ANAND MISHRA: What are your views on the first three years of the Modi government?
The reality does not necessarily have to be what is being marketed. It is what is happening on the ground. Our country has a 5,000-year-old civilisation. We need to have a foundation and a bedrock of tolerance, of diversity, of liberal views. It is on this bedrock that one can build economic verticals, which will then power the country forward. The UPA government was in many ways inspired by that thought and action. Today if you look at the environment in the country, it is one of complete intolerance. The biggest tragedy is that it is being fueled by the current establishment. You will ask me how. When incidents happen, and responsible people in positions of power make irresponsible statements, and then when those statements are not negated, it creates an environment where anything goes. That is what you saw India turn into in the past three years — you are being told what to say, what to eat and how to dress. It is almost like a code for 125 crore Indians. And, if you speak up against these things, you are labelled an anti-national. So, essentially, a different opinion cannot be raised. If India’s tolerant spirit dies, then something in each one of us dies. Look at the way Dalits are being treated in this country. On the one hand this government talks about holding a special session to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti, and at the same time you have atrocities happening across the country. Then you have BJP leaders saying that what happened was right. You have leaders of the current establishment saying that reservation must be done away with. So I think, that their motto is not really a Congress-mukt Bharat, but a Dalit- and Adivasi-mukt Bharat. You have love jihad and ghar wapsi, there are incidents in Kairana and Saharanpur, things have happened in Jharkhand; the government is completely silent. Gau rakshaks are on a rampage, Una, Pehlu Khan in Alwar… So an atmosphere of fear has built up in this country and in such an atmosphere, you cannot progress.
Look at issues of internal security, foreign policy, defence, agriculture, employment, economy… This government has failed on multiple counts. Look at what is happening in Kashmir. It is an unholy situation where you have an unholy government. There is total paralysis with different voices emerging from the coalition government. We don’t know what we are doing on the Pakistan front. Sometimes we say ‘56-inch chest’ and then we do ‘sari-shawl’ diplomacy. We call ISI officers to investigate the Pathankot incident. Look at China, it is encircling this country with its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. Look at agriculture, there are farmer suicides across the country. There is a fall in Minimum Support Price for farmers.
Across the board you have strife and angst. Unemployment is the biggest issue in this country today. They promised two crore jobs a year and haven’t met even one per cent of the target. Where is the acche din? When will there be ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’?
ANAND MISHRA: The BJP has been winning one election after another. Is it because the Congress has failed to provide a counter-narrative?
We are putting our best foot forward as a combined Opposition, not just in Parliament but also outside it. Every political party goes through crests and troughs. The party that we are crediting with the stupendous 2014 victory — and yes it was one — was also a party that had only two MPs some years ago. Yes, this a very serious time for the Congress. We are putting our blueprint together for 2019 elections, and for the states that are going to polls over the next few years. Based on that blueprint we will do our research. But, at the same time, we need to communicate the issues that have been raised here down to the grassroots. That is our biggest challenge and our biggest opportunity. I also believe that it is not good enough to just decry the incumbent government, it is important to come out with our own strategy as well. How will we take India forward if we are given the opportunity. We have to ensure that we bring in a blueprint that will give us a positive vote.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Do you feel that the Congress has a disconnect with the grassroots? It has let go of many of its state leaders who have blamed Rahul Gandhi for the Congress’s failure. Is that also a reason why you have failed to get the message across to the grassroots?
I don’t think that is the case at all. I think people leave for their own reasons and ambitions. The Congress is in the process of building a strategy for every state and for the 2019 elections as well.Politics has changed a lot over the years. Strong states make a strong Centre and the Congress party needs to concentrate on states and build state leaderships.
COOMI KAPOOR: In Madhya Pradesh, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government has been in power for three terms despite several controversies. Where is the Congress going wrong in the state?
