RIGHT from the start of the election campaign, L.K. Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Partys (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, set himself a punishing schedule. On an average, he addresses three public meetings a day and packs in a number of strate
Frontline accompanied him for two days during one of his tours, which involved flying long distance from Delhi to Coimbatore to Thiruvananthapuram to Raipur in a chartered aircraft and chopper-hopping to different destinations in Chhattisgarh. The conversation with the 81-year-old leader comprehensively covered the many issues raised by the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the current elections and the electoral prospects of the party. Excerpts:
You have been campaigning extensively for over two months. How would you evaluate the popular reaction to your campaign and the overall political situation in the country?
I can say confidently that the BJP is all set to become the single largest party in this election and the NDA the single largest combine. We will come up with excellent results in a number of States, including Maharashtra, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh and in Assam and the other north-eastern States taken as a whole. As I began the campaign, I said at a few meetings that the current elections had two major differences for the BJP compared with earlier ones. One difference was sad and the other joyous. The sad part was that I was campaigning without the guidance and participation of my senior colleague and leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The happy part was that for the first time, the BJP was without the tag of a North Indian party.
Our victory in Karnataka and the formation of the government in this South Indian State has made the BJP an all-India party. On the other hand, the Congress is steadily declining and this is evident from the manner in which the United Progressive Alliance [UPA] has disintegrated. The allies of the Congress in the UPA have deserted it and this reflects the realisation that aligning with the Congress is not beneficial to them.
But the BJP has also lost allies. There was indeed a high after the Karnataka victory, but after that the Telugu Desam Party and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) made it clear that they would not be with the NDA. More recently, your long-term partner in Orissa, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), left you.
You cannot compare the disintegration of the UPA with the situation in the NDA. The TDP was never part of the NDA. Barring the departure of the BJD, no allies have left us. And this too has happened not on account of any political differences. The BJD is under the impression that it does not require the BJP to win the Assembly elections in Orissa, and it created, during the seat-sharing talks, a situation where the alliance could not have continued.
In fact, the NDA was a true model of what a coalition should be in this country, whereas the UPA and the understanding it had with the Left parties for most part of its regime meant a mismatch from day one. What can one say about an alliance that revolved entirely around the premise that the BJP has to be kept out of power? The Congress and the Left came together on this singular opportunistic premise even when the differences between them on a number of policy issues were evident from day one. Both the sides are now forced to face the wages of opportunism.
But the Trinamool Congress too chose the Congress ahead of you.
The Trinamool Congress is a different kind of party.
The BJP has raised the slogans of good governance, development and security as its main election plank. This has been projected on to your personality too, with the supplementary slogan of strong leader, decisive government. Do you think that in the course of the campaign any of these issues got greater prominence?
All the three slogans are equally important and have captured the minds and hearts of the electorate. The points that we have mentioned, the security of the country and defence, have received great attention. In the absence of good governance, internal security has deteriorated considerably and it is a major concern.
Also, our document on IT [information technology] vision, which emphasises using this latest invention for spreading better education, improving the agricultural sector, improving services and also strengthening security in such a manner as to prevent illegal immigration, have all received wide acceptance and appreciation.
The issue of bringing back Indian black money kept in Swiss bank accounts, too, is being widely discussed. When I first saw this news report about the readiness of the Swiss banks to divulge the names of those who have illegally stashed away their money, I wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take steps to pursue this. There was no move from the government. Our point is that if this money can be brought back, it can be channelled to strengthen development programmes.
Would it be right to sum up that the economic policy issues you have raised in the manifesto and during the campaign are evoking greater response than other issues? Especially in the context of the economic slowdown and price rise?
The issue of bringing black money back from Swiss banks is just not about illegal money parked by the rich abroad. It is also about security. Even the National Security Adviser had pointed out that black money from outside the country finds its way into the Indian market as terror money.
The NDA will pursue this as a serious matter that concerns not only the economy but also internal security. In terms of economic policy, I will say the cardinal mistake of the UPA has been the neglect of agricultural irrigation and farming. Tens of thousands of farmers have committed suicide on account of this neglect.
There is also a stream of opinion that many regional parties have left the UPA and the NDA essentially because they have sensed a disconnect between peoples concerns and the economic policy thrust of the Congress and the BJP.
As I mentioned earlier, no regional party other than the BJD has left the NDA. And the BJDs departure has nothing to do with policy thrusts or perspectives.
But you have gone on record as saying that the bubble of Sensex-generated prosperity has burst and that such undependable devices of the free market economy cannot be the basis for building a truly prosperous nation. Given this, would there be a course correction in the policy perspectives that the NDA pursued during its six years in office?
We have said that the steps we took in the direction of improving our infrastructure is the right economic policy direction. The steps that we took to build the East-West Corridor, Golden Quadrilateral and the initiative to set up a task force to interlink rivers are part of this direction. We will continue to follow that line.
There is also a view that there is a qualitative difference in the NDAs cohesion this time. For the first time since 1999, there is no common NDA manifesto. The BJP has come up with its own manifesto emphasising the core Hindutva-oriented issues that were kept out earlier. Now the question is whether there is a Vajpayee agenda and an Advani agenda in this. In 1999 and 2004, Vajpayee was the leader of the BJPs parliamentary section and there was no emphasis on a BJP manifesto, but now under Advani the emphasis is back.
There was a BJP manifesto even in 1998. The agenda of governance came after government formation. Between the 1998 and 1999 polls there was not much gap and hence the BJP did not issue a separate manifesto. Only in 2004 was there an NDA manifesto, without one of the BJPs own. We have had to make some effort to make our cadre understand that in a coalition government, the government can implement only those issues on which all the partners have agreed. I remember, in 1998, when our agenda was discussed with our allies, all of them said that they had no objection to our distinctive plan of making India a nuclear power, but I could not expect them to agree to either Ram temple or the abrogation of Article 370.
We are still continuing with that premise. There is no need to see a Vajpayee agenda or an Advani agenda in this.
Aggressive pursuit of Hindutva has not been officially part of the BJPs campaign these days. But there are organisations, such as the Sri Rama Sene, which have taken up this. There are also sporadic communal speeches, such as the one by Varun Gandhi. There is a view that this is all part of a larger Hindutva plan of multi-speaking.
The BJP has no connection with Sri Rama Sene. In fact, it had contested against the BJP in the Karnataka elections. There is little doubt that it is an extremist group. Will you hold the CPI(M) responsible for the extremist crimes of naxalites? As for Varun Gandhi, he has denied that he made the alleged communal speech. Let investigations be completed on this case.