Reacting to Mamata Banerjee's dramatic rejection of UPA's Presidential nominee Pranab Mukherjee and her continued defiance, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has said that there is a "limit" to which one can "bend" as certain eventualities have to be faced if they cannot be avoided.
Talking to Karan Thapar on Devil's Advocate, he made it clear that Congress on its own was not asking Mamata Banerjee to leave UPA and is "not throwing her out".
Here is the transcript of the interview:
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate. Has the politics surrounding Pranab Mukherjee's selection as the UPA candidate for President embarrassed the Congress party? That's the key issue I should pursue today with Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh. Mr Digvijaya Singh, can you accept that the politics surrounding Pranab Mukherjee's nomination as the UPA candidate for presidency has been embarrassing perhaps painful for your party?
Digvijaya Singh: May be momentarily, because we never expected that Mamataji and Mulayamji would throw up names arbitrarily. I think to that extent yes it was embarrassing but after that it was handled very nicely.
Karan Thapar: Up to that point of time could it have been handled better?
Digvijaya Singh: You see with the kind of numbers the Congress party didn't had the clear majority, so the Congress President had to go cautiously. She had to meet the allies, she has to discuss the names with the allies and then come around with a name which had the widest possible consensus.
Karan Thapar: But shouldn't that consultation happened earlier? After all by delaying the consultation and stretching it for so long you not only allowed a feverish speculation but you also allowed an ally like Mamata to run away with the agenda.
Digvijaya Singh: In fact how can you say she run away with the agenda? She miscalculated. In fact the consultation started much earlier than what they did the last time and I think she had widest consultation and two names had cropped up to her which she of course conveyed to Mamata.
Karan Thapar: To Mamata or to Sonia?
Digvijaya Singh: Sonia. Soniaji had widest consultation and these two names had cropped up to her in widest consultation with all allies and other political party.
Karan Thapar: I'll come in a moments time to Mamata's behaviour but you began by admitting that it was embarrassing and yet you are saying to me at the same time that things couldn’t have been handled better. Isn’t that contradiction in that?
Digvijaya Singh: No, you see it was handled as best as it could be but who would have expected that Mamataji would come out with names of those persons who have not even conveyed their consent to contest.
Karan Thapar: I’ll come to that in a moments time but are you really telling me that this couldn’t have been handled better?
Digvijaya Singh: No.
Karan Thapar: It couldn't have been handled better?
Digvijaya Singh: It couldn’t have been handled better.
Karan Thapar: What about comments that you should have announced your candidates earlier, that you shouldn’t have prolonged the consultation for so long?
Digvijaya Singh: No, the problem is that on consultation two names had come up, so she had to decide on one name by consulting as many parties as possible.
Karan Thapar: It couldn’t have happened earlier?
Digvijaya Singh: No.
Karan Thapar: It couldn’t have happened faster?
Digvijaya Singh: No.
Karan Thapar: Alright let’s come to Mamata Banerjee’s behaviour, did she breach Sonia Gandhi’s trust when she publicly revealed two names which Sonia Gandhi had in mind, Pranab Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari, as your colleague Ambika Soni has said or do you accept as Mamata’s MP Kunal Ghosh has said that she informed Sonia Gandhi that she would go public and therefore she had Sonia Gandhi’s permission to go public, which do you believe?
Digvijaya Singh: Knowing what little of Mrs Sonia Gandhi, I don’t think she would have told her to go public on this.
Karan Thapar: Would she have given permission for Mamata to go public?
Digvijaya Singh: I have my doubts.
Karan Thapar: So, when Kunal Ghosh says that Mamata informed Sonia that she was going public and Sonia gave permission for that as well, you are saying Kunal Ghosh is wrong?
Digvijaya Singh: Well if this statement had to come it should have come from Mamata, Kunal Ghosh was not there when they met.
Karan Thapar: So he doesn’t know what he is talking about?
Digvijaya Singh: Could be yes.
Karan Thapar: So in other words this could be an embarrassing breach of trust by an ally?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, when you started by asking was it embarrassing, certainly it was embarrassing because an ally after discussing with the UPA chairperson came out and said we reject both these names and came out with three names. She pulled out these three names out of the hat and as even proved said proved she and Mulayamji didn’t had consent of anyone of these three candidates.
Karan Thapar: Now let’s come to that second instance. How do you explain it to yourself, Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh getting together and announcing that they wanted Manmohan Singh, Somnath Chatterjee and APJ Abdul Kalam. Was it a conspiracy, was it a strategy, what was it?
