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I am an activist, not a politician: Ambika Soni

Interview with Information and Broadcasting Minister

Kavita Chowdhury  |  New Delhi 

Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni tells Kavita Chowdhury the UPA government has been an achiever. Looking back at her 42-year-long political career, the Congress leader from Punjab says she would not seek office after 2016. Edited excerpts:

The UPA II government, which is more than halfway through its term, is receiving flak from all quarters. It appears to be shackled with policy paralysis and is being forced to give in to coalition demands.
No, the government is well on its way to fulfilling the promises it made in its 2009 manifesto and we are optimistic about fulfilling the rest, too. If one programme is undergoing a social audit, another is underway. As for all this talk of policy paralysis, may not be looking at the UPA’s achievements due to the pressure of rising prices. It’s all interconnected. Also, thanks to coalition politics, some Bills and measures get delayed, and that has its fallout. One cannot draw a comparison between UPA I and UPA II. No two time periods are identical. As we move forward, challenges change and so do aspirations. What we did in the first five years led us onto more difficult goals to achieve in UPA II. Things like Right to Education and the Food Security Bill are no small deal. The economic growth in the first few years gave us the acceleration to lead onto bigger things. 

Looking back at your own political career, it’s been a long journey…
My political career has crossed 42 years. I joined (Congress) in 1969 as a volunteer and then the first split took place after Indira Gandhi’s stray economic thoughts at the Bangalore session. Lots of young people, including me, responded to the call — socialism was an important word, “mazdoor ka beta aur raja ke beta ek saath”. Then, came the nationalisation of banks. It was a question of seeing Indira Gandhi rebel against the deadwood of the Congress. It excited the young.

Initially, I was the Indian Youth Congress’ general secretary and went on to become the president in November 1975. 

And then, under Sanjay Gandhi’s leadership, you went along…

Sanjay joined about the same time. Those were the initial years of his public and political life. However, politics was Indira Gandhi-centric when I joined. When I returned from Cuba with my husband, an IFS officer, I was a student at the University of Havana…cutting sugarcane there. Being a small place, my husband headed the post. Sugarcane cutting was a national event in Cuba. At the end of the day everybody had to fulfil a certain target. Everyone from the president to the ‘voluntarios’ cut cane. So, they organised a day for the wives of the diplomatic heads of post and we all cut cane and there were blisters on our hands. It was fun! 

From there to the hurly-burly of Indian politics. Nobody in your family was in politics...

The Cuban revolution, most certainly, had its impact. Fidel Castro was an iconic figure. Then, there was Che Guevera. Coming back, I found Indira Gandhi taking up a very exciting role. It was a question of joining Congress as a volunteer. It so happened that my father was posted in Goa as the Governor. Some MPs knew him and suggested I should join since I had been in Cuba. I began as a volunteer in the 15, Windsor Place camp office, looking after press cuttings. The press has never left me, I think! My job was making news clippings of the day for Mrs Gandhi to see. 

Then came your Rajya Sabha stint in 1976...

It was a by-election — a four-year term. I have always been asked about the ‘aberration’ — I had no political background, no legacy. 

No political legacy — isn’t that odd?

Nobody in my family is joining. My son isn’t interested. I haven’t said a ‘don’t’. And, I don’t get into the thing where I say ‘he must’. Let’s say, we haven’t got into that temptation. I took pride in the fact that I stood on my own two feet. Of course, I got the patronage of Indira Gandhi. She encouraged me a lot. I worked my way up myself. And, you must remember that there was no talk of 33 per cent reservation for women at that time. Also, to be a woman and to be in public life really required a lot. Most of the other women politicians have some family background in public life. There are very few Mamata Banerjees.

You’ve witnessed highs and lows in your political life. There was a time when you were in the wilderness...
Wilderness in the sense that in 1976 when the Congress split, I didn’t join the Congress (I). A large number of from Punjab, including Giani Zail Singh, joined the Congress (S). Maybe, it was the lack of experience, a period of confusion. I thought this was the party (Congress S ), how can I leave? But, in the hindsight, I think it only enhanced my political grounding to be in the Opposition. I was general secretary of Congress (S). I went to jail several times – 50 times in a period of a few years.

There’s one thing I’ve always maintained. I’m an activist – a political activist. I’m not a politician.

I’ve been a minister for seven years but I keep doing things I used to do before. Initially, I used to miss party work. But, I have continued to work for issues. Now, as I&B minister, I’m going ahead with digitisation, as if it was the world to me.

Of your seven-year stint as a minister, which portfolio has been more enjoyable — Tourism and Culture or Information & Broadcasting?
More enjoyable? Tourism and Culture, without a doubt. More challenging? Probably, I&B. I don’t speak much nowadays because I believe the I&B minister shouldn’t speak much but should be the facilitator. 

What does the political future hold for you? Back in 2010, you said you would give up politics in six years.

That’s true. Now is the time for withdrawal. I got another chance to be more active in politics in the Congress under Sonia Gandhi. But, it’s been 14 years now. I believe there should be a time when one should take a decision to give it up. It takes courage to do that. If you don’t vacate how will the young come in and become the future?

So, when does that happen ?
My Rajya Sabha term ends in 2016. When I got this term for Punjab in 2010, I had felt very strongly about it. That this is my final term. This is it. 

It has become fashionable among Congress ministers to say that they want to give up the berth and work for the party. But, you actually gave up the offer of a ministerial berth in 2004.

It’s important for political — when they attain office — to remember that’s it’s the party which made them reach where they are. In 2004, when Sonia Gandhi renounced prime ministership, it was an unparalleled decision. I felt that when she was not in office, it was important for us, the party workers, to be with her.

So, what do you intend to do after hanging up your boots?
There’s so much I can do after that. I would never leave the party till it needs me. I do believe that my age of active politics is fast coming to an end. But, I'll continue to be an active Congress member.

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First Published: Sun, May 27 2012. 00:43 IST