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‘I have never crossed my lakshman rekha of being a good Congressman’
Tête à tête

For someone who confesses to not being a great reader, there sure are a lot of books in the sitting room of Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh’s South Avenue residence in Delhi. It’s an eclectic collection — coffee table glossies (including Rajiv by Sonia Gandhi) to Dalits in India by S.K. Thorat and Bill Clinton’s My Life. “Most of my reading is now done on my iPad,” says the tech-savvy politician, who’s prompt in replying to emails from his BlackBerry. The walls are lined with paintings, mostly of flowers.

I have time to take this all in, since my interview is getting delayed. Clad in his customary khadi churidar-kurta-waistcoat (he hasn’t worn any other fabric since he first became a member of the legislative assembly in Madhya Pradesh in 1977), Singh is dealing with some urgent party matters.

The normally circumspect 63-year-old has been hitting the headlines frequently of late, speaking his mind on issues ranging from the Batla House encounter in Delhi in 2008 to the strategy to tackle Naxalism to the arrest and release of former Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson in Bhopal in 1984 to objecting to the use of the term “saffron terror” for Hindu militancy.

So is he the leader of the Opposition in the Congress party, as some party colleagues sneer? He shrugs and says he has followed the Congress ideology throughout his career. He speaks in an even tone, never displaying any excitement or emotion. “When I see that in spite of our programmes, benefits are not reaching those they should, I have to speak up. Whenever I feel that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to pin down the Muslims of this country, I have to speak up. When I find that the whole strategy against the Naxalites involves only the paramilitary forces and the army and the air force, I have to speak up. But I have never crossed my lakshman rekha of being a good Congressman.”

So then is he needling home minister P. Chidambaram — the target of some of his salvos — because he resents his rising profile in the government? “We are good friends. I will be very happy if he rises further.” Now he starts choosing his words very carefully, pausing before each word. “A home minister has to be a good listener. And he has to look into the issues if they are raised, rather than say something which may not be proper.”

One of the things Singh didn’t find proper was the “saffron terror” label. The objection was surprising, coming from someone who had suggested that the home ministry set up a separate cell on Hindu terror. He’s not denying the phenomenon, he says, pointing out that he was one of the first persons to say that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activists were involved in terrorist activities. He just doesn’t like giving terror a colour. “Saffron has been associated with valour, courage, religion, why should we identify this colour with terrorism?”

Singh is a deeply religious man, who keeps fasts and visits temples regularly. Is that why he reacted? “My mother was deeply religious. My family and I are deeply religious. We follow our traditions.” Was that a yes? Or a no?

His highlighting of Hindu terror and his now-famous visit to Azamgarh in February, where he met the families of the Batla House encounter victims and raised questions about it, invited accusations that he was soft on Islamic terror. “I was the first chief minister to demand a ban on both the Bajrang Dal and the Students Islamic Movement of India. I felt both were vitiating communal harmony,” he says.

Why isn’t he as unequivocal on Naxalite terror? The press, he complains, only picked up those bits in the now-famous newspaper article where he called Chidambaram intellectually arrogant and ignored the parts where he accused the BJP of striking deals with Maoists to come to power in Chhattisgarh and the Maoists of extorting money from mining companies instead of agitating to get land back from them. “They may have a cause but that does not justify their strategy of violence. This is a democracy. Let them fight elections and win over the people.”

But the use of force alone won’t solve the problem, he is clear. The government has to get the local population on its side. “Why have the Naxalites been accepted by the local population? Because of misgovernance, exploitation and harassment of the tribals by the powers that be in those states. Land alienation, forest rights and displacement are very big issues. The government has to look into these causes and win over the people.”

His 10-year tenure as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh from 1993 to 2003 was marked by a single-minded focus on grassroots development. Hadn’t that failed to nip the problem in the bud? “No,” he rebuts, “we had taken democracy to the grassroots. We had empowered the tribals. We had eliminated contractors for liquor, tendu leaf and minor forest produce from tribal areas. People were benefiting. We had taken up issues of governance and grievance redressal. There were Maoists but the incidents were few.”

