SACHIN PILOT: The seats that the Congress party has won in the bypolls were traditionally not in our kitty — Alwar City, Ajmer City. We had not won these seats for a long time, maybe two or three decades. And we didn’t just win these seats, but did so by a decent margin. This goes to show that the agrarian distress has disenchanted the farming community from the ruling government. The urban middle classes and the young people feel the same way too. This is very encouraging for the Congress party.
I was asked at a press conference about the ramifications of these elections. Firstly, the chief minister (Vasundhara Raje) invested so much of her time in Ajmer and camped there for close to two weeks along with half her Cabinet; I think she must take complete moral responsibility (for the defeat) and step aside. This election has been a complete rejection of her government and her policies. I say this because the victory margins are rather large and substantial. It is a verdict on her performance.
These were Lok Sabha by-elections. So this is also the rejection of the anti-farmer, anti-poor and anti-youth policies of the BJP government (at the Centre).
MANOJ CG: The Congress has won only one state since the 2014 general elections — Punjab. You had a credible CM face there. Will the Congress be able to win Rajasthan without a chief
In states that went to polls since 2014, we were not strong organisationally. Like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But where there is a two-party contest — such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan — those states haven’t gone to polls yet, except for Himachal Pradesh.
Traditionally, the Congress has never projected individuals as CM faces in any state, except for a few times. The BJP takes great pride in the fact that they declare their CM candidates, but when Amit Shah was in Rajasthan a few months ago and was asked whether Vasundhara Raje will lead the party in the polls, there was defeaning silence. So the question (of a CM face) is more pertinent to them.
The Congress fights as a party, and then the elected MLAs come together and they elect a party leader. That has always been the case, at least in Rajasthan.
COOMI KAPOOR: Ashok Gehlot has been quoted as saying that the head of the state unit should not take part in electoral politics. Does that mean that you won’t be standing in the Assembly elections?
When did he say this? I honestly haven’t heard it.
I was the MP from Ajmer for five years, and so there was a lot of talk about me contesting the by-elections. I left the decision to the party president and Mrs Gandhi. So the party decided that I should work for the entire state and ensure that we win all the seats. I think the same logic will apply in seven months’ time. I don’t think I, or Ashokji (Gehlot), or anyone else can decide who will contest or not. The final decision on candidates is taken in Delhi.
COOMI KAPOOR: Most politicians in your party are either Delhi-based or state-based. You are one of the rare exceptions who has made the transition from Delhi to a state.
It was something that needed to be done. I am of the opinion that we must, as a party, win states. Unless we win a good number of states, we will not be in a strong position to mount a challenge in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
To win states, you have to win municipal elections, ward elections etc. Those are elections that form the bedrock of an organisation. We have to win states. No party can think of conquering New Delhi nationally unless they have a good number of states under their belt. That was the job that I was given four years ago. When I became state party president, the Congress had 21 MLAs out of 200 in the Assembly. We haven’t got such few MLAs since Independence. So it was a daunting task to go and revive a party which had been relegated to such a position.
I told myself that if I do something, I have to do it with full commitment. You can’t win by-elections or any elections if you start campaigning two-three weeks before the polls. So I was in election mode in December 2013, when I was sent to Rajasthan as party president. I decided to take on every small election, every battle with all that I had. That is what has paid dividends for us now.
MANOJ CG: What if the party high command decides to project Ashok Gehlot as the CM candidate?
I have been an MP for 10 years. I became state party president at the age of 34. I have got so much from the party and now it is time for me to give back to the Congress. Not just me, it holds for all of us. Now is not the time when we should be seeking things from the Congress. It’s a time when the Congress needs everyone’s contribution.
RAVISH TIWARI: But don’t you think that the time has come for the Congress to give up its old strategy and start projecting a chief ministerial candidate,even in states where it is
It is true that in some states the BJP projects a CM candidate and it is fine. But in order to get there, you need to have a strong structure and foundation in place. Unless you have organisational strength, no matter who you project, the party can’t win.
