In this Idea Exchange moderated by Manoj CG of The Indian Express, Uttarakhand CM Harish Rawat talks of the need to reinvent Congress, says he has ‘no option’ but to welcome the NITI Aayog, and refutes claims that he is friends with Baba Ramdev
manoj cg: You strongly opposed the scrapping of the Planning Commission. Will you, as Uttarakhand CM, cooperate with the new body, NITI Aayog?
They (the government) are yet to work out the modalities of the Aayog’s functioning. Just by saying there will be a member-secretary and the CM will be a member is not sufficient. Under the Planning Commission, various levels of interactions were available to the states. Now the only level of interaction will be at the top—the level of the CMs. Nearly one year of the 12th Five Year Plan was spent in parliamentary elections, and now another year will be spent on discussing whether it will be a yojna aayog or some other body. Anyway, they have the mandate and we will cooperate with them. My opposition to the scrapping of the Planning Commission was based on four points. First, the commission served the nation. We are a vibrant nation with ample opportunities. Which means the commission was working perfectly. Then what was the reason to replace it? Every system has its virtues and demerits. I am not saying the commission had no demerit. If you feel there should be a better model, then you should have put it before the people, and invited public discussion. Secondly, you cannot serve us cooked food. At least they should have asked us for ideas. Like how much rice or dal you want. Or if you want it with ghee. But that was not done. A conference was called and we were just told about it. There should have been proper consultation with the states. Now we have no option but to welcome it.
Maneesh Chhibber: Does it surprise you that before becoming PM, Narendra Modi would say that central government policies were against states. Now, he is making laws and is not talking to, or not talking enough to, the states.
He is the Prime Minister with a clear mandate. But in parliamentary democracy, building consensus on issues confronting the nation is a necessity. There is no mechanism or effort being made to build such consensus among political parties. Irrespective of your mandate, unless you try to build a political consensus, you will face a problem sooner or later. As he completes a year, he might face some problem with his attitude of not consulting political parties on major issues.
Amitabh Sinha: The environment ministry recently submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court blaming hydro power projects in Uttarakhand for some of the destruction in the 2013 floods. What does this mean for the future of hydro power projects in your state?
I am surprised the central government changed its stand. Their earlier stand was that the destruction was not because of the hydro power projects. Various studies carried out by IT consultants, the Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Central University and other organisations had concluded that the hydro projects had no role (in the destruction). One of the studies even said that because of the Tehri dam, vast areas of Hrishikesh and Haridwar were saved. I don’t know what compelled them to change their stand all of a sudden. At no stage did they consult us. This is not acceptable to us and we have to contest this in the Supreme Court. The expert team was headed by an NGO spreading propaganda against hydro projects in the Himalayan areas. I doubt the reliability of their findings. Only on the basis of that report, the central government changed its earlier stand. The future of all hydro projects is in jeopardy.
abantika ghosh: After the Lok Sabha rout, the Congress has been losing one Assembly election after another. What does the Congress need to do to revive itself?
In a parliamentary system, there is a cycle of good days. We had good days in 2004. Nobody had predicted the Congress would come to power. In 2009, we won the parliamentary elections on merit. Now, they (BJP) have benefited from the anti-incumbency cycle. They could form the government with a clear majority, and it’s good. Let’s see what happens after five years. First year is always a honeymoon year. Everybody feels and talks good things about the government and its intentions. After one year, people start analysing the government on the basis of their performance. We should wait for that time. Meanwhile, we should concentrate on building our organisation. Wherever there were organisational lapses and weaknesses, we should repair that. We should concentrate on strengthening our grassroots organisation and stick to our fundamentals. We should concentrate on the principles on which the Congress was formed, and not bother about other things. The cycle of elections from 2017 will be important to watch. By then, the love for this government and (Amit) Shahji’s claim of making India Congress-free will change. I believe that after 2017, the cycle will start changing and by 2019, the entire scenery will change.
abantika ghosh: Do you think Rahul Gandhi should be more hands-on?
Rahulji has delivered earlier. He is young, capable, energetic and can inspire grassroots workers. This is the time to focus on rebuilding our party. In the parliamentary elections, there were several areas and classes where we did not get votes as we did previously. We should try to reclaim the traditional vote base, work closely with them, and strengthen our grassroots, and then in 2017, we can launch our campaign to reclaim power at the Centre. Then Rahul Gandhi’s capacity will be tested. He had spoken in the 2009 election; it was his innovative campaigning that brought us to power. Now, with one failure, I think some people are trying to create disillusionment. I am not at all disillusioned and have full faith in Rahul Gandhi and his capacity to lead the party.
Raj Kamal Jha: In the last seven months, since the May results, have you had the chance to meet Rahul? What has been his level of engagement with other Congress chief ministers?
He listens to our views and gives suggestions. He asks us CMs how we are running our governments and whether we are following our manifesto. Whenever I meet him, I tell him what points we have covered in our manifesto. He also asks what challenges I face in running the government. He is available and concerned. As a partyman, what else do I want? The impression that he is not available is wrong. I can mention so many names in my area who list their requests and meet Rahulji. He is available but he has a system, a working plan. Those not in the habit of working in that kind of programme may feel some difficulty. But once you understand he is a man with a certain plan, he is the best man to guide.
Seema Chishti: A cadre-based party has come to power with a majority for the first time in 30 years, and has an energetic leader as the Prime Minister. Doesn’t your challenge go beyond anti-incumbency? Also, when you talk of bringing about changes in the organisation, what are they? In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the organisational system in the Congress has collapsed, with no indication of a revival. What have you learnt from that?
