Rahul Gandhi is evidently aware of the straws in the wind that give a united Opposition the best chance to unseat the incumbent NDA government, if the dice falls right on May 23. Also that he has often been alleged to be isolationist, committed only to the growth of his party, despite the string of alliances he has forged.
The Congress president is, therefore, taking his political refrain to a place that softens those edges, exudes a friendlier vibe and is visibly more amenable to working out a cooperative framework with non-UPA parties.
“The entire Opposition is united in the view that Modi must go,” he told The New Indian Express in an exclusive interview. Significant words in view of the subtle overtures being made towards his party.
Another subtle departure came in a critique of Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “As prime minister, I would never want to be in a situation where I never listen to others, where I only hear my voice.” The clearest sign yet of the evolution of his stance towards that question.
It’s a day when the stormy weather over northwestern India upset his travel schedules somewhat. Rahul was supposed to fly to Alwar in Rajasthan in the morning to meet the victim of the gangrape, which has spawned a huge controversy - polling was over in Rajasthan on May 6 - but the flight could not take off.
TNIE Editor G S Vasu and Karnataka Resident Editor Santwana Bhattacharya finally caught up with Rahul Gandhi for an onboard conversation on a campaign trip to Amritsar (Punjab is one of the states scheduled to vote on May 19).
It has been a very long-drawn and hard-fought election. One of the longest ones we’ve seen. You say that you listen to the voice of the people. What is your biggest takeaway?
My main takeaway is that India is facing a huge crisis and it’s not a crisis that is going to go away quickly. It’s a crisis of unemployment; it’s an economic crisis and an agrarian crisis. The next government has to dig really deep to put India back on track.
The campaign narrative kept changing over the weeks. You spoke on jobs, Rafale, farm distress, Mr Modi began with national security and down the line it became very personal. You say their approach is one of hatred and yours is of love. But in realpolitik, you need to be hard-nosed, even in alliance-building. Is your ‘nice guy’ image a drawback?
Look, there’s no contradiction. You say one can’t use love in politics? Look at the most successful politicians across the world, politicians and statesmen like Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela... You’ll find that respect for their opponents, compassion and love is what they all channelled successfully. The idea I have to respond to hatred and anger with hatred is a foolish one. When I responded to Mr Modi’s vitriol with a hug in Parliament, I think that was a genuine statement I made, but politically it was a very powerful statement as well.
Do you expect government formation to be a long-drawn one this time?
I don’t think so. I think it will be very quick. There is an undercurrent against the BJP and the PM, and I think that will be very clear on the 23rd of May.
Even assuming the Congress is the single largest party within the opposition, are you willing to do what you did in Karnataka, for the “larger interest”?
The people of India will decide. They are the masters. What the people say on the 23rd is what I will listen to. Before they speak, it is out of line for me to comment on what the mandate will be. Once the mandate is clear and the numbers are on the table, then we will have a look at the data and decide.
What we are trying to ask is, are you willing to look beyond the Congress or UPA?
I’ve answered the question. The answer is that I don’t want to distract from the election. My goal is to defeat Mr Narendra Modi, defeat the ideology of the RSS, protect the Constitution and protect the institutions of this country. I’m not going to get into any conversation that will distract everyone from that goal. Once that goal is achieved, once the people of India have decided and agreed with our proposition, then your question can be answered. But that’s after the 23rd.
Can it be said you’re open-minded?
I am very clear, Mr Modi is going to be defeated in these elections. Any conversation we have today is not based on substance, but on hot air. Let the people of India first decide, let them place their view on the table. I respect that view, and once it comes, let us see what it is, and then the conversation that you’re talking about can be had.
The 19th is not so far away, and exit polls will come...
I don’t believe in exit polls. I believe in the will of the people, and frankly you’ve asked this question four times now and I will now answer it for the final time. What the people of India say on the 23rd is what I will listen to.
