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‘Whether you want a hard policy or a soft policy on terror is a political issue. So why should there not be a political debate on it?’

BJP general secretary and key party strategist Arun Jaitley joins the Express staff for an Idea Exchange, moderated by Coomi Kapoor, where he analyses the causes for the party’s defeat in Rajasthan and Delhi and defends the terror ad that the BJP brought out after the Mumbai attack

December 14, 2008 3:46:34 am

Coomi Kapoor: Is the BJP going to reflect on its performance in the just-concluded assembly elections, especially after the Delhi defeat?

Each election has its own script; there are no two elections that are alike. This election is important because of one key change in the electoral pattern. Normally, the easiest election to contest is when you are in the Opposition. You carry out an anti-incumbency campaign against the government and the government of the day loses because people are unhappy with the government. Conventionally, the CPI(M) used to win in Bengal because an alternative did not emerge in the state, especially after the split in the Congress.

These assembly elections have seen a very significant change: all four incumbent chief ministers were extremely popular. In the case of Rajasthan, we lost but lost narrowly. It is not the defeat which is the cause for introspection, but it’s the reason. Vasundhara Raje had started this election with a realistic possibility of winning 110-126 seats. But the BJP started with 62 rebel MLAs out of 200 seats. For the first time in four elections, we saw a pro-incumbency factor with the states. I think that is the big picture of this election. Measures of governance have radically improved and therefore all four states were keen to vote the incumbent chief minister back to power. I think Indian politics is now entering a newer phase where you will see far more incumbency votes.

Coomi Kapoor: In Delhi, the BJP’s core constituency, the youth and the middle class, seem to have deserted it. Surely, Vijay Kumar can’t be the only person responsible for that.

An election is a cocktail of several factors. In a state like Delhi the first factor is the nature of a delimited constituency. My view is that when delimitation was taking place, the BJP did not pay the same attention to Delhi’s delimitation like leaders in several other states did.

So in an electorate where the BJP reach is limited—if 30 per cent of most delimited constituencies acquire that electorate, you will get an inherent disadvantage. Second, what are the pro-incumbency and anti-incumbency levels in the state? Third, assembly elections, unlike a Lok Sabha election, are confined to a smaller locality so the quality of your candidate matters. Have you selected the right candidates? According to me, the nature of delimitation and the nature of your candidates are the most important factors. In Delhi, wherever the BJP faltered in its candidate selection, the BSP displaced it as the second party and pushed it to third place. So the advantage of the 8 per cent anti-incumbency votes—which saw Congress fall from 48 to 40 per cent vote share—did not come to the BJP, they went to the BSP. When you speak in terms of the youth and the middle class, that is a section where conventionally the BJP polls up to about 65-70 per cent of the vote. This time that vote was down to about 55 per cent. We still led in this segment.

Shekhar Gupta: Are you saying the BJP was unable to take any vote away from the Congress?

No, I am saying the Congress lost about 8 per cent votes, the others lost about two and two-and-a-half per cent. Of this ten to ten-and-a-half per cent, 8 per cent was gained by BSP and we gained only about 3 per cent. This shift is visible in 15 constituencies where I feel a number of BJP candidates were locally weak and the BSP candidates displaced them. This has also happened in 3-4 constituencies to the Congress.

Shekhar Gupta: But was there something wrong with the way you set it up: Sheila Dixit versus V.K. Malhotra?

I think it’s a little unfair that people think Mr. Malhotra, who has been a very good leader in the past, is no longer effective. Only a few years ago, he defeated Manmohan Singh in a Lok Sabha election. The crucial factor that went against the BJP was the two rules we set that backfired: one, to not give a ticket to any councillor, which excluded a large section of the local leaders. Two, we repeated all our sitting MLAs. Shivraj Singh Chauhan (Madhya Pradesh) and Narendra Modi (Gujarat) have survived anti-incumbency by changing large numbers.

Esha Roy: Would you have had a better chance if you had projected a different chief ministerial candidate?

Projecting other individuals may or may not have made a difference. As for delimitation, I have always regarded it as more favourable to the BJP. If the Gujarat election had been held post delimitation, the BJP would have won 135 seats, not 115. Similarly, if the Karnataka elections had been pre-delimitation, we may have won 10-15 seats less than we did. In Delhi it is a different story. Here, delimitation won’t make much difference because the city was always a city—it was a city state.

Unni Rajen Shankar: You talked about a pro-incumbency factor as a big thing in this election. Did you foresee that when you refused to be the BJP’s CM candidate?

My decision had nothing to do with pro- or anti-incumbency. I have never been an activist of local politics or issues. As for anti-incumbency, wherever there is a direct contest between the Congress and the BJP—parties that don’t have a significant caste base—elections between them will remain linked to performance. But when caste-based parties perform poorly, they use caste as an alternative.

Suman K. Jha: We heard that both Rajnath Singh and L.K. Advani wanted you to contest and you were in two minds.

I straightaway told them this does not appeal to me because I have no interest in the local politics of Delhi and I think that was the end of the matter.

Shubhajit Roy: You spoke of the two rules the BJP set which backfired. Why were these two rules set? Was it because of overconfidence?

You may be right. I think the local leadership set these rules and with the wisdom of hindsight, I think that the central leadership of the BJP must get into the habit of saying no at times.

