Ahead of the release of his book “Spectrum Politics”, former Union minister Salman Khurshid speaks with The Indian Express about the UPA government’s trials and tribulations, and the Congress party’s future. Excerpts:
You have said that negative outcomes that rattled the UPA government because of 2G and coal block allocation cases have their roots in the economic reforms of the PV Narasimha Rao government.
My view is that the reforms were progressive, forward-looking — a massive shift in how we saw governance and political economy. But there are transitional issues in everything, and if you don’t manage the transition carefully, the best of intentions can go awry. What has happened here is that you were opening up the market for private players. In the past, there were no private players, everything was controlled by the government. Now suddenly (after economic liberalisation) the private sector comes in, and the interface between the private sector and the government becomes extremely important.
If you don’t manage that well, then questions arise about integrity, transparency; questions arise about what is called crony capitalism, and that drags the government down. The Opposition felt that they needed something to whip the government with. They clubbed all these and said corruption, and they don’t even stop that today…
But has the Congress performed your role well as the main opposition party?
Don’t forget that the BJP couldn’t stop us from running a minority government for five years. Would that be saying that there was no firepower or will in the BJP to bring us down. It was not that. It is just that the manner in which the BJP was unable to come back to power after having tasted it briefly and their desperation to come back to power they realised that we had several dimensions in the way we had organised ourselves that could prevent them from coming back to power unless they did something really dramatic. And that is what they did.
They changed the perception about the Congress. Not having had the courage to attack Manmohan Singh because of his unimpeachable and outstanding career that brought him to the level of Prime Minister, they gradually got the courage to start attacking him as well. They attacked everybody else, attacked him and the atmosphere in the country became anti-establishment where there were people like (Arvind) Kejriwal and large number of people feeling restless across the country who wanted a change and therefore coalition as it were of the willing against the Congress emerged across the country.
We suddenly lost our voice and people lost their capacity to hear us anymore.
Were you not using the right idioms or right phrases to explain?
Frankly, one day somebody, a historian, will have to sit and analyse this. But democracy is a lot more than just numbers. We concentrated too much on numbers or the numbers that we had. We had a majority of a coalition. And I think just ensuring and managing numbers became our preoccupation. As sometimes, elections become a preoccupation. Then the quality of governance suffers because governance with true democracy is a lot more than numbers. Numbers facilitate governance but true democracy requires dialogue which requires story telling, requires a vision, a capacity to do marketing. All those elements together give you success.
But is the Congress in opposition doing all that?
In many ways are. But let’s face it, sadly we suffered very severe jolts in the defeat that we suffered. People lose, but it is never like this. The kind of defeat that we had to suffer. And the defeat of 2014 was followed by a series of defeats which we suffered in states which kind of continue with the little exception of Punjab and a temporary exception of Bihar and half an exception of Karnataka. Therefore we have been extremely demoralised. Defeat after defeat…but we are lucky that we have a young leader like Rahul Gandhi who frankly is upfront, what he may feel inside I don’t know, he is upfront, he is robust, aggressive, confident..he is not distressed or dismayed by the fact that we have suffered so many setbacks.
He gives hope to the party in a remarkable way. I hope destiny allows him to us where he wants to take us.
You said the UPA was preoccupied with numbers. But you are walking the same path now. You want the Opposition to come together.
This is not just for numbers. Every age and every set of circumstance throw up certain challenges, and you need a response to that challenge. Today, we face a particular kind of challenge because of what happened since 2014. In that particular challenge, we can’t become lost in idealism that will not get us physical delivery as far as democratic returns are concerned. Therefore we need an alliance.
But we need an alliance not simply against a person, but for an alternative idea of India which takes from the substantive idea of India that we have developed, (and) adds to it. It can’t be ‘let’s just go back to what we had’. It has to bring a new promise. That is why we are lucky that we have a young leader — with a young leader it is easier to talk of a new promise.
But there is apprehension among many regional parties about Congress heading such an anti-BJP alliance. Then there is the question of the prime ministerial candidate.
Why would you call it an anti-BJP alliance? I would like to call it a creative alternative alliance for the India of tomorrow…. I think we will fall into the trap of the BJP if we start talking about the prime ministerial question. Because that is what they have now started: who is going to be the prime minister of your side? They want us to be fighting over something that they will lay out for us rather than allow us to develop a truly creative idea of an alternative India.
Do you think your party should show the willingness to address the prime ministerial candidate question?
I think we will be falling into the trap of the BJP if we start talking about the prime ministerial question. Because that is what they have now started: who is going to be the prime minister of your side? They want us to be fighting over some thing that they will lay out for us rather than allow us to develop a truly creative idea of an alternative India. And alternative to what we have seen in a very sad manner in the last few years.
Judiciary is at the centre of news now a days. There is friction between the Government and the judiciary. How different is the present environment different from that of the UPA? You have said you had a good relationship with the judiciary as law minister?
I wasn’t in the loop. Therefore I wasn’t even able to tell myself what my position should be. Fortunately, it passed.
In hindsight, do you think it was a wrong decision?
They would have given a serious thought to it. I don’t believe it was an easy decision…. I wish I was in the loop; I would have been able to share a little bit more of my understanding.
You would have advised not to move impeachment?
I would have advised caution.
In the sense not to move (the motion)?
Not to, yes. But I am saying this without the benefit of knowing exactly what was the analysis.
Do you think the leadership was misled?
I don’t know. I don’t have any idea…don’t forget it was not a Congress decision alone. There were other parties also involved.
Looking forward, a year left for Lok Sabha elections, what should the Congress do?
I think we have got an exciting new young leadership. It is not Rahul Gandhi alone. There are some very, very other young, bright leaders in various parts of the country beginning to make an impact in their states. This is a very good dimension that we added to our party. We have to learn to tell stories; we got to become better storytellers.
We have been overawed by the oratory of (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi. I don’t claim he is a great orator. But let us say that is what people believe. We need to tell a story. A story is not always about what you have done — a story is also about what we want to do. A story is as much about the narrative as it is about dreams. But we need a storyteller.
Do you think Rahul Gandhi would be a good storyteller?
I would certainly advocate that he be our storyteller.