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'Can Sonia Deny The Quattrocchi Link?'

Taking time off from a hectic schedule, Atal Behari Vajpayee spoke at length on a wide range of issues to Ishan Joshi on board the aircraft ferrying him on the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh. Excerpts:

'Can Sonia Deny The Quattrocchi Link?'

There seems to be a change in your tactics vis-a-vis Sonia Gandhi, whom you had refrained from attacking personally till now. Is that because her campaigning for the Congress has begun to have an impact?

There is still no personal attack, in that sense. But the point is that she is leading the Congress campaign and has herself raised Bofors. So all three have become intertwined. Now that the Bofors issue has been raised, we are not going to leave it at that. Who received the kickbacks in the Bofors deal? The name that has been mentioned is that of Ottavio Quattrocchi. Can Soniaji deny her family's links with Quattrocchi? Why have successive governments adopted such a casual attitude in trying to secure his extradition? All the Bofors papers need to be made public and that is what I told the prime minister both times I met him. If the Swiss government objects to making the papers public, the government should at least begin the prosecution of those suspected to be involved by filing chargesheets, on the basis of the CBI's 250-page report submitted to the government during Deve Gowda's regime. Instead, we have the specious plea of the United Front government—obviously with one eye on a post-poll alignment with the Congress—that it can do nothing! As for Sonia Gandhi's impact, I doubt whether it will be significant as far as the nation is concerned, though she may help activate despondent Congressmen.

So, do you see the Congress as your main political opponent?

In the main, that is the case. Though there are states where regional parties will be our main rivals because the Congress has no significant presence there. Samajwadi Party in UP, for example. At the third level are the regions where the BJP is weak, but our allies are strong.

If you had to put your finger on the one crucial issue before the country what would it be?

Universal primary education. Including a special emphasis on education for girls. The root of most of our problems—be they of economic deprivation, social tensions or political ineffectiveness—is the lack of infrastructure. That is why this election is crucial. And what makes this election distinct is that there is virtually no government at present. What little government we have had over the past 18 months has been completely ineffective. The first thing the people have to do this time around is to ensure that they elect a government which governs. And that is just what I promise a BJP-led government will do. Fairly, and without prejudice. This is why we have made stability our central issue. In fact, if elected as prime minister, I will work towards a consensus on all major issues before the nation. There is much to be done in the field of healthcare, education, infrastructure development, fighting corruption, gender equality....

But how can you reconcile the issues you have raised with the contentious issues, Ayodhya, the uniform civil code and the abolition of Article 370 among others, on the BJP agenda?

There is no problem...it will be OK. This is not an issue. We will provide an inclusive government which will work towards the prosperity of all segments of society. Hindu and Muslim alike. The BJP will work on these specific issues in its own way.

But isn't this a delicate balancing act—on one side the "hardliners", on the other, the politics of "grand gestures"?

(Pauses) It would help if the siege mentality goes from Muslim minds. Already, that is happening and we too are working towards helping this along. It may take some time due to historical reasons as well as forces which do not want to see this happen, but I am sure it will happen. There will be justice for all.

Will it also be seen to be done?

Yes, that it is equally important. Also, the unity between various communities and castes is much more and far stronger at the mass level than it is on the top. People have been living together peacefully for centuries. Even the Ayodhya issue, if left to the local people, would have been worked out.

What you are essentially saying is that your priority, if elected, will be effective governance sans ideological interference?

(Nods in agreement)... Yes.

What about your strategy of alliances? What effect will the Lakshmi Parvathi and Mamata episodes have?

In both cases there have been problems over seat-sharing. But efforts are still being made.

The indications are that the next government will be a coalition. What is your stand on the demand from some of your allies for a Common Minimum Programme?

We hope to get a decisive verdict in favour of the BJP and its allies. And we have entered into a pre-election alliance, not like UF which was cobbled together after the 1996 elections. One of the main reasons we are contesting together is because we want to see in place a stable government which can administer the country effectively and fairly. Some common programme will be worked out. And I would like to emphasise that regional parties have played a very positive role and are developing a national outlook.

Jyoti Basu seems to be emerging as the UF's prime ministerial nominee.

They should declare it. I would welcome it. It will be a good fight.

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