As general secretary of the BJP, Rao is in charge of key states for the party like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. With the party launching a South Mission plan to strengthen its base in the southern states, Rao has an important role. The party’s plan for the South will face its first test when Karnataka goes to the polls later this year. Rao is also in charge of the training programme for the BJP’s 11 crore members
Liz Mathew: As general secretary in-charge of the southern states, what are the key areas you are involved in?
The BJP is the only post-Independence party which has established itself as a truly national party. All the other parties which have been around as national parties are in decline, whether it is the Congress or the Communist parties. The BJP is the only national party which is gaining new ground, making inroads into new states and capturing the imagination of new sections. There is a great deal of goodwill which the party could generate after 2014… now the challenge is to convert that goodwill into a permanent political support base and it is in this context that the South is very important to the party after its successes in the North. We have been weak in the South.
Also, the BJP is always seen and presented as a cadre-based party and a party with an ideology. As we expand, the challenge before us is to create grassroots leaders with conviction, commitment and understanding. The third issue before us is to balance our ideology in the context of economic development. These are the areas I am personally involved in.
Liz Mathew: How do you see the situation in Tamil Nadu? Is the BJP involved in merging the two factions of the AIADMK?
We have to understand that the AIADMK and DMK, parties which have for years occupied the political scene in the state, are both passing through a leadership vacuum. The BJP cannot think of having an understanding with the DMK — the party has been aligned with the Congress and their methods and image are such that we cannot think of aligning ourselves with it. The AIADMK, on certain important issues, has supported the BJP and Modiji’s leadership, and the relationship, the understanding has been cordial.
But their leadership issues, the succession problem, are entirely internal. The BJP cannot make any attempt from outside, they have to resolve it. We haven’t held discussions on any tie-up. But we have one pre-condition for anyone joining the NDA: the brand of Modi governance, for which we stand and which we propagate, stands for good governance and corruption-free governance and that has to be upheld.
Liz Mathew: Does it mean that T T V Dinakaran (Sasikala’s nephew) or others facing corruption charges in the AIADMK won’t be entertained by the BJP?
These are the AIADMK’s issues and it’s for them to solve those. No outside force, not even the BJP, can solve them… When a powerful leader goes without appointing a successor, these are issues that come up… these are issues which every personality-based party has faced. We don’t have any role in this.
Liz Mathew: Is the BJP in touch with Rajinikanth?
It is a question that has serious implications for the political future of Tamil Nadu. As a political party, the BJP is not in touch with Rajinikanth, but each one of us is close to him. He is close to many of our political leaders. So the interaction, communication and dialogue are there. It’s not a new development; it has been there. But forming a political party or joining an existing one… that’s a decision he he has to take. As a political party, the BJP has always invited people who are good, are positive and have influence.
Amrith Lal: What’s in BJP interest? A united AIADMK or a divided AIADMK?
Though Jayalalithaa is no longer around, she remains the leader of the party. And the relationship between the BJP leadership and Jayalalithaaji had been very good. The AIADMK is a very important force in Tamil Nadu and it is not in conflict with the BJP’s thinking or interests.
Liz Mathew: Moving on to Karnataka, some believe that the recent raids on Congress minister D K Shivakumar (after he hosted Gujarat Congress MLAs) could work against the BJP.
As Modiji’s government and as a political party, we have a stake in an important thing that our government stands for: corruption-free governance. That’s paramount. We cannot selectively apply caste, religion and other things. If we start doing that — vote-bank politics — we will become the Congress. It’s not for nothing that Modiji is able to retain his appeal. People have faith that the BJP can deliver good governance and (Modi) is the guarantee factor. People saw Atalji (Atal Bihari Vajpayee), then they saw Advaniji (L K Advani)… they go by personalities. Today the BJP has got an advantage that people see Modiji as the person who is capable of delivering a corruption-free government.
Liz Mathew: But B S Yeddyurappa, who is going to be your chief ministerial candidate, also faced corruption charges.
