Haryana Cong president Kumari Selja admits Oct 21 polls are a challenge, denies differences within state unit will hurt party, defends Rahul Gandhi’s focused attack on PM Modi before the Lok Sabha polls and says Cong will accept the Ayodhya verdict, whatever it is
MANOJ C G: Elections have been announced, and the perception is that it’s an uphill battle for the Congress, both in Maharashtra and Haryana. How difficult are these polls for the party, according to you?
I admit it is a challenge. While we have just lost the Lok Sabha elections, I would also say that it doesn’t really mean that much in a democracy. For example, in the 2009 (general elections), we won nine out of 10 seats in Haryana. Then, within months, the state elections were announced, where the Congress did not do very well. The situation could, perhaps, be the same now as well because the issues at the national and state level are very different. Let’s face it, every election is a challenge. This election is also a challenge and I got this responsibility only a little while ago. But there is work going on in the party, and there has been a change.
MANOJ C G: Talking of issues, senior Congress leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda backed the abrogation of Article 370, taking a different stand from the party, and said that ‘my party has lost its way’. Was he responding to the public mood in the state?
The time was different then, and now things have changed. I don’t think he has articulated that view since he was made the Congress Legislative Party leader in Haryana. Also, while the BJP government in Haryana is talking about Article 370, let’s be careful. Listen to what the chief minister (Manohar Lal Khattar) is saying. One of the things that he referred to (at a speech after the abrogation of Article 370) is that now you will be able to get girls from Kashmir. Now, if this is how they are going to explain Article 370 to the people of Haryana, then it’s a very sorry state of affairs. It reflects their mindset, the RSS’s mindset. (The Haryana BJP claimed the statement had been twisted ‘under an agenda’).
Secondly, how does Article 370 affect the common man in Haryana? It may be a national issue… but I think even that is behind us now. The BJP needs to answer for things happening on the ground. They are not talking about the issues affecting people of Haryana. And, suddenly, they bring in Article 370, the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This shows that they do not really have a grasp of the real ground issues.
MANOJ C G: But even on the NRC, Hooda backed the chief minister’s idea of implementing it in Haryana.
I think it may have been interpreted in a different way. I think what he may have meant is that why was the NRC issue not raised in Haryana for five years. He may have meant that. That is a fair question to ask the government.
HARISH DAMODARAN: How much of an issue is the demolition of the Ravidas temple in Delhi, in the polls?
It did resonate. Please understand the whole scenario here. For the Scheduled Castes, it is a big issue. They feel that somewhere this government, and the BJP, is not really sensitive to a certain section. The temple had been there for centuries. There was also samaadhis there. If the government wanted, they could have re-planned that whole area and let the temple stay. They did not do that. They may take refuge behind what the Supreme Court said, but they could have re-planned it. So yes, the move has affected a certain section, including the SCs of Haryana.
ANOOP PHILIP: Former state party chief Ashok Tanwar, who you replaced, did not join you in your state-wide tour. Also, in a veiled dig at Hooda, he said that ‘those who contested the Lok Sabha polls this year should give a chance to other party colleagues’. How do you plan on tackling the infighting in the Haryana Congress?
He may be feeling a little left out since the change came at the last minute… This is the way the party takes decisions at certain times for certain people. It is an ongoing thing. He may be feeling some things, but even then he has been active for the party. He has been holding meetings and he has been talking about the party.
LIZ MATHEW: What are the Congress’s alliance plans in Haryana?
No, there is nothing like that for us. We are going solo.
LIZ MATHEW: During the Kashmir debate in Parliament, many Opposition leaders spoke up for Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, your former allies who are under house arrest. Why is the Congress hesitant to talk about them?
I think (Ghulam Nabi) Azad sir may have spoken on that. Farooq Abdullahji is a respected leader of J&K. He was also an ally of the BJP government earlier… We have been saying that what are you going to gain in a state by putting all political leaders behind bars? On the one hand you say you want to restore normalcy, and then, on the other hand, you fear an 80-year-old man, who has been your ally. What is the BJP actually trying to prove? Their claims and actions are very contradictory.
