'I see a wave'

Print edition : February 21, 1998

ANU PUSHKARNA

L.K. Advani has his task clearly defined. As the Bharatiya Janata Party seeks to extend its influence to new areas, he, as the party's president and a star campaigner, has to ensure that its election campaign gets a direction and a focus. Advani, 71, understands the need to be accessible to the media at a time when the BJP and what it stands for have come under intensive scrutiny. During a campaign tour in the northeastern region, from Silchar in Assam to Dharamanagar in Tripura, Advani spoke to V. Venkatesan on various issues, including his relationship with the party's prime ministerial candidate, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Excerpts from the interview:

The BJP has expanded the list of its allies, many of which do not share its stand on basic issues. You have seat adjustments or alliances with as many as 13 parties, including the minor parties in the alliance led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

No. We have now only seven allies, namely, the Akali Dal, the Shiv Sena, the Samata Party, the Haryana Vikas Party, the Biju Janata Dal, the Lok Shakti and the AIADMK. We have no alliance with the other parties in the AIADMK front. We talked to Jayalalitha alone and therefore our ties are principally with the AIADMK. Others (the leaders of the other parties) such as Vaiko, Subramanian Swamy and Dr. Ramadoss extended their support to the BJP's leadership at the Centre on their own. We welcome it, and are grateful to them for this support. We have only seat adjustments with the Trinamul Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (NTR).

Although our allies have ideological differences with us, all of them have agreed to have the BJP as the leading partner in the coalition and Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister.

Does it mean that the parties with which you have only seat adjustments and the minor parties with which Jayalalitha has entered into an alliance will not be represented in a Ministry headed by Vajpayee, if they have representation in the 12th Lok Sabha?

It is for the Prime Minister to decide whom to include in the Ministry.

Will agreement on leadership alone be enough to form a coalition government?

There is a vast difference between the United Front and the BJP and its allies. The U.F. constituents fought against one another in the 1996 elections and came together after the polls for the sake of power. All the constituents of the U.F. Government had been returned on an anti-Congress mandate, and yet the principal prop of the Government was the Congress. The U.F. had to change its Prime Minister to save its government. Even now they are not projecting anyone as its candidate for Prime Minister. By resolving the leadership issue once and for all well before the polls, the BJP and its allies have achieved a major requisite to form a stable coalition government.

But the U.F. constituents never fought over the leadership issue. In fact, they amicably resolved the issue whenever it cropped up. The U.F. Government fell not because of the leadership issue. Even the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) split well before the U.F. Government fell, and that too on an altogether different issue. The U.F. and the Congress do not appear to have a serious leadership crisis as you claim.

Even now the U.F. constituents are not united. Take the agreement between the Congress(I) and the Samajwadi Party in Maharashtra, for instance.

You seem to be critical of post-election alliances and the concept of support from outside to a government.

Adding one or two post-election allies to a pre-election alliance is not wrong. The entire U.F. was born after the 1996 elections. On outside support, I am of the view that had the Congress accepted the mandate of 1996 and refrained from opposing the Vajpayee Government at the Centre, the Congress would not have suffered the present predicament. Instead, the Congress supported the U.F. on the basis of anti-BJPism.

Had the Congress extended at least tacit support to your Government after the 1996 elections, your Government would have survived the confidence vote. But it would have still been fragile.

I agree. I would not have expected the Congress to keep away from power for long. I say this to those Congressmen who have been deserting the party and joining the BJP.

Are you suggesting that anti-BJPism is wrong, whereas anti-Congressism is all right? After the last elections, you criticised the U.F. for taking the support of the Congress(I) to form the government, and you were also equally critical of the Congress for extending support to the U.F.

No. In fact we have all along been arguing that anti-Congressism is irrelevant. It had relevance when the Congress was the principal ruling party at the Centre and in most States. What we criticised after the 1996 elections and criticise now is the fact that the U.F. and the Congress, after the bitter electoral contest against each other, came together to keep the BJP out of power and negate the people's mandate.

In essence, there appears to be little difference between the U.F. and the Congress combine and your alliance. Your ally, the Samata Party, has been openly voicing its reservations about some of your commitments. It has also decided to contest against the BJP in States other than Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Your alliance with the TDP (NTR) almost collapsed. You and your allies do not have a common manifesto, whereas the U.F. has one.

What you say about the Samata Party is not true. We did feel that Lakshmi Parvathi's influence in Andhra Pradesh is limited. That was why we could not reach an agreement initially. But she has now realised that we are right, and there is now an agreement. The absence of a common manifesto before the elections is not a handicap. Indeed, we are honest enough to admit that we have ideological differences and the BJP would not compromise on its basic principles for the sake of power. The BJP manifesto has rightly reiterated its commitment to building a magnificent temple at Ayodhya and resolving the dispute through dialogue and consensus, to the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution and to the enactment of a uniform civil code. We also feel that a common minimum programme can be drawn up after the elections, if we are voted to power. Only at that stage, when we discuss with our allies the contents of the proposed programme, can we try to include the promises on which there is broad agreement among our allies. After all, the Shiv Sena and the BJP differ on Vidarbha, but that is not an impediment to the smooth functioning of our Government in Maharashtra. We want to convince Muslim voters that if we abandon our core commitments for the sake of seeking their support, we would be guilty of practising precisely the same vote-bank politics played by our adversaries.