He has paid for it. Yeddyurappa is a very powerful leader in Karnataka. It’s only after taking the views of everyone involved — supporters, leaders, also court cases — that we decided that he can be the CM candidate. The BJP’s anti-corruption drive will be seen as a commitment of the Central government and it will definitely help in the next Karnataka elections. Don’t underestimate the anger of the people at the Congress government. Corruption is going to be a serious issue in Karnataka election and the BJP will be the gainer.
Liz Mathew: And Yeddyurappa will be the leader?
Modiji will be the leader.
Amrith Lal: What is the BJP’s stand on the Lingayat community’s demand in Karnataka for a separate religious identity?
The Lingayat issue is not new. People from the Lingayat community also have to understand the issues and aspects of this problem. The Congress’s efforts to divide the Lingayat community have been exposed… it’s a political effort. Why has this issue been raised now? It is driven by the Congress and people understand it.
Ravish Tiwari: There is a pattern emerging in South India, with regional identities being reaffirmed. In Karnataka, the Congress is championing the Kannada identity; during the Quit India movement discussion in the Lok Sabha, the deputy speaker spoke in Tamil… These were not visible three years ago. Why are these insecurities coming to the fore? Does it have to do with a BJP-led government at the Centre?
We are a diverse country with a very plural society. But whenever we talk about diversity and pluralism, some parties and leaders always factor in one particular religion and one particular community and start the discussion in that context. In India, as a national party, we will always have challenges — be it the Congress or BJP. Talking about pluralism and diversity politically and as an ideology is one thing, but dealing with it is different. It’s ticklish. A lot of maturity, flexibility, and understanding is required. Tamil is a very important language, it’s as old as Sanskrit. In the coming years, you will see that the BJP is more successful than the Congress in articulating ideas about Tamil language, pride and identity. Even in Karnataka, we are not subordinating the Kannada identity. The BJP as a political party has been more successful in the last two decades by accommodating and nurturing.
Ravish Tiwari: Another identity issue that keeps coming up ever since the BJP came to power is that of Dalits. Is the BJP at peace with an assertive Dalit identity?
Without Dalit support, the BJP could not have become a force in this country. But within the Dalit movement, don’t assume that there is only one single stand. Some people may have conflicting interests, but that does not mean it is the BJP versus Dalits. I don’t accept that.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj: In Kerala and West Bengal, the BJP and RSS have been accused of deliberately stoking fires.
In Kerala, we are not in power and we have never been in power. Law and order is completely controlled by the party which is in government. If there is violence and if that violence is from the RSS and BJP, you are entitled to take action. The BJP and RSS have always worked within the framework of the Constitution. Never have we openly said anywhere that we will take arms and overthrow the State. It is not our philosophy, not our programme. When you have real-life conflicts, some problems may emerge and the BJP is ready to correct those. What is the CPM’s insecurity, especially when they are in the government? Why are you making your cadres take up violence when you have the police with you? Doesn’t make any sense. The CPM has a problem and their violence is not directed at the RSS alone. If the CPM thinks they can make the BJP defensive and accept the terms laid down by them and become a party of no consequence, it will not happen. No ideological party, especially a party like the BJP, will accept these kind of things. The CPM has not been able to retain power in Bengal using violence, so they cannot do that in Kerala either. They say foreign investment will not be affected, manufacturing will not be affected, economy will not be affected… this does not make any sense.
Liz Mathew: But that’s the line the BJP too takes when incidents of cow vigilantism happen — that Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the BJP government cannot be held responsible. Also, the party has never accepted that such incidents are affecting the image of the country.
What you have said is correct — any violent incident anywhere will affect India’s image. Cow vigilantism is not going to help the movement for cow protection. This is the BJP’s position and that’s the position the Prime Minister has also taken. But there cannot be a systematic propaganda against the BJP — that the BJP is interested in using violent means in order to protect the cow. There may be certain forces, groups and individuals who may be indulging in this out of emotions… but it is not acceptable. Ultimately, law and order is state responsibility. They have to act very strictly.
Amrith Lal: Much of the violent politics in Kerala happens only in Kannur, but the BJP-RSS campaign makes it seem as if the entire state is violence-prone and that it is difficult for people to travel there. Isn’t it damaging the state?