PRADEEP KAUSHAL: At a public rally in Rohtak, Hooda made a lot of promises such as increasing old age pension, free bus travel facility for women on Haryana Roadways etc. What is the party’s position on it?
The party’s position is very clear. We are seeking inputs from everybody, people, organisations… If they are workable, we will include them in our manifesto. If something is not feasible, the committee will look into it. If there are good suggestions, we have no problem in taking them up.
RAVISH TIWARI: After Rahul Gandhi’s resignation from the post of party president, it seemed the party would use the crisis to come up with something new. But the Congress Working Committee reinstated Sonia Gandhi as interim president.
It is a new thing… At that point we all felt that to hold the party together a senior leader like Soniaji (was needed)… At first, she was very reluctant. But then we all told her that till we actually elect a new leader, her experience may benefit the party. So she agreed only to be the interim president. Recently, she held a meeting to launch a membership drive. We will also have a schedule for electing a new president. She is there only as an interim president.
MANOJ C G: Most Congress leaders say that the appointment of Sonia Gandhi as the interim president was to keep the party united, that she is a unifying factor etc. But what makes the party believe that if you appoint some other leader, the party will break?
It wasn’t just that the party will remain united. To elect a new president, we need to go through a proper process. You must understand that it was a big change for the party… For the Congress president to resign… We were trying to persuade him to carry on but he stuck to his word. This put the party in a certain situation, and so we thought that her (Sonia Gandhi’s) experience will help us. So we requested her and she agreed. Of course, there is a timeline (for the election of a new president)…
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Do you think the time has come for the Congress to move beyond the Gandhi family?
In the past too, the party has looked beyond the Gandhi family. Then, we came back to the Gandhi family… Now we have decided that we will go in for elections and we will have a proper schedule, and that Soniaji will be the interim president. Now, based on the organisational elections, we will decide the future.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: But what about fixing accountability for the general election loss, and the party’s decline in the states?
I think all of us are accountable — all of us, at every level. You can’t place the accountability and blame on one person.
MANOJ C G: There was a view that the ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ campaign, and too much negative personal attack on the Prime Minister, backfired.
You are saying this with the wisdom of hindsight. He (the Prime Minister) is always attacking the Gandhi family, starting from (Jawahar Lal) Nehruji. There was definitely something going on in the Rafale deal, and Rahulji was talking about it. What was the harm? And it was just one of the things. He was also talking about other issues. But the media just focused on that (Rafale). Please don’t forget that in the entire election the only person taking on Modi was Rahul Gandhi.
HARISH DAMODARAN: Haryana always had a good mix of agriculture and industry. There were a lot of rice mills from Sonipat to Ambala. There were textile mills. Then, there was Gurgaon, Manesar and Jhajjar. However, in the past few years it seemed to have really slipped. Why is that?
Yes, Haryana was doing very well. Today, Haryana has the highest unemployment rate — 28%. The national average is around 8%. What are they (the BJP government in the state) doing? They have no policies, whether it’s the auto industry or other industries. Look what they have done to Maruti. The company has cut its production in Haryana. All the auxiliaries are suffering. We have the plywood industry, metal industry, the industry in Panipat from where exports would take place… In Ambala, we had the scientific instruments industry. There was the IT industry… They have all suffered because of the bad policies of the NDA government — from demonetisation to the bad implementation of the Goods and Services Tax.
In the state, the (Manohar Lal) Khattar government has no policies for industry, unemployment, or for farmers. Can you imagine, sugarcane farmers are getting cheques dated 2020. What is happening? When they say that they will give direct payment to farmers… first they cut money for their loans… what is the farmer getting in hand? What kind of employment are you giving the people of Haryana? Out of 80 posts, 78 go to non-Haryanvis. At the lower levels, what are you doing? People with Masters’ degrees, BTech graduates, are opting for Class IV jobs.
Look at the drug menace among farmers, in the younger lot. There is a crackdown in Punjab and Rajasthan, and the entire mafia is now moving towards Haryana. What are you doing to our youth? You reduce corporate tax for the richest people but how will you make up for the shortfall in revenue?… Your welfare schemes are going to suffer. It is obvious. The whole economy is going to suffer and when the whole economy suffers, Haryana will suffer.
