As the heat of the election summer picks up its pace and dust, the strident opponent of the Narendra Modi government, Rahul Gandhi, sharpens his electoral wherewithal. Finding himself in a familiar terrain back in 2004, when the BJP government was riding the crest of the Kargil win and the Shining India campaign, and defying the poll pundits’ lean towards the BJP, the Gandhi scion is confident of a redux 2004. The Congress chief has an onerous tasks on hand: to wrest back the narrative of nationalist sentiment post the Pulwama incident to mirror the frailty of the Modi government. As he steps into the electoral arena, he opens up in an exclusive interview to The Samaya’s Sai Prasad Mohapatra, at his 12- Tuglaq Lane residence on the Rafale deal, job crisis, demonitisation, agrarian distress. Unsparing in shifting his gaze to the state of affairs in Odisha, Rahul Gandhi tears into the BJD-run government under Naveen Patnaik as well.
Q: What are the key issues you look to fight this election on? The current situation is similar to the one in 2004, when you had to take on the India shining campaign and the Kargil win.
The election campaign will focus on jobs, employment, farmers issues, corruption like the Rafale deal and the mismanagement of the economy. There is also the issue of the false promises of the Modi Govt that they have to be held accountable for – 15 lakhs in each bank account; 2 Crore jobs every year; 100 smart cities; doubling farmer incomes! All these and many more have proved to be lies.
Q: You have rightly pointed out that the data around job employment is being kept fuzzy?
There is nothing fuzzy about the job data. 12 million jobs have been lost in the last one year and unemployment is at a 45 year high! They have destroyed the informal sector and the small and medium industries, which is why we are seeing such massive unemployment. Make in India is a disaster and nothing is happening there, you might as well change the name and call it make by Anil Ambani.
Q: There is a certain narrative around the Rafale deal, and how do you place this vis-a-vis national security? Where you can say that you are not against Rafale, but the way in which the deal has been drafted?
If you read The Hindu, you will see that PM Modi has personally bypassed the original deal, and created a new deal through which he has given Rs 30,000 crore to Anil Ambani as a gift. Modi’s intervention has delayed the arrival of the aircraft, and it will now take 10 years for the 36 aircraft to arrive, which is an act against national security. I’m not saying this, the CAG report says there is a high risk of this happening. Anyway, the truth has nothing to do with what the PM says, as he is now making strange claims about the Congress being responsible for delaying the deal, when it is actually he who delayed the process, changing the entire deal in order to give money to Anil Ambani. Rafale is a case of corruption, and is a case of stealing from the Air Force.
As far as the aircraft is concerned, it seems to be a good one.
Q: Women are an important constituency in these elections. What is the Congress offering them, to empower them further?
A huge step we took was in the Panchayati Raj, when we reserved space for women in the Panchayats of the country, and we are very keen on reserving seats for women in Parliament as well. Jobs will be generated in the small and medium industries, and that is where we need to empower women, by fostering women entrepreneurs. The way Indian women are treated is despicable, particularly the crimes and violence that are carried out against them, and we need to take a strong view on this behaviour. Most importantly, women should be made to feel that they are equal partners in nation building, and that the leadership believes that women should have the same amount of space as men have. It’s more of a confidence building and hand-holding exercise, where we say that we need to get the job done, and that they’re a huge part of it.
Q: One of the biggest promises you made when entering electoral fray was the Minimum Income Guarantee act. Can you crystallise what kind of fine economic insights and thought process went into it, and whether it can change the fortunes of millions of Indians?
No large country has ever implemented such a scheme, and it is groundbreaking in that sense. The idea is that no Indian should earn below a certain income level. We will create an income floor, that no Indian should be living below. The Indian government will then directly transfer money to those living below this floor, so that ultimately, no one is living below that floor, and everyone has a minimum income. We have been working on this for many months now, and it is a transformational scheme. Like the way the MGNREGA transformed the rural India by injecting money into the rural economy, while we were in power, this too, will be a revolutionary move.
Q: Are you happy with the way the government has managed the MGNREGA scheme this time round? It has been said that the delayed and deferred payment to the labour force, has led to them shifting into the private sector, and that the unspent funds for the scheme are abysmally high?
