Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma is deputy leader of the party in the Rajya Sabha, where the Congress’s numerical strength makes or mars the BJP government’s legislative agenda.
Why Anand Sharma?
Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma is deputy leader of the party in the Rajya Sabha, where the Congress’s numerical strength makes or mars the BJP government’s legislative agenda. He is also part of the party’s shadow group, which guides and formulates the party’s view on economic affairs, foreign policy and the media.
MANOJ CG: For the last 16 months, the Congress has been doing what the BJP did while they were in opposition. Do you think the Congress can revive itself with this kind of negative politics?
We don’t believe in negative politics, but we were left with no option. Had the Prime Minister responded even once and come to the House, surely we would have listened to him and asked him questions. But he refused to come. That shows his disrespect for parliamentary democracy. We cannot be equated with the BJP. It’s unfortunate what happened in the last session (the Monsoon Session), but when you have a government which does not believe in constructive cooperation, how can a parliamentary system function?
The Prime Minister came for the first all-party meeting for seven minutes. When the Speaker called a second all-party meeting to break the logjam, the Prime Minister did not come. Now, when we look at the last 16 months, please see how many Bills were cleared. Parliament functioned for more time in the last one year, by the government’s own admission. The insurance Bill was held back for seven years. If today the Bill has been passed, they cannot take credit for it. We brought the Bill; they blocked it. The coal Bill, the mines Bill, the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh, all of it (have been cleared). Who opposed the nuclear agreement? Who blocked FDI in retail? On both occasions, they forced a vote. And today, they are taking credit for what we did.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: The Prime Minister’s personal rating as well as that of the government is quite high. Why has the Congress failed to win the perception battle?
See, the Prime Minister has remained true to the words of his mentor, who he has now disowned. During the Lok Sabha elections (2014), when L K Advani was asked to compare Narendra Modi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he said, ‘Atal ji is a great orator, a mesmerising speaker and a great statesman. Narendrabhai Modi is a grand event manager.’ These are his words, not mine. Now, he (Modi) has proven it. Look at the budget for publicity. It’s unfortunate that they are spending money on publicising his (Modi’s) engagements with other countries. There are 170-odd heads of state who attend the UN General Assembly. The last time he (Modi) went there, two-thirds of the seats were empty. You had cheerleaders outside, but heads of state were not inside. But it was made to appear that only one leader is being welcomed in the United States of America. There is (Angela) Merkel (Chancellor of Germany), (Vladimir) Putin (Russian President), (David) Cameron (UK PM) (at the UNGA). In Toronto he said, ‘Gandagi thi, dirt was there, filth was there’, insulting all his predecessors, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee. (Modi had said he would ‘clean up the dirt’ left behind by the previous government.) While in China, he said people were ashamed to call themselves Indians before he became PM. There is simply an overdose of publicity.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: How difficult is it to electorally fight back with a leader like Rahul Gandhi at the helm, who is an enigma, who goes away on vacations, etc?
I don’t understand the reason for such an obsession. Whenever he (Rahul Gandhi) has travelled, the party has issued a statement. Why is it being disputed and debated? Why don’t people verify and check? As far as Rahul Gandhi is concerned, one election defeat does not mean that all is gone. The Congress is still the second largest party. We may not be in office at the Centre but we have the capacity to rebound with the strength of our ideology. Rahul Gandhi does represent a tradition. When people say that he comes from a family, is it a disqualification? When Rahul Gandhi joined politics, he was not nominated, he was elected. Each and every time, he has been elected. What’s wrong with Rahul Gandhi? One may disagree with him, and that is democracy, but it doesn’t mean everybody subscribes to the critics’ assessment of Rahul Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi certainly does not. We do not expect Amit Shah or Smriti Irani or Modi to give him brownie points, definitely not. On the contrary, if he does not matter, then why is there so much obsession? The moment he stands up, the BJP fields half a dozen ministers. If he does not matter, they should just ignore him. Nobody questions Narendra Modi when he travels outside the country.
LIZ MATHEW: Why is the party not coming out and clearing the air on Rahul Gandhi’s foreign trips, instead of doing damage control all the time?