Sobhana K: The BJP brought out an ad on November 29 that had a snuffed-out diya asking for votes on the basis of terror. Do you think it was a wrong move at that stage?

The ideological debate on terrorism is a political debate. I think the debate in this country after the Mumbai incident has been misdirected. It is a legitimate desire of people to expect a consensus. But you can’t have a consensus on ‘let’s soft peddle terror’. The consensus has to be the other way round and if you don’t have that, it is bound to be a political debate. Some in the electronic media who supported the soft approach started two conscious campaigns: one, this ‘all politicians are terrible chaps’ was started by those who didn’t want to say that the government’s weak policy on terror has brought this as a consequence. Two, they said terrorism is not a political issue. But in a democracy, whether you want a hard policy or a soft policy on terror is a political issue. So why should there not be a political debate on it? Did the people who objected to the BJP ad raise objections to similar ads that the Congress brought out the same day?

Sobhana K: Should you play politics on such an issue?

I don’t accept this theory. I feel that as an Opposition party, we will be failing in our duty if we don’t put adequate pressure on the government at all times on the issue of terror. It is a real issue.

Coomi Kapoor: But that ad seemed opportunistic and negative given its timing.

Terror-related ads were appearing even before the Mumbai incident. So why must there be a gag after it? I am very glad that the non-political sections of society are speaking up. I welcome them but I don’t welcome their suggestion that they—as film stars, advertising executives and theatre people—can discuss terrorism but politicians must not. You cannot gag India’s political parties from discussing terror.

Seema Chishti: The first ad was in bad taste. It had a splatter of blood.

I don’t think it was intended to display blood at all. It was intended to send out a message that a weak government can’t fight terror. I don’t understand—why should the debate be gagged during an election? The bottom line is that when the security forces act to defeat terror, you must stand behind them. The security forces are entitled to that advantage but the political government—its political policy and approach to terror—is not entitled to that benefit. This does not mean that I am not for a consensus. I would love a consensus but the consensus can’t be on a weak-on-terror policy.

Now you have this government proposal for a federal agency. A good idea. But will the federal agency only investigate terror attacks under the CrPC and follow the Indian Penal Code? This young terrorist who has been arrested in Mumbai is now speaking out. On the basis of his statement you are establishing Pakistan’s involvement. Is this man’s confession and statement going to be admissible evidence or not? That is the crux of the issue. You have at least one dozen laws in India from narcotics to customs to MCOCA that make confessional statements admissible in court.

Shekhar Gupta: You’re saying, under any of these laws, a confession made to a police officer can be admissible in court?

(Under these laws) confession to a police officer of the level of SP and above is admissible in court. The confession must be video recorded. And, within 48 or 24 hours of the confession, he has to be produced before the judge who will ask him about his confession. And if he says he has been tortured, he will be medically examined. Ten laws in India have this procedure. Now how do you prove the Karachi link of the conspiracy without this boy’s evidence being admissible evidence? Pakistan will be entitled to turn back and say that it is not considered evidence in your country.

Vandita Mishra: As a campaign strategist, do you think there was a problem with the way the campaign framed the terror issue and in times like these, what is the challenge for a campaign strategist?

The challenge would be to find out what the real issues are. You may go wrong in your assessment of the issues that can influence the voter’s mind. Our own analysis showed that in Delhi, price rise and terrorism occupied a very large part of a voter’s mind space. But when a voter votes, he may also be concerned with the quality of candidates he has, with water supply and electricity bills. No election is a one-issue election.

Tannu Sharma: Would you elaborate on what the BJP means by a strong anti-terror law?

When POTA was repealed, a large number of its provisions were incorporated in The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. But two key provisions were kept out: one related to admissibility of the confessions made to the police officer with certain safeguards and the second related to the difficult bail provisions. Whichever amendment you bring about, these two specifics ought to be included.

Vinay Sitapati: Do you think, in hindsight, the BJP’s response to the Malegaon blasts actually added to the perception that Congress and BJP couldn’t really be differentiated when it came to terrorism?

All I will say is this: if somebody is actually involved and there is sustainable evidence, let it proceed as it is. And if a lot of it turns out to be press briefings rather than substance, then out-of-turn comments are not really required at this stage.

Seema Chishti: What is your view of the BSP’s performance in the elections: it got between 17-18 per cent votes in Delhi?

For parties like the BSP, SP and RJD, there is an optimum they can go up to. The conventional vote of the BSP will only take it so far and not beyond. The BSP’s emphasis is on caste politics and not on any developmental or security agenda. So those national issues in terms of growth, development, security are not there. The BSP crossed the hump in UP when in addition to its conventional vote, it got another big block. Now wherever it gets that other big block, it may rise further but at the moment, I don’t see them getting that big block.

Sagnik Dutta: Don’t you think the radical ideology propagated by some of the student bodies is alienating the BJP from the modern cosmopolitan youth and the ABVP?

The ABVP is not the student wing of the BJP. We have no role either in their student union election or in their organisational structure. The relevance of student unions is coming down. One of the factors is that there is a huge race for academic and other forms of excellence. So student elections and unions are becoming rather irrelevant. Despite that, I don’t think it is wise to put a lot of restrictive conditions like who can contest and who can’t in student elections (as done by the Lyngdoh Commission) because eventually in a democratic polity, there are ideological debates and they should be encouraged.

Transcribed by Suanshu Khurana

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