Congress general secretary Ashok Gehlot talks about Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits, says if not for Mani Shankar Aiyar’s remarks, Congress would have won Gujarat, asserts that the perception about ‘misunderstood’ Rahul have changed, reflects on the necessity of alliances, and insists the Congress has not abandoned Muslims.
Shailaja Bajpai: Did Mani Shankar Aiyar’s remarks (describing the PM as ‘neech kism ka aadmi’) hurt the party in the last leg of the Gujarat elections?
What I feel is that they provoked Mani Shankar Aiyar. The comments about Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi, by their own people, including Amit Shah and Modi, and their own politicians… they are such comments that had we repeated them I don’t know where politics would have headed within the country, with respect to Gujarat. We saved ourselves from it and didn’t repeat them. They (the BJP) reaped the benefits of this mudda (issue).
I feel in the last few days (of the election) they (BJP) made a mockery of the Model Code of Conduct. Modiji crossed all limits. In the name of a private show he held a road show. We asked the Election Commission ‘what is this circus?’ On the one hand you issue a notice to Rahul Gandhi (for giving interviews to TV channels a day before the second phase of the Gujarat polls), but you spare them. And then you withdraw the notice (to Gandhi) after the elections. This is not a good tradition.
Ravish Tiwari: While campaigning in the previous elections, the Congress party did not lay much emphasis on visiting temples. What changed in Gujarat?
It is not important to visit temples during elections. Everyone goes to temples and it is not a big deal.
Rahulji, in a very religious way, went to temples and did puja. The BJP got disturbed by this. Throughout the campaign they were in turmoil over Rahul Gandhi’s visits to the temples as they couldn’t create an issue out of it. So they resorted to different tactics. They got hold of a comment made by Mani Shankar Aiyar and twisted it.
Manoj CG: If those comments hadn’t been made, would you have reached a simple majority?
Very easily, and won too. I also agree that we made a few mistakes but these elections were won by Congress and there are no two views about it. Even today what I believe is that the countdown to the BJP’s ouster from Gujarat has begun. Before these elections, people thought that Modiji would continue as Prime Minister for 10 years. That myth has now been broken.
Manoj CG: You have a strong hold on rural centres, but the party did not win many seats in urban areas.
I agree. The issues raised by the party and Rahul Gandhi in these elections — issues concerning farmers, the youth — were liked by the people of the state.
Ravish Tiwari: Why has the Congress failed in getting a hold of the cities?
Members of business communities live in the cities, and they have been traditional voters of the BJP. Since the Jana Sangh was formed, the businessmen or one can say the ‘General’ castes have stayed with the BJP. The RSS and the BJP have influence within Gujarat.
Thirdly, what I believe is that since the 2002 riots a fear has gripped people. The businessmen feel threatened. These days, the entire country is scared of the CBI, ED and the Income Tax. People are scared of talking on their telephones; politicians are scared. A lot of people we intend to meet are scared of talking, and say that they will only talk from their landlines. It is a very alarming state in the country.
Unni Rajen Shanker: You said five days of Modi’s campaign turned the Gujarat elections around, and that the BJP polarised the campaign. It is bound to happen in other elections too. What is the Congress’s counter to that?
We had a direct fight with them in Gujarat and the environment we created there, and the way Rahul Gandhi showed his charisma… it all showed for the first time that the public in the state is fed up that the BJP, and that it has only been successful because of marketing. I feel Modiji was not very successful as a chief minister but his marketing was good.
Since I have been chief minister (of Rajasthan), since 1998 — Modiji came to power in Gujarat in 2001-2002 — I have been hearing that Gujarat will be the governance model for the entire country. (L K) Advaniji had propagated it back then. Everyone is now fed up with the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ slogan. Back then, it used to sound so good that investments worth one-and-a-half lakh crore rupees would come to the state. From there, the investments rose to ` 5-6 and finally to seven-and-a-half lakh crore.
Mukesh Ambani went there, Ratan Tata went, and many more big industrialists went to Gujarat and gave a certificate to Modiji, saying he was doing a great job and that he was prime minister material. But there was zero investment. The marketing, however, made Gujarat appear as a model for governance. It is the same model that the RSS and the BJP followed in Goa (during the 2013 conclave where Narendra Modi was declared the PM candidate) to project Modiji.