The feedback we get on the NYAY scheme is that perhaps the message has not percolated down the way you would have liked it to....
No, I don’t have the same feedback. At all. If there are two ideas that have percolated very deeply into India, they are chowkidar chor hai and NYAY. And those two are related: Chowkidar ne chori ki, aur isliye Congress party yeh NYAY scheme de rahi hai (the chowkidar stole, that’s why the Congress is making reparations with NYAY. I’d like to say something about NYAY, if I may? Mr Narendra Modi gave Rs 5.55 lakh crore to 15 people through loan writeoffs. Many of those people are absconding; Mr Nirav Modi is outside the country, Mr Vijay Mallya is outside the country ... So you can see where I’m going with this. There has been wholesale corruption. Rafale is the tip of the iceberg, it’s just the symbol. The economy has been very seriously damaged as a result, and needs to be jump-started. The economy needs a direct financial injection and the poor need protection. So NYAY will give money directly to the people and will jump-start the economy. Shopkeepers, small and medium businesses will benefit from NYAY, as will the poorest of the poor.
In 2014, Modi occupied the space vacated by others, the Congress and the rest of the present opposition, and this was largely because of the failures of UPA-II. How will you ensure the UPA will not repeat the same mistakes if you were to form the new government?
That’s a profound question. The whole economic paradigm we are working with started in the 1990s. It was conceptualised towards the end of Mr Rajiv Gandhi’s term and then Dr Manmohan Singh and Mr (Narasimha) Rao, and that worked brilliantly in the 1990s. It had some problems but it worked reasonably well at the start of this century. During Mr Vajpayee’s term and then Dr Manmohan Singhji’s term, we tweaked it slightly, we added MNREGA to it, but we basically used the same model between 2004-2009. In 2012 we found, when we tried to use that same model again, with some more tweaks, we found that it didn’t work. We found ourselves in a serious problem in 2012, where the basic model that we were using was not working.
Though Mr Modi came with a huge mandate, he didn’t believe in talking to people or listening to them. He picked up our model, which had failed in 2012, and he attempted to implement it in 2014. This was the best thing that could happen for Congress, and unfortunately, the worst thing that could happen for India. And what we have now seen is five wasted years. What happened with Dr Manmohan Singhji in 2012 is happening to Mr Modi in 2019.
What we are proposing in our manifesto is a completely new model for the economy. We’re talking about basic minimum income which is an evolution of the MNREGA scheme; we’re talking about giving massive support to small and medium businesses, to actually start competing with China when it comes to manufacturing. We are looking in depth at how we can transform agriculture in our country. We desperately need a second green revolution and we’re thinking about how that could work. We have some of the ideas in place; food processing, cold chains, infrastructure for farmers. But we intend to have a conversation which allows us to fine-tune a new model. We say ‘Oh, India did very successfully from 1990 to 2012’. When the next government comes, we want India to say ‘Oh, in 2019 there was a paradigm shift, it isn’t the same as in 1990’.
Mr Modi was given this massive mandate, and he had a blank cheque. Open. No PM after Mr Rajiv Gandhi had that, and Mr Rajiv Gandhi used his mandate to give us the telecom revolution, he gave us a vision of India in the 21st century with computers being an important part of that vision. Mr Modi had the same opportunity. He had the option of creating a revolutionary government, but he fell on his face. Because of anger. You said to me...‘hard-nosed’...that anger is important. Anger is blindness. Anger blinded Mr Modi. If he had love in his heart when he came in 2014, I guarantee (it would have been different). If Mr Modiji had gone to Dr Manmohan Singhji and said ‘You’re an experienced person, you’re a brilliant person, help me’. If he had gone to Stalinji, and said ‘you represent the Tamil people, let’s talk. Mamataji, you represent Bengal, let’s talk, Nitishji you represent Bihar, let’s talk. It would not have been so easy to defeat him.
And if he had done that....
