The PM’s ‘Blue-eyed Boy’

Union minister for Information Technology, telecommunications and parliamentary affairs, Mr. PRAMOD MAHAJAN, who had been turned down by the electorate in his constituency in Mumbai in the last general elections, today enjoys a plum position in the Union cabinet. Often described as the prime minister’s ‘blue-eyed boy’, Mr. Mahajan shares a unique rapport with the PM for his ability to often diffuse tension between the BJP and the Shiv Sena. He is also one of the youngest, coolest and most charismatic ministers to handle this portfolio. RENU MITTAL explores his charisma and clout in the NDA government.

THE suave and articulate Pramod Mahajan has a knack of finding himself in one controversy after another but with deft manoeuvres and a nimble footed approach he has managed to always extricate himself from difficult situations.

Considered to be one of the closest persons to prime minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, Mr. Mahajan seldom speaks his mind, be it at public rallies or brief reactions to the press, since more often he is required to project his master's (Vajpayee's) voice. Nevertheless, he has a firm opinion on every aspect of Indian politics, be it NCP president, Mr. Sharad Pawar's manoeuvres, Maharashtra politics, the Shiv Sena, the growing clout of the USA in the Vajpayee regime or other issues concerning the Union government.

This young minister, with his roots in Maharashtra, had a few years ago been just another BJP leader, though a promising one. However, it was his clear vision for the party, his cool temperament and his good communication skills that somewhat reserved the current portfolio for himself. And, he admits, that over the last few years he has indeed changed and adapted himself to fit the image of a television persona. Excerpts from an interview:

There has been considerable speculation that you wanted to dump the Shiv Sena and tie up with the NCP. How far has that got?
No, all this is simply not true. When the elections were held in Maharashtra in 1999 along with Parliament, the BJP and Shiv Sena performed well but still we lost in numbers. No party got a majority. The Congress and NCP though they fought against each other came together against the BJP-Shiv Sena. That day they formed the government. And as long as their government lasts we have no plans of forming the government with the NCP. Everything else is simply speculation.

I do not think that it is an easy proposition though on the surface it may look like NCP-BJP-Shiv Sena would be a huge two-thirds majority. There are so many questions which don't have easy answers and, frankly, I am not even trying to find the answers.

But there is ongoing speculation that your relations with the Shiv Sena are not good and that you have been keen on parting ways?
No. This is not true. I will be the last person to want to break the alliance with the Shiv Sena. Forget parting ways, as long as we are in alliance with the Shiv Sena I would not even consider taking a small Shiv Sainik into the BJP. We are fighting the civic elections in Maharashtra together and there is no differences between us at the moment. Besides, our alliance exists since 1984.

Is it true that you were keen to bring in Sharad Pawar into the Central government?
No, this is also not true. Again this is nothing but speculation. Let's look at the simple arithmetic. Firstly, I know that Balasaheb will never like Sharad Pawar in the central government. You don't need an astrologer to find this out. Secondly, Pawar has seven MPs while Balasaheb has 15. Its bad arithmetic. I wish people would count the numbers before they begin to speculate. Unless we have a situation that Pawar and Thackeray come together, well, that's like 'ghee mein shakkar'. But they are at loggerheads.

How do you rate the performance of the Vilasrao Deshmukh government in Maharashtra? Do you keep a close watch on your home state?
I am not one of those Maharashtrian leaders who come to national politics yet keep an eye on state politics. I don't interfere in the state politics. But, as far as Vilasrao is concerned, frankly, I don't think he has performed at all. He is half way through his journey (2 1/2 years of the DF govt.) and there's nothing I can recall among his achievements. Everything is in shambles. I won't even give him the credit that he has managed to survive so long. The situation made him survive.

Shifting focus to national politics, the BJP government is said to be using the US to pressurise General Musharraf to hand over Dawood Ibrahim as an issue which would help them in the coming UP assembly elections, any comment?
There can be nothing more absurd than linking today's situation with the UP elections. You must remember that everything changed in the American world after September 11. And the same is the case with India after December 13. We are in a proxy war, fighting against terrorism for the last 20 years. The Americans never felt our anguish. September 11 and December 13 has changed that perception.

For the first time we have international opinion is against terrorism. Hence, we are creating a public opinion which is working, or at least showing some signs of working, that terrorism should be wiped out from the sub-continent. Handing over of Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon is one of those steps.

To come to your ministries, there is a feeling that under the convergence bill even the Information and Broadcasting ministry or the Information part of it would come under your umbrella. Is that scenario likely?
No. I will tell you one thing. What is Information & Broadcasting ministry. This covers All India Radio, Doordarshan, Press Information Bureau and smaller divisions like song and drama. What do these have to do with convergence.

The only part which would come under convergence is the content regulation which was to come under the Broadcasting Council like the Press Council. We were in the process of making a Broadcasting Council but now we will not have a Broadcasting Council but the Communication Commission of India.

I brought IT and Communications together because IT was a very small ministry. But I don't think one minister can manage VSNL, MTNL, BSNL, Prasar Bharti, Doordarshan, All India Radio... I don't think the Information & Broadcasting Ministry at any given point in time, at least in the foreseeable future is going to combine with the communications ministry.

And the STD rates which have been slashed by you, is it working out to be a viable commercial proposition for the government?
Yes, absolutely. Due to monopoly, many times we charged what we though was right. There was no competition. Once you bring in competition, two things change. Quality goes up and the tariff comes down. When I met Yashwant Sinha some days ago, I told him I don't need anything except a pat for the telecom industry.

There is a perception that you are a Jekyll and Hyde personality. There is an articulate minister on one hand and a harsh politician on the other. Recently, your speech in Hissar (in Haryana) was full of anti-Pakistan jargon. Is there a difference between the two personas of Pramod Mahajan?
Firstly, I don't know who is Jekyll and who is Hyde. But anyhow, when you talk one to one you cannot raise the pitch beyond a point. Public oratory is a little different from a hall meeting. But, yes, in a sense you are right. In the last two years I have become very careful. I am become very cautious about my choice of words because now I am not that Pramod Mahajan who has come from a small village. Even on television appearances, which I consider to be very important, I have changed, though I have not got any professional training.