March 26, 2001


Search the Internet
E-Mail this interview
to a friend
Print this page
Message Board
Your Take on the

Recent Interviews
'The govt is trying
subvert the armed forces'
- Vishnu Bhagwat
'The arithmetic
is with Atalji'
- Narendra Modi
'Everybody in India
collects political
- Arun Jaitley
'There are no defence
deals without
- Jayant Malhoutra
'The scandal is going
to affect defence
- S Roychowdhury
The Rediff Interview/Pranab Mukherjee Pranab Mukherjee

Pranab Mukherjee, senior Congress leader and chief of its economic cell criticises the BJP-led government for losing its moral authority to rule the country. At the same time, the Congress's old time lieutenant says his party is playing the role of a responsible Opposition. Mukherjee maintains that even if Party President Sonia Gandhi hasn't addressed a press conference after the Tehelka expose, her views on the scandal at the AICC session in Bangalore have been widely reported by the media.

In a detailed conversation with Sheela Bhatt, after an afternoon nap, he objects to Naval Chief Admiral Sushil Kumar's defence of George Fernandes and discusses the role of the chief Opposition party in Parliament.

How is the Congress strategy working in the post-Tehelka period? Is it as effective as the Opposition's agitation after the Bofors scam?

You have already noticed what we have done in Parliament. We have also discussed these issues in our Bangalore session. We have announced a series of agitational programmes. Congress workers around the country are organising agitations and are interacting with the people. Public action already exists. During Parliament recess, our representatives will organise many more street meetings. We will distribute and display various Tehelka tapes, and play it for the people so that they can assess for themselves.

There are two major thrusts as a fallout of the Tehelka episodes. One, security -- the defence and safety of the nation is not in safe hands. We (the Congress) will highlight that. The other point is the government's response -- which was a knee-jerk reaction. The government's response is faulty. Compare this to Kalpnath Rai's case. Here is a videotape where a person is seen accepting the money. At least an FIR should have been lodged by the investigating agency. Thereafter, of course, the accused would have had an opportunity to defend himself.

These things were not done by the government. It has just made some political adjustments by asking him (Bangaru Laxman) to resign and retaining him as an important party functionary. Another party functionary was asked to resign. She herself didn't resign.

But your opposition to the issue is not aggressive enough?

Here you have to make a distinction between the style of functioning of different political parties when they are in the Opposition. The Congress has its own way of responding and reacting. We are doing it our own way for considered reasons. And surely, you do not expect the Congress to imitate others?

The issue has to be taken to the people, as they took it to the people (during Bofors). The media coverage now is much more compared to the mid-eighties. But I don't know how much TV and print coverage reaches the 650 million voters, it is one-fifth or one-fourth? Apart from the exposure we are getting from this kind of discussion, the issue requires much more exposure. It will have to be taken to the people and talked in nuances and idioms which are easily understandable to them. That's why this mass-action.

But Congressmen are not the type to practice street-level politics.

There are inherent disadvantages. In the last 50 years, we were in office for 45 years. Therefore street-level action is not our forte. But there is an another angle. If you look at the history of political parties in India, they had one common-point: anti-Congressism. Occasionally, it brought all forces together, got united and again got disunited by fighting against each other.

The Congress has never attempted that course. Sometimes we have had adjustments, had floor co-ordination in the House. We have our own tradition. We launched mass action against price rise during the (assembly) elections in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan which was successful. Sonia Gandhi too participated in the demonstrations and walked from the venue of the meeting to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Of course it was symbolic but this kind of mass action has influenced and communicated the message to the voters.

We agitated on the floor of the House in the first round. From April 16, we will work out a new strategy.

When you oppose the BJP's corruption, people find it phoney because there is a perception that most Congress leaders are corrupt too...

If this is a perception that people have developed after 45 years of Congress rule, their perception of the BJP's corruption has been developed in just two-and-half-years of their rule!! (laughs loudly)

Do you think NDA leaders have a better oratory compared to the Congress and thus score better in the electronic age?

It's an individual assessment. If they have, they have. If someone thinks this way, it offends.

Can you tell me your personal assessment of Tehelka's impact on the polity?

The government has been shaken. One portion has left the party. Numerically the government may have the strength with reference to surviving a confidence or no-confidence motion. They still have the numbers. Unless the other coalition partners do what the Trinamul has done, there is no point in participating in this method. Therefore, we thought they want a seal of approval in the form of a vote confidence or no-confidence and we didn't fall into their trap.

From April 16, we need a new strategy. But the fact remains that the government is shaken to its root. There was an impression created that somebody who is above everybody is a consensus candidate and everybody will hinge on him. But that type of consensus politics has started cracking. And I don't know whether it will finally spilt, but the sign of cracking is quite clear. Now they (the BJP) require to give lots of explanation to the people, and it's yet to be seen how convincing they will be. This will have an impact on their score in the assembly election the five states.

Are the Tehelka tapes a boon to the Congress's prospects in the assembly election?

I am not looking at it from that point of view. As an Opposition party we would like to utilise it fully. It is not a question of one or two individuals. Something is wrong in the system. The way some of the army generals talk. What they say in the pictures gives very disquieting signals, much more dangerous. One general says: "Look this is up to my level, to enter the defence purchase market you will require deep pockets that count."