Digvijaya Singh: It fails me. In fact such a seasoned and experienced political leadership has treated this in such a cavalier manner, I have never expected.
Karan Thapar: Are you suggesting it was a serious mistake made by the two of them?
Digvijaya Singh: To me yes, it was a serious mistake.
Karan Thapar: Beyond that was it also a moment of silliness and childishness on their part?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, I would say that it was not a very considered and a very nice way of handling things.
Karan Thapar: It wasn’t a mature thing to do?
Digvijaya Singh: It wasn’t a mature thing to do at all.
Karan Thapar: It wasn’t a serious step you accept experience politicians to take?
Digvijaya Singh: Yeah, I am surprised that they did this.
Karan Thapar: Let me put this to you, when this happened the reaction of the press, the reaction of your own party and the reaction probably of the country was just embarrassing for Sonia Gandhi. It publicly eluded her authority.
Digvijaya Singh: It was certainly very embarrassing and I think post this incident the Congress party and the UPA chairperson has handled this very nicely.
Karan Thapar: Except that at that moment it was the erosion of Sonia Gandhi’s authority as the UPA chairperson?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, you can say that but the fact remains that we know Mamata and her behaviour, so we can’t blame her for that.
Karan Thapar: So you mean she is an erratic person and predictable?
Digvijaya Singh: She has been an erratic in some way but let us also confess that she has been a great fighter all her life.
Karan Thapar: You know not only was this an erosion of Sonia Gandhi's authority as the president and chairperson of the UPA but was a violation of the dignity of the Prime Minister. It was a clear sign that at least a sizeable section of the UPA Government no longer wanted him as the head of the Government.
Digvijaya Singh: Well, I think it was extremely immature and embarrassing not only for the Congress president but even to the Prime Minister and to Mr Chatterjee. And of course I don’t if they had consulted Abdul Kalam sahab also.
Karan Thapar: Can you confirm that the Prime Minister was deeply, personally upset by this?
Digvijaya Singh: I have not met him but obviously yes.
Karan Thapar: Obviously yes, any Prime Minister would be deeply upset by this?
Digvijaya Singh: Obviously yes.
Karan Thapar: Now, Mamata Banerjee since had gone one step further. She has on Friday night publicly said that the game is not over. Is that a threat?
Digvijaya Singh: I think now my appeal to Mamata Banerjeeji is that she should reconsider her decision. The magnanimity which Pranab Mukherjee has shown to reconsider her decision, to get her support and calling her sister and her own candidate Mr Abdul Kalam has not really become a candidate, she should reconsider her decision.
Karan Thapar: Far from reconsidering her decision not only she is threatening you by saying that the game is not over, she is also saying and she has said on her Facebook so the whole world can see it, that she stands by her nomination of Abdul Kalam. She said he is far and away the best person for the job.
Digvijaya Singh: The person should be ready to contest also.
Karan Thapar: So is she making a second serious mistake?
Digvijaya Singh: I would say that it is something which she should avoid.
Karan Thapar: So, it is a mistake?
Digvijaya Singh: To me it is a mistake.
Karan Thapar: And another act of political immaturity on her part?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, the way she has handled the whole subject of Presidentail election, I think it doesn't show maturity.
Karan Thapar: Mamata has clearly proved, not just in this instance, but repeatedly that she is an awkward, prickly, difficult ally. Are you disappointed, disillusioned with Mamata?
Digvijaya Singh: No, we have known Mamata for almost two decades and we know how she behaves.
Karan Thapar: You mean you didn’t expect anything different?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, nothing is impossible or nothing is unexpected as far as Mamata’s behaviour goes.
Karan Thapar: In other words, you have taken in account that she would be erratic, she would be rebellious and she would behave badly?
Digvijaya Singh: That is Mamata.
Karan Thapar: You are not denying any of this?
Digvijaya Singh: That is Mamata.
Karan Thapar: In which case, after creating a drama and a crisis, is there any further purpose in Mamata continuing as a member of the United Progressive Alliance?
Digvijaya Singh: As far as we are concerned, we are not throwing her out, we are not asking her to leave.
Karan Thapar: If she decide to go on her own, will you stop her?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, all efforts have been made to console her, to accept her views, to accept her tantrums.
Karan Thapar: But if despite that she part ways, you’ll let her go?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, beyond point and of course beyond a certain limit the decision is her.
Karan Thapar: Absolutely. So, you will not bend over backwards to retain her?
Digvijaya Singh: Well there is a limit to which we can bend to. You have seen the last one and one-and-a-half-year the way she has handled. Although it goes to a credit that on some issues she has agreed on critical matters.
