New Delhi: Assembly polls in six states by December are crucial not only for the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but also for smaller parties, such asMayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which hopes to make further inroads in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
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The party is pinning a lot of hope on K. Natwar Singh, a former Congress loyalist and external affairs minister, now a BSP member. Singh is expected to spearhead the BSP’s campaign in Rajasthan, his home state, which goes to the polls on 4 December. He spoke about the elections, the oil-for-food scam in Iraq and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Edited excerpts:
What will be the central issues in the elections in Rajasthan?
First will be price rise, then it will be terrorism, then the Gujjar-Meena caste conflict, then corruption and unemployment, in that order.
Will anti-incumbency be an issue?
Well, it wasn’t an issue with Sheila Dikshit for the second term (in Delhi). But the Congress is in such poor shape (in Rajasthan) that she (Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje) might become chief minister for the second time. And I think the BSP should do surprisingly well. At this moment, there are just two seats, but the numbers will go up appreciably. And in many seats, the BSP is going to damage the Congress party more than the BJP.
As you said, the BSP has only two seats in Rajasthan. What was the main reason behind the party’s decision to contest all 200 (assembly) seats this time?
I think after she (BSP chief Mayawati) became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh by herself, not through any coalition, it has certainly made a very big impact in Rajasthan, particularly the eastern and northern parts, which are adjoining Uttar Pradesh. And then, the advantage with the BSP is that in assembly elections, their candidates start with a minimum of 10,000 votes, which are assured, while everybody else begins with zero.
Politically correct: K. Natwar Singh says the assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are going to be crucial in terms of reflecting the national mood. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
How is that?
It is because their community (the scheduled castes) votes en bloc. It doesn’t go anywhere else. The BSP candidates start with a base of 10,000-15,000 and from there, they build up.
Is that one of the reasons why you (BSP) are contesting in all 200 seats, to eat into the Congress vote?
That is one of the reasons, but also, I think Mayawati has got a lot of confidence.
Which way do you see the elections going?
I don’t see the Congress winning anywhere. Currently, in Rajasthan, they have 57 (assembly seats). They might go to 70. That is all.
So you predict a hung assembly in the state?
Yes, I do.
In that case, the BSP is going to play a crucial role. So, if it were to be a hung assembly, which way would your party go, in terms of supporting either the Congress or the BJP?
I can’t say for Mayawati at the moment but this is my personal view: I don’t think she will go with the Congress.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has otherwise been endorsing the BSP, is contesting a sizeable chunk of 34 seats in Rajasthan this time. Do you think this is also going to eat into the BSP vote share?
I think it may get one or two seats.
The two constituencies in which the BSP won the last time were Bandikui and Karauli. In the former, the party candidate got a healthy vote share of at least 50%. But the victory margin in Karauli was narrow, less than 200 votes. Does that worry you?
No, but in many seats the BSP came second. And even where we don’t win, the Congress will be the sufferer.
What is going to be the BSP’s main strategy in these elections?
To ensure a hung assembly. I don’t think they are aiming to get 50 or 60 seats but they should get a good number.
Is the idea behind (having you as the face of the BSP in the state) to attract Jat votes?
I transcend castes.
How would the entire Gujjar agitation (for scheduled tribe status) play out? Would they vote for the BJP, given Gujjar leader K.S. Bhainsla’s open support to the BJP government?
The Gujjars won’t vote for the BJP. He (Bhainsla) has very little following.
You said the BSP will look towards other communities in Rajasthan also for votes, apart from the scheduled castes. What is your strategy for that?
We are just going to say that the people of Rajasthan have had these two parties for the past 30-35 years and they are looking for a change, and this time there is a party available which can provide the change. Hence, we are likely to get a hung assembly...
The BSP will play a fairly important role in the formation of the government.
How would you assess the performance of the Vasundhara Raje government in the past five years?
I think she has done a reasonably good job. But her own party has problems with her. She has tidied up Jaipur and other cities, done a lot for the old monuments and roads. Law and order by and large has not been bad except in one or two places. She has built a lot of schools and hospitals. So, she has a fairly good record. But it is not going to be an easy ride, though she will do better than the Congress.
In these five years, the police opened fire on people on at least 100 occasions. Aren’t these issues that cause a lot of resentment among people?
I think it’s true. Especially during the Gujjar agitation, things could have been handled differently. But it exploded so suddenly and took such an extreme position, I think she was caught unawares. And this will go against her.
Out of these six states going to polls this month and the next, which are the more crucial states in terms of reflecting the national mood?
Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh certainly.
What are your predictions for Delhi and Madhya Pradesh?
I think the BSP will make a dent in Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. It will have a representation in the Delhi assembly for the first time. In Madhya Pradesh, it will increase its numbers.
If you were to give an idea about the BSP’s possible post-poll alliances after the Lok Sabha elections, what would you say? Would the BSP really stick to the Left and the Third Front that is being formed?
There could be a Third Front in which Mayawati could play an important role because in the Lok Sabha elections she could get a large number of seats. The number of seats will certainly go up.
How are your relations with Sonia Gandhi now?
I haven’t seen her for three years.
(Singh had to quit as external affairs minister from the Manmohan Singh government in December 2005 after a United Nations panel, popularly known as the Volcker committee, named him as a beneficiary of the oil-for-food payoffs scheme, said to have been devised by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to generate income from the United Nations’ oil for food programme. He was later suspended from the primary membership of the Congress party. Gandhi said he had betrayed her and misused the party name and he hit back at her over her Italian origin.)
She has never tried to approach you?
Well, if she does, I will just say no, thank you.
Your comments on Barack Obama’s historic win in the US presidential elections and what it would mean for India.
I consider three historic events in the history of America. One, 1776, when it became an independent country. Two, 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation against slavery. And third is Obama’s election. It is in that category and I think America is very fortunate in having a man of his quality, intuitive wisdom, charisma and temperament.