After 30 years with the Congress, why move out now to form a new party?
The main reason is Raman Singh and his government. In the 13 years he has ruled Chhattisgarh, people feel he has looted us through others. Nobody in Chhattisgah has benefited… So people got fed up, and have been telling me that you take over the reins to oppose Raman Singh. When it became clear that this will not happen within the Congress, people have been coming in thousands. Last week, I was meeting a thousand people a day, and everybody was telling me that if you are not getting leadership within the Congress, the time is right to form a third front to defeat Raman Singh.
Why was that not possible within the Congress?
In the first place, I don’t blame anyone in person, but those responsible for taking decisions. They somehow feel that strong leaders, whom we call regional satraps, should not be encouraged in states. That is what happened to Mamata Banerjee, what happened to Jagan Reddy, what happened to Sharad Pawar. They feel that if they [local leaders] are given a free hand or given leadership, their worth in Delhi will be reduced to nothing… With due modesty, I am the maximum leader of the state. I can say with a sense of responsibility, in all sections of society, they respect and love me. That is why the persons I am talking about, after 2003 when I ceased to be chief minister, saw to it that I was not given any role in the state. I was sidelined for so many years but I took it in my stride because of the love and affection I got from Rajivji and Soniaji.
Jairam Ramesh has said you were given important charges throughout your career, and you should have taken your grievances up at the party level.
I have raised these issues umpteen times. As far as Jairam Ramesh is concerned, he is Jai Jai Ram, one person who has never contested an election. I challenge him, contest the election of a corporator, or of a pradhan or sarpanch in a panchayat. He doesn’t know politics. He is somebody dropped from above. Just because he can speak good English or writes speeches, he doesn’t become a leader. So I don’t take him seriously.
So do you believe the disconnect with the people has caused the Congress to come down to 44 seats?
This must be one of the reasons. Otherwise how have we been reduced to 44 seats, or ruling over only seven per cent of the country? These people taking these decisions, those who have not contested elections, or those who were leaders once upon a time but now have no ground level support, such people are responsible. My pleading, since the beginning, has always been that the Nehruvian era has once again dawned. We must encourage regional satraps. But now there is no leadership that can stand up and say this must be done, because this is necessary for my state.
Given you have spent so much time in the Congress, will there be a difference of ideology in your new party?
Politics for the rest of my life is going to be Chhattisgarh-centric. The 2.5 crore people of Chhattisgarh. I am not bothered of what is happening in Delhi or elsewhere. I want all decisions relating to Chhattisgarh taken in Raipur. I keep saying that this is the richest piece of land, inhabited by the poorest people. This contrast has to be removed.
This state has always been bipolar. Do you feel that if a third front were to come, no government would be formed without you?
No, not at all. I think there are only four states left in the country, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, where there is no third force. Last elections in Chhattisgarh, BJP got 67 lakh votes, Congress got 66 lakh votes, but others got 30 lakh votes. So there are those 30 lakh available to somebody, and then there are votes in this 67 and 66 also, available to a third force. I think the situation is similar to Andhra, when NTR entered one day and finished the Congress. That kind of feeling now exists here.
Are you going to contest elections in a targeted number of seats, or in all 90?
No question of confining myself to 20 seats, or I would not have formed a party. I will contest all 90, and I will win with an overwhelming majority. That’s my challenge.
How many Congress MLAs will break away to join you?
I must make it very clear. I have told all the MLAs that you have two years, don’t waste those two years. Remain where you are and still be my supporters. You can hit your party from within and be my supporter. There is no use joining me now, you will be nothing. Secondly, the history of Chhattisgarh is such that every time, about 60 to 70 per cent MLAs lose, anti-incumbency is so high. Congress gave tickets to 35 sitting MLAs and 27 of them lost. Out of the eight that won, two are from my family. So I don’t want to take the risk of taking all MLAs. I made that mistake in 2003. I had got 15 MLAs from BJP, they were my MLAs. I repeated tickets to everybody. But only two or three of those could win. I am going to look for new faces, who look honest and committed.
There are many in the Congress who believe that the reason the party has been close to winning but hasn’t is because of infighting. They also point to the emergence of the Antagarh tapes.
In the first case about the tapes, I have filed a defamation case… Those tapes were forged, not genuine… I still challenge, that if anyone can prove that I had any role to play for getting the Congress candidate withdrawn, or I was paid anything, I will quit politics, and my family will quit politics. We have never been corrupt and we will never be corrupt. That is why my family wins.
Are you talking about the state Congress leadership?
You know Bhupesh Baghel can’t go beyond Patan. Let him contest Patan. This time he’ll lose his deposit because I’m not there. Look at the record. There are 39 Congress MLAs. A majority of them I went and campaigned for. Nobody else went to even two constituencies. That is the kind of leadership we have.
If we look at regional leaders like Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee, they have come together and said there must be a secular opposition to the BJP. What are your thoughts on that given you are creating a regional party?
I think that the future of this country now lies with the regional parties. They will have to get together against the so-called communal parties, the BJP, the Shiv Sena and the like. They will have to get together and form a federation and that federation will rule this country whether we like it or not, whether it is stable or not. We will have to accept it. One of the leaders like Mamata or Nitish will be acceptable to all others.