'A clear mandate to Sonia Gandhi'

Print edition : December 05, 1998

Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president Ashok Gehlot, who is seen as being responsible for the party's landslide victory in Rajasthan, was a strong contender for the Chief Minister's office. When T.K. Rajalakshmi met him for an interview at the PCC office in Jaipur on the day of counting, the 47-year-old Gehlot was keeping abreast of the trends in individual constituencies which pointed to a Congress(I) sweep. Excerpts from the interview:

What are the main reasons for the impressive victory of the Congress(I)? Did you expect a victory of this magnitude?

Ever since Sonia Gandhi was made president of the party, people began to believe in a Congress victory and in the ability of the party to deliver the goods. The people have seen various governments, including that of the United Front. They also tried the Bharatiya Janata Party, believing in its slogans. One of the slogans, relating to the removal of hunger, fear and corruption, itself turned against the party. No section was pleased with the party, whether it was farmers, workers, the minorities, women, youth, government employees, traders or any other section. It was an incompetent Government through and through. I thought that the BJP's condition in Rajasthan was similar to the Congress(I)'s condition in Madhya Pradesh, but the Congress president managed to secure a comfortable victory for the party even in M.P. All sections, Dalits, backward castes and backward communities, minorities and women have given a clear mandate to Soniaji. Even the Vajpayee wave in the parliamentary elections did not help them get more than five seats (in Rajasthan). There was so much of negative feeling among the people for the BJP that the Vajpayee factor did not work in Rajasthan. How could it have worked in these elections? Price rise was a very important factor. I had said right from the beginning that the Congress would win more than a two-thirds majority and that the BJP's tally would remain within 50.

Will the Congress(I) stake its claim to form a government at the Centre in the near future or press for mid-term Lok Sabha elections?

The party's position is that we would not like to topple the Government. We would like it to complete its full term. It is a different thing if the coalition partners of the BJP withdraw support if they sense unrest among the people. However, the Congress(I) would not sit back if the political situation goes against the public interest.

Is it merely an anti-incumbency vote as the BJP would like to believe?

It is a face-saving explanation offered by the BJP. The people have voted against an incompetent Government; it is not that they only wanted a different party in power. The BJP hoped that Congress rebels and independents would win and later offer their support to the BJP if it fell short of a majority. Bhairon Singh Shekhawat lost the elections because of his over-concentration on these issues. The BJP even refused to believe that the price rise was an election issue. Instead they rubbed salt into the people's wounds - they told the people to eat apples instead of onions.

What will be the party's priorities after assuming office?

All the issues that we took up during the campaign will be on our list of priorities. Price rise became an issue later. The main focus would be on the economic situation in the State, the deteriorating condition of small and big industries and agriculture, the problem of unemployment, provision of water and power, the law and order situation and the issue of corruption. We will bring out a white paper on the state of the economy soon. We would take up one by one all the issues that we had outlined in our manifesto - the setting up of a women's commission, minorities commission, reservations on the basis of the Mandal report for castes which have not been included in the list so far.

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