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‘Forget monumental change, where is incremental change?’

In this Idea Exchange moderated by Manoj C G of The Indian Express, Congress Lok Sabha chief whip Jyotiraditya Scindia attributes the poll losses to the party’s failure to market its work, says can’t blame leadership alone, and adds that results of ‘churning’ within the party will be visible soon

Our numbers have been reduced but our voices have not been drowned, said
Our numbers have been reduced but our voices have not been drowned, said Jyotiraditya Scindia.

Why Jyotiraditya Scindia

Part of the Congress’ youth brigade that was seen as the party’s bright new hope, Jyotiraditya Scindia was among its few members to retain his seat in the LS polls. As the Congress’ chief whip, he has to shepherd its small grouping of 44 to make their voice count against the BJP’s brute majority in Lok Sabha. Having held commerce, industry and power portfolios as MoS in the UPA government, he brings to his new job expertise on issues close to the Narendra Modi regime’s agenda, and his oratory.

MANOJ CG: The Congress seems to have learned no lesson from its Lok Sabha defeat. For example, the party announced a 28-member campaign committee only two weeks before the first phase of polling in Jammu & Kashmir. Why such last-minute decisions?

A major learning for us is the fact that you may do a lot of good work but it’s important to communicate that good work too. We require a lot of improvement in communication. A lot of internal manthan is going on within the Congress. I’ve been part of one of those meetings and a lot of churning is going on. I’m quite confident that in the next month or two, you will see a detailed timeline outlining our way forward as a constructive opposition party for the next five years.

COOMI KAPOOR: But isn’t this churning taking too long?

In our meetings, there’s been a lot of plain-speaking and introspection. Let’s wait for the results, which I’m confident will come out in the next one or two months. Surely, there needs to be visibility and a roadmap. Timeline— six or four months—is not the key issue. The key issue is to come out with a robust programme. Somewhere along the way, in addition to the factors I mentioned, we lost the connect with aspirational India. You need to be able to re-establish that connect. That connect has to be re-established not only in terms of the role of the opposition at the Centre but also in terms of the role in various states.

MANEESH CHHIBBER: You’ve talked about visibility. Does this also mean that Rahul Gandhi needs to be more visible?

We’ve learnt it the hard way, in the 2014 elections, that for any political party, communication is key. Being omnipresent across all forms of media— lectronic, digital, social—is important. As a party and as leaders and individuals within it, at the district level, at the state level, at the Centre, right up to the leadership level, we have to be able to engage with and understand the new India.

MANEESH CHHIBBER: You’re a young leader, the aspirational India. You retained your seat. What do you think the Congress could have done right to get more seats?

First, remember, you are on the back of a 10-year government. Secondly, we also had tremendous headwinds—oil at $115 a barrel and now, it’s $80a barrel. Oil prices are down by 30%—that’s a huge fillip to the fiscals. We did a lot of work, but I also post this 20-20 hindsight—good work is not enough, marketing it is important too. The government today is doing a lot of marketing and communicating, but not much has happened in the past six months. Forget the promised monumental change, we’re not even seeing incremental change. You talk about ‘Make in India’, but there’s not much change on the ground.  That party is using communication and branding strategy to the zenith and, on the other hand, the Congress needs to improve a lot on that front.

LIZ MATHEW: Many of you have given suggestions to the leadership publicly and at internal meetings. But there seems to be no reaction from the leadership. For example, in Tamil Nadu, despite the Congress being out of power for many years, it still has 5-6% vote. Even when you were in power, the party failed to expand that base. Do you think there needs to be a change from the top, a leadership change, if only on a trial basis?

Let’s not forget that this is the same Congress that came to power in 2004 and 2009. So, a number of things have worked for us. After 10 years, you have anti-incumbency. I am not making an excuse. Obviously, we failed. Top-down, bottom-up, we all recognise it. The key challenge here is to carve a path forward. It’s important to identify leadership and we’ve done that in a couple of states, like in Rajasthan with Sachin (Pilot). I believe that’s the path forward because unless you have strong states, you will not have a strong Centre. Politics has changed in the last 15 years since I joined it. Earlier, the centre and states would be very different. Today, you got to have a strong state leadership. We are doing that slowly but steadily. You can’t be hasty and make decisions on impulse. You can’t have a knee-jerk reaction, ‘Ok we got a drubbing here, and therefore, take the decision’.

UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: One of your colleagues talked about the cameo appearance of the leadership. Is it still an issue?

As far as appearances are concerned, whether it’s Rahulji or Soniaji, they have put to use everything at their command in terms of touring—being there for both national and state elections. It’s important for us also to galvanise at our level. It’s easy to look downwards or upwards and blame the system. We, too, should introspect and see where we have not performed and correct our positioning.

AMBREEN KHAN: To what extent do you think that Priyanka Gandhi should lead the Congress?

The Congress democratically elects its leadership—the president and the vice-president. Our leadership today is Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and we will work according to their policies.

AMBREEN KHAN: Is Priyanka a ray of hope for the Congress?

She has tremendous capability. Whether she would like to get into politics or not is her personal decision. It’s unfair of us to make that call for her.

Tekchand Sonawane: Your partners like the DMK and NCP were involved in scams. Did the Congress suffer a setback in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections because of the damage caused by its alliances?

An alliance is formed on the basis of a common minimum programme. There are gives and takes, there have been some shortcomings, but those were of the UPA as a whole. To blame allies is wrong. It may have been one of the reasons but it definitely was not the only reason.

SHYAMLAL YADAV: What is your view of the RSS’ role in the present government?

It’s not different from what it’s always been. It’s always been like that. This is a party and a leader that projected something else. And today, you’ve seen the permeation of the command and control system. We have seen it permeate into the organisation of the BJP as office-bearers are coming in. We’ve always said that it will be the case, and it’s slowly turning out to be so. These are very early days, 175 days, but we’re suddenly seeing the influence of that, right?

People talk about Swachh Bharat movement. We started Nirmal Bharat, you reduced its budgetary allocation and replaced it with a communication plank. There’s no action, only statements. All schemes being carried out today are of the UPA. All projects—from train lines to power plants— being inaugurated today were initiated by the UPA. Look at the composition of the cabinet. You talked about presenting a model, clean government. Are you walking the talk? The Congress is already asking these questions. People of the country will start asking these questions soon.

SHYAMLAL YADAV: Should government employees be allowed to attend RSS shakhas?

Obviously not. Government employees are supposed to be neutral. You have a capable person around but you will not keep him because he was aligned with someone! Your civil servant works for the country, not a party or an individual. You got to keep his/her respect and dignity.

SHYAMLAL YADAV: Is the Congress prepared to deal with the RSS?

We have always been prepared to deal with them. It’s not a new phenomenon. It’s been around since the time of Independence or even before. And we’ve always combated them because we believe in a secular, modern India.

RAGHVENDRA RAO: During the first Parliament session of the new government, there was an impression the Congress was struggling to make its presence felt, particularly in the Lok Sabha. With the kind of numbers you have, what is going to be your strategy to play the role of an effective opposition?

I don’t buy that conclusion completely. We have raised a number of important issues. Our numbers have been reduced but our voices have not been drowned. We have been given the responsibility of fighting for the rights of the people of this country, and we will deliver on that in Parliament irrespective of our numbers.

MANOJ CG: As the chief Congress whip in the Lok Sabha, how do you plan to counter the land acquisition Bill if the government brings it in a changed format?

If something is in the interest of the country, we will support it. But if there are changes that will affect 60-65% of the work force of this country, which is in agriculture, we will certainly oppose it. But it is too early to pass a judgment. Let’s wait for the draft to come out.

MANOJ CG: Are you in touch with other opposition parties for larger collaboration on such issues?

Yes, both in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. And we will work together on areas of mutual interest.

MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: Why has the Congress not countered the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, where the latter has been in power for so long?

That’s something I dealt with in the Assembly elections in November last year. And I said the first person who should be held responsible is me. It’s important to start building a campaign almost two years before any state election and we were not able to do that.

