Would you concede this is the most difficult poll the Congress has ever faced?
Yes. And I will give you three reasons. There is definitely an element of anti-incumbency… and also the influence of a systematic, high-voltage campaign targeting the government and the unfair vilification of the leadership… The second reason is the kind of money being used by the BJP. By conservative estimates, the BJP is spending at least Rs 10,000 crore only on publicity… The third factor is that the BJP ran a concerted and systematic campaign for months and months to malign us. While they levelled false charges against the government, we did not step out in time… We allowed the negative narrative to be built up for far too long.
Why didn’t you counter it?
I think the positives were not effectively communicated. I can attribute this to a number of factors. Maybe the kind of publicity the governments do, we did not… Frankly speaking it is not that the PIB or the DAVP did not do it. They did. But somewhere it did not register.
One view is that the PM was not communicating enough.
Not only the prime minister, I think collectively we should concede that we should have been saying this, that we are a government committed and accountable…
The opposition has often questioned the PM’s silence.
That is his nature. It is not in his personality to claim credit for the achievements. On a few occasions, he has spoken out. His courteous nature and humility should not be misconstrued otherwise.
Was he silent because he did not have full control?
That is a canard being spread. When it came to the government, it was entirely left to the PM, as the leader of the team, to take charge of issues related to governance and policies. When it came to priorities, after all it is a Congress-led government, on certain issues like the social security net, NREGA, loan waiver or food security, the Congress did have a say. These were decisions taken in the core group in which both PM and the Congress president are there.
The NAC was often called the super-cabinet.
That is a wrong assessment. I don’t think it had any influence when it came to decision-making or governance.
Is it a fact that you did not take Narendra Modi seriously initially?
I must give the RSS and Modi credit for one thing. They have meticulously planned and drafted the campaign and in a way managed to create an artificial image. They packaged and marketed something that is not there. The packaging is good, but inside there is a substandard product.
The Congress has been reluctant to package its leader; Rahul Gandhi himself has been reluctant.
See, we are an incumbent government. We have a PM in office, a government in office. Respecting the parliamentary form of government, there was no way we could have announced (Rahul as PM candidate)… Besides, we respect the Indian electorate unlike the RSS and BJP which have anointed a person as PM candidate… telling them forget about what you feel, we are foisting this individual.
The party feels Priyanka Gandhi has boosted the Congress campaign. Why didn’t she start earlier?
Priyanka is an integral part of the Congress family… She has charisma, her natural and gutsy responses has attracted national attention. And we are happy that she has given it back and very firmly, which Modi and the BJP deserve… I think — and she herself has said — it (the late start) is her decision.
Do you believe an expansion in her role would benefit the party?
Her campaigning definitely gives a fillip. Party men would want her to campaign all over the country. But we will wait for her to decide.
Post-election, will she step in if the Congress suffers a setback?
She has already stepped in. She has been making her contribution in strategising and all. I am not in a position to speculate whether she would or should take up a more direct role.
Would you join hands with secular parties to block the BJP?
It is not only to stop the BJP… We are confident that when it comes to respond to any challenge posed by forces that are sectarian, divisive and communal, the secular forces will be able to effectively respond.
Would you give outside support to a third front government?
Two more phases are yet to take place. We cannot take decisions or a view until the voters have spoken and respective strengths of the parties are known. In larger national interest though, the unity of secular forces is essential.
If the Congress is defeated, what could be the two reasons in your view?
We did not step out to counter the false propaganda… Performance-wise our report card, when objectively evaluated, is very good. But our report card is being written by our opponents, who are giving 100 out of 100 to themselves and zero to us, which is not fair.