MANOJ CG: What does Nitish Kumar joining hands with the BJP mean for Opposition unity?
There is a crude Dogri proverb, ‘Jithon di khoti othe ja khadhoti’. Animals such as sheep, cow, buffalo are tied at a particular point in the house (to ensure they don’t go away). But a female donkey, even if it is let loose, you will find it back standing at the same place… I think for him (Nitish Kumar) joining it (the Grand Alliance) was like trying out a new venture, but ultimately he would go where he had been for over 17 years. That was his original place. I would not give much credence to it. He was like a tourist — they get bored, go out and then come back home.
MANOJ CG: But is it not a setback for the Opposition?
Yes, it is. Who says it is not? As a matter of fact, I think, we depended on him too much. The Congress should take credit for making him the chief minister. We had a triangular alliance in Bihar — the Congress, JD(U) and RJD. We put a condition that we would have an alliance only if the JD(U) chief was made the CM. So, we rather forced the RJD to be a part of it. We didn’t say we will leave it to the JD(U) or the RJD to select the CM, we said our candidate will be Nitish Kumar. Pre-election… this is the announcement we made. This will be very surprising for you.
RAVISH TIWARI: In hindsight, do you think the Congress made a mistake?
See, in politics you have to trust. He (Nitish Kumar) said goodbye to the BJP, and he wanted to be part of the alliance, the UPA, a secular political party… We also saw that he has given up everything, he has come to us, let us support him and let him be the chief minister. If we had (not insisted), the fight would have been between him (Nitish Kumar) and Lalu Prasad. Lalu would have asked for even more seats because he had more base and the JD(U) base was divided between the BJP and the JD(U). But when we supported him (Nitish Kumar), the bargaining power of the RJD became far less. So our initial support to him was very crucial. After all this, he left… I don’t know if you should find fault with us or you should find fault with him for this move.
He is talking about corruption today, but that time too Laluji was disqualified. There is nothing new. Nitish Kumar was privy to the ins and outs of the family because he was the chief minister of Bihar, he was not an outsider. So whatever charges, frivolous or real ones, that are being levelled against Laluji, he always knew about them. When the surgical strikes took place and were being debated in Parliament, he (Nitish Kumar) was the first to say that he doesn’t question them. When demonetisation took place, he was the first person to support it… So this is an excuse (corruption charges against Lalu Prasad). When your own allies — the RJD and Congress —and your leader in the House are fighting against demonetisation, how can he support the move and give a statement? So he was 90% there (with the NDA), only one step was outside the door.
RAVISH TIWARI: 2015 was the first proof that the Opposition can form an alliance and take on the BJP. Has Nitish Kumar’s exit created doubts in the Congress about such an alliance in the future?
Things are changing, and there are so many elections before 2019. At the end of this year there are two state elections. In the beginning of next year there are two-three elections, and by the end of next year there are three more crucial elections. That is just six months before the Parliament elections. I think those elections will be the gamechanger. They are huge states. So, a lot of things will happen before the general elections take place and we have a lot of time to think and ponder. It is too early to think of a grand alliance.
MANOJ CG: The Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance was not enough to stop the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Will you reach out to the BSP to form a grand alliance in UP?
The alliance (SP-Congress) was strong enough, and a very important one too. But in UP, the kind of polarisation I saw in the state, I have not seen anywhere in the country. I don’t think it was a contest between parties. The kind of WhatsApp messages that were sent to us by our own non-Muslim candidates, you cannot see those recordings. The mobile recordings which the family members (of our leaders, workers and candidates) sent us… there was no need for an election. Most of the recordings were of their (the BJP’s) women folk, addressing 50-70 people… it became an election between Hindus and Muslims.
It wasn’t an election between parties. Forget Dalits, Yadavs, Jats, they were told you are all Hindus who have to fight against Muslims. If you are fighting in the name of religion, then there can’t be any election. That is also the reason that Mayawati fared so poorly, because they said forget Dalits, you are Hindus first. If this is the way the BJP is going to contest elections in the country, then how can anybody win? It is very difficult to fight religion.
ANAND MISHRA: The Congress has ruled the country for a very long time. Why is it finding it difficult to find traction among Hindu voters now?
The Congress party is very different from the present ruling party. The Congress was everybody’s party, it was India’s party. There was no Hindu, Muslim, Dalit, Sikh. It is not a religious party. The RSS is based on religion, the Congress is not. Our thinking and the thinking of the RSS — the present BJP government is an RSS government — is not the same. You hear of lynchings, Dalits are being butchered everyday, that doesn’t gel with the Constitution of India. This is a totally different BJP government from Atalji’s (Atal Bihar Vajpayee’s) government. This is a totally different BJP, which we are alien to, or they are alien to our thinking. We understood the BJP of Atalji.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: But given the BJP’s electoral victories, do you think there is acceptance for their politics in the country?
Sixty-nine per cent of the country did not vote for the BJP (in the 2014 general elections). If all Hindus were communal, then you would not have seen the ‘Not in My Name’ protests across all state capitals in the country. All the protesters were 99.9% Hindus. An overwhelming number of Hindus in our country are secular. As I say, and even the Hindus say, their religion is more liberal than any other religion. No other religion can be more liberal. The religion is not the spoiler, it is the government.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: But then why is the Congress getting defeated in state after state?
The 69% (of non-BJP voters) is divided. The day they get united… Who is fighting the BJP today? It is not the Muslims. It is the Hindu writers, the Hindu intelligentsia. You see them on television, you read their write-ups and you hear them in Parliament. I see UP election as an aberration. I am sure before the next general elections the right-thinking people will come to the conclusion that if the BJP government stays for long it will not be in the interest of the country.