One of the duties of the Indian parliamentary system was that it kept the armed forces out of day-to-day politics. It started with Vishnu Bhagwat. Today I find one general is coming out in defence of his minister. The fact that a service chief is engaging himself in a political debate is not expected. The armed forces must be kept out of politics. Therefore your question that whether a party has some advantage or not... is not important. The country is at a total disadvantage.

After all, these institutions that were built up over the years, you could destroy it in no time. It all started at the time of Vishnu Bhagwat. We repeatedly appealed to the prime minister that for god's sake, please intervene.

I, along with Dr Manmohan Singh and some other leaders spoke with the prime minister several times. I said: "Prime Minister, it is not new that the defence minister and service chiefs are quarreling, they are dissenting each others views. It has always happened in India that the prime minister who is the highest political authority has intervened and arranged it in such a way that the issue didn't come in public. This is not good."

Long before Admiral Bhagwat resigned we talked to the PM. We are not worried about who is right or wrong, we are worried about the impact on the morale of the armed forces. And if they are engaged in political squabbles then the neutrality of the armed forces and its apolitical nature will be affected.

In a developing economy like ours, and in an apolitical structure we have built up, an apolitical armed force is absolutely necessary. Therefore, they should not be criticised in Parliament. They should not be brought to public scrutiny in a way it is now done. But if there are any maladies, there should be inbuilt institutional arrangements which can quietly address it.

Unfortunately, the prime minister did not listen to our request. I went to the extent of saying that the prime minister should announce from the floor of Parliament that he was going to appoint an inquiry committee consisting of persons of high integrity. That he would not place the report before Parliament. As the prime minister of the country, he was assuring us that whatever be the findings of the committee, he would take serious note of it and implement it. We would have been satisfied. As the principal Opposition party, we gave him this assurance. But nothing happened. This is just not a question of the Congress's advantage, it is much more.

What effect has Tehelka had on Vajpayee's political position?

He has lost his moral authority. We told him that he had lost his character of being a consensus candidate. Why has Mamta Banerjee left? Till the other day she had full faith in him, whenever there was any trouble she more than once said that she had full confidence in the prime minister. She continued in the coalition because of the prime minister. Even when she could not meet her demand of declaring certain areas in West Bengal as disturbed areas.

I am not going into the politics of it, but these are the hard facts. Similarly many other coalition partners may not have confidence in the BJP's programmes or on other leaders but trusted Vajpayee. The BJP needed more than 90 MPs from outside, and Vajpayee got it from other political parties. He was a consensus prime minister. The character of the consensus prime minister is getting diffused. It is getting erased and the first sign is the leaving of Mamata.

Your strategy of stalling Parliament is not acceptable to even the Congress sympathisers. They think some other aggressive tactics are needed?

It is not so. As a responsible Opposition party we also have to take note of the fallback and its impact. In 1998 we had an election, in 1999 we had an election. In 2001, is the country is ready for another Lok Sabha election? When a government goes it must be substituted by another government or by an election. There is no third alternative.

All the journalists who are praising the BJP for its strategy are completely ignoring the fact that others are behaving responsibly. Please take note that, others did not behave irresponsibly. After 24 hours, even today becomes yesterday and tomorrow becomes today.

Therefore, whenever we look into issues and what we want out of it we have to think responsibly. We wanted the people to be aware of this issue, they should be fully convinced. It's a long term game, not a short one. Some people in over enthusiasm thought that the government would fall tomorrow, but you may not think of what will happen the day after tomorrow. At the age of 65 and after being in the government for 15 years, I can think of the day after tomorrow. About what's going to happen to this country. Whether we can plunge this country into another general election? This is our responsibility. Our strategy is perfect.

I think the government has lost its authority. The schism has started and it (BJP) will continue as a lame-duck government. It's not good for the country. In politics we don't have a choice between good and bad, most times we have to choose between bad and worse.

Can you be candid and tell us why Sonia Gandhi has not addressed a press conference? Is the Tehelka tape not a big enough issue?

(Laughs) The Congress president could have addressed a press conference but it far more important to address the notions. That she already is doing. When she spoke in Bangalore, the press took note. Of course she didn't have an interaction with some 40-50 journalists. But the points she wanted to raise were reported. Different people have different modalities.

Lastly, is it true that you have agreed to most of the terms and chief ministership to Mamata Banerjee if she agrees to a pre-election adjustment?

Yes. It's not a secret. Even today, I spoke to her. We said we will be a minor partner and she a major partner. If we form the government she will be the CM.

How are you reconciling with her adjustments with the JMM?

These are not worked out in detail yet. We don't agree to the dismemberment of West Bengal. And Mamta has never said that she agrees with the JMM's claims. We too have some adjustment with the local JMM, Mamata is having adjustments with the Shibu Soren faction.

Since the Soren group is demanding the dismembering of Bengal and the creation of a Greater Jharkhand after the inclusion of some districts of West Bengal -- we are totally opposed to it, and she (Mamta) also has not conceded to it.

Similar is the case of Kamtapur, where they wanted to carve out a separate state out of some part of north Bengal. We are totally opposed to it. She too is. We will work out things, the talks are on. I am keeping my fingers crossed. I hope things will work out with her.

The Complete Coverage | Defence sites

Back to top

Do tell us what you think of this interview