If the Prime Minister travels 29 times, he is the Prime Minister of India. How come Rahul Gandhi’s rights as a free citizen of the country are curbed? If he goes for a public function, we get the information in advance, but supposing he wants to go eat in a restaurant in New York during his trip abroad, is the Congress party going to tell the media about it along with the menu? There is something called the right to privacy and that right cannot be brutally assaulted on an hourly basis. The Congress party does not ask about Amit Shah’s travel plans. We don’t keep a tab. But they (the BJP) are obsessed with what Rahul Gandhi is doing and then they say he is not effective.
Rahul Gandhi is not the face when it comes to Bihar elections. Nitish is the chief ministerial candidate, Lalu Prasad is there, the Congress president (Sonia Gandhi) is there, and Rahul is there. But in the case of the BJP, it’s only one poster, the face of Narendra Modi, where he says vote for me. And after that, disaster follows, as it is happening in Maharashtra and Haryana, where people believed that he would be there (after the elections). But you cannot have clones of Narendra Modi in every state capital. Why has he gone now? The United Nations General Assembly is not mandatory. Manmohan Singh went twice in 10 years. The foreign minister was there as only a statement has to be issued.
MANOJ CG: Why is there a division in the Congress over whether Rahul Gandhi should become president?
There is no division, there is always a generational shift. What’s wrong with us having Sonia Gandhi as our president? As and when the party and the leadership decide (on when Rahul will take charge as Congress president), we will make it public. But that call is yet to be taken. We are not a party where the RSS will decide who will be the prime ministerial candidate and who will be the BJP president.
MANOJ CG: Will the Congress allow the goods and services tax (GST) Bill to be passed in the next session?
When it comes to GST, there are certain compromises that have been made where the Congress party has valid concerns. The purpose of having a GST is to create a common market. Should we just, for the sake of it, allow a Bill which has been diluted to such an extent? We are for GST. We are the original authors, we want a GST, we want a general common market in India which brings down the transaction cost and makes our manufacturing products and exports globally competitive. But if you keep diesel and petrol out, if from one state to another state you are paying different rates for diesel, how can you call it a common market? What is the justification for keeping electricity out (of the ambit of the Bill)?
Nobody should think that GST delay has hurt the economy in any manner. If it had, then India’s economy, which is being commented on and celebrated by economists, would not have quadrupled in 10 years, between 2004 and 2014.
LIZ MATHEW: Is there a concern in the party that with Rahul Gandhi always mocking the suit-boot ki sarkaar, the corporates may turn against the Congress?
No. Rahul Gandhi has made it a point to interact with all sections. Recently, he had an interaction with a delegation from FICCI (the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry). See, we are home to the largest middle-class in the world, but we are also home to the largest number of poor people. You cannot be a genuine political leader if you don’t talk of them (the poor). It doesn’t mean that you are against development.
It’s not a question of suit-boot. He (Modi) changes clothes five times a day. So, why should we not question it? This is not governance, it’s just so frivolous. I can’t change my appearance by changing my clothes and writing my name on it. It’s a larger issue, it is a social issue.
COOMI KAPOOR: What do you make of the PM’s foreign trips? Do you think it is effective for our foreign policy?
Foreign policy is a serious issue. It is not about making a cup of tea for Obama and chai pe charcha. It is not about going to Tokyo (September 2, 2014) and commenting on expansionism and the South China Sea, thinking that it will be music to the ears of Shinzo Abe (Japanese PM). These are very, very sensitive matters. When he (Modi) came back from Japan, the message had gone to Beijing. When Xi Jinping was here (September18, 2014), 5,000 PLA troops entered the country. That was a message from China. Xi Jinping went to Sri Lanka and then to the Maldives and then came to India, so that (incursion by Chinese troops) was a message to the region. So you (the Modi government) did not earn the support of the Chinese either.
My biggest concern as an Indian is about the strategic depth and support that we have lost. Since our Independence, Russia has been our time-tested partner and friend. But why has Russia now entered into a defence agreement pact with Pakistan?
RAJ KAMAL JHA: In the last 16 months, your party has been busy pointing out the mistakes of the Modi government, but we have not heard of any intellectual debate or soul searching within the Congress after the 2014 defeat.
When a party has suffered such a huge setback, it is natural that there would be introspection, analysis… I would like to dispel this perception that it has not happened. It has happened at various levels and was an intensive exercise coordinated by the Congress vice-president. We have also extended the membership drive because we feel we need to get more younger people in, and then we will have our (internal) elections.