Karan Thapar: On very very few issues. What you are saying to me is that she has exhausted Congress’s patient.
Digvijaya Singh: I won’t say that, Congress has immense patient.
Karan Thapar: But you are also saying even if you insist that you have patients, that it is very thin thread that keeps the alliance together at the moment.
Digvijaya Singh: But we are hoping it is a strong thread.
Karan Thapar: But thin treads can snap easily.
Digvijaya Singh: I am saying it is a strong thread.
Karan Thapar: But you are resigned to the fact if she goes you’ll let her go.
Digvijaya Singh: Well, there is some immaturity if can’t be avoided have to be faced.
Karan Thapar: Let’s know come to Mulayam Singh Yadav, it is quite clear and he himself has revealed to our sister channel IBN7, that he saved the day when he had two secret meetings with Sonia Gandhi, one on the night of Wednesday and one on the night of Thursday, where were these meetings held?
Digvijaya Singh: I am quite unaware of that.
Karan Thapar: You have no knowledge of it at all?
Digvijaya Singh: Not at all.
Karan Thapar: Being the general secretary of the Congress party reputation you are very close to Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi. You are probably one of the critical decision maker and you are seriously telling me that you didn’t know?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, you are overestimating me.
Karan Thapar: Is it possible that no such secret meetings happened despite the fact Mulyam Singh is saying they did?
Digvijaya Singh: I wouldn’t know because I really don’t know that these meetings did take place.
Karan Thapar: You really didn’t know?
Digvijaya Singh: Not at all.
Karan Thapar: You are not being impassive?
Digvijaya Singh: No, not with Karan Thapar.
Karan Thapar: Let me put this to you, whether the secret meetings happened or not, what is a fact is Mulayam Singh suddenly changed his mind having said that he wanted either Somnath Chatterjee, Abdul Kalam, he suddenly decided that he would endorse Pranab Mukherjee. What do you think changed his mind?
Digvijaya Singh: Mulayam Singhji is a very pragmatic politician and he saw the ground realities and when he saw the overwhelming support from the UPA allies and outside, he agreed.
Karan Thapar: It sounds as if you are saying that he realised that there was majority with Pranab Mukherjee, he decided to be with the winning side.
Digvijaya Singh: Let’s not forget that in the very beginning he said that he would rather prefer a political person than a bureaucrat.
Karan Thapar: Well, Dr Manmohan Singh would have been a political person, Somnath Chaterjee would have been a political person and he is the man who nominated Abdul Kalam in the first place. So, how you now explain the fact that he switched to Pranab Mukherjee?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, I really don’t know the events which led to this but the fact remains that I am told that he came out in public also that he had suggested Pranab Mukherjee’s name two weeks back.
Karan Thapar: To Sonia Gandhi?
Digvijaya Singh: I don’t know to whom but yes.
Karan Thapar: What you say that is Mulayam Singh is a pragmatic person, was there a deal, was there a quid pro quo, has Congress agreed to either a financial package to UP, or steps to ease the disproportionate assets case he faces?
Digvijaya Singh: As far as financial package goes, if he would have agreed for a financial package out of turn for West Bengal probably Mamataji would have not opposed Pranab Mukherjee.
Karan Thapar: In other words if you would have given a financial package, you would have given it to Mamata, and if you haven’t given it to Mamata, you are saying to me, you wouldn’t have given to Mulayam either.
Digvijaya Singh: Exactly, how can it be given to one state.
Karan Thapar: In which case, was there some understanding or any step to ease the disproportionate assets case?
Digvijaya Singh: Well that’s not in the government’s hand.
Karan Thapar: Oh, there are a lot of things in the government’s hand when it comes to the CBI, you know that and I know that so let’s not get into that forum. Did the government, Sonia Gandhi give any assurance to Mulayam Singh in the disproportionate assets case?
Digvijaya Singh: I don’t think she could have because she does not interfere in such matters. I will tell you Karan there were five cases of the BJP leaders in Madhya Pradesh being investigated by the CBI and in all five cases the BJP leaders have been exonerated and BJP leaders have gone on record to say that we admire the impartiality of the CBI.
Karan Thapar: In other words you are saying to me that there was no sweetener, no quid pro quo, Mulayam changed his mind and decided to support Pranab because he recognised Pranab was the best candidate in the fray.
Digvijaya Singh: Yes.
Karan Thapar: You mean that and you stand by it?
Digvijaya Singh: Yes.
Karan Thapar: Mr Digvijaya Singh, your party the Congress party has said that they would like Pranab Mukherjee to be a unanimously-elected president of India. Which case what steps are you taking to ensure that the NDA and the BJP in particular support Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature?