Then there was the drama of Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and Baba Ramdev. We must accept that we did not counter them then. Had we, then the resulting situation would not have occurred. It created an environment that gave the Congress no chance in the elections. And then Modiji created an aura around him in Goa. By then, we had elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, and in those elections, Modi’s aura worked too.
I was a chief minister and I can say that governance was good in Rajasthan. We still remember Sheila Dikshit for so many things that happened in Delhi. But nothing was heard about our performance… The Congress got left behind. Rajiv Gandhi had brought in social media, and it was our right to use it first. But Modiji made full use of it and was successful.
Manoj CG: A lot of Congress leaders feel that the party has a realistic chance in Rajasthan. Would you want to go to Rajasthan?
I’m a very lucky to have got so many opportunities in the party, both under Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. I got an opportunity to become an MP and then a Union minister. Under Narasimha Rao, I was the minister for textiles. I was chief minister for 10 years. So for me to say that I should go here or there is not right. I have never asked anybody to lobby for me. Only once in my life I asked for an Assembly ticket, and that was in 1977. After that, I never asked for a ticket even as an MP, minister or chief minister. Without asking, the high command has always given me a chance. Whatever the high command decides, I will follow.
Shailaja Bajpai: You say that the people of Gujarat are in love with Rahul Gandhi. You have worked very closely with him. What has changed in Rahul Gandhi?
Rahul Gandhi has not changed. People’s views of him have changed. The way he spoke, the campaign he implemented and the remarks he made — people understood that he is an honest person and good for the country, the poor and the common man.
Today, the goodwill we have is due to the principle policy programmes by Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Rajiv Gandhi and Sardar Patel. The democracy we gave the nation, the programmes and policies we drafted; the Congress party is still working on that. We have never compromised on secularism. These people, they were first Jana Sangh, then became Janata party, and then the BJP. They talk just for the sake of talking.
Rahul Gandhi is being defamed now. Earlier, they maligned Rajiv Gandhi with Bofors. They called Sonia Gandhi a foreigner. It’s been 25-30 years. Today the whole nation says Soniaji follows Indian tradition. Why does Modiji need to repeatedly attack the Gandhi family? Why are they scared of them? If our high command and president is attacked and damaged, they feel the whole party would collapse. There is some truth in that, as there was a time when people from the Congress were joining the BJP.
Sonia Gandhi did not want to, but she still joined the Congress because she felt it was the duty of her family to take care of the party. She did a remarkable job and was successful for 18 years. When Rahul Gandhi first joined the party he was inexperienced. Even I was. I remember I could not even stand and talk initially. So they created an impression of him on social media. Whatever they said about Rahul Gandhi, people believed. He remained silent. He would say, ‘people can say what they want, I won’t feel bad.’ He said that there should be love and that we should be cordial in politics. The perception about him has changed with Gujarat; it will stay this way.
Shailaja Bajpai: About the Congress’s relationship with Muslims, many people feel that the minority card was important for you earlier but it is not the same now. In Rajasthan, after Afrazul Khan’s death, not many heard the Congress’s reaction. Have you forgotten the Muslims? What do you tell them now?
That is not the case. Congress believes in secularism. We can’t compromise on democracy, socialism and secularism. Congress’s identity is dependent on its principles, policies and programmes. Only the Congress can take care of the nation and keep it united. The future of this nation is dependent on the Congress, its programmes and policies. Modi’s vision of a Congress-mukt Bharat, has been shattered by the people of his own state.
Ravish Tiwari: What is your opinion on forming alliances, especially in bigger states where the Congress does not have a strong position? Should the party form alliances in states such as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, UP and Tamil Nadu?
At a personal level, I would say don’t form alliances, head for elections on your own at all these places. But if there is such governance that is ruining the country and its economy, then if you want to go in for an alliance, then you should. When the UPA was established Sonia Gandhi showed intelligence. Some people did not like her. She made Manmohan Singh the PM, and did not take the position herself. But then they (BJP) maligned him (Singh), accused him in the coal scam. There was loss but now the truth is coming out. The world now looks up to Manmohan Singh. Congress also has to strengthen itself, work for the welfare of the country, the states. So alliances become necessary.