We will prevent the government from messing up, as we did in case of the land Bill. We are coming in their way so that they don’t make blunders, even when it comes to the GST. This is a question of leadership. I am sure things will not remain frozen where they are. We are conscious of the big defeat and at the same time, we are committed to rebounding.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: India has expressed reservations about the new Constitution of Nepal. What do you have to say about that?
Nepal is a sovereign country and at the same time, our close neighbour. (Their internal issues) are better left to the Constituent Assembly of Nepal and the leadership of the political organisations who represent the groups involved (Madhesis and Janjatis), who feel they have not been granted their rights. Also, there are ways to diplomatically convey (your reservations about the Constitution of Nepal). I feel that the focus was lost because diplomacy is not about making pronouncements from rooftops. Diplomacy is silent. This is where this government has some questions to ask itself, not Nepal. Because we always have parallel tracks when we deal with neighbours, whether it’s Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka. The parallel tracks move silently, this is not an area where photographs are taken and statements are made. There are genuine concerns which India has, but there has been a lack of serious diplomacy. You (the Modi government) are making loud noises which will complicate it more. It’s not going to help the bilateral relationship because you have to understand what are the gains and the moves of other neighbours, including China and Pakistan, vis-à-vis Nepal.
We have such able diplomats whom governments have used (for handling diplomatic issues). But if you allow a situation where national security and foreign policy is being led by one individual who does not have knowledge of foreign affairs, that’s a problem. If you make the foreign secretary of India subservient to NSA… this is what is happening in the government. If Brajesh Mishra was the NSA (in the Vajpayee government), he was also a doyen of foreign affairs. When M K Narayanan took over as NSA (during the UPA’s term), he kept a special individual to deal with foreign policy matters. But now we have a situation where we don’t have the inputs, and if you don’t have that expert analysis and inputs, you make mistakes.
SHEELA BHATT: You have been consistently losing elections for 16 months and yet you have been stalling Parliament with 44 MPs. What do you have to say about that?
We have not been losing elections for the last 16 months. See he (Modi) was riding on top of a tidal wave and he promised everything — the sun, moon and the stars. I told him in Parliament last year: ‘What have you done? Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh cannot come together.’ Today if a poll is done in Haryana, the BJP will be in single digit, and I am not a person who makes boastful statements.
SHEELA BHATT: What about Bihar?
In Bihar, unfortunately, we are not a major force, but we are a critical force. We have a 10 per cent vote share. In Kerala, we are fighting for it… In Assam, yes, some leaders have deserted us… but to say that you can write us off in Assam, I will not agree. The Congress will fight. Now that exodus (of leaders) has stopped, the people have realised that mistakes were being made, and the BJP cannot take in so many people. Soon, the Congress will start rebounding and very strongly. From 2017 onwards, the build-up will start.
MANOJ CG: But in 2017 you have elections coming up in Punjab. Your party is in a mess there.
See, these issues are in the public domain. Now, there are leaders who have divergent viewpoints. But at the same time, as a national party, you need to give them space to disagree with or oppose each other. But the Congress party, eventually, will bring about a solution and a reconciliation which is acceptable to both the sides. I hope that wisdom and maturity will eventually prevail and the party will fight together, because those who are fighting against each other are also opposed to the BJP and the Akali Dal. They are also committed to the same ideology.
MANOJ CG: After the Lok Sabha debacle last year, many of your leaders said that the pro-minority image hurt the party. Rahul Gandhi recently went to Kedarnath, he visited the Banke Bihari temple in Mathura. Will these visits help in changing the perception?
This is not the first time Rahul Gandhi is going to temples. He has been to mosques, gurdwaras and he has also been to temples. If he had not gone to Banke Bihari temple, then they would have said Rahul Gandhi has insulted Hindus. But what is wrong (in visiting these places)? His grandmother Indira Gandhi went to temples. Have you forgotten the images from a few years ago when Sonia Gandhi went to the Kumbh?
(On pro-minority image) Yes, a perception was created. But, we have to dispel it, it was a wrong perception. We represent the people. The State must not have a religion, but it doesn’t mean that you have to be a non-believer. You can be a believer and a very secular person.
Now, when it comes to the majority community of India, that is, the people who believe in the Hindu culture, it’s not a monolith. There’s a difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. Hinduism is not insecure, it doesn’t suffer from any inferiority complex. Hinduism will not tell you what to eat and what not to eat and ban something. The Hindus of this country don’t need a certificate either from Nagpur or from the BJP headquarters.
(Transcribed by Rituparna Banerjee & Zinia Bhattacharya)