My party workers, who are second to none, have defeated the BJP at a time when it is being called an election-winning machine; that myth has been put to rest comprehensively.
The BJP has a government at the Centre, a government in the state, MLA, MP, CM, PM, everybody is from the BJP. They have huge resources, they have a well-oiled machinery, they have propaganda, they have everything at their disposal. Also, we were not fighting the BJP in this election, we were fighting the government of Rajasthan. The police, the administration, they were threatening, they were bribing, they were doing everything they could. The fact that you can stand up and challenge the government and all its might, it takes certain amount of strength from party workers. And you can’t prepare them over a fortnight.
ARUN PRASHANTH SUBRAMANIAN: Can you talk about the organisation that you raised from the bottom up when you went to Rajasthan?
We have had structures in the Congress, but some of them are not as omnipresent on the ground as they ought to be. So we decided to do a fact check, not live in denial, and accept the problems. We then tried our best to fix those. Also, if party workers are not assessed on the job that they are doing and then given promotion or demotion, then there is no joy. I give my party
workers specific tasks, monitor them and then reward or punish according to their performance.
ARUN PRASHANTH SUBRAMANIAN: In Rajasthan, what is the unfinished work before the state elections?
We have been asking for a farm loan waiver. Yogi Adityanath has announced a waiver in UP and Devendra Fadnavis has done it in Maharashtra. Now the farmer of Rajasthan is asking why when two BJP CMs have announced waivers have they been left out. Eighty farmers have ended their lives. The other problem in Rajasthan is unemployment. In 2013, Vasundhara Raje promised 15 lakh jobs, and the government data says that 81,000 have been given so far. So the educated, young people are now up in arms. When they go to public meetings and ask for jobs, they are beaten up by the police. We will take up these issues seriously in the next few months.
JYOTI MALHOTRA: The victory in the by-elections, is it an anti-Raje vote or a pro-Congress vote?
You can’t delink the two. People are unhappy and Vasundharaji’s failure is now written on the wall. The Congress has presented to the people of Rajasthan a broader vision for the state and they have chosen the better option.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: What do you have to say about the Karni Sena and and the controversy over Padmaavat?
Anybody in this country, no matter what group or sena they belong to, if they break the law, the State must take appropriate action. I am very clear on that and so is the party.
As far as the controversy is concerned, it came up 14 months ago, when parts of the film were being shot in Rajasthan. Had the government of Rajasthan brought the producers and the protesting groups to the table, the issue could have been settled. But no one bothered to talk to anybody and the film was made. And then there was competitive politics. Madhya Pradesh banned the film, Vasundharaji felt that she had been left behind, and so she did the same.
It is the failure of the State on two counts. One, not being able to sense the problem that was going to come their way, and then showing love for the Kshatriyas at the time of the film’s release.
People who are responsible for implementing the Supreme Court’s decision, implementing law and order, talking to disgruntled groups — it was all in the BJP’s hands.
AMBREEN KHAN: On what counts did the BJP government in Rajasthan falter, and what were some of the things that you capitalised on?
A government doesn’t get a bad impression in a month. It takes special skills and efforts to ruin a mandate as large as the one Vasundharaji got — 163 MLAs. In independent India, no party in Rajasthan has got that many MLAs.
As opposed to working for that mandate and delivering on the promises, she started doing… like this gag order she brought up (in October 2017) — nobody can write anything against a political figure or a bureaucrat until the government says so and the (guilty) journalist will be given two years in jail. That is the ordinance that was passed. We gheraoed the Assembly over it, raised a hue and cry, and they finally withdrew the ordinance and it was sent to the select committee. But look at the arrogance, they haven’t yet disposed of the Bill on it. It shows that you are cut off from reality.