At this time, the party in power is franchise-based and its cadre outsourced. However, the country has given it the mandate. For us, one of the challenges is ideological, because until now, popularity of a leader plus mass or political commitment made the basis for the emergence of a political party. From the beginning, BJP and Communist parties were cadre – and ideology-based but they never reached a point where they could have come to power on their own. So the first time BJP came to power on their own, Amit Shahji called for a Congress-free India, which is non-tolerance towards the Opposition. This is their basic mantra. Dissent is the essence of parliamentary democracy but their mindset is not to welcome that. They might say anything outside but they cannot tolerate dissent. So mass-based parties like us will have to reinvent ourselves for this challenge. If all of a sudden a person fighting for a chair is confronted by a sword-fighter, you will at least have to give him a stick to defend himself. Our party will now have to prepare for this challenge.
If we divert from the basic principles on which the Congress works, then we have no future. We have to stick to the basics and after that whatever we have to do—hit fours and sixes in the terminology of cricket—we should. To fulfil this challenge, what tools or weapons do we have? Firstly, rulebook—how do we project it and look at it? Secondly, we have to build the organisation. The RSS and the BJP combined have over 50 organisations. I think even their president finds it difficult to keep track of so many organisations. They have made so many organisations and a Sangh for everything. Now, for us, who are challenging them, we will have to find some ways to counter them. Just like in wrestling, if you are not able to counter the technique of your opponent, you won’t be able to fight with him. We will have to build our organisations, reshape them, train people and maybe set up some new organisations. We will have to set up and strengthen ideology-based, training-based organisations on the lines of the Seva Dal we had in the past. So to unsettle them, we will have to find some ways to counter their methodologies.
Manoj CG: You spoke about ideology. There is a section in the Congress that believes that the party’s approach to secularism is pro-minority and anti-Hindu. At least this is the perception outside. So how do you rectify this?
I believe this discussion is irrelevant. The Congress or even our parliamentary democracy is based on the Constitution. The essence of the whole system is secularism. So how can there be two views on secularism in the Congress? There is one idea and we should stick to it. Whether it is paying or not should not be the worry.
Maneesh Chhibber: It’s been seven months since this government took over. You say they have five years to perform and you have five years to expose their weaknesses. In two and a half years when elections in big states, including Bihar, will be round the corner, what will be the one big issue against this government the Congress can project?
See, there are farmers. Where are the acchhe din for them? Prices of paddy have crashed. For the first time, the prices of pulses have not increased. Sugarcane farmers are having it tough. Then there is the working class. Their shramev jayate means shramev jayete along with the Adanis, Ambanis, Tatas, Birlas, Goenkas and so on. For us, shramev jayete means you will get what you deserve for your hard work. So the attitude of both is different. The entire minority, thanks to Sakshi Maharaj and Mohan Bhagwatji and others, is the target. The PM says he is taking everybody along but I doubt even the Akalis are with them. The Shiv Sena had an issue with them. Both came out of the same shakhas, so they had nowhere to go but tag along with the BJP.
I believe the definition of Indian democracy will be rewritten, and democratic parties will become powerful. I cannot say much about Bihar but I am sure there will be a tough fight, like in Delhi.
Maneesh Chhibber: But in Delhi or Bihar, the Congress is nowhere.
In Delhi, it is wrong to say the Congress is nowhere. If leaders in Delhi pull up their socks, they can emerge as a force to reckon with because the Congress delivered the best government in Delhi as far as development and other things are concerned. After a long time, people said they need a change, but that does not mean the Congress is finished here. In Bihar and UP, our politics is the same but we also talk about backward classes, SCs and STs. However, we take along everybody. Some parties have snatched our classes. We will have to do the same thing to reclaim ourselves there, and we will also have to change our strategy. But I think it is too early to say the Congress has no chance in the near future.
Manoj CG: Your critics in Uttrakhand allege that you are getting too close to Baba Ramdev. You flew him to Kedarnath. There is no progress in the cases against him.
I am the only politician in the country who has never visited his ashram. Politicians of the Congress, the BJP and other parties have danced with him. He invited me many times but I never visited his ashram because I never had doubts about his political credentials. But he is from Uttarakhand and I cannot be as aggressive as some of my friends are against him. But I am the only person, after the Delhi episode from where he fled in a salwar kameez, who managed to
get six of the Shankaracharyas to issue statements against him. Ramdevji did not find a single person in Uttrakhand among the saints who would have managed to break his fast and he had to call somebody from Gujarat to break it. I am fighting with him on an ideological basis, not a personal basis.
In Kedarnath, we are doing a lot of things. MI 26 landed there. Kedarnath is at a height of 11,600 ft and it was for the first time that MI 26 landed at such a height. I visited that area twice, and I asked some saints from Haridwar to visit. When Ramdev got the hint, he telephoned me saying, ‘You are inviting everybody. Can I not visit Kedarnath?’. I said, ‘Yes you can visit. How can I stop you?’ So he went there with two helicopters and fortunately or unfortunately, he praised my efforts in front of the media. I did not want to condemn him for praising me. I am quiet on the issue. As far as the cases against him are concerned, it is not the chief minister’s duty, but that of the police, to pursue them. The cases will go up to their logical conclusion.
Transcribed by Sonam Chauhan and Aditi Ray