In 2004, after the BJP came to power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, he says, the contractors returned and exploitation resumed. “The BJP found it more convenient to fix a deal with Naxalites than deliver. Why is it that they are flourishing only in BJP-ruled states? They have been controlled in Andhra Pradesh and to an extent in Maharashtra.”

What about Chidambaram’s argument that government services are not able to reach areas controlled by Naxalites and force is needed to regain control? I get the first smile out of him. “What made the Chhattisgarh government withdraw from those areas,” he asks. “The home minister of India cannot accept the fact that some parts of this country are not governed by the Government of India or the state government.”

The smile makes me try my luck. In what way has he been a victim of Chidambaram’s intellectual arrogance (a statement he made in the article)? The smile disappears. “I would not like to get into this.”

His controversial remarks have been puzzling also because he isn’t a small fry wanting to grab attention. He has a rather prominent role — in charge of the party’s fortunes in Uttar Pradesh, the state that’s crucial for the electoral fate of any national party.

The man who once said that bringing him to Delhi (from state politics) would be the best way of finishing him off seems to be doing quite well, thank you. Singh doesn’t remember when he made that remark, but now there’s no question of returning to the state. He’s been there, done that — starting from 1969 when he became president of the municipal committee of Raghogarh, the principality in the Guna district of Madhya Pradesh which his family ruled over, to chief minister of the state for two terms.

As chief minister, his development initiatives, including the state human development reports, attracted national attention. But the state BJP called him a sapnon ka saudagar (a seller of dreams). “My schemes were quite effective in their own way. Schools were started within 1km radius across the state, panchayats were truly empowered, literacy rates jumped,” Singh ripostes.

He’s been with the Congress since 1971, two years after his political debut. His father was heading the Raghoghar municipality when he died in 1967. Munnu Raja, as Singh is affectionately known in Raghogarh, was in the final year of engineering college and was planning to go to the United States for further studies. But his mother prevailed on him to stay back as his younger brother Lakshman Singh was only 11 years old.

Singh’s father had been a Congress party member from 1938 to 1947, when he quit in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call to disband the party. He became an Independent MLA in what was then Madhya Bharat’s state assembly in 1952. The chief minister invited him to join the Congress, but Singh senior said he could not because he would then have to swear to abstain from alcohol, which he had started drinking in 1947. “No hypocrisy for him,” says his son proudly. The son himself faced no such dilemmas — he was and remains a teetotaller.

After the Congress lost the 2003 Madhya Pradesh assembly elections, Singh vowed not to contest elections or be in government for 10 years. But that’s not the only reason he’s not a minister at the Centre. “There’s no dearth of capable people for Cabinet posts. I am quite happy to be in the organisation.”

Party heavyweights from Madhya Pradesh are not very happy with him, though. He is rumoured to have an iron grip on the state unit, never mind that he is not in charge of it, and he is said to have lost a lot of friends. “Why don’t you ask them,” he shoots back. “I have not interfered in Madhya Pradesh in the last seven years.”

And then there’s his reputation for always keeping the powers that be in good humour. He was Arjun Singh’s protégé, but kept on the right side of P.V. Narasimha Rao and didn’t leave the party when his mentor quit in 1993. And he was present on the dais at Sonia Gandhi’s first public rally in Amethi in 1995, when she and Rao were not exactly on the best of terms. “Now you are contradicting yourself,” he laughs uproariously, “first you say I am friendless, then you say I am on good terms with everyone.” He still has the highest regard for Arjun Singh and Rao, he says. The Gandhi family is on a different plane, as the three photographs of Rajiv alone and with his mother and wife in the room show. “I owe whatever I am to Mrs Indira Gandhi, Rajivji and Soniaji.”

Could there be a dynasty in the making in Singh’s house as well? There are reports that his son, Jayavardhan, has stepped into politics. No, comes the flat denial. He had accompanied his father to the constituency where Youth Congress workers made him sign a form. What about the future? “It’s his life. Why should I interfere?”

But clearly, whether it’s the future or the present, Digvijay Singh seems to have it all planned out.

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