You have been working on West Bengal since 2016. What has changed since then?
When I started in 2016, we did not have an organisation here. We worked hard from 2016 to 2019 to build up an organisation. I started seeing glimpses of the people’s adulation and following for (Narendra) Modiji, his popularity and the people’s confidence that if someone can remove the problems of West Bengal, it is Narendra Modi. Now, I am seeing that it is turning into a wave in favour of the BJP.
Over these last three years, what are your learnings about Bengal, its culture?
I have learnt this: One should not get carried away by the so-called myths about a region, but should understand the ground realities and form one’s strategies. If you are carried away by the myths that are known about a place and culture, you will not be able to connect with the people.
So, what surprised you here?
(There was) no surprise, not really. Since 2015, I began to sense that there will be a time the BJP will win more than 200 seats. I have been saying since November 2017, that we will win this election with more than 200 seats.
What will surprise you on May 2?
I am sure we are going to form the government in West Bengal.
The BJP has had its strongholds in North Bengal, in Jangalmahal. Since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections where you won 18 of 42 seats, which districts do you think you have turned?
In areas like Howrah, 24 Parganas, Kolkata, where the voting has already taken place in the first four phases, the BJP has improved. From this, I can say with certainty that we are marching much ahead (of the TMC). We continue our grip in North Bengal and in Jangalmahal areas, so, naturally, our position is going to be strong.
One visible factor is how women support Mamata Banerjee; her TMC government launched a number of schemes for them. What has the BJP done to reach out to them?
One segment from which the BJP is going to get maximum votes is women. Mamata Banerjee blocked two of Modiji’s programmes — Kisan Samman Nidhi and the Ayushman Bharat. There is strong anger among women against her move. Along with this, the Prime Minister’s schemes, like tap water for every household, have been a great attraction for women. I have seen how women are happy they got cooking gas and electricity at home. On top of all these, violence by illegal intruders in the state has affected women the worst, so they want to get rid of them. Everyone in Bengal knows that in Didi (Banerjee)’s time, there will be no respite from this. So, the women want to see this regime out.
During the campaign, there have been personal attacks against her. After she was injured, your party leader Dilip Ghosh talked about how her sari covers one leg and shows the other… that she should wear Bermudas (shorts)… What do you think about such remarks?
Look, such remarks should not have been made. Someone says Dushasan, someone says Duryodhan, someone calls the other a goonda, someone talks about wearing Bermudas. Yeh sab nahi kehna chahiye. Magar dono or se ho gayi (These things should not have been said… but they were said on both sides).
Did you warn your leader?
Generally, I told Didi and Dilip Ghosh that such remarks should not be made.
The TMC has been using the ‘outsider’ plank against the BJP, that the state will slip into the hands of those who don’t have any connection with it.
We don’t have to do anything about it, the people of Bengal have already decided on it. Agar yehi concept hai toh, Rabindranath Tagore Uttar Pradesh ke liye bahari hain kya (If this is the concept, will Rabindranath Tagore be an outsider for Uttar Pradesh)? For Telangana and Tamil Nadu, is Subhash Chandra Bose an outsider? Everybody knows the chief minister of Bengal will be from here. We are an all-India party and we are campaigning here. Modiji is the Prime Minister of this country. Can’t he talk to the people in Bengal? I am the Home Minister of India. Can’t I place my views before the people of Bengal? What kind of a democracy are they talking about?
You said the chief minister will be from here. Have you decided on who?
The Parliamentary Board will decide.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Kolkata stopped the BJP’s momentum, the party could not meet its target of 22 seats. What’s different now?
It was not like that. Of the 22 seats, our performance was good in 21 and some seats we lost with a margin of less than 5,000 votes. I don’t think that we missed our target. The concern about intruders is most intense among the bhadralok in Kolkata. We did not have to do anything. In 2019, they had some apprehension if the BJP would be able to pick up or not. They have seen that the BJP can make the change. That gives us a huge advantage in 2021.
Critics say the BJP is introducing caste politics in West Bengal to get votes.
When the results come, Didi will realise that everyone has defeated her. Not just one caste, entire Bengal has defeated her, irrespective of gender, irrespective of caste.
The BJP candidate list has many who shifted from the TMC. If, as you say, the TMC is unpopular, how does this work for you?
People who come from the TMC are those who do not agree with Didi’s policies. People who join the BJP agree with the BJP’s policies. Some people have come from the TMC but a large number of candidates are from the BJP. I don’t think it makes a lot of difference to the BJP because our policies are made by the party and the government just implements them.
Has the delay in the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) affected your prospects in Assam?
No, the CAA is the law of the land now and it has to be implemented. I consider the CAA a law that’s good for the country and was made for the good of the country. It’s (about) issues that affect millions and we should not keep them in the dark about it. It will be implemented.
During the campaign in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister talked about love jihad and promised to make anti-Romeo squads here. Will the BJP, if it comes to power here, bring the ‘love-jihad’ law it has brought in other states?
We have placed our party manifesto before the people. The government will work on the basis of the manifesto. (The BJP manifesto for West Bengal does not mention the ‘love-jihad’ law). Once the government is formed, we will look into the suggestions made by various leaders.
Switching from the elections, the most important fear on the minds of people today is COVID-19. The numbers are increasing daily and you are addressing huge public rallies.