MANEESH CHHIBBER: As leader of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, you accept your responsibility for the Assembly defeat. But Rahul Gandhi has not accepted responsibility for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls defeat. Why is everybody in the party trying to shield him?

That’s not so. He was clear after the Uttar Pradesh elections, he came out and addressed all of you. He was very clear even after the Lok Sabha elections when he came and spoke with all of you. It takes courage to come out in front of the country and say, ‘Yes, we failed and we need to go back to the drawing board’. And he very candidly did that. But we feel that we are all accountable as a party and we need to look within and correct ourselves.

LIZ MATHEW: The BJP, instead of joining hands with political parties, is taking personalities who have clout in a particular community or in a state. And it keeps saying many Congress persons will join its fold. How concerned are you?

I’m not too concerned with the rise or fall of the BJP. I’m more interested in the need to build the party from within. It is very important to keep the family together—not only leaders, but also grassroots workers. I think it’s also important to create that distinction between those committed to the party and those who move away at an opportunistic time.

AMBREEN KHAN: What is the equation of the party’s ‘youth brigade’ with Rahul Gandhi?

Why are we going back to this constant construct of Rahulji with the youth brigade? Mr Gandhi has a connect with every worker of this political party. There are capable leaders across the spectrum. You may come from any age bracket and may still have many productive things to contribute. You keep talking about youth brigade. I’m 45, I have a son who is 19 years old.

RAKESH SINHA: Has the row over Robert Vadra hurt the party?

I would not like to comment on something to do with the life of a private individual.

COOMI KAPOOR: As chief whip of the party, do you think it’s suitable for office-bearers to move into the well of the House to protest?

Why not? I’m not in favour of indiscipline, but if your voice is not being heard from the seat on an important issue, then what option do you have? That’s a part of parliamentary practice.

MANEESH CHHIBBER: In state after state going to polls, like in J&K, Congress leaders are quitting the party in droves. Is that a worrying sign for the party?

I wouldn’t want to say in droves, but if any member leaves, it’s not something   any party would be happy about. It’s at times like these when you know who is committed to the party’s ideology. As I said, it’s better to have a slightly smaller but a more tight-knit family.

APURVA: Starting from Muzaffarnagar in 2013, there have been a spate of communal clashes. Madhya Pradesh has seen six-seven incidents in the last one and a half months. In Delhi, there have been five in the last one month. What do you attribute this rising communal tension to? And what is the Congress doing about it?

One of our mainstays is to ensure a diverse and vibrant India. And secular ideology forms an important cog in that wheel. If you want a progressive India, it cannot be based on the foundation of economic growth. It has to be based on a foundation of unity in diversity, on the ability of every community to prosper, on an environment of peace and stability. That has to be the mainstay of this government. What we have seen in the past six months is a phenomenal rise in incidents like the ones you have mentioned. The Prime Minister had not spoken up until very late. Such communal incidents are going to be a primary concern of the party.

APURVA: But what are you doing on the ground? There was no visible Congress presence on the ground after the incidents in Delhi.
Our MLAs were there.

No, they were not involved in any way. Your Okhla MLA did not even want the registration of an FIR over what had happened.
We may agree to disagree. But the impression I have been given is that the Congress was very much present on the ground. Certainly, I can say for my state that we are very much on the ground.

APURVA: But is this a concerted effort?

Absolutely.

Tekchand Sonawane: Do you think anyone other than a Gandhi can lead the Congress?

I’ll repeat myself. Our party believes in democracy. Each and every Congress person sits and decides who will be the party president and vice-president. We have an unbreakable faith in their leadership and I believe this party will make a comeback.

LIZ MATHEW: What do you think about the BJP’s attempts to adopt icons of the Congress such as Gandhi and Nehru?
To be very candid with you, I believe every leader who has taken this country forward has to be venerated. If the BJP is venerating the leaders of the Congress, who have taken the country forward, I think we should be happy about that. I don’t think we should be concerned about that. But I also believe that it is a matter of convenience that is being played out. And people will see through it.

Transcribed by Charmaine Edwards and Zinia Bhattacharya

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