In this Idea Exchange moderated by Assistant Editor Manoj C G, senior Congress leader Kumari Selja lays blame solely at Hooda’s door for the defeat in Haryana, insists Cong has nothing to learn from how BJP fought, and asks where is the illegality in Vadra deals
MANOJ CG: The Congress only got 15 seats in the Haryana Assembly polls. Did you expect such a big defeat?
Kumari Selja: No, certainly not to this extent. We thought it would be a triangular contest, with the result that all the three main parties would be within a few seats of each other.
COOMI KAPOOR: You are a Dalit leader. It seems even Dalits voted for the BJP in this election.
Kumari Selja: One can’t generalise and say that Dalits will vote for a Dalit. This has been a mixed result. There were three major parties and the votes were divided. The BJP was untried, the Congress was obviously a party for all communities, unlike the regional party Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) which identifies with a particular caste. So the vote was divided.
COOMI KAPOOR: But you yourself, as a Dalit, didn’t campaign much.
Kumari Selja: I did campaign. I went to 12-13 constituencies. To say that as a Dalit I didn’t campaign… I don’t know what that means.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: What was the single biggest factor that led to the party’s defeat?
Kumari Selja: There can’t be one single factor. If we look within our party and not talk about extraneous issues, then we’ll see a lot of shortcomings. We were in power for 10 years, but things did not go the way they should have. As a result, many leaders left the party. Our workers were disillusioned. To get voters to the ballot machine, we need an army of motivated workers. But unfortunately, they weren’t being taken care of. People did not feel involved. Everybody worked together to bring the party to power, but didn’t feel as involved when we were in power.
RAJ KAMAL JHA: How big a factor was Narendra Modi?
Kumari Selja: He was a factor in as much that the BJP had come to power on its own at the Centre and the media had spoken about the ‘Modi factor’. They decided to go it alone, and showed their confidence. This was a factor; they posed as an alternative, which they hadn’t done earlier. They didn’t project any state or local leader, Modi’s face was there as the Prime Minister.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: How much did the lack of strong leadership within the Congress matter when you say there was resentment among workers? Why did the Congress leadership not intervene? Does this make Modi a larger person in terms of the decisions he takes?
Kumari Selja: Modi is a very recent phenomenon, barely a few months old. Our party has been there for decades and the BJP didn’t have much of a presence then. Modi was just one illusory factor at that point in the Lok Sabha. And the Vidhan Sabha came soon after. They didn’t have much on the ground. On the ground, it was either the Congress or INLD. They were testing and they found the ground ripe and took a gamble and it paid off. The Congress has always encompassed all social groups within itself, but in the last few years, some social groups probably felt alienated along with the workers and leaders.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Was the leadership found wanting?
Kumari Selja: Yes, we had raised it within the party and outside that the state leadership has to carry all along. But this did not happen and we saw an exodus of leaders.
RAJ KAMAL JHA: Who should have made it happen?
Kumari Selja: The chief minister himself. He should have carried people along.
MANOJ CG: Why didn’t the central leadership intervene?
Kumari Selja: Once our democratic leadership nominates someone to a post, they give him a free hand, and not interfere in daily work.
RAKESH SINHA: After every defeat, Congress workers ask for Priyanka Gandhi to actively join politics.
Kumari Selja: This family has led us for so long, made sacrifices for the party and the country. Their leadership means everything to us. The decision lies with the family. If Priyanka wishes to come, the party will welcome her with open arms, but if she decides to confine herself to Amethi and Rae Bareli, that is again their decision.
COOMI KAPOOR: Bhupinder Singh Hooda had said that Haryana had become number one in economic growth. Why did the voter not feel that way?
Kumari Selja: In the Lok Sabha elections, we lost nine seats in Haryana and won only one, which was his own, then his son’s. And even now, the Vidhan Sabha results have shown that out of 15, 10 have come from his sphere of influence, Rohtak. The people have spoken. But you see what a drought there has been in other districts. In five parliamentary constituencies, we didn’t get even a single seat. Fifty-six of your candidates come third, fourth or fifth… what does it show? People have spoken. Whenever we said anything, they would say, ‘They have some grudge or axe to grind’. We were simply speaking for the people, our workers and our region. That was not paid heed to, and the results are there for everyone to see.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Should not the onus of acting against Hooda also rest with the party leadership?
Kumari Selja: Are we to assume that Hooda was not running the state? A chief minister is a chief minister. Once you are appointed, it is your responsibility to make sure there is equitable growth, make sure people do not feel left out, ensure workers feel involved — these are not things for the high command to take care of.
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: You spoke of the sacrifice of this family, and the family has repeatedly spoken of it too. The past several elections have shown that the voters don’t seem to be connecting with this theme. Is there a thought after these repeated defeats that maybe you should pitch yourself differently to a country whose demographic has changed significantly?
Kumari Selja: There is no doubt that we have to reinvent ourselves. And I don’t think we can hold the leadership responsible. We have to think at every level — grassroots, state, national. Other leaders too have to pitch in, counsel, go to the field and work. It can’t just be Rahul or Sonia Gandhi going to rallies and getting the votes. What are we people doing? They have to inspire us, and they continue to.
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: Would the results have been different had Rahul and Sonia campaigned more actively, addressed more rallies, travelled more?
