Harish Rawat says Cong had no choice but to replace Amarinder, explains how Sidhu’s public statements “indirectly” help Cong, refuses to commit on who will lead party in Punjab polls, and says Mamata Banerjee’s taking away of Cong leaders is “weakening democratic forces”. This session was moderated by Deputy Associate Editor Manoj C G.
MANOJ C G: Last month you changed the Chief Minister of Punjab, Amarinder Singh, and it was expected that the Congress would now work unitedly for the coming elections. But there has been new trouble brewing, in the form of PCC chief Navjot Singh Sidhu.
We are in a very good position in Punjab, we have a new CM and there is no anti-incumbency against him. All around there is love for Charanjit Singh Channi. The Congress has made history by making a Dalit from a poor family the CM of Punjab… Our PCC president is a high-profile man with a huge following among youngsters. People regard him as a protector of Punjab’s interests, and of certain values that the state loves. The combination is very formidable, of the PCC president and the CM. We will certainly make a comeback in Punjab.
MANOJ C G: What about Sidhu’s resignation as PCC chief?
Sidhu is governed by sentiments, and acts from his heart. There are certain issues that he as well as the Congress hold very dear. There may be some hiccups in dealing with issues, he raised the same, and swayed by sentiment, he tendered his resignation on Twitter. This is not the Congress tradition… Knowing his nature, we gave him time. The CM and he will thrash out whatever problems that remain.
MANOJ C G: Sidhu said he would not compromise on corruption. What did he mean by that?
Certainly there should be no compromise on corruption. The CM has made it very clear that his government will not compromise on corruption and other issues that are in the interest of Punjab. So both are on the same page.
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: You said that it is not Congress tradition to tweet one’s resignation. However, in the past six months, the Congress infighting has played out on social media. Sidhu especially has been regularly tweeting against the government.
Yes, it should not have happened, but Sidhu has developed his politics on an anti-incumbency platform and has been raising issues continuously… while the Akalis were in power, when he resigned from the BJP, and to press the urgency of tackling certain matters now. The style of functioning of Captain Amarinder Singh was different. However, MLAs have been anxious about the promises made in the 2017 Assembly elections that remain unfulfilled, in light of the coming elections, and they were virtually on the verge of revolting. Then the CM himself chose to resign, no one told him to do so.
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: So does the Congress condone the open criticism of own government by Sidhu?
I don’t think so. People understand and know well the style of functioning of Sidhu. He has been addressing issues dear to him since the beginning of his political career, even when he was in the BJP and the party was in power in alliance with the Akalis, issues such as corruption. When he joined the Congress, he initially kept silent on those issues, but when even after four years in power, Captain Amarinder Singh failed to deliver anything concrete on the Bargari (Guru Granth Sahib sacrilege case) and the drugs issue, or the power purchase agreements, Sidhu started raising his voice. I don’t approve of the PCC chief raising such issues in public, but we appointed Sidhu knowing his style of functioning. This has also indirectly helped the Congress because the people who were angry with the government have hopes of him now. It has (diluted) the anti-incumbency factor. The AAP, which was in a position to take advantage of these issues, could not do so.
… We called CM Amarinder Singh to Delhi and had a detailed discussion on issues. He was given an 18-point charter to fulfill. After several months, we called him again. But nothing was done on that charter. So I can’t blame Sidhu entirely….
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: So will Sidhu be the CM face of the Congress in the Punjab polls, or will the party contest under Channi’s leadership?
We have certain traditions, we will adhere to them. Both will lead in the polls, and after the elections, like it has always been the practice in the Congress, the newly elected MLAs will request the party president to select a CLP leader. This is a time-tested tradition of the Congress.
LIZ MATHEW: After Amarinder Singh quit, senior Congress leader and MP from Punjab Manish Tewari said in an interview to The Indian Express that the AICC leaders in-charge of the state had failed to appreciate how Singh had managed the political situation in the border state and its issues, or that he ran a stable government.