Digvijaya Singh: I think immediately after the announcement the Prime Minister called up Sushma Swaraj about the decision and asked for their support and across the board there is a great regard and respect for the personality of Mr Pranab Mukherjee, even among the NDA.
Karan Thapar: That goes without doubt. But the BJP or the NDA must be looking for something in return. Would you be prepared to support an NDA nominee for vice president in return for the NDA’s support for Pranab Mukherjee as president?
Digvijaya Singh: To me it looks unlikely.
Karan Thapar: Unlikely. Why?
Digvijaya Singh: Because we already have the numbers.
Karan Thapar: But you may not have the numbers for vice president.
Digvijaya Singh: That is something which the UPA leadership, the Congress party leadership will have to take a view.
Karan Thapar: But you are saying that you Digvijaya Singh believes that it is unlikely that there could be an arrangement whereby the UPA supports an NDA vice president in return to the NDA supporting the UPA candidate for president.
Digvijaya Singh: To me it looks unlikely.
Karan Thapar: There is speculation in the papers that the Congress might offer a second term as vice president to Hamid Ansari, is that likely?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, I think it is not a bad idea. Mr Ansari has conducted himself admirably as a vice president.
Karan Thapar: So, you think he is deserving of a second term?
Digvijaya Singh: I’ve said it is not a bad idea.
Karan Thapar: Is it your own personal opinion?
Digvijaya Singh: It is my personal opinion.
Karan Thapar: But have you canvassed it with Sonia Gandhi, with the Prime Minister?
Digvijaya Singh: The discussions over the vice presidential candidature have not started.
Karan Thapar: But when that discussion starts, will you raise this as a formal proposal from your side?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, it all depends whether I am asked about my views.
Karan Thapar: But if asked?
Digvijaya Singh: Moreover, I have not really done the mathematics as far as the numbers go.
Karan Thapar: But nonetheless you believe it is a good idea.
Digvijaya Singh: Yes, it is a good idea indeed.
Karan Thapar: Now, one of the problems you face is replacing Pranab Mukherjee when he leaves the government. He is said to be resigning on the 24th of June. You need both the finance minister and the leader of the House. How easy or difficult will it be to replace a man who has been the linchpin of your government?
Digvijaya Singh: There is no doubt that we have very few people of his stature and his ability and by the same time the Honorable Prime Minister does have people who can fit in to the role of a good finance minister and also as the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha.
Karan Thapar: What about the fact that Pranab Mukherjee over the last eight years that the UPA has been in government has been the head of some 83 or 84 groups of ministers.
Digvijaya Singh: Yes.
Karan Thapar: He has been involved in the very running of this government, not just these two big portfolios that he held. How do you fill the vacuum he leaves behind there?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, it may be a bit difficiult but then someone has to fit into the vacuum created and therefore I think there is no dearth of talent as far as the Congress party or the UPA is considered.
Karan Thapar: But there could be few choppy days ahead as the new person feels his way and learns the new job.
Digvijaya Singh: Yes but we have experienced people who...
Karan Thapar: But you began your answer with yes.
Digvijaya Singh: Yes, it is may but at the same time we have very competent and experienced people in our party.
Karan Thapar: One last question. The new finance minister is going to be appointed at a time when you have falling growth, when investors internationally and domestically are concerned, when ‘The Economist’ in its front page has said ‘India in trouble’ and the inside article says ‘Farewell incredible India’. Would you accept that whoever becomes the new finance minister must be reassuring investors both at home and abroad?
Digvijaya Singh: Don’t forget it was Dr Manmohan Singh who led the recovery in 1991?
Karan Thapar: You said something very important. In 1991 when there was a crisis, Narsimha Rao brought an insider in and that was Dr Manmohan Singh. Today we have another perceived crisis. Would the Congress party accept an outsider as finance minister like say Montek Singh Ahluwalia like say if the Prime Minister wants him.
Digvijaya Singh: Well, it was the Prime Minister to decide. But when we have Dr Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister who had led the recovery in ’91, why should anyone worry?
Karan Thapar: Except that now he is the Prime Minister and he has more responsibilities. So, if he now wants someone like Montek Ahluwalia, will Congress accept?
Digvijaya Singh: Well, as far as the Prime Minister is concerned, he has every right to appoint anyone from outside also.
Karan Thapar: That I think is a very clear answer - Every right to appoint anyone from outside also. You are saying yes?
Digvijaya Singh: Yes.
Karan Thapar: Digivijaya Singh, a pleasure talking to you.