Newly appointed AICC General Secretary in charge of Gujarat Ashok Gehlot talks to The Indian Express on the road ahead for Congress in the state
You have been given a challenging task — winning a state after 22 years. How difficult is this challenge?
I feel Rahul Gandhi gave me this responsibility looking at my organisational experience. I have been PCC president (of Rajasthan) thrice. I was AICC general secretary earlier. I started my career with NSUI. Time is very short. What ideally we should be doing in one year, now we will have to do it in six months. Gujarat is a peculiar state. The BJP has been projecting it as a model state right from 1998. Even Advani used to say that. But the state has not seen development to be called as a model state. Vibrant Gujarat has not resulted in huge investments. But marketing has been extraordinary. That is the Modi style. Gujarat was a much developed state even before independence. There were big textile mills.there was extraordinary industrialisation. Congress took it forward but the situation is what it was in the 1990s. Even the violence (riots of 2002) was cleverly marketed to say that there have been no riots since. There has been big time marketing although there is nothing on the ground.
The BJP is fresh from its election victory in UP. How will it impact the voters of Gujarat?
It was all about anti-incumbency in UP as well as in the other states. In Goa, their Chief Minister lost. In UP, there was huge anti-incumbency against the SP. The Congress entered into an alliance with SP to stop communal forces and we too suffered. In Gujarat, the development balloon Modi had floated is getting exposed after he left the state. The anti-incumbency factor will play a role.
Your seniormost leader in the state Shankersinh Vaghela has unfollowed Rahul Gandhi on Twitter, deleted anti-BJP tweets and gone on leave.
Some differences are there. Media also projected it in a certain way. Somebody put up a hoarding, saying he will be the next chief minister, either from the BJP or the Congress. It was a mischief. He has said he has unfollowed everyone because everyday some nonsense keeps coming up about what he said and what others have said. Ulta usse jhagde badte hain Congress main. He said he did it to put an end to the propaganda regarding infighting…He has clarified that he will not go to the BJP and will remain in the Congress.
But he is unhappy that he is not being projected as the CM face. What is the difficulty in honouring his wish?
We don’t generally declare CM candidates. In Punjab, the situation was different. Captain Amarinder Singh was projected as the CM face in the 2012 election. So we had to do it again.
It is known that Amarinder Singh was planning to leave the party, which forced the high command to make him PCC chief and later project him as the CM face. So Vaghela will also have to do something like that?
Different states have different situations.The situation in Punjab and Gujarat are different, so are the caste combinations. We will not project anyone. We will decide it later. He (Vaghela) knows that. He is not asking for that. He has said that he is not in the race for the CM post. This chapter is closed. He will not leave the party. He is not going to the BJP. He has only said it is time to decide on the tickets.
Is Congress in touch with Hardik Patel, who is the face of the Patel agitation, and Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani?
Congress’s doors are open to all…whoever is willing to fight against BJP, be it NCP or JD(U). Congress has an open mind. Our local leaders are in touch with him (Patel). Patels were once with Congress. I believe it is time for them to come back.
Will you promise reservation for them in your manifesto?
It is a sensitive issue. We can’t lie like BJP. We will have to understand the issue, see what the law says. In Rajasthan, there is an issue. The government repeatedly takes a decision (on providing reservation to Gujjars) and the courts stall it.
Will there be seat adjustment with them? JD(U) and NCP have announced an alliance.
We are in the initial stages. Can’t say anything now. We don’t know what their demand will be. We are open for talks with all those who believe they are secular forces. Congress will try to ensure that secular votes are not divided.
What will be your broad strategy this time?
We will go for micro management. We will go down to the booth level. We have already started work. The committees will be formed soon. We will fight the election together. Differences will be sorted. We will go to the people with a message that it is a battle of ideologies. And there is no alternative to the Congress ideology. We kept the country united all these years. Only Congress can keep the country united. BJP may talk big. They have not fulfilled their promises, be it on bringing back black money or other issues.
So will Gujarat be a referendum on the Modi government? It is after all the PM’s home state.
Our slogan would be good governance. Why talk about referendum? We want the elections to be fought on local issues. They will try to create a sentiment that it is the Prime Minister’s state. Even Modi has not done anything. We will challenge the government over local issues. What have you done in Gujarat? Ultimately, governance is the task of the state government. Elections are for electing a new state government.
What about your home state Rajasthan. The party is a divided house there as well and elections are only a year away?
Congress will win. The BJP government has created a record of sorts on failure. People are angry because Vasundhara Raje doesn’t meet them. There is no infighting in Rajasthan Congress. Have you heard a single statement by any leader against the PCC president. Of course, there have been stories in the media that Gehlot is doing this and that. Have there been any parallel meetings? There have been no statements by the so-called leaders against each other. No delegation came to Delhi to complain against anyone.
Since you were the chief minister in the last government, will you be automatically projected as the CM candidate next year?
The policy is that the high command will take the decision on the CM after elections. We have left it to the high command. In Rajasthan, all the groups, the so-called groups, are loyal to the high command.
How will you counter the possible Hindu card of BJP, glimpses of which we saw in UP. There is a perception that Congress has a pro-Muslim tilt?
Such a perception has been created about Congress as part of a conspiracy. It was a conspiracy by BJP and RSS. BJP and RSS could not win over the people of India in 60 years with their ideology, principles and programmes. They got success after 65 years. We will go to the people and try to make them understand that their ideology is not in the interest of the country.