Union Defence Minister A K Antony is a man of few words most of the time, that is unless he is addressing a public gathering, as he has been the last few days seeking votes for UDF candidates in Kerala. He is so hard-pressed for time that the only window he offers is sharing his car while traveling from one campaign venue to the next. Vinod Mathew catches up with A K Antony during a whistle-stop drive over the hilly terrain between Pala and Kottayam late Friday evening and gets him to open his mind on a few topics. Excerpts of the interview:
Q: There was once an Antony who was the leader of Kerala. In recent times, another Antony has emerged, very much a part of the Delhi circuit. Is your disconnect with Kerala complete?
A: I was never a Delhi man. And I never became one during all these years there. I am from Kerala and I will return to Kerala. As soon as my duties there get over I will come back.
Q: UDF and Congress leaders including you, say it will be a whitewash in their favour in Kerala; LDF leaders say the opposite. Won’t the reality lie in between these two extremes?
A: I can only say what I feel is correct. I covered many constituencies from Kasargod. I haven’t seen anything in any one place that suggests that the LDF has a complete upper hand. We may lose a couple of seats here or there. But I feel even in a worst-case situation, the UDF will get one more seat than what we did last time. (The interviewer says, “That means 17”, to which Antony replies in the affirmative).
Q: When you recently said you will never intervene in state politics, were you saying that non-intervention would continue, post May 16, no matter whether UPA III gets going or not? Also you said there would be no change in the state leadership post elections. What warranted this remark?
A: (Answers the last part of the question first.) It (about no change in state leadership) was not a statement, but an answer to a specific question by a journalist. Now to the first question, my leadership days in Kerala are definitely over. In fact, they got over in 2004. Oommen Chandy is performing his duty very well. His government’s development agenda is showing good results. I am from Kerala and I’ll keep coming here, but not to take up any elected position. In other words, it will only be a supplementary or supportive role and never in a leadership position.
Q: Are you saying you would never be enticed to play an active political role in Kerala ever again?
A: That is what I am saying. (Here the interviewer asks, “Are you making a categorical statement?) Yes, it is a categorical statement. There is no going back.
Q: The Malayali community in Delhi has been for a while talking about the second Malayali President of India. And there has been no ambivalence regarding his identity – it’s A K Antony. Would you say it’s all mere speculation?
A: I have no control over what others say. It is simply out of the question. The time for something like that to have happened is over now. Politics is changing fast. The younger generation is taking charge and it’s time for us from the older generation to hand over the reins to them. I know my limitations. And I’ll never aspire to go beyond them. I’ll not be tempted by such temptations. I am a realistic person.
Q: While campaigning in Kerala, you’d also be tracking the Congress prospects in other states. In the four southern states Congress had 62 seats, accounting for 30 per cent of 206 in the 15th Lok Sabha. In Andhra Pradesh, pollsters say Congress seats could dip from 33 to single digit. Was the Telangana decision delayed for too long/ messed up?
A: We had to make a decision knowing fully well that the deep-rooted sentiments of the Telangana people had to be factored in at some point of time. It was not correct to keep ignoring the democratic aspirations of the people for too long. We were quite aware that it would be a politically sensitive decision to make. But we had to take that call in the interest of the people. But I don’t agree with the prediction of some of the political pundits that we will put up such a poor show in Andhra Pradesh.
Q: What was your rationale behind the statement that there is no Modi wave sweeping India? By making remarks like three AKs, do you reckon Modi is connecting big time with a section of the voters who get swayed by such word play?
A: Modi is the creation of event managers and some corporate houses. I’ve been in politics for over 50 years and during this period I’ve never seen the entire Sangh Parivar, including its feeder units, work in tandem with corporate India and a section of the media with such passion to create so much hype for one person to such heights. I admit the BJP will get a respectable number of seats, but it will never come anywhere near the magic figure. For whatever reason, Modi was wrong to make a negative reference to AK47, the weapon that is wielded by our jawans protecting the country’s borders as that would put doubts in the minds of our soldiers and by extension lower their morale which is as good as playing into the hands of our enemies. I believe such attempts to catch votes will cost the nation dear.
Q: You said it is possible that a Congress-led government at the Centre could have CPM backing, much to the ire of CPM. Do you think the marginal voters will be swayed by this to vote for Congress/ UDF candidates?
A: In 2014, the UPA may not get a majority. Just as we didn’t in 2004 and 2009 but then a number of secular parties rallied around with support to the Congress. Many of these parties had fought the Congress during those two elections, but were not averse to an alliance. We expect a similar situation to develop this time too. All I said is that, when secular parties come in support of Congress for a post-election alliance, we will welcome them all. And the CPM will be no exception.
Q: BJP leaders believe it will emerge a strong player in the state politics by 2016, where if they mop up 5-6 seats, they could become an undeniable ally for either UDF or LDF. Are we suddenly looking at new political possibilities?
A: Such predictions have been made in the past also. But the BJP has never come close to opening its account in Kerala. Here the political picture is clearly drawn. The fight is between the LDF and the UDF. There is no space for a third entity. It is my prediction that the situation will continue to be so for many more elections whether it be the state Assembly or the Lok Sabha. The BJP’s dreams of emerging a political force in Kerala will never become a reality and will remain their wishful thinking.
Q: As the longest serving Defence Minister, there have been a number of mishaps in your last few months at the helm. There are charges galore that delayed decisions, even no decisions led to some of them. Has not your defence against these allegations been a bit subdued?
A: These are mere allegations with no grain of truth in them. The Indian Armed Forces have been modernised like never before during my tenure. Each and every rupee budgeted to the Defence portfolio has been utilised in the fullest sense, with no allocated funds lapsing. There have been a few who have advised me that I should place orders against money that will be allocated in the future. I am totally against creating a pipeline of defence purchases without money in hand, against future receivables. This is what the charges are all about – that I am not placing ‘future orders’. But that I cannot and will not do.
Q: There was a time as in 1994 when you remitted office claiming responsibility for things going wrong in the ministry. But for Sindurakshak mishap, it was Admiral D K Joshi who resigned. Comment.
A: There have been such disasters in the past too. I never asked Admiral D K Joshi to resign. It was his decision. He was a fine officer. No questions about it.
Q: Irom Sharmila has been on a strike which can be described as Gandhian for 13 years now, seeking repeal of the Armed Forces (Special powers) Act, 1958. As a known Gandhian, what has stood in your way, from tackling this?
A: I’ve made a few efforts to resolve this issue. It is unfortunate that nothing came of it. There is no way a solution can be found that will compromise the security of the country, especially given the volatility in neighbouring regions including Afghanistan.
Interviews done by Vinod Mathew
'Will Surely Get 4-5 Seats in 2016 Assembly Polls' [BJP president V Muraleedharan]
'A Majority of Even One Seat is Still a Majority' [Chief Minister Oommen Chandy]
'It's Time Parties are Brought Under RTI' [Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala]
'UDF Govt Will Not Survive For Long' [CPM leader Pinarayi Vijayan]