February 22, 2020
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"We Were The Ones Who Were Over-confident"

In his first interview after the defeat of his government in the Lok Sabha, a confident and relaxed Atal Behari Vajpayee met Outlook's Editor-in-Chief Vinod Mehta and  Special Correspondent Ishan Joshi on Thursday evening. Excerpts:

"We Were The Ones Who Were Over-confident"

Have you been able to understand why the Opposition toppled you?

They thought they would bring down the government and form their own. But they ignored the contradictions within their fold— the AIADMK and TMC cannot go together, neither can Mulayam Singh Yadav and the BSP.

Do you think the Opposition was overconfident about forming an alternative...

Nahin, sach mein, overconfident to hum ho gaye.It is not too difficult to manage one vote.

You have run a coalition for 13 months with Jayalalitha as a key ally. Have you been able to understand her? As journalists we haven’t.

Neither have I. She came home and lunched with us and we spoke of all things under the sun. She sat with us for one-and-a-half hours. She spoke at length of how she has been implicated in cases and how she’s being harassed. She felt that the cases should be transferred (out of the DMK-run Tamil Nadu state government’s purview), that the cases should be withdrawn. She did not say a wordon Admiral Bhagwat, nor about corruption. But as soon as she left our house— what she said to the press waiting outside was okay— but as soon as she reached the hotel she spoke of a political earthquake. How did this ‘political earthquake’ occur in the hotel? I have just not been able to understand why this happened.

Perhaps she was angry with you...she has accused you of leaking the note (asking for the reinstatement/transfer of certain officials).

I did not leak it. Her saying that I leaked the note at Karunanidhi’s behest is incorrect. I don’t know from where it was leaked.

But she did hand that note to you?

Yes...she gave me some information after speaking to me for one-and- a-half hours but everybody knows...

...that all she spoke about were her corruption cases?

(Laughs) Unhe aur kisi ki chinta nahin thi...yeh jo transformation hua, woh kyon hua (she didn’t seem worried about anything else...why did this transformation take place)?

Possibly Subramanian Swamy instigated her?

I don’t comment on him.

When do you think the mid-term polls should be held— June or September?

They should be held as quickly as possible. And the earliest is June.

Do you prefer a June election or will you leave it to the Election Commission?

We prefer a June election. And we feel that the Election Commission will/should also reach the same decision.

But will the revision of electoral rolls be over by then?

If it isn’t, it can be stopped. This has been done in the past. Polling is possible in June. Otherwise I will be running a lame-duck government for too many months.

Isn’t it going to be terribly hot in June?

Yes, it will be hot, but elections have been held in June earlier. People can come and vote in the morning and evening (when it is relatively cooler) and the polling time can also be extended late into the evening.

The Congress is saying that you want an early poll to take advantage of the ‘sympathy factor’...

And those who are opposing it are doing so to prevent us f rom getting any advantage of this sympathy wave!

What’s your feeling? Is there a sympathy wave in your favour? What’s your feedback?

Log dukhi hain with the manner in which the government was toppled. Our feedback is that people believe the government was removed through manipulation. By one chief minister’s vote who shouldn’t have been there, at that. And that this should not have happened.

But isn’t it a fact that the Congress will  make stability an issue and say that ‘look, no non -Congress government can last its term’ ?

People have seen what kind of government the Congress has provided. And anyway, the Congress has toppled the governments which have gone over the last few years— Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda, Gujral. In fact, they have created the instability.

Will this be a vicious election with charges and counter-charges being traded? There seems to be a lot of bad blood...

How ‘hot’ the election will be, is too early to say. But certain norms should be maintained, it should be a clean election.

The Opposition has criticised you for breaking norms by making a ‘party political’ broadcast (on April 28) despite being a caretaker PM.

I don’t agree with this.

Arre, can’t a prime minister on his way out even address the people to say goodbye?

What will be your coalition’s main poll plank? Will ‘stability and good governance’ work for you this time too? Because on both grounds you haven’t come out very strongly in the past 13 months.

The ruling coalition— apart from Jayalalitha— has been very stable. And till the end our unity was maintained. Even the one-member parties from the Northeast have stayed with us. Of course stability will be an issue for us. Even in terms of governance, though we had a troublesome first six months, the latter half went very well. People were seeing the results of our policies, the economy was improving and on security there can be no complaints.

Did things start looking up after your Lahore trip?

Yes, you could say that. Nobody believed we could do something like this. And you can’t even imagine the positive effect of the Lahore bus ride in the international community. Now, whenever Pakistani leaders travel abroad and try to raise the Kashmir issue, the response they get is that you are talking to India anyway, you discuss it with them bilaterally.

What made you get on to the bus? Whose idea was it?