Kumari Selja: They have done their bit. What about our work? There are problems in the state, what can they do?
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: The PM addressed 27 rallies in the state.
Kumari Selja: They didn’t have anyone else. They didn’t have any leadership in the state. He had to be a prime minister, be like a chief minister and a local leader too.
RAJ KAMAL JHA: Why are you distancing the party leadership from the defeat?
Kumari Selja: They have to inspire us, ultimately we are the foot-soldiers.
RAJ KAMAL JHA: So, Sonia and Rahul are not responsible for the defeat?
Kumari Selja: They are not.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: How much were the Vadra land deals a factor in Haryana?
Kumari Selja: People keep talking about the Vadra land deals again and again. I don’t know if there’s anything illegal in them. I don’t think till now anyone has ever said that anything was illegal about those transactions. If a businessman chooses to buy some land, just because he belongs to a certain family, why do you want to hold him guilty for doing his business? Where was the issue of corruption here?
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Have you met Mrs Gandhi or Rahul after the Haryana election results?
Kumari Selja: Not yet.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: So if you were to meet them, what would you tell them? Apart from Hooda, what were the other factors that led to the loss?
Kumari Selja: This has to be looked at in greater depth. There are many factors, not just one. And each has to be gone into very seriously. Because to come up from the third position will require a lot of hard work and concerted effort on everybody’s part.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Would this mean more involvement of the central leadership in state affairs?
Kumari Selja: Yes, to the point that correct decisions have to be taken. A lot more people have to become involved in decision-making.
AMRITH LAL: The Antony panel looked into the reasons for the Lok Sabha defeat. Were the findings shared with the rest of the party?
Kumari Selja: They met a large number of people across the country. A report was filed and given to the leadership. That was the purpose. I don’t think at any point it was said that the findings would be discussed in the party.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Why is it that in the Congress, whenever there is a loss, the leadership is completely shielded, and whenever there is a victory, the leadership is extolled?
Kumari Selja: That is your comment. It’s the media’s comment. This is the way the party functions; it’s not insulating the leadership. The leadership is very involved in every decision, they are the ones who guide us and inspire us, there’s no question of insulating them. If we suffer any setbacks, we have to overcome them, who else will? We all have to overcome these with guidance from the leadership.
AJAY SHANKAR: What is your response to the slogan ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’?
Kumari Selja: They have nothing else to say or give to the people, so they come up with slogans. But one thing I can say for sure, the country’s history and the party’s history are so closely intertwined that you can never have this kind of wishful thinking. The Congress is in the hearts of the people. It lives in the villages. You go to any village or mohalla, and ask who is a Congressi and people will tell you they’ve supported the party for generations. The youth is with the Congress, the older people are with the Congress. We have all received setbacks, electoral setbacks, but not in terms of ideology. The Congress ideology is in everybody’s heart; you cannot take away a person’s heart from their body, then they’ll be soulless. The country would be soulless without the Congress.
SEEMA CHISHTI: What is the one thing you’ve learned from the BJP? What have they got right about India, given the enormous mandate they’ve won?
Kumari Selja: Without wishing to sound arrogant, the Congress and BJP are on two different planks, with two completely different ideologies. Ours is a completely secular ideology. We take everyone along, we talk about the poor, we talk about the development of every segment. The BJP has a different ideology, we cannot take anything from them. Rather, we wish they would take from us.
SEEMA CHISHTI: Not in terms of their ideas, but in terms of how they conducted the elections?
Kumari Selja: Our major handicap was that we were in power for 10 years. Perhaps people wanted to see something new. After 10 years, people do want a change, specially younger people. Those who are 18 today would have been eight when we came in, those who are 20 would have been 10. What does a 10-year-old child know? But at 20, he’ll have his own idea about things. And how will he remember today how things were 10 years ago? So he might say, ‘OK, maybe that will be better than this now’.
ABHISHEK ANGAD*: For the BJP, it’s Modi now, as they’re projecting him. For the Congress, who’s the glue?
Kumari Selja: Our glue is the leadership, our ideology, our workers. Please don’t forget that every time we’ve gone out of power, we’ve also come back on the strength of our leadership, ideology and workers. You have seen in Rajasthan recently. We were decimated there. A few months down the line, we won three out of four seats in the by-elections. Something went right after going horribly wrong. People looked back and they realised that the Congress was not so bad; they saw the new regime and decided that maybe what the Congress represents is better.
RAKESH SINHA: First Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, then Mahatma Gandhi, now Jawaharlal Nehru. The BJP leaders seem to be embracing all the Congress icons.
Kumari Selja: That’s because they have nothing of their own. They have no history, no contribution in the freedom struggle of their own. So they just poach. But we are very happy and proud that they are poaching our leaders. And, correct me if I’m wrong because I’ve only heard this and not read it myself, I’m also glad to see that perhaps Mr Modi is now planning to do something on Pandit Nehru’s birthday. So is it a tacit admission that the Congress has contributed to building this nation and everything the Congress has done is not wrong? He will have to admit it one day. Today it’s tacit, some day it will be open.
RAKESH SINHA: But no member of the Gandhi family has found place in the committee that has been reconstituted for Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary celebrations.
Kumari Selja: That reflects their way of thinking.
Transcribed by Shantanu David & Suyash Gabriel *EXIMS student