If you follow events carefully, the violence is no longer confined to Kannur or even the state capital. The Chief Minister (Pinarayi Vijayan) is from Kannur and if he cannot control Kannur and if the violence spreads to his political headquarters (Thiruvananthapuram), then there is a message: the message is that the higher leadership is behind (the violence).
Vandita Mishra: No senior minister went to meet the families of victims of lynchings — Pehlu Khan’s family, Mohammed Akhlaq’s family — but Arun Jaitley visited the family of an RSS worker who was killed in Kerala. Why is that?
I am not saying that ministers should not visit families (of lynching victims). The BJP is not justifying lynching incidents anywhere in the country, we are unequivocally condemning it. Violence by anybody, anywhere is not acceptable for democratic functioning. The minister has gone somewhere and you are saying, why hasn’t he gone somewhere else. Then, it is a kind of message for ministers in coming days, but it doesn’t mean that we have supported it (lynching). We have condemned those incidents.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj: In the Gujarat Rajya Sabha polls, the BJP lost the third seat. How do you view the loss?
We have benefited. You have to understand the Congress is becoming weak. Ahmed Patel’s victory has not strengthened the Congress. Ultimately, the Congress has lost, and lost badly, at a very important time, critical time. You will understand in the next three-four months.
Liz Mathew: Hamid Ansari, who recently retired as vice-president, said in an interview that there is unease among Muslims in India. What do you have to say about that?
That is his view. This is a country where Muslims as a community have never been discriminated against. Constitutionally, it is not possible. Politically, it is not possible. But in a democratic set-up, each community is in competition with other communities. As a community, sometimes Muslims get more, sometimes they get less. That does not mean the community is insecure. Even within the Hindu community, certain castes are not able to send representatives (to Parliament and Assemblies)… their number comes down and goes up.
The Congress is doing injustice to the country and itself by discussing freedom, liberty and individual opportunities in the context of one community. This is a country where there is linguistic diversity, social diversity, a number of diversities. It’s not possible for the BJP to not accept diversity and still govern. The success of our democracy is going to get tested on all these fronts — how we deal with weaker sections, with linguistic identities, with social identities, religious identities.
Ravish Tiwari: The BJP has had undeniable electoral successes, but what are the challenges that you face as a ruling party?
I don’t see a challenge in the form of political opposition from other parties, but the BJP will face two important challenges. One, how the BJP performs as a governing party in states and at the Centre and as a major national party is very important. Also, how different identities — social, linguistic and other kinds of identities — how will they get the space they deserve. That we have to prove, the government has to perform and show it. Practically, on the ground, developing a government model or an administrative model where we are able to do justice to all identities is a very important challenge for the party. When I say identities, it is not one. India is a country of multiple identities and each person has multiple identities. The Congress had the goodwill of the freedom movement but they failed to create their next-generation leadership. So the Congress has failed as a national party; now the BJP is the only non-Congress national party. It is passing through a test and we have to pass this test in the next 5-10 years.
The second important challenge is to retain power for 10 years or more. Only then can certain core fundamental issues or problems of the country be resolved. The BJP and its leadership is going to be judged on these issues.
The third thing is that in the South, the BJP has always been seen as a party of the North or as an urban party. Now that we are in the South, the challenge is, how is it going to become a governance party?
Ashutosh Bhardwaj: Amit Shah is now entering the Rajya Sabha. How does that change things for the party?
I don’t think there is any great change. He has been discharging the responsibilities of party national president. Now he has one more tool to discharge his duties.
Vandita Mishra: Your articulation that the BJP has to find space for different identities seems very new. Is this a new thinking within the party?
I don’t think this is any new interpretation from my side, or a new position the party has taken. Indian nationalism can never be compared to nationalism elsewhere. Indian nationalism is incomplete without the growth of all identities. Indian nationalism will never feel endangered or threatened by the growth or articulation of sub-identities. In my view, how will India become a role model for the whole world India without… its diverse aspects? You have diversity, yet you can live as a united nation. So Indian culture and the definition of Indian identity and nationalism becomes very poor if you remove diversity. And the BJP wants to nurture this diversity.