The credit goes to Nawaz Sharif. He said he could even travel to India on the bus...

But you beat him to it!

(The Prime Minister guffaws.)

Seriously though, was it a well-thought out move or a spontaneous gesture?

It was a spontaneous gesture on my part.

Only a meeting of Sharif and you, both leaders of ‘hard-line’ parties, could have had this effect. Is there a lesson for the world’s ‘liberals’ in this?

Well, that’s how it has been with me from the very beginning. Our relations with Pakistan took a turn for the better during my tenure as foreign minister in the  Janata government. In fact, even with China the ball was set rolling by me. I laid the basis for maintaining positions on the border, though of course later Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Raoji also did quite a bit. If our government had lasted, the border problem with China would have been resolved.

You seem to have a special interest in improving Indo-Pak relations.

Well, not only Pakistan. I want good relations with all our neighbours, but the key to that is that India should not behave like a ‘Big Brother’. Sometimes this impression is created uninten-tionally, some of course behave like this deliberately. deliberately. But these are the smaller nations and we have to keep them with us. After all there is so much scope for cooperation.

Did Sharif too have a genuine desire to improve ties?

Yes, certainly. He did a lot which went far beyond the bounds of protocol.

What’s been the single-most important achievement of your government?

That a non-Congress government too can function and successfully at that! Till now the Congress has claimed that nobody can run a government apart from them. We proved them wrong. And by toppling our government they’ve given us an opportunity to say that if it wasn’t for their destabilisation, we would’ve lasted the full term.

You have been the target of some personal attacks from the Opposition and also from the RSS and its affiliates.

People have been very kind to me. In the debate on the confidence motion in the Lok Sabha, leaders of the Opposition— including those from the Congress, even while opposing me— did not say anything against me personally. I am told that Sonia Gandhi was very angry at them for not attacking me.


You mentioned earlier that you want a clean poll. How do you reconcile this with the "videshi mahila" (foreigner) campaign some BJP leaders, allies and affiliated organisations have launched against the Congress president?

I have said earlier that this will not be an issue. But now it looks as if it is possible. But even if the issue is raised, it should be within certain limits. Such as a debate on the constitutional position in other countries like America where naturalised citizens cannot run for the nation’s highest offices; a debate should be limited to whether only an Indian-born citizen shall aspire to become president, vice-president or prime minister. But it should not be personalised.

So you disapprove of those within your own party who’re playing this up.

(Nods in agreement). Yes, personally I don’t like it.

Are you going to speak to them about it?

I have spoken to them, but some don’t seem willing to listen. In fact, there are more such people amongst our allies.

Do you think if overplayed, this could actually prove counter-productive?

We have to wait and see. I don’t know if there is a conscious decision whether to do it or not.

In the light of your experience over the past 13 months, don’t you think the BJP’s ties with the Sangh parivar affiliates— while they can’t be severed— need to be redefined ?

All problems have been sorted out. After the first six months there has not been this problem. Those problems will not recur. We will not let that happen.

So the line of moderation you have taken will prevail?

Yes, yes. It will be continued.

What’s your feeling on the Bhagwat issue?

There’s no need for a debate on this. As I said in the House, if there are any charges of corruption — in the purchase of armament or tanks — we are ready for an inquiry. But there should be no debate on his sacking — whether it was right or wrong. That’s the government’s prerogative. Civilian authority must be supreme. How he (Bhagwat) was tolerated for so long is a source of amazement to me. It’s also not true that the President was kept in the dark. He was informed by us throu-ghout. And as for the affidavit he (Bhagwat) had filed, what can one say, he dragged everybody into it, beginning with V.P. Singh.

In the past 13 months, despite the achievements, one major problem has been the attacks on Christians...

It has been more of media hype. I went to Gujarat. There was a local fight sparked off by Christian youth stoning a Hindu rally on December 25, 1998. Permission for this rally on Christmas day should not have been given by the administration. It was a Hindu rally. If the rally had not taken place, nothing would have happened.

Some believe there’s an "international conspiracy" to defame your government?

No, not conspiracy. What’s meant by ‘conspiracy’? Of course, they want to spread Christianity.

Hum bhi saare sansar ko arya banana chaahte hain. We haven’t succeeded (laughs ), but that’s different. 

You’re seen as a good man, but a soft prime minister?

Even after Pokhran! It was a testing time. Efforts were made to isolate India, but I withstood it. One doesn’t have to shout to be effective.

Getting back to problems in the BJP, is Kalyan Singh likely to be replaced in the next three-four months?

We will not disturb him at this time. Some of those who’re unhappy with him came to meet me, but they were only complaining about his style of functioning. Policies and programmes, they have no problem with.

