MANOJ C G: How bad is it for the Congress, in terms of optics and perception, to have one of your senior leaders, P Chidambaram, arrested in an alleged case of corruption?
I think it is not good for any political party. In this case, the government has been selective in its approach. Its every move is backed by very strong propaganda. So there are selective leaks, there are plants, and the person is vilified even before they can offer any defence. Whatever alleged offence is there in case of P Chidambaram… but the manner in which the investigating agencies have moved raises questions about liberty, about the personal freedom of an individual, and whether the allegations will stand scrutiny in a court of law.
Also, what we need to reflect on in a larger context is that under what circumstances should arrest be a must? Was the government hunting a terrorist or somebody accused of a heinous offence, or an individual who will run away from law enforcement authorities?… A former home minister, a sitting Member of Parliament, a senior lawyer of the country, is not going to disappear. The images which went out of country, in this case and in many other cases, are not a positive reflection on India as a strong constitutional democracy.
There have been cases in recent times where the judiciary should have been more vigilant and alert in upholding the foundational values that are critical when it comes to detentions of political leaders, like it is happening in J&K. In a democracy, if you have leaders of the Opposition being prevented from visiting a state, people being detained for weeks and weeks… Where are the fundamental rights? The courts, the high courts and the Supreme Court, are the custodians when it comes to guaranteeing the provisions of the Constitution. But we find now that every issue is being kicked down the road… Whether it is the case of former chief ministers being detained in J&K, whether it is in this case (Chidambaram’s arrest)… But what has gone wrong, and very disturbingly so, is that when an immediate intervention is required, they are not forthcoming at all. Institutional strength and integrity in those institutions which are supposed to uphold our democracy and Constitution, if they are weakening or abdicating even in perception… In case of judiciary, I have no hesitation in saying that if they don’t intervene in time…it’s meaningless. Not only in the case of detentions, but also in this (Chidambaram’s) case. It’s a cause of worry.
MANOJ C G: But in the case of detentions in J&K, it took several days for the opposition parties to even come together and organise a protest. And the initiative came from the DMK, not from the Congress.
I think an effort was made, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting was called. Leaders of the Congress and other opposition parties went to Srinagar, Jammu, but they were not allowed to come out of airports, not allowed to meet anyone. Even the formidable unity of the Opposition which was there on these issues… Certain political parties have been neutralised… The Congress party cannot tell other parties what their view should be. People of the country have not been adequately informed or sensitised. The governement has near total control on the electronic media. What we were seeing before the elections has not stopped but expanded… the hypernationalism etc. Today, for a large number of people, fundamental rights, liberty, these are not fundamental issues. The ‘other’, patriotism, ultra-nationalism and the binary that has been created… The Opposition will have to stand up. This country needs a balancing of the narrative. At present, it’s distorted and swings in favour of the BJP-RSS propaganda. That needs effective countering.
LIZ MATHEW: But what is stopping the Congress or any other opposition party from mobilising people on the issues that you mentioned?
… Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh was a composite state that joined the Union of India. Earlier too states have been carved out, Union Territories have been created, states have been divided, UTs upgraded… But never before has any state been divided and then downgraded to two UTs. This is a first. That is where the mobilisation is needed… Now there is a concern that this can be done to other states too. For any change in the territory of a state, the wishes of the people have to be factored in. That means a recommendation from the elected Assemblies, as it happened in case of Uttar Pradesh-Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh, Bihar-Jharkhand… There has been a constitutional manner in which these things have been addressed.
The opposition parties are talking to each other. There was a dharna at Jantar Mantar (Delhi). The numbers (of opposition parties) are an issue. In the coming weeks, there will be some firm action by the Opposition.
LIZ MATHEW: It is not just on the issue of Kashmir, we don’t see the Congress raising other issues strongly either. Has the party given up?
No… Since the election results came out on May 23, the Congress and the other opposition parties are coming to grips with the reality. After such an intense election… to regroup and move towards agitational politics… it does not happen at the press of a button. Parties will have to prepare at various levels, and we had to settle our own internal matters as well. To some extent, that may have caused a delay. Also, some of our state party units are preparing for elections which are around the corner. Some states are fighting floods… But there will be a time when agitational politics and mass mobilisation will come; the opposition parties are talking.
LIZ MATHEW: But the natural calamities do not seem to be affecting the BJP’s poll preparations in Haryana, Maharashtra or Jharkhand, while your leaders are talking in different voices.
Well, we are more democratic. We may sound chaotic on occasions, but at least we give freedom to our people. Elections will be fought. You are right that the BJP is marching ahead… It’s triumphalism, they are filled with euphoria, they have unprecedented resources at their disposal. They are the richest political party in the world… But elections will be contested. Yes, they have won in parliamentary elections, it was a big victory. They have increased their vote share, they have expanded. But still they are less than 37.5 per cent. We cannot draw much comfort from that, but there they are. A majority of the country is still not with them. They may have crossed the 300 mark, but in both percentage and numerical terms they are nowhere near the past Congress victories of Indira Gandhi… So there is a huge difference. We have to focus on our organisation and ways to revitalise the party.
LIZ MATHEW: Do you agree with your party leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi that the Congress should not have demonised Prime Minister Modi?
When have we demonised? There were questions to be raised on PM Narendra Modi’s reckless decisions, on demonetisation, which hurt the economy and took away millions of jobs. It is not demonisation, it is the correct thing for the Opposition to do. The government cannot function in this manner, taking arbitrary decisions… The corruption allegations were real. Those issues had to be raised, whether by the opposition parties in Parliament and outside, or by the media. I will still say that the fundamental questions in the Rafale deal have not been answered… I strongly disagree with anybody saying that this was demonisation.
