'To protect the Goan identity, Congress is the only alternative'

sandesh prabhudesai, panaji | 17 August 1999 11:59 IST

There's a lot that is interesting about Ramakant Khalap.

At the moment, the former Union law minister is in the news for splitting the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party to join the Congress. He will contest this Lok Sabha election on the national party's symbol, hand.

Khalap's move is surprising, especially when you consider that he built his career on anti-Congressism. He had quite a sensational tenure in the United Front government. That was the time when judicial activism was at its peak, and several top politicians charged with corruption were arrested.

Khalap, however, lost his seat to the Congress in the 1998 Lok Sabha poll. Whereupon, he successfully contested the assembly election held in June. But his party, which had ruled the state initially for 17 years from 1963, lost miserably due to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

So now, Khalap, ever in search of power, has gone over to the Congress. Sandesh Prabhudesai quizzed him at length about what forced him to split his nearly four-decade-old party. Excerpts:

What made you merge the MGP into the Congress? You had rebuilt the organisation in 1980 on the single plank of anti-Congressism.

I believe that the MGP has reached a dead end. All my attempts to convert it into a strong regional force have proved futile. My insistence to change the name of the party, recast its aims and objectives to attract all sections of the Goan society and make it acceptable to the Goans as well as non-Goans settled here was unsuccessful. After 25 years of steadfast association with the MGP, I have now taken a new root, which, I am aware, may lead me to political glory or political wilderness.

Why were you not able to succeed in your efforts?

Because of the conservationists within the party who are still not prepared to change its image and make it a broad-based organisation. The decade-long debate I raised in this respect proved futile.

The MGP was the sole alternative to the misrule of the Congress from 1980 to 1990, and we did fairly well. The slide began thereafter as we did not reach even the threshold of coming back to power. Meanwhile, a new wave of political awareness swept the country with the resurgence of the BJP. The fundamentalist Hindutva theory proved to be quite attractive for the electorate.

And what about the years between 1990 and 1999?

Well, our presence on the election scenario resulted only in splitting the votes to the advantage of the Congress. Our people kept on migrating to the Congress and the BJP. It obviously weakened our strength day by day.

If you feel so close to the Congress, why did you align with the BJP in the 1994 assembly poll?

True, our honeymoon with the BJP turned sour. But that was because the BJP's inner core is different from its outer face. The face wanted to assimilate the MGP masses into the BJP, whereas the core wanted the masses sans its leaders. They continuously indulged into back-stabbing. If not, the alliance would have triumphed this time with 23 to 28 seats including a minimum 15 to the BJP. Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde had almost reached the agreement. But the coterie saw to it that everything was thrown overboard.

Are you hinting at the Sangh Parivar or the central leadership?

I would not name anybody in particular and definitely not the central leadership. In fact, they wanted the alliance. These are the few orthodox elements having stronghold over the local BJP here, I would say.

How do you justify your joining the Congress when your plan to align with the BJP did not succeed? Is that not contradictory?

No. The BJP wore a new face after the Ayodhya episode, minus Ram mandir, Article 370, the Common Civil Code and Hindutva. It was almost another Congress under a different name. They also identified locally with our viewpoints like dual language policy, land reforms and anti-Congress stance.

But how does that justify your joining the Congress?

Well, the masses have to be led somewhere where they would be respected. Even the leadership should be recognised properly.

But you have joined the Congress to help Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro save his seat from the dissidents within the Congress...

One minute, let me clarify one thing. I have not joined the Congress at Faleiro's request. It was the higher leadership like Manmohan Singh and Madhavrao Scindia who came down as emissaries of Sonia Gandhi and invited me to join. Even all the other observers who were down in Goa that time supported the view.

Then why could you not succeed in merging the whole party into the Congress?

You know how it is. There are different viewpoints, groups and lobbies within the MGP. It is also the sentimental association with the party, which was founded by Bhausaheb Bandodkar. I didn't want to hurt their sentiments.

But are these not the same sentiments based on which you had opposed the MGP merger into the Congress when Bandodkar's daughter and former chief minister Shashikala Kakodkar took the initiative in 1980?

Maybe, but the situation was different at that time. We were the only opposition in those days.

Do you mean to say that it was a mistake then?

Certainly. Actually, it is much more than that. Just before the 1979 election, when the United Goans Party merged into Congress-U, I was telling Tai (Shashikala Kakodkar) to merge our party into the Congress-I. In fact, Sitaram Kesri was sent down by the late Indira Gandhi to hold talks. But she wanted to tie up with the Janata Party. Leaders like Madhu Dandvate and Mrinal Gore came down and discussed it. But finally she decided to go alone. Had she listened to my proposal, the MGP, in the name of Congress-I, would have ruled Goa to date.

Meanwhile, the late Babu Naik in Congress-U secured alliance with Mrs Gandhi and then merged his party into Congress-I overnight after Mrs Gandhi swept the poll countrywide. Kakodkar then woke up and decided to merge our party into Congress-I. Naturally, I opposed it.

If one is to look at the MGP's history, it was formed at the initiative of the Maharashtra Congress leaders. Later, for some time, it stayed close to socialist outfits like the Janata Party. Then it forged an alliance with the BJP. Now it has split and merged into the Congress. Where does the MGP stand ideologically in this whole game?

Yes, I admit that there is no clear-cut definition of ideology as far as the MGP is concerned. We went more on the pattern of the Congress. The late Bandodkar used to call himself a true Congressman. But we were like a socialist outfit, believing in land to the tiller, judicious distribution of wealth and land etc.

You have tried in the past to bring together all regional parties of the country. You have been a Union minister in the United Front government, which believed that this is an era of coalitions. Well, the era is still on and regional parties do play a major role in it. Why have you, at such a stage, thought of merging your regional outfit into a national party?

You may be right, about the national level. But as far as Goa is concerned, I foresee the annihilation of regional forces here. Not because regional forces are ineffective, but other forces like the Congress and the BJP are forceful, aggressive and even violent. They are like the Moghul army invading the small principalities.

Then why did you choose the Congress and not the BJP to surrender?

To protect the Goan identity, I feel, Congress is the only viable alternative.

What is this Goan identity?

Have you noticed that Goa is becoming cosmopolitan in nature? We have 25 per cent non-Goans today. That will rise to 50 per cent in the next 10 years. Goa is becoming the hub of every economic activity. By 2050, it might pose a serious challenge to Bombay. Regional forces will not have any charm or future in such a situation.

After functioning as a high command for almost 20 years, you have now chosen a party where your whole activity will be controlled by a high command. Then, the Congress in Goa is itself a coalition of various groups. How will you survive in such atmosphere?

While entering from the backwaters to the mainstream, I am fully aware of the hazards lying before me. It is like another Kargil. There are terrorists like the Mujahideen lurching around in different garb all along the path. I have not opted for an easy solution. It's a battle for me, with many 'ifs'.

What if you lose the Lok Sabha poll?

That is one 'if'. There are also questions like what if I win and the Congress loses or what if the Congress wins but I am not included in the central Cabinet.

But what if you lose and do not reach Parliament?

Well, I would try and influence the party's policies at the local level. What else I can do?

 

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