'The question was decided by the Constituent Assembly'

Print edition : June 05, 1999

Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC) member Arjun Singh is considered close to Sonia Gandhi and is held partly responsible for the recent crisis in the party. According to some party insiders, Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and several other leaders wit h a mass base were unhappy that Arjun Singh wielded considerable influence in the affairs of the party without having any significant mass base or administrative skills. Excerpts from an interview Arjun Singh gave Venkitesh Ramakrishnan:

The Congress(I)'s failure to form an alternative government immediately after the fall of the Vajpayee government and the recent revolt by senior party leaders have changed the perception that the party is on a strong wicket and is ready to face the L ok Sabha elections. What is your assessment of the developing political situation?

The failure to form an alternative government was by itself not a factor that could cause damage to the party's prospects. We had all along maintained that we would not bring down the government but that it would fall under the weight of its own contradi ctions. That is what happened when the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) withdrew support to the Vajpayee Ministry. As the main Opposition party, it was our duty to vote against the government. We were of the view that all those who unite d to bring down the government would be equally ready and responsible to form an alternative. But leaders such as Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav, who were most vociferous in wanting to bring down the government, did a volte-face. That does not show us in a bad light.

As for the developments in the Congress(I), we are sad about it. But it has in a way given the rank and file an opportunity to demonstrate its solidarity with the party president. Although it could have been debilitating, it turned out to be a source of great strength for the party and its leader. The Congress is not interested in leading a personal attack against anybody. On the other hand, the BJP seems to be interested only in targeting Sonia Gandhi's nationality. Sonia Gandhi, in her recent speech t o the AICC, made it clear that she would not respond to this so-called nationality question but would leave it to the people.

But the issue of foreign origin is what has caused the revolt in the Congress(I).

The question of nationality was decided by the Constituent Assembly in 1949-50. The people who decided it were those who fought against foreign rule and who were in no way sympathetic to any foreign country. But in their wisdom and in the overall context of rationality and liberal values, they allowed a person (foreign national) to acquire citizenship. That situation has not changed. Those who are trying to make an issue out of it should realise that the most patriotic segment of society has settled the issue of nationality. So, whatever is entailed in the Constitution and whatever powers it confers on an individual is sacrosanct.

The argument against the projection of Sonia Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate is not legal but is said to be based on self-respect.

What do they mean by self-respect? The members of the Constituent Assembly had no self-respect? Can you accuse Sardar Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Acharya Narendra Dev and Jawaharlal Nehru of having no self-respect?

What do you think is the motive behind the campaign?

It is personal ambition born out of the realisation that Sonia Gandhi's political status would cause a setback to their ambition. She was good for campaigning in the parliamentary and Assembly elections to fetch votes. But not good enough for prime minis tership?

How do you react to the accusation that some leaders left the party on account of the undue importance given to leaders like you, who have neither a mass base nor organisational skills?

I have been in politics since 1957 and have fought more elections than Pawar. But if winning an election is the only way to prove your commitment, many leaders get elected for other reasons too. What is a mass base? If you have worked for the welfare of the poor, the handicapped, the farmers... that is mass base. I can proudly say that in all the years I have been in and out of office I have done what is humanly possible to further the cause of the poor and the downtrodden. As for competing with Pawar, on what basis should I compete? In his capacity to betray the people? He has betrayed every single mentor of his - Yashwantrao Chavan, Vasantrao Patil, Rajiv Gandhi and now Sonia Gandhi. I cannot compete with him on this.

SHANKAR CHAKRAVARTY

The other argument offered is Sonia Gandhi's lack of experience.

For 30 years she has been in a family that was at the helm of affairs for 26 years. She has not held any office. But to say that she has no experience whatsoever will be begging the question.

How does the Congress(I) plan to counter the present situation?

Personally, I do not think that there is any setback. The elections will prove that. The Congress will, through the issues that it will articulate and through its leader's charisma, get a positive response in the people's court.

The Congress(I) has projected a prime ministerial candidate almost always when it fought general elections. In this context, what is the relevance of Sonia Gandhi's statement that the Congress(I) Parliamentary Party will choose the prime ministerial c andidate?

Soniaji has clearly stated that the MPs will elect the prime ministerial candidate. Just because she is a candidate, it does not mean that she is an aspirant.

How would you assess the organisational situation after the expulsion of the three leaders?

There could be some problems in Maharashtra. They would be peripheral. The elections will prove that nothing has changed the Congress(I)'s electoral prospects.

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