SANDEEP SINGH: As a former commerce minister and senior Congress leader, how do you plan to take the economic slowdown issue to the people?
That is our first priority. This government is not going to do any course correction or listen to us. Their approach is not democratic… The government is running away from any discussion on the economy. We cannot call it a downturn, or a slowdown. I would call the economic situation grave. Fudging of numbers, embellishing numbers have gone on for too long.
The first issue is unemployment, layoffs… Nobody knows the real number. As per some conservative numbers, we have lost three-and-a-half to six million jobs in the last three months, not less than that. The automobile sector alone would be a million-plus. And another three million could be lost by November. That is what the fears are. The auto-component sector has lost a large number of jobs. Showrooms have shut down, and there have been a large number of job losses there too. The (slowdown) is not confined anymore to the auto sector, it has expanded. Now, Parle could lay off 10,000 people. Britannia is laying off another few thousand people. Other sectors too. The Prime Minister has said that 75 per cent of the capacity of the industry is being utilised. The numbers keep changing… The government’s official number is now 73 per cent. This means that 27 per cent of the manufacturing capacity of the country is idle. The real number is 40 per cent. If we do not do something drastic to infuse capital… Private capital is not available, it has to come from the State. But public investments are not taking place because the government is broke. Look at the revenue situation of the government, where is the money going to come from? It is not going to come from the Prime Minister’s speeches or the claims of the ministers. I am horrified when the Finance Minister says that we still remain the fastest growing economy.
The (growth) number went down to 5.8 in Q4, it may go down further. What kind of absurd comparisons are being made, that America is growing at three-and-a-half… But they are almost 10 times bigger than you. The five trillion dollar economy (number) is good, it should have happened given the growth numbers between 2004 and 2011-12. There was a slowdown (then), there was a global financial crisis, and the fact is that when Atal Bihari Vajpayee remitted office, we were a $480-odd billion economy, and when Dr Manmohan Singh left, we were almost $2 trillion. Where are we today? This is the sixth year of the Modi government. If we are growing, we should have done far better, we should have been three-and-a-half (trillion dollar economy). But we have not even touched three. We are still struggling and now falling again. All the engines of the Indian economy are stuttering.
The real unemployment numbers, the official numbers are coming… They may delay release of the data… But any economist will tell you that India’s real unemployment today is 20 per cent. It is frightening. Where are we growing?
This is where the mass mobilisation will have to happen, particularly among the youth and farmers. If the economy does not revive, for a country of our size, where the median age is about 25 years, what will happen to the young people — crime, social strife. So how long will this talk of hypernationalism and polarisation help the country? We will work out a plan with other opposition parties. The (mobilisation) will happen.
MANOJ C G: The more things change, the more they remain the same for your party. After all the talk of having a non-Gandhi president, you have gone back to a Gandhi again.
It was the best possible solution. We had a marathon CWC meeting… Ms (Sonia) Gandhi commands trust, faith and respect. A large number of people felt that since we are heading for elections immediately… It took time for us to persuade her. She accepted. At least there is stability now and the workers know that we are getting ready for the state elections in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand. There are many states where the Congress has been becoming weaker and weaker, we have to go back to what we always did. We were strong in the mandals. Our cadre-feeding frontal organisations, the youth and labour organisations, were strong. We had strong district committees. That is where the thrust and the focus needs to be… More functional space and autonomy to provincial committees and state committees to take decisions. Maximum decisions should be taken in state capitals, except the larger policy decisions. We have to look at some structural changes to revive the party.
SEEMA CHISHTI: In 1952, when Jawaharlal Nehru won the first general election, he was the tallest leader and the others were nearly wiped out. Yet those leaders continued their political role. Can the Congress learn from that?
We have to persevere and these are difficult times for the Congress and the country; we owe it to those who gave us freedom. We are the inheritors of an ideology. We have to resurrect ourselves. If the Congress does not become strong, the balance would be lost. The balance must be restored, otherwise we will not have any democracy… There is a national need for the Congress to be strengthened.
RAVISH TIWARI: After the defeat in the 2014 and 2019 general election, there was no accountability fixed in your party. How do you revitalise the Congress in such a situation?
Rahul Gandhi accepted his responsibility and decided to step down. I am of the view… that it cannot be individual accountability. It has to be collective because there are so many people involved at various levels. Honest reflection and serious introspection have to be done. It cannot be delayed.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: If the Congress considers the failure a collective responsibility, then why did the CWC not demand a discussion on the A K Antony report on the reasons for the 2014 defeat?
I can’t go in the past. What is important is that 2019 should be different… We must have introspection and deliberations, look at the structural issues and other factors. The worry now is that instead of getting traction, we got attacked for certain things that we said. We were right in our approach but there was a delay. This is where introspection will help.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Despite having several leaders in the party, why is the Congress back to the Gandhi parivar for leadership?
We have leaders in the state. We have chief ministers and former CMs… Even now we have gone by consensus. It was a rare unanimous view of the CWC this time… We do not see the Gandhis as separate from the mainstream Congress. After all, it has been a long relationship. They have been elected by the party. The way we look at it from Delhi may not be the ground reality as seen from the states or the districts. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi will remain integral to the party and its decision-making process.
AMRITH LAL: The ‘consensus’ you mentioned always seems to be in favour of the status quo. Why does the Congress not have elections to party posts?
The major national parties in India follow consensus, not nominations. Historically, the Congress has been a consensus-based party. Even prior to Independence, we didn’t have balloting… If there is no consensus on a person who has been given charge for a state or district, he or she will collapse. So consensus means inclusion… Through consensus you not only give responsibility to the person who has the maximum support, but also ensure that the others are not excluded in the process. If we don’t do that, we are already weak in many states, and we will end up losing more people.