Yes! That’s a huge lesson for us. We are not going to be arrogant. We’re going to listen to people, we’re even going to listen to our opposition, because India requires that. The world is a dangerous place now and anybody who loves India has to understand that, and understand India’s role. India can no longer be on the periphery of the global conversation. India has to recognise that if there is a United States and there is a China, we’re on the same platform. We are going to shape the world, but with humility, not arrogance. Not with anger, but with love.
From your explanation of why you have chosen to contest from Wayanad, am I to assume a Congress-led coalition will look more to the South? Are you willing to work with someone like Mr Jagan Reddy or KCR (Mr Chandrashekar Rao)?
The point is this. India is North-South-East-West-Centre, India is everything. My feeling was that South India felt that Nagpur was running India. I went to Tamil Nadu and I was shocked by the feeling of the Tamil people, with the expression of the Tamil people. I was shocked and I felt it wasn’t right. We have to put a message across to South India that you’re as much India as North/West/Central/East India. And you’re no less and you’re voice is going to be heard in Delhi.
What kind of role do you think key players from the South will play? You have an alliance in Tamil Nadu...
It’s about voice. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu were screaming. AP is saying, the PM of India had made a commitment to us about Special Status for Andhra. Manmohanji, on the floor of the House, made that commitment. And it’s not being upheld? What is going on? You can’t play that type of politics. If the PM of India has made a commitment to a state, it’s not the PM who has made a commitment, but the people of India. You can’t tell the people of Andhra, that the commitment of the people of India isn’t worth anything. It can’t be done. So, it’s about listening to voice.
Now, there are certain situations where you can’t do what has to be done fully, so you engage, you negotiate, you converse, you come up with an acceptable solution. The main point is listening. In India, if you go and listen to someone, and even if you tell them ‘I hear you, but right now it’s difficult’, they’ll say ‘very good, thank you, let’s talk again’. But what Mr Modi has done is, ‘I’m not going to listen to any of you, I’m just going to listen to the voice in my head’.
They asked him who can defeat Mr Narendra Modi and he answers, only Mr Modi can defeat Mr Modi. You’re saying to me that 1.4 billion Indian people can’t defeat Mr Modi? You’re living on another planet. You’re somewhere else because the day those 1.4 billion people decide to defeat you, you’re done. It’s that approach - that ‘I, me, myself, and nobody else’ - it’s a tragedy.
Because five years ago, what India needed was a new vision, which we will hopefully put in place in 2019, five years later. It’s a tragedy that the PM, because of his personality and his approach, what you call a ‘hard-nosed approach’, has wasted five years of India and everyone knows it, the whole world sees it.
To put together a government, alliances are needed. That’s hard-nosed politics. You have alliances in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, though it’s a little wobbly there. But not in Telangana and Andhra, the two states that brought the Congress to power for two terms. Are you looking at expanding the UPA?
I’ve already answered this question in five or six different ways. The people of India decide on the 23rd, and we will do as the masters say.
Okay, you say NYAY will kick-start demand at the grassroots, and give an impetus to the economy, which is stagnant according to all indicators....
Mr Modi’s indicators show all is well. It’s like in the old days — you could take an Ambassador’s speedometer and put it on 120 kmph and it would stay there. The car would actually be going at 60 kmph, but the speedometer shows 120 kmph! The guy at the back saying we’re travelling at 120 kmph is the PM, everybody else is saying we’re going at 40 km an hour and the economy is grinding to a halt. That’s the PM’s model, whatever he wants to see, the people around him show that to him... It’s a lovely place to be.
There is this view that a demand-driven economy without exports picking up will trap India into a middle-income groove?
Why do you say that you can’t export what you produce, once you start producing? There’s no contradiction between NYAY and exports. In fact, we would like to promote exports. But we need to get the economic engine going.
You once said that power was poison, do you still have the same view?
