Maharashtra’s former Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan speaks about why he feels the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR) are components of BJP’s “Hindutva project” aimed at the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
Shubhangi Khapre: There is a perception that CAA/NRC is a political legacy that the BJP has inherited from the Congress. The BJP has claimed even former PM Manmohan Singh had spoken about CAA.
This is propaganda spread by the BJP and people are falling for it. If you look at the chronology, there was the Assam situation which was not an issue of Hindu-Muslim in the first place but about Assamese and Bengali. An attempt was made to settle this issue and as per the directives of the Supreme Court an NRC was conducted. The entire exercise, which cost Rs 1,600 crore, seems to have major flaws, which led to 20 lakh people being omitted. The flaws were such that Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal rejected the exercise. The citizenship law enacted in 1955 has gone through several amendments. The major amendment was in 2003 when the Vajpayee government brought in the concept of NPR and Citizenship Identity Cards. The logic then was, having a citizenship identity card for everyone was a good idea and was a badge of development to which we had agreed. In 2003, the law was amended and rules were formulated. However, the mischief was in the rules which people at that time did not pay attention to. It is the Citizenship Amendment Act which is the culprit, which for the first time has brought in the concept of discrimination based on religion and singled out Muslims. We are opposed to this as it is an attack on the basic structure of our Constitution. Let us be clear that this issue was first brought up by the Vajpayee government and not the Congress.
Shubhangi Khapre: Do you feel that the Congress is confused in deciding how to pin down the government. Whether it should concentrate more on the economic downturn or pin the BJP on CAA?
There is no doubt about the fact that the economy is in deep crisis. As far as the issue of CAA/NRC goes, this is not a project planned in 2019. This was planned way back in 2015. For us to say that this was brought in just now to divert attention from the economy would be a convenient argument from the Opposition’s point of view but it wouldn’t be a very honest argument. It was there. We should have separated the two very clearly. Yes, there is an economic crisis and the government has completely failed to handle the economy. This has more to do with the personality of the prime minister, and of the two leading actors in the BJP side. They are in a complete denial mode that there is nothing wrong with the economy. What the BJP is doing now is a Hindutva project aimed at 2024 elections. This is a different project, it was conceived long time back and it has to be taken as such that it is a threat to the Indian Constitution. This is leading us to a dictatorial way of governance. We saw this in Maharashtra as well where they made the use of money, muscle and state power to decimate the Opposition. About 39 sitting MPs and MLAs before the Vidhan Sabha elections were forced to change parties. If this government had come back again, I don’t think so, there would have been any Opposition at all. They will continue to invent new projects like these, common civil code and all sort of things and they will continue to divide the nation until the division is complete.
Zeeshan Shaikh: There is this perception that the Congress seems to be afraid of coming out on the ground and take on this government. Why is this fear in the Congress to take on this issue against the BJP on a large scale and mobilise on the street like other people are doing.
There is a point that there could have been a united voice from the Congress party and attempt to get everyone together on a common platform. We could have done better co-ordination or floor management. But it is not just the Congress that should be blamed. Everyone needs to understand that if you want to save the Constitution, everybody has to do it. Of course, the Congress being the largest party has the major role to get everybody together. But we are comparatively a smaller party than we were in the early 80s, we used to be much more organised to get everyone together. I believe we could have been better.
Zeeshan Shaikh: Do you think there is an apprehension in almost all anti-BJP parties of associating themselves very closely with these protest. Do you think that the fear of backlash that will happen from the majority community is kind of holding them back?
I cannot rule out this possibility of having that feeling as to how far do we go with this, as it is already a law now. But for what is right is right and if you feel that it is an attack on the Constitution and the basic structure of the Constitution is under attack then even if you are alone, you should fight. There is always a genuine fear that there will be a majority backlash, whether it was Article 370 or this issue and this is what the BJP is counting on, that beyond a point, the Opposition will not protest fearing a backlash. There is spontaneous opposition that is coming out. Now Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself should be worried, what with the international criticism that is happening. He is paying for his personal popularity and his personal popularity was an important project in this BJP government, he should be worried.
Sandeep Ashar: What happens to soft-Hindutva or the rebranding of the Congress?
There was a feeling that we had gone too far away where the BJP really hammered us with Muslim appeasement card. Strict secularism is an abstract concept, difficult to explain. But, that is what political leaders should do. This is not appeasement but standing for rights, always standing for the Constitution and to articulate that intellectually is not very easy. That is where I feel it is easy to fall into the trap. You take up any issue of secularism, you will be accused of appeasement, so let us not go too far on this issue. This is the real thing. What the political parties will have to do is, be ideologically very clear and I think for a change students are showing us the way. Although the media is trying to say that they are shouting azaadi slogans, they are sticking to it and telling us that it is not about political independence but azaadi from tyranny, economic hardships. So that articulation is coming. We both will have to work together.
Sandeep Ashar: You spoke of Modi’s image being dented because of these protests and Article 370. When you speak with citizen activists, etc, the major problem is that the Opposition does not seem to have a leader of stature, would you concede that there is still that leadership vacuum?