You indicated recently that the BJP would like to form a coalition government with its allies irrespective of whether the BJP gets a majority on its own or not. Does it reflect your inability to get a popular mandate on the basis of your manifesto? Rather, do you suggest that the victory of a BJP candidate is no less due to the support of your allies?

Even in the good old days of the Jan Sangh, we never dreamt of achieving power on our own. We were alive to the limitations of an ideology-based party. In fact, if it were not for the perverse pursuit of what we call pseudo-secularism by our opponents, we may not have acquired our present strength. The people at large have reacted very strongly to pseudo-secularism. That was why when Jayaprakash Narayan launched a movement, we decided to support it and merge our party with the Janata Party in 1977. Even now, with the Congress disintegrating rapidly, and with a considerable expansion of our base, we realise that right now we cannot come to power on our own strength.

You have repeatedly declared that the BJP and its allies will get a comfortable majority in the elections.

Wherever I go, I see tremendous enthusiasm among the people in favour of the BJP. I can see a wave. The crowds at my meetings are responsive. Even during the Swarna Jayanti Rath Yatra, in States such as Kerala the response was more than what we expected.

Clearly, whatever be the positive response at your meetings in Kerala, do you really expect to win a single seat there? The alliance politics in the State is not in your favour.

Let us see. Take Tamil Nadu, where we managed to join one of the two major alliances. In Andhra Pradesh, as a third force, we are likely to win. In Karnataka our position will certainly improve. After all, without any substantial rise in the voting percentage between 1991 and 1996, the BJP got about 40 more seats. In 1996 we had only a few allies, and they were confined to the northern States. This time we have added new allies in the South and the East. With the addition of 10 percentage points to our existing vote-share, there is bound to be a substantial increase in our strength. I am positive that the BJP and its allies will have more than 300 seats in the 12th Lok Sabha. I am fully aware that we may not retain all the seats we had in the 11th Lok Sabha, owing to the anti-incumbency factor. But we will be more than compensated for that loss elsewhere.

How do you explain the Sonia factor? Has the BJP over-reacted to her campaign?

I do not agree that Sonia Gandhi has started setting the agenda and we are only reacting to her campaign. After all, we need to reply to the issues raised by her. I am against any campaign of personal vilification against her. But her rapid changing of the issues that she raises from one public meeting to the other clearly shows that they have boomeranged. I am told that she was keen that the U.F. Government should file a charge-sheet in the Bofors case before the elections, in which her name and the names of her family members do not find a mention. That was the reason behind her challenge to release the names of the beneficiaries. On the Babri Masjid issue, she has come under attack by Mulayam Singh Yadav, who cannot tolerate her appeal to the Muslim electorate. I do not think her campaign will have any impact on our fortunes. Initially, I was under the impression that her campaign would arrest the disintegration of the Congress and that those who have left the party in recent times would return to it. But now I find that my assessment was wrong. How would you explain the quitting of the Congress party by people like K.C. Pant, who has clearly charged the party with abandoning the values it stood for?

In Gujarat, where the BJP lost its government which had a two-thirds majority, the BJP is still suffering from dissensions. There are reports that the loyalists are resisting the renomination of the semi-Khajurias.

Calling them semi-Khajurias would be putting it crudely. There are a few people who were ambivalent - on whom to support during the crisis in the party; the party or Vaghela. So, the loyalists demand that they should not be given the ticket to contest. But, we refrained from doing so, in order not to punish those who opted to be with the party despite the ambivalence. I do not think the electoral prospects of those who were ambivalent would suffer due to sabotage.

Has corruption ceased to be an issue in this election? How do you explain your aligning with Jayalalitha, or admitting to the party persons like P.K. Thungon, who has been indicted in the housing scam by the Supreme Court?

Every election throws up its own issue. In this issue stability is the major issue. Jayalalitha is yet to be proved guilty. She is not even contesting the elections. Her joining the Government at the Centre after the elections does not arise. Only those who do not have any charge-sheets against them have to be inducted into the Ministry. Thungon has just joined the party. He has not been held guilty. We have not given him the ticket.

What is the nature of your relationship with your colleague, Atal Behari Vajpayee? Recently, he felt compelled to come out with a denial that there are any differences between you and him.

In the midst of sustained propaganda in a section of the media, he might have felt it necessary to clarify this. In fact, I had not discussed with anyone when I proposed his name at the Mumbai convention of the party in 1995. He did object to it. But I knew that if I consulted anyone, including Vajpayee, it would not have been possible to do what I thought was the right thing to do.

How do you claim that stability is the issue that can reward the BJP rather than the other parties?

Because people understand that only the BJP and its allies who have accepted the leadership of Vajpayee can provide a stable government. Other parties have been tested, and they have proved incapable of providing stability.

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