I heard the PM speaking about MGNREGA in Parliament and he described it as a failure of the Congress party, and as ‘people digging holes’. I don’t think the PM understands the scheme, as it was intended to create a minimum wage for all Indians and was successful in doing that. He is unable to comprehend complexity, and can’t understand things in detail but is good at amplifying an idea once it is given to him. Someone who comes up with Demonetisation, and decides to implement it, even when the head of the RBI opposes it, I don’t think that that is the type of person who has the ability to comprehend complexity! However, this also gives him an advantage – if you don’t have to think about things too much, then it gives you the ability to talk freely!
Q: Following the Pulwama incident, all of you rallied around the government, and said in unison that you would back whatever decision they chose to take. A line was drawn saying nobody will politicise the incident, but you spoke out against the PM for taking it to another level?
If the Air Force has taken any action, then we stand behind them 100%. Amit Shah has now said that 250 people were killed in the strikes, if that’s the case, he should show us proof of that happening, as there is some confusion around the matter. We were very clear, we don’t want to politicise the incident, as it is not a political instrument for us. It’s disheartening and sad to see that the PM uses everything including the lives of our CRPF jawans for his politics, but that is not something we are going to be doing. It is distressing to see, that he doesn’t have the sensitivity to understand these things.
Q: Now they are changing the goalposts, VK Singh is saying 300, Amit Shah is saying 250 and someone else is saying 600?
If the government has proof of this type of thing they should make it public, what is the problem? Pakistan will always try to do what it does, by creating problems in India, but is it not our responsibility to protect our people? When we were in government we reduced Pakistan’s ability to do mischief in Kashmir, violence was gone. They were trying very hard but our politics ensured that we closed the door to them. PM Modis alliance with the PDP and their mishandling of the Kashmir issue has allowed the Pakistanis to exert themselves and be mischievous, and this has resulted in the death of our CRPF boys. I don’t remember such a massive loss of life taking place when we were in power. Is the PM not to be blamed for these deaths? He likes to distract the country, but someone needs to answer to why our 40 Jawans had to die, and I think it should be the PM.
Q: Coalitions and alliances in politics are a reality, and you are now in the phase of fine tuning certain partnerships. Are you still open to the SP- BSP? The door is now practically shut to a Congress-AAP partnership.
We are constructing a solid alliance against the BJP and I am flexible as far as our alliance partners go. These are in place in Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir, and the progress is good. With respect to the AAP issue, our people were universally against it, so I said fine. In UP, if it’s a respectful partnership, we are happy to work with the BSP-SP, if not that is a different issue. Right now, when I spoke about Mayawatiji and Akhileshji, I did so with utmost respect, our philosophy is that while we might disagree, we will always respect one another.
Q: You are in the process of fine tuning your manifestos. Previously, when someone raised the issue of ad-hoc professors in Delhi University, you referred them to your manifesto committee. Similarly, you made an instant call to Kamal Nath over using khadi uniforms in schools. As you move closer to the elections, how flexible will you keep the drafting of your manifesto, when it comes to accommodating different voices? Is it an open-ended, living manifesto?
The job of an Indian leader is to listen, and to constantly be looking for people who are in pain and who are suffering. Our manifesto is an expression of this idea, and is not being being drafted in a closed room by 2-3 people. Our manifesto is a conversation and we intend to run the government in a similar manner. It is not as if once completed, our manifesto is fixed. People will be able to add to it, even 6 months after we come to power. The difference between us and the BJP-RSS, is that they are convinced they have all the answers, whereas we believe that the people of India have the answers. So they do a lot of speaking and shouting, but we do a lot of listening. We make coalitions to get things done, and this works in India. This is the basic Congress idea; respect everybody and take everyone along. We don’t believe that one person has the answer to all these questions.
You made a lot of electoral promises, and after the recent assembly elections, you waived off the farmers loans. When you visited Odisha you said that you would raise the MSP to 2,600?
It will be completely unacceptable to me, if this doesn’t happen, and we will do it with all certainty. What we put in our manifesto will definitely happen, and our CM will be accountable to the people of Odisha, the Congress party and the manifesto.
Q: Odisha is an agrarian state where majority of the population is engaged in agriculture. People of Odisha have a lot of expectations, and are curious to know what the Congress vision for the development of agriculture in Odisha is?