Of course, I hold the view, but you have to deal with poison. You have to work with poison, but I said that then also. That it is blinding, that it is poison, that you have to maintain your senses when you come in contact with it.
Does that apply to Mr Modi as well?
Of course, it does. Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded a situation where Mr Narendra Modi gave India a direction for five years. I wouldn’t have minded, I would have been quite happy with that situation. We would have fought him, probably still defeated him, but I would have liked people to say there was a PM, a Mr Modi, who did a tremendous job, I would have liked that, that would have been a good thing. Even though I don’t agree with him ideologically. People say Mr Vajpayee did a good job and that’s great.
Do you get a sense that the rest of the opposition shares the same vision as you? That the primary aim is to keep the BJP out of power?
Look, the reason we want to keep the BJP out of power is because they are attacking our institutions, they’re attacking our Constitution. We don’t want an India where one organisation called the RSS controls every institution in the country. There’s unanimity across the board as far as the opposition is concerned that nobody wants that, and we’re not going to let it happen. So yes, there is complete agreement that the BJP needs to be stopped. Now, there’s another reason the BJP has to be stopped. It’s because their policies are creating a massive disaster in India — notebandi, Gabbar Singh Tax, destruction of the economy. They are also silencing the voice of different people — of the South, of the Dalits, of minorities, the tribals, the weaker sections, the farmers. This is not good for India. So it’s not just about getting rid of Mr Modi. It’s about getting India moving again and getting our economy back on track.
Women’s security is a big issue that you and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra often touch upon in your speeches. But in a state ruled by your party, Rajasthan, there has been this horrific case in Alwar....
I have to say that I’m happy that our government in Rajasthan is taking action. There’s zero tolerance for crimes such as this.
There’s a law and order issue and a cultural issue. Both have to be looked at. Frankly, the way Indian men treat women is not good enough. The approach of most Indian men towards Indian women leaves a lot to be desired. And we have to change that approach. Women are equal partners here. If you were to ask me, as a man, I think women contribute more than men do. My friends may not agree, but as a person I think they do. I think women have a tremendous role to play in this country.
You talk about an alternative ideology and say this is a battle against Hindutva and the way India is. But you also try to pander to the Hindu ethos by visiting temples....
I don’t pander to anyone. I respect all voices. If someone says to me ‘I believe in this type of idea’, I am a political leader, I respect that. I have every right to go to any temple, any mosque, any gurudwara, any church, any synagogue that I would like to go to. That is not pandering, it is understanding, it is accepting the spirituality of this country, and submitting to the spirituality and wisdom of our people. Pandering is a wrong word, in fact, I find it offensive. The right words are ‘appreciate’ and ‘understand’.
After this bitter battle, do you think a bipartisan running of the Lok Sabha is possible? And what do you think are the first things that need to be addressed? Kashmir, which has seen a low turnout, is in a very bad situation…
Kashmir is being destroyed. We spent nine years building confidence in J&K, we had a strategy and we worked on it. One of the biggest successes of the UPA government was breaking the back of terrorism in Kashmir, and the work that we had done in engaging the people of J&K. The Women’s Self Help Groups, industrialists like Ratan Tata being taken to Kashmir, the Udayan programme, Panchayati raj — these strategies broke the back of terror. Mr Modi’s opportunistic alliance with the PDP imposed probably the biggest strategic loss on our country, just because he wanted to score some political points. It’s a tragedy. We’re going to have to do that again, we’re going to have to spend another 10 years building back that confidence, working with the people of J&K, and eliminating the terrorists that Mr Modi has given space to.
Any last comments for our readers?
You started this interview by saying that love is not pragmatic and that you need to be hard-nosed, absolutely not. Though Mr Narendra Modi and his party attacked me viciously, over the last five years, I have not attacked Mr Narendra Modi in the same language, I have not abused his parents or his family. I’ve held respect for the PM throughout and love is going to triumph over hatred in this election, and that love is going to continue even after this election.