Is there any truth in the reports about Bofors files being dusted up?

Well, I too have seen the newsreports

(Laughs, but doesn’t deny it ).

Last time, the BJP slogan was ‘Ab ki bari, Atal Behari' . Now that you’ve had a chance, what will it be this time?

I don’t know. (Laughs loudly).

Which party and individual do you consider your main opponent in the forthcoming elections?

In the forthcoming elections, our main opponent will obviously be the Congress and whomsoever that party chooses to be its leader.

Will the campaign be more ‘presidential’ with you and Sonia Gandhi in the fray?

Arre bhai, there are other parties also. Different states have different ruling parties. Anyway, has the Congress finally decided on who their leader will be?

But they’ve more or less announced Sonia Gandhi’s name.

Only Arjun Singh has. The CWC hasn’t made public its decision yet.

A consensus on signing the CTBT was expected after consulting all political parties. How has the Lok Sabha dissolution affected this? How important is it for the election  process to be over before the September deadline?

Taking a decision on signing the CTBT has certainly become difficult now. It will become even more so if elections are held in September. I had stated in the dissolved Lok Sabha— and I continue to adhere to this commitment— that any decision in this regard will be taken only after taking Parliament into confidence. In the changed circumstances, if the elections are not held by the end of June, it would become necessary to consult the political parties to arrive at a consensus on the issue of CTBT.

How have mid-term polls affected your government’s attempts to put an effective minimum deterrent in place? Do you feel that, despite the success of Pokhran-II and Agni-II, the doctrinal aspects of the nation’s security strategy are still incomplete?

No. The nation’s security-related programmes have not been derailed by the temporary instability created by the Opposition. Even in the interregnum, we shall continue to give the fullest attention to all aspects of national security, including our ongoing resolve to put in place a minimum, effective and credible nuclear deterrent. As far as our nuclear security doctrine is concerned, it has been clearly enunciated in Parliament last year, and subsequently elsewhere too. The basics of this doctrine are: non first use of nuclear weapons, non-use against non-nuclear weapon countries, no nuclear arms race and a credible minimum deterrent. In other words, we shall have an assured response to any use of nuclear weapons against us.

Parties across the political spectrum have demanded electoral reforms...

Electoral reforms brook no delay whatsoever. Both aspects of the electoral reforms — fixed term for the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabhas and state funding of elections — are crying out for a common approach by all the political parties. Especially after the experience of the Congress party toppling three coalition governments in a row and forcing the country to go for three general elections in as many years, the need for effective reforms to ensure stability of governance has become all the more apparent to all. The questions I asked while moving the motion of confidence in the Lok Sabha on April 15 —" What is your plan for an alternative government? What is its programme? Who will be its leader?" — will continue to be relevant in the future too, whenever an incumbent government is sought to be voted out in Parliament.

Are you in favour of the ruling coalition going to the people with a "common manifesto" on the lines of the National Agenda for Governance? The BJP has been known as an ideology-driven party, but by keeping out contentious issues, is there an implicit recognition by the BJP — unlike the Congress — that the era of coalitions is here to stay? Is this the way forward for the BJP?

All these questions are under discussion at present, but the NAG is a good basis for our common programme for these elections; we have to tell the people what the government’s programme will be. We can add to it and improve on it, of course. Parties have their own ideology. But our experience has been that ideology is not of much use in running a government. One needs a pragmatic approach , (there are) practical considerations. The manifesto will be formulated on this basis. One thing, however, is certain. The era of coalitions at the Centre is here to stay. Whether the Congress party likes it or not makes no difference to the ground reality. Indeed, the era of coalitions has begun precisely because the Congress is rapidly on the downslide, having failed to fulfill the aspirations and expectations of the various regional and social sections of our diverse nation. Similarly, the BJP-led alliance is also here to stay. In fact, it is stronger and more cohesive than in March 1998. Our unity and our common approach to policies and programmes would be fully reflected in the document we present to the electorate while seeking a full and decisive mandate.

So you don’t have a problem with the BJP not issuing its own manifesto?

Yes (I have no problem).

Is it also fair to say that you believe the BJP should now concentrate on the politics of governance rather than that of identity?

(The politics of) identity is there, but the pressing need of the hour is to build an identity for the entire alliance, though different parties will continue to have their ideologies.

You had said last year in Parliament that 1998 would be your last election. Is it fair to say that you have changed your mind? Has the manner of your exit proved to be a crucial factor in this decision?

I did say I would fight no more elections. But I least expected that the Lok Sabha would be dissolved before it had run through less than one-fourth of its scheduled tenure. I have an unfinished agenda. You can say that the manner in which our government was toppled has also steeled my determination to fight on. If I had completed five years, I would not have stood for elections.

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