The Congress has always respected the mode of functioning of Amarinder Singh. That’s why he was there as CM for four-and-a-half years; no one raised any question. When his government failed to address the Bargari issue, and the court slammed the SIT report (on it), the MLAs, ministers became restless — it was not the high command. They started complaining, coming to Delhi… certain issues were raised in public, some ministers even offered to resign in the Cabinet. The Congress high command virtually yielded to the MLAs’ demand for a CLP meeting. How can any political party refuse to hear a sizeable number of its MLAs who are continuously pressing for a CLP meeting?… He (the CM) failed to meet the charter of points that was given. That’s why the change.
Manish Tewariji is a very senior leader of ours, very capable, intelligent. I have great affection for him. But he should understand the ground situation in Punjab. It is not just a matter of security, but also of continuance of a government. When the MLAs are revolting, the stability of the government is threatened… The honorable CM (Singh) had seldom called a CLP meeting, or addressed these issues with his MLAs.
LIZ MATHEW: Post his resignation, Amarinder Singh came to Delhi, and met Home Minister Amit Shah, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and also NSA Ajit Doval. How concerned is the Congress about Amarinder Singh’s future plans in Punjab?
Amarinder Singhji is a very senior leader and a man of certain principles. He has always stood by the secular values of the Congress and the people of Punjab. The BJP is a villain in the eyes of the people of Punjab, especially the farmers. He should have avoided meeting Mr Amit Shah, there was no requirement. It is not up to me to advise him what to do, but after that, when he started saying that he had been humiliated, I had to come out and say that was not true… He has forced us to go to this extent. Otherwise, he was one of the most important leaders of the Congress… We are not happy how the situation has developed, but there was no other way left. We gave him ample time — four-five months — to resolve issues, but he failed.
MANOJ C G: The CWC meeting was held Saturday. The leadership issue at the national level has not been settled yet. It has been over two years and the Congress does not have a full-time president. When does the party plan to resolve this?
For Congressmen, there is no difference between an acting president and a full-time president. Soniaji has been president for a long, long time… But these are challenging times. Everyone, including my friends from G-23, as you call them — I call them senior colleagues or respected colleagues — know well that Soniaji is a uniting factor in the party and everyone has confidence in her leadership. (G-23 refers to the group of 23 leaders of the Congress who wrote to Gandhi more than a year ago seeking sweeping changes in the party structure.)
As far as the CWC meeting is concerned, as a working committee member, I have a right to (approach) the Congress president, for that I need not go to the press. And when we elect (the party president), whom we elect, the framework is our prerogative, it’s the prerogative of the CWC as well as AICC.
MANOJ C G: Will Sonia Gandhi continue as interim president till the next general election?
There will be elections in states before the general election. I think the priority for the party should be winning these elections or consolidating in these states… There are bigger challenges before the party and nation and society at large — the issue of democratic values, of berozgari (unemployment), welfare schemes — which are not being addressed by the government … All these things are dear to the Congress. We should focus on these issues and on winning the elections in states where we are facing them (the BJP). But if the party feels there should be an election (for party president), we are ready for an election also.
We will discuss these things at the CWC. Instead of discussing these things in the media, we should meet the Congress president and discuss with her, that this is our view. Everything can be discussed at the CWC. We always have frank discussions at the CWC. So instead, when I read these things in the media, ajeeb lagta hai (it feels strange).
MANOJ C G: Recently, there was talk of Prashant Kishor joining the party. But two weeks ago, he put out a tweet on the Lakhimpur Kheri issue, where he raised doubts on the Congress’s revival. What is your sense?
Our membership is open. Anybody who is an Indian citizen and who has faith in certain values of the freedom movement and Congress party can become a member. So can Prashant Kishor. We are always open to new ideas. But the party cannot be mortgaged to a certain person or individual, however capable. We cannot say, ‘Baba, now you do some work on our behalf. We will stop working’. The Congress has a very democratic method of working… we all have different roles to play. If Prashant Kishor thinks he has an important role to play, he is always welcome. But he will abide by our constitution, tradition… There is a method in the Congress party and he has to come through that. He has to first become a member of the Congress and then, if there is a suitable position, task for him…
MANOJ C G: Kishor had a meeting with the Gandhis. So why is his entry still in limbo? Is the old guard in the party not enthusiastic about his entry?