Dekhiye, Maharashtra mein chunav hai kya? Udhar 60,000 cases hain, idhar 4,000 hain. Maharashtra ke liye bhi mujhe anukampa hai aur iske liye bhi anukampa hai. Isko chunav ke saath jodna theek nahi hai. Kin kin rajyon me chunav hua? Jahan chunav nahi hua hai, udhar zyada badhe. Ab aap kya kehenge? [Is there an election in Maharashtra? It has 60,000 cases, while here (in Bengal) it is 4,000. I care for Maharashtra and I care for Bengal. But linking (the COVID-19 surge) with the election is not right. Which are the states where elections took place? Those that didn’t have any election have witnessed the surge. How do you explain that?] You asked about CAA. Tell me should there be protests against CAA during COVID?
At your rallies and roadshows, when you see large crowds and no one has a mask, there is no social distancing, what comes to your mind?
Everyone should take precautions and they are taking them, too. Elections are a vital part of democracy. When elections are announced, we do not have any option.
The Prime Minister of this country has taken three-four decisions. For speeding up vaccination, foreign vaccines have been granted permission. COVID-19 vaccines cleared for use in the US, the UK, the European Union and Japan are to get fast-track approval here. Steps have been taken to ramp up vaccine production. We are taking steps to improve the facilities. This pandemic (by its very nature) spreads fast. The government is ready, fighting against it on every front. We are sending ventilators, new COVID hospitals are being set up.
Earlier, the Prime Minister addressed the nation, there were many initiatives during the first wave. That sense of urgency, emergency, is missing now. Why?
That’s not true. There were two meetings with chief ministers and I was also present. Just now, there was a meeting with state governors. We have had a meeting to push stakeholders in the social sector to support the governments. Consultations have happened with scientists on the vaccination front and there was a meeting for improving medical protocols. Preparations to fight this are full-fledged. The pace (of spread) this time is so high that it is (a) bit difficult to fight. But I am confident that we will have a victory over this.
The new variant is said to be more infectious. Are you worried about it?
Everyone is. I am also concerned about it. Our scientists are working to fight it. I am confident that we will win.
Do you think both the Centre and the states let their guard down when the COVID-19 curve began falling? That policymakers didn’t factor in that the virus was very much there. Also, people lost their sense of fear. Did that contribute to the surge?
I think the surge is mainly because of the new mutants of the virus. Many countries are seeing the surge. Scientists are studying it and a conclusion on this will be premature.
Like last year, is a lockdown an option to control the number of cases?
We are in discussions with a number of stakeholders. Initially, the purpose of the lockdown was different. We wanted to prepare infrastructure and the line of treatment. We did not have any medicines or a vaccine. The situation is different now. Still, we are into discussions with chief ministers. Whatever the consensus, we shall move forward accordingly. Magar jaldbaazi mein lockdown karna, aisi stithi nahi dikh rahi hai. (To impose a lockdown in a hurry, we don’t see such a situation)
India has sent (over 6.5 crore) vaccines abroad and many states are complaining they are not getting enough vaccines. Why did this happen?
Our vaccination programme was the fastest in the world. In the first 10 days, the number of people who got vaccinated was the highest in India. After the first shot, there has to be a gap and the second one cannot be expedited. I do not agree that there’s a shortage.
The Serum Institute of India has said that it will require Rs 3,000 crore to ramp up vaccine production. Is the government doing anything about it?
Did it tell you that it has sought the government’s assistance? Has it not written to the government?
Has it not written to the government?
It is in discussions with the government. We will see what is to be done.
Uttar Pradesh is going to polls next year. There is now a petition in court on the Kashi-Mathura issue; the court has asked for a probe. Will the demand of reclaiming a Hindu temple be an issue in the next elections?
Someone has gone to court and the court has given an order. Progress on that will be on the basis of what the court does. The party has not taken a stand on it. When the court gives a notice to the Central government, we will place our views.
The ongoing farmers’ agitation had drawn a lot of criticism for the BJP. There’s an impression in Punjab that the Central government does not listen to the Sikhs.
Are these laws only for Sikhs? Are they not for farmers across the country? Whatever campaign is made on it, the fact remains that it’s a law for the entire country.
Has it not affected the BJP’s prospects in Punjab?
Kuch dikkatein ho gayin hain (There are some challenges for the party). But we are working on it. We will convince the people that it is good for the farmers and I am confident that people will realise it.
One of your alliance partners, the Shiromani Akali Dal, left you over this issue. Have you tried to talk to them, especially to Parkash Singh Badal?
We had talked to him also. But they left us. What can I do? We have been talking to all parties.
On the farmers’ protests, the Delhi Police (which comes under the Home Ministry) arrested Disha Ravi under sedition charges in the toolkit conspiracy case… you backed the Delhi Police on it. The court granted her bail, it criticised the government.
Bail does not mean that there is nothing against her. Bail is just a legal provision.
The BJP recently faced a setback in the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council.
The BJP has not lost seats. (It won nine of the 11 seats it contested, an Independent, backed by the BJP, won). Our alliance partner Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) lost some seats. (IPFT drew a blank in the 16 seats it contested).
Recently, the BJP leadership had to change Trivendra Singh Rawat following pressure from the state unit. The BJP earlier had strong regional satraps — Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh; Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh and Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan. But since 2014, the BJP leadership at the Centre has picked leaders to lead party governments in Jharkhand, Haryana etc. They could not build on the party’s electoral success.
It was an experiment. We have picked a non-tribal for Jharkhand, non-Jat for Haryana and non-Maratha for Maharashtra. It was an experiment to break the caste barriers and strengthen democracy. Yes, there were some setbacks, but I won’t say it was a failure. We have to make efforts to break such barriers.