May 22, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Congress spokesman S Jaipal Reddy

'We want the NDA to prepare its own grave'

In political circles, S Jaipal Reddy is known as one who is always prepared to answer a question. A good reason why he was singled out by the Congress high command to be its spokesman.

It is a job he does with elan.

Reddy had started off with the hope of becoming a journalist. But by the time he had completed a bachelor's degree in journalism from Osmania University in Hyderabad, he was deep into politics. At 23, he was president of the Andhra Pradesh Youth Congress. At 26, he was elected to the state assembly from Kalwakurthi.

He hasn't looked back since.

A bitter critic of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, Reddy quit the Congress and joined the Janata Party in 1977. But his first attempt at a Lok Sabha seat from Medak was unceremoniously dashed by none other than Gandhi, who defeated him by a huge margin in 1980. Reddy eventually entered Parliament for the first time in 1984 from Mahbubnagar and became a prominent member of the Janata Dal in the United Front coalition at the Centre five years later.

A former information and broadcasting Minister, the 59-year-old Reddy won the best parliamentarian award in 2000. He spoke to Ramesh Menon about various issues that plague the Congress and what the future looks like. Excerpts:

Will the assembly election have any effect on the NDA government?

It will have an immense but intangible impact; the government's political authority has nearly been eroded. The NDA government lost its moral authority when the prime minister made comments on the Ayodhya issue which were at variance with the agenda of the NDA. After this election, the government lost its political authority as well.

With dwindling public support, I am afraid the Vajpayee government will become more cynical in its political approach to survive based on the logic of numbers in the Lok Sabha. To increase the numbers in the Lok Sabha, Vajpayee may embark on a splitting spree and get a few members from smaller parties. I do not venture to predict about the longevity of the government. It is already a lame duck government.

The BJP did not have a presence in any of the states that went to the polls. Their leaders argue the results make no difference to the party.

The NDA has a significant presence in four of the five states that went to the polls, other than Kerala. Thanks to Tehelka, we got the Trinamul Congress as an ally in West Bengal because of which the NDA was reduced to cipher. In Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, the DMK is a formidable partner of the NDA. These two states are now in our pocket.

'With dwindling public support, I am afraid the Vajpayee government will become more cynical'
In the 1999 Lok Sabha election, the BJP was a good second on its own in Assam. Thanks to its ill-conceived alliance with the AGP, the BJP is a miserable third and it will take long years before the party can recover from the self-inflicted wound in Assam. Their lame excuse is valid only in Kerala and does not wash in the other states.

What is the Congress strategy now?

Our strategy is to consolidate our gains and expand our base. We are not into the toppling game. We are not averse to long-term strategic alliances. Our over-riding objective will be to strengthen secular forces.

Will the Congress consider pulling down the government?

We are not interested in pulling down the government through the numbers game. But we think the internal contradictions within the NDA and, more importantly, the Sangh Parivar will intensify. The NDA government could wreck itself from within. We want the NDA government to prepare its own grave.

It seems like a golden chance for the Congress to consolidate itself. But it does not seem to be cashing on the opportunity.

The very fact that the Congress has been able to get back both the Trinamul Congress and the Tamil Maanila Congress shows that we achieved two masterstrokes in this election. We will build on these gains.

Even when it is out of power and does not seem to be anywhere near it, there are so many factional fights and intrigues in the Congress.

There cannot be democratic politics without factions. All those who want democratic politics without factions can be believers in astro-politics, not observers of realpolitik. Having said that, the factions in the Congress party in recent times have been better modulated than in any other party. For example, we had a problem in Kerala. We have managed it.

Take the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Kalyan Singh as chief minister was thrown out of the party and Ram Prakash Gupta has been consigned to the limbo of oblivion. It is another matter that Gupta has gone back to the oblivion that he came from. Jitendra Prasada contested against Congress president Sonia Gandhi and she did not mind. When he died, his wife was given a ticket in the bye-election. This shows we have more harmoniously managed factional contradictions than other parties.

If you had to look into the mirror and tell yourself what was wrong with the Congress, what would you say?

(Pauses to think) The Congress in the Nineties underestimated the deviousness of the Hindutva communal forces. That was a grave mistake we made.

Whatever happened to the Youth Congress?

I was recruited into politics through the Youth Congress. You had stalwarts produced by the Youth Congress who dominated the political scene in various parts of the country. The formidable list includes A K Antony, Vayalar Ravi, Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar, Ambika Soni, Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, Mamata Banerjee -- just to cite a few.

One can say that the present Youth Congress movement does not have the same potential. But such a perception is erroneous as it is the result of nostalgia which is a part of human nature. The older lot always says how good they were and how the youth today are no good... But actually nothing is really wrong.

Your party has eleven chief ministers today. Sounds good, but is that enough?

In politics, as in business, nothing is enough. But show me one opposition party in the history of independent India, which had 11 chief ministers on any given day. While our present strength is formidable, our future is now brighter.

What is the line the Congress will now take with the electorate to bring back votes?