VANDITA MISHRA: Don’t you think when Nitish Kumar first started supporting the Centre, demonetisation onwards, there is something that you could have done to hold on to him? Similarly, in UP, did you try to break the narrative that the BJP sold, did you do enough? What do you have to say about the Congress’s inadequacies in the case of Nitish Kumar and in Uttar Pradesh?
Yes, the inadequacies are there. We are not a strong party in UP, we are very weak there. We have always been No 4-5 in the state for the past 30 years. But the way they polarised the elections, even the strong parties were finished. I don’t know what we could have done in Nitish’s case. When he supported demonetisation, we thought maybe he was just trying to get some economic package for the state. We never thought that he is going to merge with them. It is almost a merger. The statement that he gave the other day, that Modiji will not be challenged in 2019, that even a BJP worker or leader hasn’t said. So he is a few steps ahead of them. He is not fighting as an opposition leader, he is fighting to get a better place in the BJP, than his BJP colleagues.
ANAND MISHRA: Is it not tragic for the Congress that you now have to depend on regional party leaders — Lalu Prasad, Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav — during elections. A party that has ruled the country for so long can’t find a single leader of its own to take on the BJP in the states?
That’s true. We ruled for so long, but we neglected the party. There is no doubt about it. Whether it was the national or state level, the thrust was on governance and not on the party. The time which we should have given to organisation and organisers at state and national level, we totally forgot about it, and now we are paying for that.
ANAND MISHRA: The BJP may not have many strong state leaders, but their central leadership is strong, they are winning in the name of Narendra Modi. Do you think there is a leadership crisis in the Congress at the central level?
I am not in favour of that kind of leadership, because that leadership is dictatorial in nature. In democracy, you must have leaders, not a leader. They may have a leader but there is no democracy.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Raids in Karnataka, raids on properties owned by Lalu Prasad’s family, there seems to be this dominant narrative that the Opposition is corrupt and the government isn’t. Is it a failure of the Opposition to highlight anything or is it really a very clean government?
Give me 10 days. The amount of money that the BJP is spending in Parliament, the amount spent on helicopters and aircraft by the BJP in Assembly elections… During the Bihar Assembly polls, the BJP had 26 helicopters and six jets. The Congress had one, the JD (U) had two rickety ones and the RJD had one. Which of the (BJP) ministers or party leaders have the factories to generate this type of money? How are they getting so many helicopters and aircraft in every election?
They have the power, so they use it. You give me that same power and I will give you tonnes of money from BJP ministers and their party offices and leaders. Where were these helicopters five year ago? You say we have been in power for 60-70 years, but in how many districts and state capitals do we have offices? You see, within three years, there will be (BJP) offices across the country, including in Srinagar, Kashmir. In all of the 650 districts. Where is the money to purchase land for these offices coming from? Everybody gets the same pay. Who is paying for this? Is this not corruption? I have told the PM in the House that ‘you are saying corrupt, corrupt, corrupt’ because you have the agencies to raid people. I am not saying that they may not be correct. But then, in the evening, you give these cases to some selected channels. The Prime Minister says that there is not a single blame on me. How can there be any blame? If we had not set up an inquiry in 2G (spectrum case), how would you have come to know? How would have anybody come to know? In our time, should anything come in the media, either print or electronic, the next day we would order an inquiry.
AAKASH JOSHI: You said that the BJP is polarising, but shouldn’t you be able to counter that? What is the Congress’s ideological message now? Take lynchings in the name of the cow, Mamata Banerjee is the only opposition politician to come out and say that people should be allowed to eat what they want. A simple statement like that has not come from the Congress party.
We have a clear message. We have said cow slaughter is banned and the law should take its own course. We have said that in the name of the cow we shouldn’t lynch people. We raised this in Parliament as well. Hindus are getting lynched, Hindus are killing Muslims, Dalits are getting killed, Congressmen are getting killed, BJP men are getting killed, RSS men are getting killed… In Kashmir, Muslims are killing Muslims. As much as I have opposed lynching here, I have opposed the lynching of (DSP) Ayub Pandith in Kashmir as well, where Muslims lynched a Muslim. In Kerala, a CPM man killed an RSS man. We condemned it with all force at our command.
JYOTI MALHOTRA: But nobody seems to be listening to the message of the Congress party.
Because all the messengers, barring a few, work for the BJP. In our time, there was a democracy. And the fourth estate, the pillar of our democracy, was free. This is an era of technology and television. How many channels in this country have the freedom to speak out against the government? How many channels can speak the truth about what is happening in the country? (If they do), they won’t survive for more than 24 hours.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: The Congress could not even decide whether its vice-president had met the Chinese ambassador or not. Why should anybody take the Congress message seriously?
When you are meeting an ambassador, it is not publicised. Who I meet or not meet, how is the entire party going to know about it? When the ambassador meets the Congress vice-president, it is not put out on TV. He is not the head of the State, or the head of the government. The meeting was not such a big thing that the entire party has to know about it. It was a meeting between two individuals.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: What do you think is happening in Kashmir?
In March 2015, I had told the Prime Minister that the greatest blunder you are making is forming a government in J&K with the PDP. I told him that the way you are going to enter Kashmir and the Northeast, one day you will repent it. I said the BJP and the RSS are red rags for the people of Kashmir. I told him please don’t make this blunder. It is a very sensitive area. A very difficult area.
I said look at us, the Congress, that in spite of being in government for decades, the people of Kashmir have not recognised us. We don’t get more than four to five seats. If they have not recognised us, the Congress, how can you expect them to have faith in the BJP? I also warned him that I knew why he was doing it. You want to be like Alexander — conquer the whole country, even Kashmir. ‘Not conquered by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I conquered’. So I told him not to undertake that kind of misadventure.