Yashwant Sinha served as the Minister of Finance and External Affairs in Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led governments between 1998 and 2004. Since leaving the party in 2018, he has been one of the most vociferous critics of the Narendra Modi-led government.
On Tuesday, Sinha emerged as the Opposition’s consensus candidate for the July 18 presidential election in which he will be up against the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) nominee Droupadi Murmu. In an interview to The Indian ExpressSinha talks about the presidential election being an ideological battle, Murmu’s candidature, and why it is too early to conclude that he does not have the numbers to win.
The joint statement announcing the Opposition’s decision to field a common candidate hoped that the next President will be the “true custodian of the Constitution”. What is your reading of the spirit of this line?
Yashwant Sinha: Under the Constitution, it is the duty of the President of India to uphold constitutional values. And there are occasions when the executive wants to override the provisions of the Constitution. And, in fact, we have witnessed that and we are witnessing that at present. Therefore, the President of India cannot become a rubber stamp of the PM and his government. I’m not saying he should go public. But it is within his right to call the PM and tell him where he is violating the Constitution. That is the responsibility of the President as I understand and I know that various Presidents who occupied Rashtrapati Bhavan have performed their duty by the Constitution faithfully. We also had Presidents who have served as rubber stamps of the government of the day.
Today, the whole fight for the President’s office is not a fight between individuals. It is not that Yashwant Sinha is contesting, or Droupadi Murmu is contesting. It is not our identity that matters. It is the ideology we represent that matters. It is an ideological battle. On one hand, we want to uphold constitutional values, protect the Constitution. On the other hand, there are forces that are authoritarian in nature, are destroying the Constitution of India, and if they get a rubber stamp President then they will do it even more.
While you frame this as a battle of ideologies, you have also been with the BJP in the past.
Yashwant Sinha: The BJP of which I was a member was a completely different party compared to the BJP of today. The BJP of today is not the old BJP. It has become a totally new party. It has abandoned the ideology of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was the PM of this country and the tallest leader of the party. They have no use for that ideology, they have no use for those programs, whether it is Jammu and Kashmir or any issue like federalism. Under Vajpayee, I can tell you, he was basically a consensus person. He used to take everyone’s opinion into account before arriving at a decision. He was a great upholder of the federal principles of constitutionalism, decentralization of power, the right of state governments, and whenever there were issues, these issues were discussed with stakeholders. Where is his (Vajpayee) policy of insaniyaat, jamhooriyat, Kashmiriyat in Jammu and Kashmir? We have completely departed from the principles on which BJP was run then, both in government and outside. That is why I have absolutely no regret that I am not a part of this BJP. And I am proud of the fact that I was part of that BJP.
Who approached you first regarding your candidacy?
Yashwant Sinha: Various Opposition leaders when they were confabulating at Sharad Pawar’s place. Apart from Pawar, various other leaders of different political parties spoke to me and they told me that they have decided that I should be the joint Opposition candidate.
We were told that Mamata Banerjee proposed your name first.
Yashwant Sinha: In the first meeting of the parties convened by Mamata Banerjee, you are aware of the fact that she herself proposed two names – Farooq Abdullah and Gopalkrishna Gandhi. She did not propose my name then. My name emerged in the next meeting.
How do you see the fact that the Opposition does not appear to have the required numbers for you to win?
Yashwant Sinha: I think that is not correct because if you look at the numbers, the BJP also does not have the numbers. But everyone is led to believe that the BJP will get the support of some non-BJP formations and win it. Now, we are competing for those votes and it will not be proper to come to a conclusion today about it.
Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik has also appealed to all state MLAs, cutting across parties, to support the candidacy Droupadi Murmu.
Yashwant Sinha: That is understandable since she comes from Odisha. By the same logic, all MLAs in Bihar and Jharkhand should vote for me.
Have you reached out to those parties?
Yashwant Sinha: I am reaching out to everyone.
Have you spoken to Bihar CM Nitish Kumar?
Yashwant Sinha: I have not been able to as I am busy with other things, but I will reach out to everyone.
What do you make of the fact that Droupadi Murmu’s identity as a tribal is being projected?
Yashwant Sinha: Suppose I was to project the fact that my height is more than five feet five inches and therefore who is taller than five feet five inches should support me, will that make sense? It is not a question of my identity or her identity. As I said, it is an ideological battle and you are either on this side or that side of the ideological divide.
But what about the fact that she represents indigenous communities who have been oppressed for centuries and we have never had a tribal President?
Yashwant Sinha: All elections are tough but I will not consider this decision (of the BJP) for making my fight tough. Anyone who would have contested on behalf of the BJP would have made the fight equally tough. So let’s see.