Ravish Tiwari: In 2004, Sonia Gandhi took the lead. In an alliance, every party, person has his own agenda, his own ego. Do you think Rahul Gandhi has the ability to deal with that? Will he be able to build an alliance with Mamata Banerjee, Stalin, Sharad Pawar, Jagmohan Reddy and so on?
People have not understood Rahul Gandhi’s abilities. He is well-behaved and polite and is not egoistic. He wants to participate in politics with everyone and promote non-violence. Everyone likes such a person. The big leaders who you have named, they also understand what is good for the nation, society. They will also come forward for the alliance.
Krishn Kaushik: You said secularism is part of the Congress ideology. But at the time of the election, the talk was all about temples, janeu, and the Ram Mandir. No one spoke of Afrazul or the other minorities.
We haven’t forgotten them. We went to the temple for darshan. I understand your point, but if someone is Hindu, they go to the temple; Muslims go to the dargah, no one is offended by that. The Congress is secular and we go forward with all religions.
The BJP has, however, created a perception that the Congress has become a party of the Muslims, and that thought has been imbibed by Hindus. A lot of people in the BJP do not believe in temples, or in Ram, but they have also started talking about Ram. They have been successful in building the belief in Hindu society that Congress is synonymous with Muslims. And that the BJP stands for Hindus. It is important to remove this sentiment from the minds of people. Otherwise, there will be a problem in the future.
Today, it is easy to talk about Muslims. There has been terrorism in Kashmir for the last 30 years. How many Indian Muslims have been caught there and killed. The terrorists there are from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran , Iraq. Does anyone think of that? The BJP is fascist. It has no religion, honesty, ethics and only wants to capture the country. If Modi comes to power in 2019, we don’t know if there will be another election. People are worried about that. I feel this is a problematic time in the country. Muslims are scared. If you keep on cornering them, they could turn into terrorists.
Ravish Tiwari: The solution that Ashok Gehlot has come up with is visit as many temples as you want, and don’t talk about Muslims in Gujarat.
No, that is incorrect. We went to temples, we met minorities. What do they (BJP) do? They play mischief. Earlier also Modiji said, ‘if you vote Congress to power Ahmed Patel will become the CM.’ Now, will Modiji decide who will become CM in the Congress. They are playing politics. What else can you call this? We want peace between all regions, religions, groups. There should be a fight on the basis of ideology, not in the name of caste and religion.
I have a personal complaint. There is untouchability even today. Go to villages, everyone will sit on one side and people from the Scheduled Castes will sit in another corner. This happens even in certain urban areas. No one discusses this; people keep talking about Hindu-Muslim and other things. It must be some difficult for the Dalits.
Krishn Kaushik: The Congress did not do as much as the BJP during its campaign in Himachal Pradesh. It seems the Congress is just contesting for the sake of contesting, whereas the BJP is fighting to win.
I can’t talk about Himachal, I was not there. In Gujarat, everyone was on the ground to win the elections. All the decisions were taken by Rahul Gandhi. The campaign was very good. Separate meetings were held with different sections — farmers, the youth, workers. The manifesto was also drafted accordingly.
(Madhusudan) Mistry and Sam Pitroda travelled across Gujarat for the manifesto. We put things in the manifesto according to what people were saying and not what we were saying — it was an experiment. It was successful. People appreciated the manifesto. Unfortunately, they (BJP) were successful in the political games they played.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: You have worked closely with Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. What is the difference between Sonia Gandhi’s Congress and Rahul Gandhi’s Congress?
Rahul’s Congress has just come about. Wait for a bit. Rahul Gandhi is young and he will want to do well for the nation. He will of course strengthen the party. He will nurture those in the younger generation who are willing to work according to the Congress’s ideology. People who believe in the principles of the Congress should come forward. There should be a good cadre, so that people who become leaders in the coming years can serve the nation.
Rahulji feels that politics should reflect love, affection, brotherhood, non -violence and truthfulness. His thoughts will gain acceptance in India, especially among the youth in the coming days.