BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma on Sonia, Rahul Gandhi & how Congress can survive

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Published: August 21, 2016 6:10:19 AM

The Assam minister says he walked out of the Congress as he opposes dynastic politics, maintains Rahul Gandhi isn’t fit to lead the party, believes there are leaders in the Congress who could still revive...

This politics has broken down not because their system has failed, but because people have become mature.This politics has broken down not because their system has failed, but because people have become mature.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: You were with the Congress government in Assam and now you are with the BJP.  What difference do you see in the functioning of the two governments?

During the Congress tenure between 2001and 2011, the focus was on governance. But from 2011 onwards, (then chief minister) Tarun Gogoi began believing that doling out benefits was the key to success. He wanted to create a committed vote-bank through it. So the concentration shifted from infrastructure, social security etc. Now we have re-shifted the focus. In the last month, we have been very successful in bringing back good governance.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: There was speculation that you may be appointed as deputy CM. Are you disappointed that this hasn’t happened?

No, no. (The speculation) began when I met (BJP chief) Amit Shah for the first time, but we had a very frank discussion. I know that in our system, if you ask for anything, you will not get it. I don’t believe in bargaining; I believe in performance.  At the end of the day, I handle more departments than what a deputy CM would have handled. The speculation about the deputy CM post was completely unfounded.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: What did you ask the Congress and didn’t get?

After winning the 2011 Assembly elections, we lost the Guwahati municipality polls and the panchayat elections in 2012. So I told Sonia Gandhi, very frankly, that with this kind of leadership, Assam will not develop, and that she should not create a hereditary system. I wanted Tarun Gogoi to be replaced by either Paban Singh Ghatowar or Pranab Gogoi. It was almost decided, but at the last minute, madam backed out. I resigned from the party because I felt that a system where Bhupinder Singh Hooda is followed by Deepender Hooda, Farooq Abdullah by Omar Abdullah, should not come to our state. I said don’t give Gaurav Gogoi (Tarun Gogoi’s son and Congress MP from Kaliabor) a Lok Sabha ticket because he has been in the party for just three years. Ask Gaurav Gogoi to work for another five years. Don’t let a father give his son a ticket as it would demoralise other Youth Congress workers… (But he got a ticket) so I resigned.

I had everything I needed in the Congress. It wasn’t like I didn’t get something.

MANOG CG: You said after promising you something, Sonia backed out. Did you ask her why?

I gave a written assessment to Sonia Gandhi, in early 2013, that in Assam, you will get four seats (in the general elections). By that time, I was aware that things were going against the party. And she said, ‘No Himanta, we will do something after the parliamentary elections’. At the time, there was no Narendra Modi wave; he had not yet been made the BJP prime ministerial candidate. In the 2014 general elections, we got three seats. I went to madam again and said, ‘Replace him (Tarun Gogoi). If you replace him, then in two years, we can work and win the Assembly elections. It can be a big turnaround for the Congress nationally.’ She sent Mallikarjun Kharge to Guwahati. He met all party MLAs and asked us to write the name of the person who we felt was  the best fit to replace Gogoi. Fifty-five MLAs wrote my name. When I met Sonia Gandhi, she told me that many MLAs were supporting me. I said, ‘Madam, it is not important who is supporting me. You need to replace Gogoi’. She said, ‘Okay, let Rahul return from his trip abroad, then we will take a decision’. But after Rahul came back, I was told, ‘You compromise with Gogoi, you will be given some important portfolio’. But I already had health and education. What can be more important?

When I was in the Congress, I did not report to Rahul because I felt reporting to him, one who is not that superior intellectually, was not the kind of thing I could do. Sonia Gandhi had not said this directly, but she had started the process to replace Gogoi. But when Rahul returned, the process was stalled and I realised who was in command.

P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: This change in government in Assam, according to you, how much of it was purely anti-incumbency, and how much of it was because a senior person such as you shifted to another party?

It is a combination of three to four factors. One was the anger against Tarun Gogoi. Then a large group of people shifted; in fact of the 60 elected BJP members today, 20 have a Congress background. But the larger message is that in Assam, Narendra Modi is immensely popular. He is popular because people have realised that he can get the Northeast out of the cycle of underdevelopment and poverty. So, the victory, 70% is because of Modi, 25%is because of Gogoi’s intense unpopularity, and the remaining 5% is because… when we left the party, it got weakened.

COOMI KAPOOR: Some people compare the Assam poll results with Brexit. That it was a vote against immigration.

Identity is a major issue in Assam today. In 11 of the 27 districts of the state, the mainstream Assamese people have no say. Our land is being taken; illegal immigration is rampant. Safeguards promised in the Assam accord are not being implemented. So it is a vote for preserving our identity. People feel that Modi can take drastic steps that are needed to preserve our identity.

VANDITA MISHRA: Is that a Hindu identity?