That is for you to judge. The Congress is going through a difficult period, the numbers are small. There are times we seem to be doing well. There are ups and downs. We have lost the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections very badly. Modi was able to project a muscular nationalist agenda which people backed him on. But, state election results reflect mishandling of the economy. That is happening now. Congress’ style of leadership is what it is, it is a layered style of leadership. At times, it is not easy to take quick decisions as we have to go through the layered leadership. But all small regional parties have instantaneous decision process as you saw in Maharashtra. That lag in reacting to an emerging situation is there and it is a fact. It has been there for a while and when we were a large party, it did not matter. Now that we are a small party, we have to be nimble-footed, that does not seem to be happening.
Zeeshan Shaikh: Talking of this government here in Maharashtra, lot of people still feel that it does not come across as an opposition government, like Kerala, West Bengal. There is also that apprehension that even though Uddhav Thackeray may be in charge, the deep state seems to be running a lot of important projects, still in control of how this government functions.
It may not look like a very ideologically cohesive government, which it is not clearly. That is why whenever any issue comes up, there are different voices from each side. That I think will happen sometime, but as we are coming up with a coordination committee, which is not yet constituted, a coordination committee outside the government will be formed, and all these tricky issues will be handled there quietly in a closed room, we will have a much better unified approach to issues. We cannot give up our ideologies or even other parties cannot give up their ideologies, but we will look like a more cohesive government. It may not look as abrasive as the Kerala government or some other government. But, I think we will have our own ideology and views on national issues, but primarily we will have the state government. We have a lot of mess to clear in the state, which the previous government created. You mentioned officers, yes, that is true. Lot of officers were very very loyal to the previous government, like more loyal to the king. They are still there in those positions. The chief minister will take a call on that. He has no previous experience so he is cutting his teeth on what governance is all about. It will happen I think so.
Sandeep Ashar: Why aren’t organisational changes happening in the Congress?
Rahul Gandhi quit his position as the elected president of the party. He is a Member of Parliament and is doing his duties as an MP. He said, “Look, I have lost the election and I will take responsibility and I will not continue to lead the party.” There was definitely a certain vacuum because the party was led by Mrs Gandhi for 18-19 years and then Rahul Gandhi came in, and there was no obvious alternate leadership or second-level leadership there. So there was a period of confusion as to what happens now. Mrs Gandhi was requested and she graciously agreed to step in as the interim president. And that it was considered that a full-fledged election for president and to the Working Committee would happen. But that hasn’t happened, may be because of elections. I don’t know exactly what’s happening. There was also a thought that complete full-fledged elections would take a long time. I think the Working Committee will come out with some answer.
Shubhangi Khapre: What kind of opposition will we see in 2024?
2024 is far away in terms of everyday matters. We should be more worried about how we are handling the Delhi election. Whether we have taken the right decision. And how we are going to handle the Bihar election. Are we going to be a significant player in Bihar? And what happens in Bengal. In all these places, the BJP is not expected to do well. If they do well in Bengal and Bihar that will be the election machinery of the BJP working. The mood is against them. The Congress can play an important role in all these elections, maybe not a prominent role but an important role to stop the BJP and to start work towards a grand Opposition alliance. Every election will help. That’s what the party will do I think in the next elections. If you fight the elections independently you are weakening the Opposition alliance. If you go with the alliance you submerge your identity and almost erase your existence. Those are difficult challenges before us. The local leadership in those states has to take a call as to what is the best approach. Hindsight will tell you that you should have done this or done that. The local leadership has to take a call. They have taken a call in Delhi.
Shubhangi Khapre: When you were the CM, you brought a lot of reforms. With the three-party government system who do you feel will drive the reforms?
I think it’s too early. Let’s give them time. Many of them don’t even have experience to run a government.
Kavitha Iyer: Isn’t there an ethical dilemma of tying up with parties which are ideologically polls apart. The winner in this arrangement is the NCP. Both the Congress and the Sena will have a lot of explaining to do to their voters whenever elections are held.
I see it differently. You are absolutely right that somebody who benefits from this arrangement is the NCP. One thing is that if we would have not done it, we would have been wiped out. I mean we almost got wiped out in Western Maharashtra and Marathwada because of what Devendra Fadnavis did. If he had got a lease of life for five more years amidst this Hindutva-Congress mukt agenda, he would have wiped us out.
There was a huge coercive machinery in place which used money power, blackmail. Threats of putting people into jail to force people to join the BJP. What we saw was unprecedented. I mean even we were in power for so long but we never used these tactics to target Opposition parties.
Sandeep Ashar: There’s a theory or a perception that Silver Oak (Sharad Pawar’s Mumbai residence) is the remote control in this government. The Congress seems to be playing the third fiddle in the government. Is the Congress comfortable with this? The NCP is growing a lot, is the Congress okay with this?
Yes we are definitely the third. We are third, so we will be third. I don’t agree with any of this allegations because we are number three. We would have liked to play the first fiddle if it was possible. It’s not possible. And Pawar is the seniormost politician in the country, not just Maharashtra. And he is a major partner in the government alliance. So if we discuss with him and he seems to be in an important position, what’s wrong in it. It’s a fact.
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