If you look at some of the local body elections, and even the by-elections, the Congress has won. Over the past 13 years if you look at the by-elections in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has won a fair share. Recently, we won in Ater despite every effort of the incumbent government to stamp out democracy. I think it (winning elections) is possible if you put in place a strategy that unites all members of the Congress party. That is what worked in Ater and I think that is what will work in Madhya Pradesh.
COOMI KAPOOR: So do you think the plight of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh has to do with lack of unity?
I don’t think it is just about lack of unity. You have to come up with a positive gameplan, there needs to be unity and cohesion between everyone, which I think is happening now. You need to project what is it that you will achieve if given a chance.
ANAND MISHRA: Many in the Congress privately say that perhaps it is time for the Congress to go beyond the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Do you subscribe to those views?
The leadership in the Congress party is democratically elected. We have democratically elected Sonia Gandhiji as the president of the Congress party, and Rahul Gandhiji as the vice president. I have full faith in both their leadership.Rahul Gandhi has the capability to not only lead this party but also lead the nation. He is very emotive, he has a deep understanding of Indian culture, history and grassroots politics. He has clear ideas about where to lead the nation. All this will be incorporated in our blueprint for 2019.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: What are some of the lessons that you have learnt from your failures in past elections — Goa, Manipur, UP — and how do you intend to use those lessons in the upcoming polls in states such as Gujarat, where the Congress does not have much presence?
As far as Goa and Manipur are concerned, it was a complete subversion of democracy. The single largest party must always be called. In Punjab, the Congress worked as a united house and the leadership of Amarinder Singh provided the necessary impetus to that campaign. Those decisions were also taken by the Congress.In Gujarat, Ashok Gehlot is now the general secretary in-charge and the leaders there are working unitedly to put up a strong campaign against the incumbent government. The Congress has a very, very strong chance.UP was certainly a shock to the system. What we need to do is empower workers on the ground. It is not unachievable but will take its time. In many states in north India, the Congress has tremendous opportunity. We can recapture those bastions easily provided we move with alacrity.
AMITABH SINHA: What do you make of Amarinder Singh’s position on the Army and Kashmir? Is he catering to a constituency?
I believe in one principle in life: Never comment on other people’s comment. What is happening in Kashmir is worrisome for all 125 crore Indians. We demitted office leaving an environment of growth and prosperity in Kashmir. Tourism was high, employment was rising. There was an environment of stability during the 10 years of UPA. There were incidents, no one is going to deny that, but today things have descended into chaos. This is because there is a Nelson’s eye attitude from the Centre. They are not concerned at all about what is happening in Kashmir. There is an unholy alliance, a nexus for power between two parties that are poles apart in their thinking — BJP and PDP. You have found them speaking in different voices on multiple occasions. On Pakistan, there is a confused, muddled, non-strategic approach. It is the same for Kashmir. You (PM Modi) go there to inaugurate the longest tunnel (Chenani-Nashri tunnel), which was a project started by us. In their track record of three years, what is it that they have done for the country? Whether it is power projects, road projects, tunnels, they have all been started by the UPA government.All their schemes were started by the UPA government. Nirmal Bharat is Swachh Bharat; they decried Aadhaar and are endorsing it now; Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana has become Deen Dayal Upadhyay Yojana… So I don’t understand what they are talking about when they are talking about building a new India. It is not going to be built with Stand Up India, Digital India, Make in India.
About 56,000 people are being laid off by seven companies in the IT sector, 33 % of IIT graduates are not going to get jobs, unemployment is at 5%, which is probably the highest rate ever. About 5.69 crore households don’t have jobs in India today.
ANAND MISHRA: Do you think the Congress failed to read the pulse of the nation on demonetisation?