PRADEEP KAUSHAL: You were appointed the state Congress president very recently. Would it have been better for the party to have done it, say, two years ago?
I don’t think one should get into that. Let the past be the past. We have to move forward. We have to work and expose this government with renewed vigour.
Hooda and I, and the other leaders, have been travelling across the state. We have held 10 workers’ meetings in each parliamentary constituency. We have received tremendous response from our workers. The workers only respond if they see change on the ground. Otherwise, they get despondent. I am very happy with the response. We shall fight this.
RAVISH TIWARI: You are a CWC member as well. Looking at the events of the past 100-150 days, it seems there is a lack of ideological coherence within the Congress. Like what is the party’s stand on Article 370? What is its approach towards Narendra Modi? There is not much clarity on the party’s stand on these issues.
Please understand that the party has always encompassed all kinds of views. Even historically, we had different wings where you could articulate your views. If you had, say, a socialist view, you could have that. If you leaned towards the Right, you were allowed that. The Congress is such a forum and yet we are all part of a party. And, when the CWC passes a resolution, we are all a part of that too, we accept it.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: The nationalist agenda seems to have been usurped by the BJP, and your party doesn’t seem to have a strong counter-narrative to it.
See, the BJP has always had a divisive narrative. The Congress has always believed in holding together the fabric of this country. For the BJP, the Congress becomes an obvious target because they only want to talk about a certain section. The Congress party talks about every section — which also includes that certain section — whether it is Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jain. The Congress has held the country together. You cannot make selective historical references, the way the BJP does. Suddenly, for one issue, you want to condemn Nehru, and for another issue you want to praise another leader. Where was the BJP when the country was fighting for Independence? Where was the BJP and its ideology? They were not deshbhakts or nationalists. In fact, they opposed the Quit India movement. Today, they do not have a nationalist legacy to call their own, so they want to appropriate our leaders of that time. They are able to project themselves as the only nationalist party because of their propaganda machinery. I can tell you that only the Congress’s ideology works in this country. The Congress as a political party may have lost power, but it does not mean that the Congress’s ideology is lost in the country. It is the real nationalist ideology. The Congress does not need to redefine nationalism. The Congress is steeped in nationalism, and nationalism is steeped in the Congress ideology.
RAVISH TIWARI: Would you admit that the Congress has failed to communicate its secularism and its merits to the electorate?
This ultra-Right view is a global phenomenon today. You see it all over. They have been able to project it and, in a way, that has got them power. The Congress has not pandered to different kinds of views just to retain power. For us, secularism includes everybody, Hindus too. This is what Soniaji was also trying to say, that it suits the BJP to use their propaganda to tell people that the Congress is for Muslims. It’s a very insidious propaganda… The word polarisation is not in the best interests of the country. You can’t push people in different directions simply based on their religion. To say that the Congress is anti-Hindu and pro a certain section is blatantly wrong.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: So what is the Congress offering now?
We need to take our youth along. We need to give them a better future. We need to give a better future to the people who are forgotten by the BJP. They are only talking about polls and divisive issues. The youth, forgotten people like the SCs and STs… they deserve a better future and we will try to do that. We are the ones who brought the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. We are the ones who brought food security. We gave these rights to the people because we wanted everyone to grow. The BJP’s divisive agenda is simply to divert the attention of the people from real issues. We want to take the agenda and the narrative to where it belongs. What are they doing about the dignity of women? Look at the Chinmayanand case. What are they doing for farmers? The farmers have never faced such misery before. Look at the poor implementation of the MNREGA. There is no money. These are the issues that the Congress will focus on. They (the BJP) have managed to prevail because they have made one issue the overriding issue… You are asked to choose sides over nationalism. Are you a nationalist or anti-national? Which citizen will call herself or himself an anti-national? Which citizen will not support that? The Congress has never made it out like that. You cannot take sides like that.
MANOJ C G: In a month or so the Supreme Court may give its verdict in the Ayodhya case. Has the Congress decided its stand on the issue?
We have left it to the Supreme Court. Whatever the verdict is, the Congress will respect it.