Q. You have called the Vice Presidential polls a referendum on the functioning of
I have repeatedly said Parliament is for discussion, debate and for consensus to be built around issues that concern the nation. When you disallow debate, discussion and free expression, members take to other means of being heard and come with placards or go to the well of the House to protest. There is no point in saying the opposition disrupts parliament. The Business Advisory Committee, which the chairman presides over, has both the government and opposition in it. People are amazed that they cannot, in the BAC, find common ground even on the agenda for discussion in the House, which is essentially the responsibility of the government and the Chair.
That said, the VP polls are a challenge to parties in the opposition too. I agree it would have been much more satisfying if more parties had supported the common candidate of the opposition. But whatever their reasons — local pressures, perceptions or interests — some are hesitant to join the opposition bloc. Take (TMC chief) (Banerjee), for instance. She has been my good friend since her Youth Congress days. I have fought for her, supported her and been with her in every battle in Bengal both at AICC and in the party. I was surprised and dismayed when TMC decided to abstain. There is no whip in this election and it is a secret ballot. If you cannot issue a whip, how can you tell your MPs to not vote? It is like issuing a negative whip. That is why this was the time for all opposition parties, particularly for someone like Mamata, who has been leading this campaign for opposition unity, to challenge the on a common front. More so because she has borne the brunt of BJP’s handling of Bengal. For TMC to become neutral at this time really is a referendum on what the opposition parties are up to. I still hope and pray they will change their minds and join, because this is literally the starting point for 2024 and Mamata has been expected to play a major role in taking this further. So, yes, the V-P polls are a referendum on the functioning of the opposition parties and their oft-stated intention to come together.
Q. I believe you have called her but she won’t respond….
She doesn’t pick up the phone. I have written to her. And people have talked to her. All our phone are tapped, monitored and you never know where your conversations will reach. So there is hesitation to talk. But the bigger question is how does it help the TMC to help the BJP? Mamata has been making efforts to meet leaders of all anti-BJP parties. So I don’t understand why she is doing this.
Q. When you say that Banerjee was expected to lead the opposition unity, do you think her reluctance to join the opposition bloc may be because Congress won’t cede Centre space? Other parties have expressed this concern too.
When you talk of opposition unity, ultimately leadership will go to a party with the largest number of seats in Parliament. No one is saying who should lead. Everyone is saying that in each state, regardless of the differences, there has to be a give and take of some kind. My point is opposition parties can work out their own adjustments in each state. Congress fights the Left in Kerala. To say they will not fight each in the interest of opposition unity will be impractical.
So there have been efforts on the part of larger parties to accommodate smaller parties in various states. I have no formula and I don’t think anyone has one except to say that after elections, whichever party has the largest numbers will have a say in the leadership decision. That’s all. They are not even saying the leadership should go to them. But they have to be on board in accepting this. Also, one may be very strong in Bengal, but does one have the all India reach is the question. Left may be strong in Kerala, but they lost in Tripura and Bengal. Nobody is ruling out anyone for leadership. It may be possible that you are not the largest party, but everyone wants you to lead.
Q. Considering the VP polls is a lop-sided battle to begin with, what is the message that the opposition is trying to convey?
We are focusing on issues not just as the political opposition, but as concerned citizens. I have been in public life for 50 years in government, in opposition, as a minister, as a back- bencher and as presiding officer in both Houses of Parliament. What we see today is a total breakdown of parliamentary functioning. I think parliament is not about majoritarianism. If everything goes by what the majority says, there is no need for debate or discussion. Our concern is that Parliament is not being allowed to function the way it is expected to and we are saying this needs to be corrected. One way to do this is by having a chairman who is neutral, firm, accommodating and who has the experience to bring people together. That is what we mean by restoring the sanctity of Parliament. The Constitution has to be protected and all democratic institutions set up by the constitution must function in the way they were envisaged to. This is our point.
Q. Are you saying that the presiding officers, and NDA nominee Jagdeep Dhankar, have not, and will not, uphold these values?
Dhankar and I have a lot in common. We both were in Congress together, are lawyers, were MPs and governors. But, our functioning as governors has been totally different. Prime Minister (Modi) himself praised me publicly when I was Rajasthan governor. He gave me additional charge of Gujarat, his own state, and Goa. But I had the Lakshman Rekha around Raj Bhawan. My gates were always open, but I knew how far a governor can and should go. That is why I was respected. Though I was appointed by the UPA, when the government changed, I was one of the few governors who was not asked to go. This is why I say you can be fair and firm, and, yet, you can be neutral while occupying such sensitive positions.
Q. You have spent over 50 years in public life and have friends across the aisle. Do you expect to be able to draw support from many parties, YSRCP and NPP, for instance, whose leaders have been longstanding personal friends?
I don’t know. I have written to all of them, including to BJP chief ministers. These have been friendships we have had beyond politics. My parents-in-law and Naveen Patnaik’s father, for instance, were close friends from the freedom movement days. But politics and fate are functioning (laughs). I did not step in to win as a certainty. We are here to make a point and it is for MPs to decide what is in their interest, in the interest of Parliament, and of the country. They are responsible members of society elected by the people. I have approached every party directly and indirectly. Several MPs I met and spoke to over phone said they will support me because of the relations we have had over the years. The camaraderie and friendship stays beyond parties and politics. What happens with the votes, though, that I cannot say.