It is not a Hindu identity; it is an identity of our indigenous people. This is a vote for preserving our culture given to us by Sankardev; the Vaishnavite culture. Assamese Muslims are also a part of this, but they are of Sufi identity. In Assam, when we talk of Sankardev, we also speak of Ajan Fakir, who represented Sufism. It is the most benevolent form of Hinduism and Islam. People of Assam distance themselves from extremism, whether Hindu or Muslim.

KABIR FIRAQUE: Is there a move to change the cut-off date (in the Assam accord for detection and deportation of foreigners) from 1971 to 1951?

I personally feel that the state government should revert the cut-off to 1951. We have not discussed this issue at a BJP forum or our alliance forum. Individually, I am committed to 1951. But the government has come in only now. I will try to push my agenda on 1951; let’s see how the party reacts.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: When Sushma Swaraj visited Dhaka, she announced a relaxed visa regime
for Bangaldeshis.

I think that is a different issue. Bangladesh is a respected neighbour.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: But the Assam BJP is opposed to it.

I think the Assam BJP might have opposed it at that time. My point is that those who come with legal documents, and those who don’t want to grab economic, political and cultural power, they come just like we go to America, like we go to Bangladesh. Our attitude should be different to them.  If a Bangladeshi IT engineer can contribute to Assam’s Metro network, why shouldn’t he come, with proper documents? Our issue is against those who come for encroaching our culture, our land, to make us a minority.

SHEELA BHATT: In the Congress, they say that you are turning out to be a tragic hero. That the BJP has used your network in Assam and is expanding in the Northeast. You have also been made chairman of the Northeast Democratic Alliance, NEDA. But they did not give you chief ministership.

The Congress thinks that I am for power, so my sympathies for them. But I joined politics through an ideological movement. For me, if I can accomplish those issues, that would be the greatest satisfaction. Also, does the Congress think that what they could not give me in 22 years, the BJP will give me in six months? Is that political logic? And if you go by political logic, I was instrumental in the Congress winning in 2006 and 2011. Why didn’t they give me the (CM) post?…

The day I took oath, Amit Shahji came to me and said ‘Himanta, you take charge of the Northeast’. I now have eight states with me. In the BJP, talent is recognised. So I will get commensurate to what my talent is. If I ask for the chief minister’s chair, it is a disproportionate demand. Proportionately, whatever I had in the Congress, they have given me the same kind of respect.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: In terms of forming governments with Congress dissidents, has the BJP changed its stance after Uttarakhand?

I do not know about Uttarakhand, but I asked my national president about my mandate, saying, ‘In Meghalaya, some people are in touch with me, and in Manipur, some people are in touch with me’. Amit Shah gave me a categorical answer: ‘Election par dhyan do (Focus on elections)… In the Northeast, in Meghalaya and Manipur, we will win through a popular mandate.

KABIR FIRAQUE: But Meghalaya is a Christian-majority state.

We will win. The biggest story from the Northeast is the way the Christian community is supporting the BJP.  Zoramthanga (Mizoram chief minister), a devout Baptist Christian and who was with the Mizo National Front (MNF), has willingly joined the NEDA. Now Nagaland CM (TR Zeliang), a devout Catholic, has become a pioneer in the NEDA. In Meghalaya, Conrad Sangma, Donkupar Roy (former CM), Paul Lyngdoh, all devout Christians, say: ‘We are with the NEDA’. I think that it is the biggest endorsement of ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’.

AMRITH LAL: The RSS has always articulated its anti-conversion narrative in terms of Nagaland. That a state which didn’t have any Christians now has 97.6% Christians. Do you see a contradiction here?

I think the RSS thinks about Indianness. I am sharing my experience with the RSS, my interaction is limited. When we prepared a list of ministers, a senior RSS leader called me up and said ‘Why have you not inducted Aminul Haque?’, the lone BJP Muslim MLA in Assam. That was a shocker. And he, a fairly senior person, told me that in Assam, where there is a significant Muslim population, you should have a Muslim minister. Coming back to Christians, again they insisted and asked us to take a Christian in the ministry. We took two. I haven’t seen them (the RSS) speak against Hindus or Muslims. I have met many senior RSS leaders in the last six-seven months. I have not come across a single word against certain communities.

P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: You said that Rahul doesn’t come across as an intellectual. Why do you think so?

When you see him, you see a reluctant politician. He will talk to you, then suddenly want to go to the gym. In a day, five-six times you go to the gym, that doesn’t instil confidence among workers that this man is serious. Then when you talk to him, he will play with his dog. You have every freedom to do so, but when you talk to a chief minister, if you also have a puppy in your lap, then it doesn’t give a signal that this man is serious. He will talk to you seriously, then suddenly withdraw from the conversation. I have noticed him very closely for three years. He will talk to you very naturally, like a brother, in a room, but when he sees you in public, he will just ignore you. In the morning, he will say ‘No, no, you should not have this lavish lifestyle’. In the evening, you will find he has gone to the US in executive class. So he has a lot of dichotomies, lots of contradictions in his behaviour. Unless he resolves those, he is not entitled to lead a party like the Congress.

