I’ve never been apologetic about this. If Om Namah Shivay is the reason I didn’t become president, then certainly it’s a great blessing, because I won’t exchange my Om Namah Shivay, as Arjun says in the Bhagwad Gita, “even for the sovereignty of the three worlds, what then for this land.”
SHEKHAR GUPTA: Is the Left’s position on (irreligious) secularism also the Congress view now?
I don’t know. That’s really for the party spokesman to answer. I’m not sure if atheism is an essential part of the ideology of the Left in India. But it was in other communist countries. As a guest of (Nikita) Kruschev, I asked, ‘Mr General-Secretary, is it possible in your country to be a believer and also a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union?’ He said, ‘No, it is not. We do respect religion and other faiths but to be a member of the CPSU, you have to be an atheist.’ Whether that applies to Left in India or not, I do not know. But once you give the Left the veto . . .
SHEKHAR GUPTA: Do you think the Left could now end up vetoing those who are religious even out of the membership of the Congress Working Committee?
It’s the Left which vetoed, not the CWC. Shekhar, I feel relieved with this presidency thing, which has been hovering over my head for 10 years, out of my system. I’m free now. So I’m feeling a sense of relief.
AMITABH SINHA: By bowing to the wishes of the Left, do you not think that the Congress is taking its secularism a bit too far?
I don’t think it’s a question of secularism so much as it is of numbers. I don’t know what you mean by ‘too far’, but, you know, I think in India secularism has come to mean something quite different from what it means in Europe. Secularism in India should not mean anti-religiousness. Secularism is what Gandhiji preached or what even Sarva Dharma Sambhav says, that is, equal respect for all religions. But the Left still looks at secularism from the absolutist point of view, as either pro- or anti-religion.
But this whole thing (the presidential race) was run by the Left. They first laid down the parameters. Prakash Karat clearly is the most powerful man in India today . . . and I didn’t say woman!
SHEKHAR GUPTA: Let’s look at the first 15-20 senior-most members of the Congress, those in the Union Cabinet and those in the CWC. How many can actually pass the new criteria of being secular, which is being irreligious. How many of them actually believe in some god in their private and professional lives?
None of them would qualify. I don’t know if there is an atheist among them. Even Dr Manmohan Singh is a devout Sikh. And I think all the others have their own religious beliefs. In India 99 per cent of the people are religious. By census figures, people who write ‘no religion’ or ‘agnostic’ are less than one per cent. This time it was the question of numbers, which Congress did not have. So the support of the Left was needed. So it laid down the parameters and called the shots. But I don’t think that the ‘anti-religious’ definition of secularism of the Left is sustainable.
VANDITA MISHRA: You spoke of secularism and respecting all religions. What will your party do to counter Narendra Modi in Gujarat?
Violence in the name of religion is something that cannot be accepted. So the party in Gujarat will do all it can. But I believe there is a social rift in the state along religious lines and the Congress must do what it can to bridge that. And then Modi is supposed to be a good administrator, so you have to balance that. firstname.lastname@example.org