I believe that agriculture is a strategic asset, and is the heart and core strength of India. This is different from what the BJP and BJD believe, as it is secondary for them. We will give confidence to the Indian farmer and say that we can’t do without you and that we will work with you to make Indian agriculture a success. This is not an option, but a necessity. When you are in pain, we will listen to that pain and react to it. If you can forgive 3.5 lakh crore rupees of the 15 richest people , why can’t you do the same for the farmers? Farm loan waivers will not solve the Indian farmers problems, but is a confidence builder. To solve their problems, we need to connect the Indian farmers to technology, and the global market. For them to succeed, we need to give them cold chain facilities, farm food processing units, storage facilities and money.
Q: It is one of the paradoxes that Odisha is mineral rich state yet you see asymmetrical development, which sits oddly with the states resources?
Why do you say there is a paradox?. There is no paradox, it’s pretty straightforward, Robbery is taking place. Odisha has mineral resources, they are being stolen. What you call a paradox was there in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh as well. In MP, they said they didn’t have money for a farm loan waiver but it turned out they did. Odisha has money and when we come to power, we will use it to help the farmers, small industries, education and healthcare. There is no paradox, it is looting.
Q: There is an interstate water dispute between Odisha and Chhattisgarh, and there is a tribunal where there has been a bit of progress.
There has been no progress on the side of the BJD. We already have a government in Chhattisgarh, and if we have one in Odisha, then an amicable solution is possible. We will ask them to sit down and resolve the issue. This is something Naveen Patnaik has failed to do in 10 years.
Q: Another issue is that of the chit fund scam, where a few BJD members are said to be involved. The centre and the BJD back one another at their own convenience, while the investors are in limbo, waiting for justice:
Narendra Modi has control over the Odisha CM because of the chit fund, and that is the lever he is using.
Q: It sits very oddly against the constitutional structure, that the legislative has been subverted by the executive. What is happening in the state of Odisha, is that it has been reduced to just 4-5 top bureaucrats handling all the affairs, with the legislature becoming redundant. What sort of signs does this send out out to the federal structure and democracy at large?
What is happening in Odisha at the state level, is what has happened at the central level with Mr Modi. There is no respect for institutions, the voice of people, or the court system, and institutions are being captured. You can’t run a state like this. It needs to be run keeping in mind the voice of the people of that state. The job of the bureaucracy is not to run the state but to execute the will of the people, not decide what the will of the people is. This is what is happening both at the state and central level, and we are trying to fight it. We are fighting for the idea that the voice of the people should make decisions, and not a single man.
Q: Unemployment amongst youth is a massive issue in India today. PM Modi promised 2 Cr. Jobs a year in 2014, but failed to deliver. How will the Congress Govt create millions of new jobs if voted to power?
The NDA government promised to create 2 crore jobs a year when they were elected, but at the end of their term, unemployment is the highest it has ever been in 45 years. India creates 450 jobs a day, compared to 50,000 in China.The rate at which India is creating jobs is just a fraction of China’s, and reversing this is one of our top priorities. While big businesses and industries tend to grab the limelight, jobs are more likely to be generated in the small and medium scale businesses. It is these that have been adversely impacted by GST and Demonetisation and so we will have to modify the existing policy framework, to create a favourable environment, where these industries can truly grow.
Q: Our farmers are in crisis all over India. What will the Congress party do to transform Agriculture? Tell us what you are doing for Agriculture in Congress ruled states like Chhattisgarh, MP etc.
Farmers are being driven to suicide across the country due to the falling prices of produce, fall in productivity and debt. This discontent became clear during the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, when the Congress did well in rural areas. We have kept our pre-poll promise and within 48 hrs had announced farm loan waivers in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh which are now being rolled out. These loan waivers became a necessity, following the mismanagement of the agrarian economy by the central government.
In Chhattisgarh, we recently made history by returning land that had been acquired for development purposes for the setting up of a steel factory, to the farmers and tribal people. In Madhya Pradesh, the scheme dealing with providing a pension to small farmers over the age of 60, is being drafted currently.
We are committed to bringing about another green revolution, as we have in the past. As well as working with the farmers to innovate, and ensure that their produce is sold in all corners of the world.
Q: Farmers, perhaps, the most marginalised section rose to occasion voicing their dissent, and the recent electoral results are a clear reflection of that simmering discontent.