In the last four years, there has been rampant corruption in the state — the Lalit Modi scam, the mining scam. All these things reflect the arrogance of being in power and using your mandate to do things that are illegal, immoral and certainly unacceptable to a large section of the people in Rajasthan.
LIZ MATHEW: During the controversy over Padmaavat, there wasn’t much said by Congress party leaders in Delhi. So what is the approach that the party wants its leaders to have? What is the Congress’s narrative?
The whole caste, religion classification is done for politics. There are two types of people, and two castes, and two religions — the haves and the have-nots. Policy should be about how to empower the have-nots, irrespective of whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Dalit, Punjabi etc.
People of India are looking for a different narrative. The narrative that has won the BJP some elections and some votes, is it a wise narrative, is it in national interest? The jury is still out on that. Politics of division, venom, vendetta and acrimony is not setting a good example for the young people of the country. Getting religion so entrenched into politics… religion is a matter of the home and heart. It’s your personal choice and the Constitution gives you that right.
MANOJ CG: But why is the Congress silent on attacks such as those on Pehlu Khan in Alwar? Afrazul Khan was killed in the midst of the Gujarat elections but no one uttered a word. In Gujarat, there was no mention of security of the Muslims and minorities.
But why should you mention a religious group just because it will satisfy some people? I say we talk about the people who have been left outside the development ambit, people who have been disenfranchised, irrespective of their religion.
At no point should anybody feel that the Congress is not taking a stand because of the fear of a backlash. But, the game that the BJP is playing is now becoming obvious.
MANOJ C G: So if somebody is lynched or burnt alive in the name of religion, the Congress won’t speak out?
I said the opposite. If anyone’s rights are taken away, whoever it is — Hindu, Muslim, Dalit, Christian — we must, we will and we have been standing up for that person.
After the Rajsamand incident (involving Afrazul), we took to the streets and made sure that the culprit was apprehended within a few hours. One thing is to stand up for what is right, and another is to allow the BJP to take advantage of a communal situation. We won’t allow that to happen either.
VANDITA MISHRA: So if you are not going to take names of communities, if you are going to subsume them in have-nots, how then is the Congress approach going to be different from sabka saath sabka vikas? Even they don’t take names.
That is a jumla. They take plenty of names, but they take names that help them politically. We will not shy away from taking anyone’s name — any community, any group. What I meant was that this micro-segregation of caste, sub-caste, community and religion is not beneficial. We should look at people who don’t have things and then reach out to them.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: During the Gujarat elections, there was a lot of focus on Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits. Are we going to see the same in Rajasthan?
Mandir Rahul Gandhi jaate hain, pet mein dard BJP ko hota hai (Rahul Gandhi goes to the temple, the BJP gets a stomach ache). I don’t think he went to Gujarat just to visit temples, he went there to campaign. He happened to see a temple and then visited it. There is nothing wrong in that.
LIZ MATHEW: Do you think the Congress is caught between whether they should back the majority or appease the minority?
It is not either or. India is 80% Hindu. If the so called ‘Right’ had the support of every single Hindu, then they would rule for another 1,000 years. But this country is secular also because the Hindus in this country are supremely secular. It’s not just about political parties. India has a robust and vibrant society. There is law, the Constitution, convention and conscience. And my conscience tells me that anyone who is wronged should be spoken for, no matter which religion he or she belongs to.
AAKASH JOSHI: If early polls are called, are you prepared for it?
No matter when the polls are called, we have been in election mode since Day 1. I’m happy to have the elections anytime. In fact, it is the BJP which is not geared up for polls, after the bypolls. We are ready at all levels — panchayat, Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha.
MANOJ CG: Rahul Gandhi took charge of the Congress three months ago. He recently said he will give India a ‘chamakta (shining)’ Congress. But there is still no word on the AICC reshuffle?
I had told Mr Gandhi that we will give him a present in the new year by winning the three bypoll seats. I am happy that we have delivered. As far as changes are concerned, they are happening. I can’t disclose more than that.