"Our detractors may not like it but let me put on record, Dr Manmohan Singh is going to be the next prime minister of India," External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee told rediff.com's Indrani Roy Mitra.
Mukherjee spoke on the sidelines of a rally at the Karbala Maidan, Kaliachowk, Malda, about 460 km from Kolkata. At the rally, he appealed to the people of Malda to vote for Congress candidare Abu Hashem Khan Chaudhury (Dalu), the brother of the late A B A Ghani Khan Choudhury aka Barkatda, fondly remembered as the railway minister who gifted Kolkata its pride -- the Metro Rail.
It had been a hectic day for Mukherjee. Having taken part in a number of rallies, including a couple with Congress President Sonia Gandhi, the veteran minister looked remarkably fresh as he got off the helicopter, clad in a spotless white dhoti and kurta.
Hundreds of Congress supporters, who had braved the sweltering heat to catch a glimpse of him, shouted, "Pranab Mukherjee zindabad" as he was escorted to the car waiting for him.
Though the Congress supporters had expected Mukherjee to take a short break at a guest house which had been readied specially for him, the agile leader did not want to keep the people at the rally venue waiting and headed straight for the Karbala Maidan instead.
In a brief yet hard-hitting speech, Mukherjee gave a clarion call to the people of Bengal to overthrow the 32-year old Left Front government. During the exclusive conversation with rediff.com, his voice bore the same disdain for Bengal's Left rulers.
You mentioned Dr Manmohan Singh as your party's prime ministerial candidate. May we know the reason?
There has been a lot of speculation about this issue and I thought this was the best way to put on record what our party feels. Dr Singh is the fittest person for the post, there should not be any doubt about that.
There was a time when your name had been mentioned for the post. Bengal has always expected a prime minister representing the state ever since Independence. But it never happened...
(Pauses). I won't like to comment on this.
West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee recently told the media that the Left Front would not mind lending support to the new government if need be. Please share with us your views on the issue. Do you feel in such a situation, Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Prakash Karat would have a different gameplan?
As I mentioned at the rally, the Left Front has lost its focus completely. It is just making one comment after another. Let's not add too much value to what is being said at the moment. Instead, let us wait till the election results are out. (Smiles) Let's weigh the pros and cons after May 16. Who knows, the election results may lead the Left to see stars.
What do you feel about the Trinamool-Congress alliance in the state? It's often been derided upon as a marriage of convenience.
The alliance was born out of people's necessity. People of the state are fed up of the Left's misrule. They are desperate for a change and the new alliance can only offer them some hope.
What is your opinion about the Third Front? It is dropping one name after another as its prime ministerial candidate...
(Smiles) It is healthy to dream, but dreaming such an impossible dream is almost fatal.
Sharad Pawar and Lalu Prasad had voiced concern that it would be impossible for the United Progressive Alliance to form a government without the Left support...
As I said earlier, it is too soon for such conjecture. Let the results be out. I am certain the Congress party will win enough seats in this election to keep such surmises at bay.
What is there to be so optimistic about the Congress party's fate?
See, as a political party, the Congress has never betrayed the people. We don't hoodwink the people. What has the Left done for this state in 32 years? Nothing. Has it done anything for the poor tillers of the soil? Naah.
But look at us. We have waived farmers' loans worth Rs 65,000 crore (Rs 650 billion). Why couldn't the Left Front do anything on those lines?
A party that failed to rule a state has no hope in doing well at the Centre. The Congress is the only political party the people believe in.
Moving to international politics, what are your views on the Sri Lankan issue?
The question is quite relevant considering the government of Sri Lanka declared that combat operations have reached their conclusion.
A statement from President Mahinda Rajapaksa's Office said that security forces would confine their attempts to rescuing civilians who are held hostage and give foremost priority to saving the civilians. No doubt a welcome move. I issued an official statement on Sri Lanka's move.
It is often said there is international pressure on India to resolve the Kashmir issue...
I am not wearing the cap of external affairs minister today. I am here in Bengal to campaign for Congress. I am here to express my support to Hashen Khan Chaudhury. Let's concentrate on the work at hand and not digress.
Why do you feel the Left Front would not fare well in Bengal?
For the simple reason, it has failed to deliver. It has not been able to improve the condition of the people. It only made tall promises.
People have lost their faith in a government that only makes promises but does not fulfil them. Speeches don't and can't run a state. The Left Front failed to perceive that.
Image: Pranab Mukherjee at the rally. Photograph: Dipak Chakraborty