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'It is going to be a close fight this time'
Aditi Phadnis
March 01, 2009 22:08 IST
Jairam Ramesh, who gave up ministership to design the Congress campaign and manifesto, talks to Aditi Phadnis about the 2009 general elections.

You were the moving spirit of the manifesto and the campaign committee of the Congress in 2004. What is the difference between 2004 and 2009 general elections?

There is a lot of difference. In 2004, the Congress saw itself as a party with its back to the wall. It was defeatist internally and was up against a formidable political machine that had enormous fire power, both financially and administratively. I can't think of a single senior Congress leader, barring the Congress president, who thought we would get seats in three digits.

But today, no one is writing us off. In fact, the problem is that there are too many in the Congress who are writing premature epitaphs for the opposition. I have no doubt at all that it is going to be a close fight.

We are much better placed in 2009 for a variety of reasons. We've been in government for five years. That peculiar Indianism, the 'mahaul' (atmosphere), has changed in our favour.

In 2004, we were facing general elections after a crushing defeat in the Assembly elections held in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh [Images]. In Chhattisgarh, our vote share had been respectable - 36 per cent - but we won only 37 seats out of 90, whereas the Bharatiya Janata Party, with 39 per cent votes, was able to get 50 seats.

But this has changed. In the 2008 Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, we got 38 seats, but our percentage of votes went up. In Madhya Pradesh, we have doubled the number of seats over 2004, although the BJP has managed to form the government there. We've won Delhi [Images], Rajasthan and Mizoram outright. So the atmosphere is in our favour.

The Left parties say economic conditions in India, job losses, especially, will be the biggest issue in the elections.

The Left has been saying this for 60 years. There's nothing new about it.

The economic situation is in response to a certain global scenario. All labour intensive manufacturing industries have suffered. But in India, elections are never fought on achievements. They are fought on sentiment. High inflation rates can damage poll prospects but low inflation rates will never fetch votes.

It is local economic factors that play a role. In 1998, despite the nuclear tests, the BJP lost the Delhi elections because of high onion prices. There are certain economic issues but they play a part locally.

Is the performance of your allies an advantage or a disadvantage? Are your allies going to weigh you down or add to your vote share?

Many of our allies are facing severe anti-incumbency. On the other hand, in the regions where they come from, they also represent durable social coalitions. They have stood by the Congress leaders through thick and thin.

Also through sick and sin ...

What sin?

While we may have differences on local issues, we need to place on record that our allies have stood by us through some of the most difficult times, like the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement, for instance.

In her speech to the Congress Parliamentary Party, the Congress president exhorted MPs to dispense with the party's dependence on allies. To many of your allies, this sounds like the arrogance of the Congress of old and at least one ally has not hesitated to say this.

Having an ally and a party organisation are not mutually exclusive. We may not have the seats needed to form a government on our own. But that doesn't mean we're going to give up the strategic objective of coming to power on our own.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Congress is the only party capable of coming back to power on its own.

And it isn't as if the allies have got nothing. They got plum portfolios, and frankly, it cost the Congress to be in a coalition. I firmly believe that the Congress has given more than it has taken from the coalition and we have been extraordinarily indulgent towards coalition partners.

This is even reflected in our manifesto. In the old days, the Congress party would describe itself as "the natural party of governance" and "a coalition in itself". These are now formulations of the past.

What kind of a manifesto will you have which can become a common manifesto with alliance partners when you do post-poll agreements?

First, whatever is in the Congress manifesto will also feature in the common minimum programme. So first there has to be a Congress Manifesto and then a CMP.

The CMP I-2004 was different from the CMP II-2004 (the common programme drafted after the Left parties agreed to support the United Progressive Alliance, that is, UPA, from outside). And the CMP III-2009 is going to be even more different. We will have to rethink the purpose and content of this CMP.

So just as you had to tweak your manifesto to incorporate concerns of allies in 2004.

Well, Prakash Karat [Images] and Sitaram Yechuri had a serious objection only to the word "strategic". The Congress manifesto had the formulation: "India will endeavour to deepen economic, diplomatic and strategic relations with the United States". The Left parties insisted we drop the word "strategic".

Assuming that you will have to do more than that this time.

I think we can come to power without the Left parties. The Left has to understand that if it has to tie up with us, it cannot be abusive and sanctimonious

You're calling the Left abusive but you're ready to do an alliance with the Samajwadi Party and Amar Singh [Images]

Amar Singh's bark is worse than his bite. To each his style. I really wish the Left had been more restrained in its language. I can tell you from my experience that Kerala [Images], Tripura and West Bengal have never got as much from the Centre as they have during the United Progressive Alliance regime. Political discord did not impinge on what the Government of India was doing for these states. What appalled me was that privately, the chief ministers of Tripura and West Bengal, who are first-rate chief ministers, told me that what the Delhi guys in their party were doing was wrong.

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