist with honest credentials.
People say he has ambitions of moving out of Gujarat. With your kind of description, he can very well move on to the political arena in New Delhi.
I think that currently, he is putting in his best efforts to remain in Gujarat.
What is your assessment about succeeding in this election?
I think there is a huge acceptability for Narendra Modi and BJP certainly has a distinct edge in this state. We will have a comfortable majority. Our past experiences during elections have shown us that even when the party or the leader is popular, candidate level anti-incumbency requires to be tackled. One of the ways of tackling it during the election is to change a few candidates because people expect the change. Only when you have the requisite confidence, you can go in for a large change.
As the election comes closer, what are the issues that are emerging?
As I said, we will get a comfortable majority. The issues have been spilt into three groups. There are ideological issues. The Congress is soft on the terror policy. The Congress tried to help the accused in the Godhra incident through the Banerjee Committee. The Congress's hostility towards Gujarat on the issue of Narmada is an issue. Do not forget that Saifuddin Soz tried to scuttle the Narmada project. Modi's leadership is the second issue. My assessment is that Congress is running away from the ideological debate and running away from the issue of leadership. The third issue is the positives of the Modi government.
What do you mean when you say that the Congress is running away from ideological issues?
I have seen the Congress's advertisements, their entire campaign and speeches. I do not think that they are referring to the Godhra issue, or to the post-Godhra situation or to the defence of Soharbuddin as viciously as they have been doing in the last five years.
Even Modi's supporters claim that his government hypes the achievements. Where is the promised Rs 1 lakh crore of investment?
The Memorandum of Understanding is always the commitment for the investment; the entire investment does not come in the first year itself. This is the agenda for the long term. If the Congress wants to compare this with the relative decline of Maharashtra, I think it will be a comfortable debate for us.
How do you expect the Congress's campaign, with leaders like Sonia and Rahul Gandhi [Images] touring Gujarat, to fare?
They have campaigned in Uttar Pradesh, they will campaign here. Rahul Gandhi campaigned in UP and failed. Then he got a promotion and became the general secretary of the All India Congress Committee. He is a lucky man, in his case nothing succeeds like a failure.
Some analysts say Gujarat is in a similar position as the Vajpayee government of 2004 was. His leadership was creditable and the anti-incumbency factor was not as visible before the election.
The India Shining campaign did not fail. It succeeded in a number of states. It failed only in states where our state level alliances had failed.
Will Modi be able to translate his popularity into votes in favour of the party's candidates?
Let us wait for the results. I think he will be a great contributor in the BJP's victory.
What will be the impact of the Gujarat election on the national scene?
We are hoping to win in both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. It will be the beginning of the end of the Congress rule at the Centre. If we win in Gujarat, the BJP will acquire the upper hand in the coming Lok Sabha election.
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