VANDITA MISHRA: Do you think the Congress can move forward without the dynasty?

Yes. How did Sharad Pawar survive after leaving the Congress? How has Himanta Biswa Sarma survived after leaving the Congress? How did PA Sangma survive after leaving the Congress? There are many people in the Congress who can take the party forward. But there is a systematic propaganda inside the party: ‘Bhai ye log ke bina to… nahin paata (What after them… we can’t say)’. Toh un log ke pass kya hai (What do they have)? They (the Gandhis) are not magnets; they cannot draw a crowd. They have certain chamchas with them, the family loyalists, who have created this atmosphere that ‘No, no, without them, you cannot survive’. If people say that without Rahul, I cannot survive, then you are basically saying, ‘Give me a boon to die’. It is equal to that. There is an inherent contradiction. You cannot survive with Rahul.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: Are you saying the Congress can survive only if it junks the Gandhis?

No. Rahul can come through meritocracy. He started well. When he began, he said meritocracy, ‘only except me’. Why except him? So if the Congress started a merit system, gave a decent farewell to Sonia Gandhi, and told Rahul you start your career as a zila parishad member, then the party can survive. There is always space for an alternative political formation in this country. The BJP cannot represent the aspirations of 120 crore people for all time to come. Maybe for the next 20 years, Modiji is relevant. But at some point, people will seek an option. Today, the Congress is not even an option for the next 20 years.

VANDITA MISHRA: Unlike the BJP, the Congress is a more diverse coalition of interests, factions, and the argument many make is that the Gandhi family is the glue that holds them together.

I will tell you what the Congress is: it is basically a semi-feudal party based on concessions. A party like the Congress would not have survived for five minutes, but why has it survived? What happens is that when Sonia Gandhi gives a concession to Rahul because ‘he is my son’, then chief ministers demand concessions for their sons. So after the Cabinet minister promotes his son, when he goes to his constituency, all the zila parishad, panchayat members say, ‘We are thrilled to see your son, but the condition is that in the next panchayat election, my son should be given a ticket’. The party has institutionalised this concession system. These leaders know that if I say Rahul should not be president, then by implication, my son will also not be CM. Now, as a young generation has emerged, the Congress is finding it difficult to continue the concession system. Around 20 years ago, I told a senior Congress leader, ‘The more literate the country gets, it will be difficult to retain the Congress’. In the next 30-60 years, unless the Congress sheds this feudal character, it will not revive.

ABANTIKA GHOSH: The Congress survived Indira Gandhi’s dynastic politics. Why is it crumbling under Sonia?

I will not say Sonia Gandhi is responsible. She would also have survived if there was no literacy in the country; no liberalisation of the economy. Had the same kind of society been there as we had in 1977, then this concession politics would have gone on. This politics has broken down not because their system has failed, but because people have become mature. They should not have liberalised the country. So I will say that Manmohan Singh and Narasimha Rao presided over the Congress demolition structure because they liberalised the economy. Once economic power went to the village, people began accessing education.

With the Gandhis, the Congress will never revive. It has to be something revolutionary. Secularism is a concept, liberalism is a concept and you can work with regional parties, but you need major change from within. After they lose Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, these people (the Gandhis) will not be able to retain the party.

VANDITA MISHRA: But don’t you think there is that tendency in the BJP too, but it has not had the chance to institutionalise a dynasty?

I think in every party, every father has a tendency to promote his son. Today, I am saying all this, but I don’t know that at some point of time, I may have to eat my own words. My son will grow up and might say, ‘I want to be in politics’. So I appreciate the concern of many Congress CMs, because as a father I also know that it is very difficult to say ‘no’ to my son. That is why you need people like Narendra Modi who can say ‘no’ to the face. People want a leader ‘jo galat hai, munh pe bol do (saying what is wrong to the face)’. I am a father and unless I have a leader like Modi, nobody will stop me (from promoting my own). So India needs more and more leaders like Modi. In Assam, we were told on the very first day: ‘Bhai aise logon ko ticket mat dena (Don’t give tickets to such leaders)’. Now, in the Congress, you will never hear this.

VANDITA MISHRA: Same as your incisive articulation of what is wrong with the Congress, can you do it for the BJP?

I have found that of the people who criticise the BJP, one or two points are justified, but those people who have a parochial hatred towards the BJP, they either have strong ideological reasons or they must have got some concession from the Congress. When Sitaram Yechury criticises the BJP, I will not say that he got concessions from the Congress.

When people criticise the BJP, some of it is ideological, which should be there or India will collapse. So I believe in ideological diversity.

Transcribed by Madhurita Goswami & Sanchari Bhattacharya

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