I am not privy to his meeting with our party leaders. He should first come to the Congress as a worker and then, after everybody comes to know of his utility, the party will utilise his services, capabilities.
MANOJ C G: Mamata Banerjee is trying to expand her party’s footprint nationally and your leaders, Sushmita Dev in Assam and Luizinho Felerio in Goa, have joined the Trinamool Congress. What does this mean amidst talk of Opposition unity?
I have great respect and affection for Mamataji. She is a great fighter. We were together in the Youth Congress and Parliament for a long time. As a CM, she has evolved. The way she gave a fight to (Narendra) Modi and (Amit) Shah in the recent state elections, I have great respect for that. But in states like Goa etc, her eagerness to take away leaders from the Congress is weakening the democratic forces which are opposed to the BJP. She should understand that in states where her party has no presence, she should not, during election time, take away leaders from the Congress by giving him or her some position. This will not help democratic forces and Opposition unity in fighting the BJP. This is my personal view; the party has not made its position clear on this issue.
MANOJ C G: What is wrong in trying to expand nationally? Does the Congress feel threatened by the TMC?
In elections, each and every vote and worker matters. It’s alright to expand your party, it’s alright, but the timing is not proper. During elections, if you poach from Congress ranks and give them certain positions in the party…
KAMALDEEP SINGH BRAR: There is an impression that the Congress high command is still soft on Amarinder Singh. But there are also allegations of Amarinder Singh playing the BJP’s politics in Punjab.
Captain Amarinder Singh is a very senior leader of the Congress… He was our CM for more than nine years (in total). That’s enough to say that the Congress has great respect and affection for Captain Amarinder Singh and his capabilities. In a state like Punjab, you always need a person of secular values — that was the strength of Captain Amarinder Singh. That is why the party placed a great deal of trust in him despite whispers that he was soft towards the BJP and Akalis. In fact, people used to call his government Akali 2. But we never thought that he would join hands with… on certain matters, maybe he took a certain position because the Congress is a democratic party, and we love our internal democracy that allows each one of us to speak out… Which is why, despite MLAs complaining against him, we gave him a long rope to resolve internal issues. But ultimately, a day comes when party has to think of all the issues and we had to call the CLP meeting… He then tendered his resignation. It was his decision. Till the end, we gave him a chance to resolve the issues within the party.
So till the time we feel that Amarinder Singh is a useful man for the Congress and Punjab, we will accommodate him. But it is for him to decide. If he decides to go the Amit Shah way, he can. We are not going to stop him. But we will feel hurt that a person who was so close to the party for so many years has gone the wrong way.
LALMANI VERMA: You said the party’s tradition is that the CLP decides the CM. But in the context of Uttarakhand, you recently said the party should have a CM face ahead of the elections.
I didn’t say this only for Uttarakhand. I had said that state issues should be fought at the level of the state. What is happening now is that even for a municipal election, the BJP uses Modi’s name. What happens then is that real grass-root issues, state-level issues, don’t get highlighted. That is why I said the Congress should make an amendment to our policy of choosing the CM after the election. We should make it clear before the election that this is our leader for the state. But that is a different issue. Right now, I only made our existing policy clear.
LALMANI VERMA: But despite your suggestion, the high command hasn’t named a CM candidate for Uttarakhand. A section in the party is projecting your name for CM.
Dulhan wahi jo piya man bhaye (It’s up to the people to choose). I can’t do anything here. Nobody can do anything about it. When you go to the people, you have to get involved with their issues, you have to talk to them. Since I have been CM before, I tell them what we have done in the past and will do in the future. It’s my natural duty to do so.