On November 8, 2016, the Prime Minister made a speech that was broadcast across the country. He said that the causality and the raison d’être for demonetisation was three-fold — to eradicate corruption, to stop the flow of black money and prevent counterfeit, and to stop terrorism. Has anything ebbed on any of these factors after demonetisation? Terrorism is rampant, so is counterfeit and corruption. Close to about three lakh small-scale enterprises have shut shop. They are not based in Delhi, they are based in small mofussil towns. Close to four crore daily wagers have lost jobs. However, the results have belied this. We need to take this message to the grassroots strongly.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Is there any scope of a consensus between the government and the Opposition on a candidate for the President’s post?
For that the government has to speak to the Opposition. As per its policy over the past three years, the government doesn’t believe in talking to anyone but itself. Maybe they will surprise us. We (Opposition parties) are talking among ourselves to put up our own consensus candidate.
ANAND MISHRA: Many of the non-Congress Opposition parties complain that whenever they try to forge a larger Opposition, the Congress does not respond swiftly. It happened in UP. Now in Gujarat, NCP and JD(U) have forged an alliance and they are waiting for a response from the Congress.
Opposition unity is of two types. One is at the national level, which over the last three years we have successfully managed on many occasions in Parliament. The other opposition unity is state-specific, which depends on the ground realities in the state.In UP, it was the Congress party that wanted an overarching coalition. We were the ones who wanted the RLD, SP… multiple party coalition to happen. But that didn’t happen for various reasons. See, it is not a one-size-fits-all strategy for states across India, it depends on their ground realities.
AKASH JOSHI: You said that the Congress is a party for every Indian, but the BJP seems to be occupying that space, at least in the narrative of being the ‘party of the nation’. How do you deal with something like that?
We need to start bottom-up, instead of going top-down. We need to engage with grassroots workers. What we discuss in meetings, the reality of that needs to go down to the grassroots. That is how a movement is created and that is what the Congress party needs to do. We need to concentrate on the worker at the polling booth level because it is a strong polling booth that translates into a victory. The Congress needs to start at that level and combine its top-down message with its bottom-up strategy.
VANDITA MISHRA: You said the party needs a bottom-up approach. Now, in UP, Rahul Gandhi did a lot of bottom-up work. There was the kisan yatra, khat sabhas. So is it that even your bottom-up message needs reorienting or refining? Have you missed out on some change in the electorate?
Rahul Gandhi did a tremendous amount of work in UP and it translated into a huge amount of support for the party. But like I said, we need to combine the top-down messaging with a bottom-up booth-level organisation.
COOMI KAPOOR: Do you think the Congress’s disadvantage is that it lacks someone like an Amit Shah who micro-manages everything?
The Congress party has a plethora of talent, and if you analyse the bench strength of the BJP and the Congress, I think there is no comparison whatsoever. But, it is important to utilise that bench strength of the Congress. If we are able to position and engage that bench strength along with the grassroots workers, you will have a potent combination in the Congress party.Any victory is a victory of the collective team. And any defeat also must be introspected by the entire team.
SEEMA CHISHTI: The BJP seems to have mastered the art, and quite successfully, of being ‘everything’. How does any opposition counter this?
We must see this as an opportunity. Time changes everything.
SEEMA CHISHTI: But then is hope the strategy?
No, things cannot just be based on hope. There has to be a strategy. There have to be clear underpinnings of policy. It has to be based on a new vision for India. Not a new vision for a new India, which these people (NDA government) are talking about. You have to identify areas of core competence for our country and build on those areas. Every country across the world is doing that, and that is the only way you will rise on the international stage.Today, if you look at our foreign policy — not only for Pakistan, China — our relationship with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Thailand, Singapore; it is all in tatters. So what are your achievements? It is okay to tour 56 countries but what have you brought back for your own country?They (the Centre) have to talk about the promises they made and what is it that they have delivered. That is the message we have to take to 125 crore Indians, along with our own blueprint.People in India have become very demanding and that is a very good thing. It is important to keep legislators, governments and the media on its toes. And this government is definitely keeping the media on its toes, by issuing bans etc. If you say something, even the fourth pillar of democracy will become an anti-national.