There is no need to change our balanced philosophy. We have always had an inclusive approach, not an exclusive one. But at the moment, we need to focus our strategy to achieve optimal consolidation of secular forces in the Indian polity.

With Jayalalitha under a heap of corruption cases and scandals, how is the Congress backing her?

Jayalalitha is no doubt facing a barrage of cases because of which the general perception outside Tamil Nadu is that she is steeped in corruption. We would like to hold our hand before pronouncing a judgement until the cases came to a logical end.

The public perception of the DMK in Tamil Nadu is not very different from that of the AIADMK. Since there are the two regional parties between whom the people of Tamil Nadu are largely divided, the Congress preferred the AIADMK for two important reasons. Firstly, it is not a member of the NDA. The second is that it is more strongly nationalistic. It is more genuinely anti-LTTE.

Are there any moves to bring in breakaway groups like the Trinamul Congress and the TMC together?

These two parties were breakaway Congress groups. They therefore stand on a different footing from other members of NDA. Even in regard to other members of NDA, we will not have a closed mind except for the BJP and Shiv Sena, both of which have been philosophically and emotionally steeped in Hindutva communalism.

What about the Nationalist Congress Party?

The NCP is again a breakaway Congress group. The answer lies with the NCP as to why they have broken away at the national level.

The real battle is going to be in Uttar Pradesh later this year. The Congress is in a very weak position there.

'We are not interested in pulling down the government through the numbers game'
Let me frankly admit we are in a relatively weak position in Uttar Pradesh. It is because of the sharp polarization on the basis of caste. We need to rethink our strategy in Uttar Pradesh.

Will the Congress be able to find its feet again?

The recent election results show that we are not only on our feet, but our feet are getting strengthened. However, we need to do some more work before we can race to the top.

Was it not a monumental mistake to get rid of leaders like Sharad Pawar and P A Sangma?

In my view, they left the party at a wrong time. It is for them to introspect.

Why is the Congress not pushing some of its best faces like Mammohan Singh, Digvijay Singh, A K Antony, Madhavrao Scindia, Salman Khurshid and S M Krishna? Some of them are chief ministers of Congress-ruled states, but their voice in the party is not heard. It is just Sonia all the way. And she hardly ever speaks.

It is not true. The Congress chief ministers have been allowed to develop their personalities. This is why the Congress has some of the most well-known chief ministers. Manmohan Singh is leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. Madhavrao Scindia is second in command in the Lok Sabha. In a big nation like India with its baffling cultural diversity, there is a need to have and project one person as an outstanding leader.

In today's context, Sonia Gandhi is performing the instrumental role of holding this vast party together.

What are the hurdles you see in the party's long road to power?

I do not see the road to be long. Nor do I see the hurdles to be insurmountable. The Congress needs to achieve a breakthrough in Uttar Pradesh. In other states, the Congress is already strong on its own or has the support of like-minded allies.

What is the role Sonia Gandhi must take now?

She should continue to play the present role of leading the party. She has already many achievements to her credit, which are evident from the recent election results. In due course, I am reasonably confident the Congress will regain its full strength under her leadership.

What will become of the NDA? Will they become more cohesive because of circumstances forced on them?

The NDA can never be cohesive because of unbridgeable ideological discrepancies. It is an artificial entity. The Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is only a member, is itself far from being cohesive. The Sangh Parivar is also likely to explode from within.

The Congress and the secular forces getting together -- will that be one strategy?

The problem is not of just uniting secular forces. Take, for example, the Congress and the Left parties. In three states, West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, the Congress and the Left parties are principal rivals. Outside these states, the Congress can have an understanding with the Left parties. Even in the recent election, we were allies in Tamil Nadu. The same pattern can be adopted in other states. We have struck an alliance already with the RJD in Bihar and the AIADMK and TMC in Tamil Nadu.

Why did the Congress do so badly in West Bengal?

We have not done badly in terms of percentage of polled votes. The Congress has been able to retain above 40 per cent of the votes in the last 25 years. In this election, we have got back our popular vote. The CPI-M as in the past has been able to retain a stronghold in rural areas. That is where the Congress and Trinamul Congress need to penetrate.

The economy of Assam is in a pathetic state. It is not going to be easy for the Congress to make an impression there.

It is easy for anyone to prove to be a worthy successor to Mahanta who epitomized incompetence.

The Karunakaran factor is going to be a thorn in the side of the Kerala government. How is the party going to handle it? Is it going to be tough? Or will it keep pandering to Karunakaran's demands?

Karunakaran is the seniormost Congressman in Kerala. His wishes should and will be respected to a considerable extent.

In the last session, the Congress stalled Parliament. This has not gone down well with the people. Will the shouting brigade of the Congress continue to ensure that Parliament does not function?

The Congress cannot be blamed for what happened in Parliament. I agree that our stalling Parliament in the second leg of the Budget session did not go down well. But the government adopted a totally unresponsive approach. You imagine how the Opposition should react when the government refused to even file FIRs following the Tehelka expose.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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