'There is no room for free discussion in Sonia Congress'

Print edition : June 05, 1999

Sharad Pawar, his supporters say, has taken the biggest gamble of his 40-year-long political career by inviting expulsion from the Congress(I) at a time when the party's stars are seemingly on the ascendant. The Maratha leader's followers also mai ntain that he has his eyes firmly set on the prime ministership and that the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections will witness many a manoeuvre from his side. When Venkitesh Ramakrishnan met the former leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha to fin d out what motivated him to embark on his present course of action, even as he was engrossed in discussions with colleagues and supporters on forming a new party. Excerpts from the interview:

One of the most surprising features of your revolt against the leadership of Sonia Gandhi was the pace at which events unfolded. After the Congress(I) failed to form an alternative government, it was believed that Sonia Gandhi had started seeking you r advice more frequently and depended on you more than ever. You had not raised issues such as Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin or her lack of experience previously as possible impediments to her election to the prime ministership. What was the provocation in the Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC) on May 15?

The issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin or her lack of experience did not arise all of a sudden at the CWC meet. In fact, the issue had been discussed among senior leaders of the party and members of Parliament, especially after the attempt to form an alternative government following the fall of the Vajpayee Ministry. Her moves, including the claim before Rashtrapati Bhavan that she had the support of 272 MPs to form a Congress(I) minority government, did indeed raise eyebrows within the party. For, the authorisation given by the CWC to take appropriate action to form an alternative (government) and prevent the dissolution of the Lok Sabha did not entail Soniaji making the claim that her candidature for prime ministership had the support of such and such MPs. More important, she had not had a proper discussion with senior leaders before making this claim. This was particularly shocking in the background of her declarations during the last election campaign that she was not interested in anything ot her than reviving the Congress(I). Sonia Gandhi had repeatedly said during those days that she did not want any post either in the party or in the government. All this had generated a debate within the party at various levels.

On May 15, this discussion acquired a formal form as Sonia Gandhi herself referred to the BJP's campaign against her foreign origin. There was a move to pass a resolution on this issue and all CWC members expressed their views on the move. Sangmaji point ed out that the issue did indeed agitate the common masses and that many youngsters were asking Congress(I) leaders whether they had nobody of Indian origin in this vast country of millions to project as Prime Minister. Sangmaji also said that we should act in such a manner as to give confidence to the country and deny the BJP an opportunity to make political capital out of the issue. Many members, including Anwar and I, supported the idea and later the letter was prepared to present our views in a mor e concrete form. But the reaction to that, which led to our expulsion, only underlined the authoritarian streak in Sonia Gandhi's leadership. It showed that there was no room for free and frank discussion in the Sonia Congress.

But you, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar had no objection to the election of Sonia Gandhi as party president and later as chairperson of the Congress(I) Parliamentary Party (CPP).

We had no objection to Sonia Gandhi becoming party president. In fact, even in our letter of May 15, we appreciated the contribution she had made to the party and expressed the hope that she would continue in the organisational position for long. But the re was a problem in her elevation to the CPP chairpersonship. The party constitution did not have any provision to make a non-MP the leader of the CPP. To facilitate her elevation, the constitution was amended. This was done in an unusual manner with som e senior leaders (I do not want to name them) presenting a draft amendment all of a sudden at a meeting, with the statement that 'Soniaji desired to become the leader of the CPP'. We did not object then because the factors under consideration and the sit uation that existed at that time were different. The Congress(I) had only 140 members and there was no question of it forming a government. But when the party is actually in a position to form a government, we have a duty to understand and accede to the wishes of the people.

There is a stream of opinion that your position on the nationality issue is not consistent with your stand that Sonia Gandhi is acceptable as party president, to unify and revive the party.

The leadership issue is an internal matter of the party. But the question of leading the country is an issue concerning the entire country, its 950 million people. There is a feeling, motivated by self-respect, that the leader of the country should be a person born in India. This is not a legal approach, but a national approach. Over and above this, there is also the factor of experience. The leader of the biggest democracy in the world should have a proven track record. Every citizen has a right to kno w the capacity and experience of the person who is going to lead him or her. All that we did was to raise these issues at a proper forum and the response was direct expulsion. No show-cause notice, nothing.

-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Your response, as a senior leader of the party, to your expulsion was interesting. You said you were relieved.

If this is the way the party is run, no doubt we are relieved to be out of it. Look at Sonia Gandhi's speech at the AICC (All-India Congress(I) Committee). She said that only those who want to believe and follow her need be in the Congress(I). She virtua lly asked all those who question her on any matter to get out of the Congress(I). Is this not a fascist, undemocratic approach?

There is also the view that your moves have been dictated by the BJP. The way you upheld the nationality issue raised by them, your ambivalence on joining hands with the BJP...

I was trying to safeguard the Congress(I) from the ill-effects of the BJP campaign on the nationality issue. History will prove me right. On the ambivalence about joining hands with the BJP, let me tell you that we are very much on the secular side and w ant to defeat the communal agenda. But I did not want to jump the gun before formally launching a party. The basic approach that we have envisioned for our party is to maintain equidistance from both the Sonia Congress and the BJP.

What would be the party's overall objective?

We would like to provide a viable alternative projecting the ideals of secularism, balanced development and social justice. The genuine and legitimate aspirations of large sections of the population, including Dalits, minorities and backward classes, hav e been overlooked by all parties for long. This has caused tremendous socio-economic imbalances in the country. One has to emphasise on strengthening the federal structure and federal principles of governance to overcome this. The basic ideology of the C ongress(I) as evolved by Nehruvian thoughts did address these concerns. But we have stopped doing this over the years. I am of the view that this can be rectified only by building the unity of all secular and regional forces. But to do this we need a con crete organisational platform. A beginning in this direction will be made on June 10 with the formal launching of our party. We know that the tasks before us are arduous and the path is hard. But we are ready to take them on.

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