The BJP is fresh from a thumping victory in Uttar Pradesh. Don’t you think it will influence Gujarat voters?
Usually, events in one state do have an impact on another, but the difference here is that we have moved ahead of the BJP. The results of the district/taluka panchayats have been in our favour and the situation remains in our favour. The results in UP and Uttarakhand naturally led to a feeling of disappointment among our workers, but with time we will cope with it. Amit Shah’s recent rally in Gujarat and the BJP cadre’s self-confidence indicate that the Congress may find it difficult to come back.
I accept that it’s very tough for us here, but it is not impossible. Over time, we have taken our organisation to the grassroots and this time we have a presence in every booth, with 15 workers trained. Some 1,500 volunteers have filled forms. We are training them at Jawaharlal Nehru Leadership Institute.
But you do agree that the Congress is struggling at the national level and now you have just seven seats in UP.
The BJP was talking with such confidence during the zila/taluka panchayat elections, too, but was clean bowled. I should say that we, the Pradesh Congress Committee, spent only Rs 18 crore while the BJP must have spent more than Rs 150 crore but we got the people’s vote.
But tell us frankly, what work have you done in the last five years in Opposition?
We have taken up many issues, from law and order to farmers. We are organising programmes in which we will discuss what kind of opportunities we will give unemployed youth and, if they don’t get work, we will discuss unemployment wages. We are concentrating on women and youth… We will give more tickets to people below age 45, and a seat to at least one woman in each Lok Sabha constituency.
Will you support Shankersinh Vaghela if he is made the CM candidate?
I support the making of a Congress government in Gujarat… Whoever the high command selects as the chief minister — Shankarsinh, Arjunbhai, Shaktisinh, Tusharbhai, Siddharthabhai… Even if they select Jagdish Thakore as chief minister, I will happily accept.
And, before the election?
Gurudas Kamat has said that probably no name will be announced for the chief minister’s post now.
You recently said that you were happy with the Supreme Court decision on a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. You told journalists: ‘I am Bharat, so obviously Bharat will be happy’.
I am happy about the Ram Mandir. The Supreme Court has issued a guideline and said look at the possibility of settlement outside court… See, if my help is required, our leaders and I are surely ready to help [in building the temple]… Naturally, if a Ram Mandir is being built, Bharat will be happy.
Will this election once again be fought on caste and Hindutva? We have seen that the sense of Hindu identity eventually decides elections in Gujarat.
There is a fight on both caste and Hindutva. We will unite the majority and within this we are focusing on the middle class… The majority of the people suffering under the BJP government — in terms of education, health, unemployment – are these people not Hindu? What I mean is that under BJP rule, the section to suffer the most also includes Hindus — especially those of the middle class.
But is it not due to its appeal to Hindu sentiment that the BJP has been winning?
This time the zila/taluka panchayat elections, the corporation elections have proved that our approach — of the new modern Gujarat, Navsarjan — will get us support. Are you saying that the Hindutva appeal has waned?
The BJP’s Hindutva appeal has reduced a lot. Recently the Vishwa Hindu Parishad called a meeting and it was more or less a fiasco. A meeting was organised by the BJP national head [Amit Shah]; it was apparent that the BJP has lost its appeal. His self-confidence seemed broken. The Patidar movement, Dalit movement, dissatisfied people from the backward classes and the youth — they are all angry with the BJP… Shah was trapped in a cage in the rally in Surat. He had to leave within three minutes. This is the situation that BJP ministers too are facing: they cannot come out, cannot walk in the open.
Don’t you agree that a sense of Hindu identity remains prominent in the BJP supporter?
There is nothing wrong in taking pride in being a Hindu. Even I am a Hindu and proud to be one. The question is who has more humanity. The Congress is more humane. But the BJP has the advantage of Narendra Modi’s image, it has a fresh victory in UP, it has Hindutva, it has resources… Since he went to Delhi, a dilution [of Modi’s image in Gujarat] has taken place… They don’t have any leadership in Gujarat.
Why? Don’t they have Amit Shah?
Shah has tried hard to be chief minister of Gujarat. Whether he is being made that or not, it is up to his party. Recently people were even talking about his desire to become CM in UP. If he is strong enough, the BJP should fight the Gujarat elections under his leadership. If he does, then people will give him the reply. Whether it is Vijay Rupani or Jitu Vaghani or Purshottam Rupala, or whoever it is — or even if it is Amit Shah — the election will become easy for the Congress.
But you do agree that Modi’s say still matters in Gujarat?
One thing has to be accepted: that in the Lok Sabha and UP elections, using all sorts of tricks, he has won. We cannot negate this.
How do you think Gujarat has changed after Narendra Modi left?
Narendrabhai used to raise Gujarat as a part from India that is different. As if it is like Israel. He raised a regional identity. Now he has gone to Delhi and is trying to lead the whole country in a different direction.
Do you think this election too will be fought in Modi’s name?
That is the opinion of the media. And from Amit Shah to Vijay Rupani to Jitu bhai, all are thinking that Modi will wave a magic wand and they will win. But the people of Gujarat are watching very closely. Since 1960, when Gujarat was created, Gujaratis have showcased their own leadership, their commonsense, and this time definitely they are heading towards Navsarjan.
For the last 25 years you have been losing in Gujarat; have you introspected why?
The Congress needs to improve in many areas. Polarisation had happened and a negative impression was created… Now people have realised that the Congress is everyone’s party and will not desert the majority. Our focus is everyone. We are working for all Gujaratis. But the BJP has created impression that the Congress is a party for Dalits and Muslims. Now things are changing.
To get closer to a majority, will you end up indulging in soft Hindutva?
Soft Hindutva and strong Hindutva – these are only words. But for the proud people of Gujarat, it belongs to Sardar Patel and Mahatma Gandhi. We will give such a Gujarat.
Are you ready to give Patels more tickets?
This time we will definitely give more importance to the community. The Patidars are a community of leadership. Is a community that works aggressively, has commonsense and can give good leadership.
What about different groups within the party?
Firstly, what you are saying about groupism is BJP propaganda that the media has spread. Groups and divisions are not new to the Congress… We have had differences over styles of functioning; it’s not ideological.
Gujarat is considered the laboratory of the RSS. In an era when Yogi Adityanath has become chief minister of UP, how do you expect Gujarati voters to vote differently?
If Gujarat is really the RSS laboratory, then let RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat declare they will remove reservation from Gujarat. Agreed, BJP did massive polarisation in Gujarat, but over a period of time the polarisation is diffusing. Wait and see.