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Interview with Former Congress union minister
MUMBAI: Former Congress union minister Milind Deora believes the party has given a lot to India. In an interview with Aditi Phadnis, Deora talks about how he is excited by the challenge before the Congress today. He also talks about his father, Murli Deora, and how his politics was ‘relationship-based’. Edited excerpts:
You’ve been dealt a double blow. You lost the election and then, you lost your father. However mature one is and however prepared, the loss of a parent is always a terrible blow… and then the trauma of this defeat… Murli Deora’s politics was of a very different kind. How do you see your politics and his?
I feel blessed that I had him. He was from Marwar and came to Bombay to set up a packaging business. He was not a political person, just a businessman, till 1968 when a meeting with Robert Kennedy changed his life. He decided he had to add a new dimension to business. He decided to do charity – at that time it was still charity, not philanthropy, as we know it now. He loved meeting people and listening to their problems. So you could say that for him, politics was a way of institutionalising philanthropy. His idea of politics was to, for instance, set up an eye camp in South Mumbai’s poorer areas. His politics was very personal: it was relationship-based.
It never struck me that I could go into politics. I went abroad to study and I was to return and run the business. But I came back and began thinking about what I could do for my country and the poor.
My politics was in South Mumbai: what could I do there? It struck me that I should take up the issue of digital literacy in the constituency. My introduction to politics was not through caste or class struggle. I saw it always as an effort at improving the quality of life for people.
We were in power for 10 years. He saw me first as an MP (Member of Parliament) and then as a minister. At the end of my first term, he thought I could have done better. I was new to the game and impractically over-idealistic. When I won again and during my second term, I think I won my father’s confidence.
At a personal level, he was a dear friend, I could always talk politics with him.
When he became a minister, I made it a point to never go to his office. I knew how rumours could start about ministers’ sons influencing ministry decisions. Both his MoSs (Ministers of State) were young ministers and close friends of mine. We used to joke that it was my JOB to keep his MOSs happy with him.
The only time I saw him tense was when OIL prices were hiked. He knew the reasons: that the oil companies would bleed if the prices didn’t go up. But he also knew the political costs. I would tell him: “It is about communication. You have to explain to the people about crude imports, the politics of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries)…” He appreciated that and his ministry ran a few campaigns to achieve this objective.
It was his appointment as Petroleum Minister that gave rise to the biggest controversy in the United Progressive Alliance: everyone knew how friendly he was with the Ambani family and the circumstances in which his predecessor was removed suggested he was brought in only to serve the business interests of one industrial house…
The petroleum portfolio is controversial regardless of who the minister is. My father was very friendly with the Ambanis, Dhirubhai was a close friend – but it was a South Mumbai thing. Every MP has to be close to the people in his or her constituency. So when you ran a medical camp or discussed plans for improving a stretch of road, the person next door could be the owner and promoter of one of India’s biggest companies – to a pessimistic observer, conflict of interest was lurking everywhere… But you couldn’t ignore these community leaders, who were public leaders in their own right. Whether it was Mukesh or Dhirubhai or Ramnath Goenka or Ashok Jain… they were part of this constituency, themselves leaders. Almost all of India Inc lived and still lives here.
But he never compromised on his ideals and beliefs. They were all still his friends and he didn’t hesitate to admit that. He didn’t take well to (Arvind) Kejriwal’s frivolous charges. In fact, as Minister of Petroleum, after rechecking complaints from MPs, my father proactively invited the Comptroller and Auditor General to audit the KG-D6 basin. My father believed in transparency and even his close friends knew that and respected that.
But what do you do? He knew everyone and knew them well. Deepak Parekh of HDFC was also one of his best friends. So if my father had become Finance Minister, for a conspiracy theorist, that would have also been a problem. That is why, on the gas pricing issue, my father referred all decisions to an EGoM (Empowered Group of Ministers).
He used to tell his ministry officers: “Even if I tell you to help someone, you should only do what is right. My duty as a politician is to give everyone a patient hearing.”
The Congress lost elections very badly before his eyes…
But he’d seen that before. When Indira Gandhi lost the elections in the late 1970s, he invited her to Mumbai to interact with industry. The meeting was at the Taj. She went in and then industry leaders went in. After the meeting finished, industrialists were asked by the waiting reporters: “Did you meet Mrs Gandhi? What did she say”. Their response was: “We didn’t go to meet her”. In other words, they didn’t want to acknowledge her. Shortly afterwards, she came back to power.
So he’d seen those days and a few of those political cycles. One of the last conversations we had was about the party’s defeat. He said it wasn’t the end of the world for us. He had admiration for the way (Narendra) Modi ran his campaign. But he said: “In politics, nothing is permanent.”
Your party doesn’t seem to believe this. You seem to be paralysed by the defeat like a deer in the headlights of a car…
My own feeling is, how fast we recover from the defeat, how much… these are secondary things. This party has given a lot to India, it has helped shape and preserve India’s core values. I am more excited by the challenge before us today than when we were at 200-plus seats. It’s easier to rebuild the party now.
Your father was so popular cutting across party lines, you must have had offers from the Bharatiya Janata Party…
This party has given me a lot. Yes, I respect people in other parties. But my father’s politics was about loyalty. So is mine.