Discontent among farmers has been growing over the past five years, as productivity decreases. The fall in prices, with thousands of kilograms of produce being sold at throwaway prices, did not help. Last year, thousands of farmers marched in Maharashtra, to draw attention to their plight, and the governments resulting apathy. In the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress did well in rural areas, clearly indicating that the farmers in these states and across India, want change.
Q: Your father late Rajiv Gandhi made a famous speech in the USA: “I’m young, and I do have a dream, I dream of India a strong independent, self-reliant….”. Taking a cue from there perhaps you are standing on a different cusp, where the youth of India are confronting various issues, primarily job crisis. The data of joblessness is pretty alarming and the ruling government has kept a haze around it by not disclosing the data of the last year. How do you propose to shift your priority there for a burgeoning youth mass looking for employment?
Unemployment is the biggest issue facing the youth of our country, and should be a priority for any government. There are lakhs of young people who are eager to start work and make a mark on the world, but due to the fumbling of this government, which has exacerbated the situation by introducing a badly-thought out GST policy and Demonetisation, they have no opportunities. Unemployment is at its highest in 45 years, but instead of doing anything to solve this very serious problem, the Modi government is burying its head in the sand, by hiding the statistical evidence and preventing the disclosure of data.
Q: PM Modi in many of his speeches has highlighted about the development of eastern states, which he calls Purvadoya. Do you think he is serious about Purvadoya or merely paying lip service?
Mr Modi is great with fancy announcements and false promises. I don’t think he even remembers what promise he made in his last meeting. He has shown that these promises mean nothing to him. They are but “sound bytes” designed to capture media attention. They are rarely followed up with any concrete action.
Q: Coming to General Elections, the BJP is focussing a lot on Odisha and West Bengal to compensate the losses it may suffer in the Hindi heartland. How critical it is for the Congress to do well in West Bengal and Odisha?
It is critical for the congress to do well in Odisha, so that the people of the state who have been suffering with unemployment and an agrarian crisis under a corrupt government whose members have been linked to the chit-fund and mining scams, can have a better life. I have no doubt that the Congress Party will do extremely well in Odisha in the coming elections.
Q: When the UPA Government was in power, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxal problem as the single biggest challenge to internal security. Maoists still pose a challenge in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra, Telangana and other states. Why this problem has persisted for so long and how can this be tackled?
The Naxal problem is a much a social problem as it is a law and order problem. There is no excuse for violence and it can never be condoned. But, it is also true that exploitation and lack of opportunities has pushed a large number of young people in many states of our country, to take up arms and join the Naxals. We need to address the issues on the ground particularly that of poverty and unemployment if we are serious about solving the Naxal problem.
Q: One of the reasons given by the Modi government for demonetisation that it would give a body blow to both terrorism and Naxalism by choking their funds. But the twin problems still continue to challenge the Union and state governments?
Demonetisation was a scam, that led to the poor seeing their savings annihilated, while crony-capitalists, the real hoarders of black-money converted it to “white” without paying a single rupee in tax. With most of the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes eventually returning to the banks, the PM’s claims of demonetisation breaking the back of terrorism and naxalism fell flat. From the horrific attack in Pulwama, it is clear that terrorism continues unabated.
Q:The Congress did very well in the tribal-dominated constituencies of Chhattisgarh. Are the tribal people disillusioned with the Modi government? Naveen Patnaik has constituted Tribal Development Councils for the tribals. How do you evaluate the steps taken by the Union and Odisha government for the development of the tribals?
It was the apathy of the Modi government, that led to the recent supreme court order, which was later stayed, calling for the eviction of up to 10 lakh tribal families across 16 states, whose claim to forest land had been rejected. In Odisha, of the approximately 6 lakh claims filed, 1.4 lakh were rejected. A 2017 audit of the Odisha state government by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, which checked 51 rejected claims in Deogarh district, found 35 to have been “irregularly rejected” and their claimants “not apprised of the fact, denying them the opportunity to file a petition’. This is only one survey, is is unimaginable what the situation is like in the rest of the state. The tribal development councils focus largely on preserving the culture, tradition and language of the tribals, and while this is important, they are struggling with the most basic things, which are not being addressed by the government, which only wakes up to their problems prior to the elections.