Margaret Alva says she was “settled in Bengaluru” when she was asked by Opposition parties to step in as they looked for an acceptable candidate for vice-president. The 81-year-old former Union minister and Governor speaks to Manoj C G a week ahead of the election:
You were in a semi-retirement phase. What prompted you to accept the Opposition’s request given that the numbers are impossibly stacked against you?
It is not a question of winning or losing. It is a question of presenting an alternative point of view (for) which 19 parties have come together. They have all agreed on one name.
Who spoke to you first?
All that I am not discussing in the press. It was the Opposition leaders. There was a meeting at (NCP leader) Sharad Pawar’s house. All the leaders were there.
Did you take some time to think it over?
I took a couple of days. I consulted my family members.
The Vice-President is also the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. How do you envisage that role, particularly given the way the House is being conducted now?
I was in the Rajya Sabha for 24 years. I also presided in the Rajya Sabha, as well as the Lok Sabha… We had stalwarts in the Chair, the House. From (A B) Vajpayee to Bhupesh Gupta, Annadurai, Chandra Shekhar, Mohan Dharia, (I K) Gujral… There was a galaxy of leaders… There were differences of opinion with Mrs (Indira) Gandhi… We saw the stalwarts speak, differ, debate and then come to an amicable end. Parliament ultimately is not about majority and minority. Parliament is about debate, discussion and consensus-building. There are problems from all over the country. MPs come to be able to speak. Where is debate happening now?
… There is a total breakdown… It is the job of the Chairman to call leaders of all parties, make the government and Opposition work it out… Across the board, I have spoken to MPs. They are frustrated… There are so many issues that people are worried about… That is why there is so much frustration outside.
What explains the government’s stand in Parliament?
It is an arrogance of numbers. They think they can do anything because they have the numbers… Ok, you vote and you pass Bills, but there has to be discussion.
On your Twitter feed is a 34-year-old photo of your son Nivedith with you and Mamata Banerjee, watching a cricket match between MPs. You and Mamata Banerjee have known each other for a long time. Were you surprised when the TMC decided not to support you? Did you speak to her before or after that?
We are still very good friends. Elections are all about convincing each other. There may have been small ego problems, someone not consulted… I am not going into it. My point is that she has been the champion of Opposition unity. She has been the one who suffered the most under (Governor Jagdeep) Dhankhar in West Bengal. She is the one who has challenged the BJP at every stage. And today, to become an instrument in helping Dhankhar become Vice-President has, if I may say so, dismayed me. I know there are pressures, threats, every kind of fear being instilled by the government…. (But) Mamata is bold enough. She has faced them all these years… I don’t think she can be frightened… You can’t issue a whip in this election, so how do you issue a whip not to vote (for me)?
Did you speak to her?
Yes, we have been communicating, talking to people. Let us see what happens. There is still time till next Saturday.
Opposition unity is largely confined to Parliament. Outside, everyone fights their own battle.
See, this is a different political debate, it has nothing to do with this election. Yes, there are battles for space in every state. The Congress is a national party, (there is) bound to be conflict with regional parties in states. But methods are worked out to cooperate and work together. I would say this is the semi-final for 2024.
Almost all Opposition parties believe it is the Congress which has to get its act together. What is ailing the party?
I am not a member of the Congress now. I am fighting as an Independent. So I don’t hold a brief for any party. But I am just saying that in Rajasthan, the Congress has a government. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress won. What did the BJP do?
But do you think something is ailing the Congress? You have seen the party over the years…
Yes, we have seen (the party) post-1977, then post-1989 (when it won after being voted out)… There is nothing permanent in politics. There are ups and downs.
Parties have managed to beat the BJP in states. So why doesn’t the Opposition narrative work at the national level? What do you think explains Narendra Modi’s electoral success after 8 years?
I don’t know, I have no answers to this.
After your candidature was announced, there has been talk about your book that came out in 2016, interviews you gave then critical of the Congress leadership.
I am sorry, I am not going into a discussion on my book.
Did Sonia Gandhi speak to you after that? How would you define the equations between you and her?
Nothing has changed. She was not bothered about it. I gave the first copy to her.
It was a very good decision, everybody supported it. The first tribal woman (to be President). I am also very happy about it.
But the Opposition chose Sinha and now you. You are not new faces, you are legacy leaders.
Listen, we (the UPA) also gave the country the first Scheduled Caste President (K R Naryanan), the first woman President (Pratibha Patil). We gave a minority President, a Sikh (Giani Zail Singh) and a Muslim (Zakir Hussain, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed). Every community in the past has been put up for these posts. And now you have a tribal. We are very happy. It is not that only you have put up a backward…
I am talking about the present. There is no freshness in the Opposition candidates.
What is fresh about Dhankhar? I have been a Governor, he has been a Governor. He was in the Congress, I was in the Congress. He then shifted to various parties… So what is so special about Dhankhar? Murmuji, I said, we are very happy about. Lot of Congress people too voted for her.
You have worked with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao as Prime Ministers, and later with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. What are the differences in their style of functioning?
Politics changes. Responses have to be according to the situation and the problems that political parties face. There has been tremendous growth of regional parties, regional interests. So politics of just national parties doesn’t exist anymore… So I can’t compare somebody in the 1960s with somebody in 2020… Problems, demands of the people (have changed), education has spread, there is awareness, mass media…
Some of your contemporaries in the Congress, like Ghulam Nabi Azad, wrote a letter in 2020 expressing reservations over the way the party was being run. What is your view?
That is the beauty of the Congress. You can write and express your views. Can you do it in the BJP? Can you do it in other parties? The Congress has always been an open book. People differ, people criticise, people walk out and people walk back… So many of my friends are in different parties now. But when I speak to them, they are emotionally still attached to the Congress. None of these new parties… dropped the (word) Congress… Trinamool Congress., (Tamil) Manila Congress.
Are the concerns of the leaders valid though? You were in the Congress till a month ago.
What they think is their point of view. Why should I comment on their thinking?
The BJP goes into elections with a brand. Brand Modi. It is a personalised and presidential sort of campaign. What is the Opposition’s answer to it?
My election campaign has nothing to do with that. I have taken up issues that concern Parliament, management of Parliament, democratic functioning, freedom of speech, freedom of debate.
But what is the Opposition’s answer to Brand Modi?
I have no answers. We are fighting it our way, they are fighting it their way. Perceptions are different, and they change… People are angry today, they are okay tomorrow…
As you go along to 2024, the Opposition may find a face. I am nobody to say that.
Are you hopeful of getting votes outside the Opposition basket?
Yes. I have a lot of individual relations. I looked after the Northeast after 1975. I have personal relationships with parties, people. I am contacting everybody, requesting support. I am saying there are larger issues in this vice-presidential election. We are saying the time for change is now.
The Opposition often says the Prime Minister rarely comes to Parliament… Does that show a lack of seriousness towards Parliament?
I don’t say that, I will not judge anyone. It is for him to see how he manages and for his government… All I can say is that Parliament’s smooth functioning requires the government and Opposition to come together.
Lastly, do you think Rahul should take over as Congress president?
It is for the party members to decide. We are going to have an AICC session… If there is anybody else, there will be a contest. We have had it before. Rajesh Pilot stood, Jitendra Prasada stood.