Congress Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh on why he chose to write about Indira Gandhi and Nehru, and the reason NDA govt’s NPR is different from UPA’s; says there is no vacancy for Cong president as of now, and warns against the lack of political outreach in Kashmir
MANOJ C G: Before your recent book on V K Krishna Menon, you authored a book on Indira Gandhi and P N Haksar. Why are you resurrecting these characters from the past at a time when the Congress should be looking ahead?
Well, they are very consequential personalities, they had a profound influence on the course of Indian history in the ’50s, ’60s, and because of Krishna Menon, going back to the ’30s. Also, Mr P N Haksar (former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary) and Mr Krishna Menon, and certainly Indira Gandhi, left behind huge amounts of primary material, which are available in the archives and were waiting to be excavated, waiting to be written about. These are very important personalities, very colourful in their own right, very controversial. By no means are they inconsequential people and certainly not forgotten.
MANOJ C G: What can the present Congress learn from the past?
One of the things that struck me was how the Congress parliamentary party would meet. (In one meeting) Mahavir Tyagi gets up in the meeting at Central Hall and tells Pandit Nehru on November 6, 1962, ‘Panditji agar ap ye istifa nahin sweekarte hain toh aapko hee jaana padega (If you don’t accept the resignation, you will have to go)’… In one of the selected works of Nehru there is a wonderful two-page letter that Tyagi writes to him saying, ‘Panditji what are you doing? Why are you making your daughter president of the Congress party?’ Nehru sent him a two-page reply. It was an extraordinary exchange… It’s remarkable. The parliamentary party meetings were raucous affairs where people were shouting, people were raising all sorts of questions, people were disagreeing with Mr Nehru. It was not as if he was having an easy path within the Congress party. Well, that’s one lesson certainly that the Congress party can learn.
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We have to revive the culture of internal debate. A difference of opinion does not mean you are against the person. Nehru had his critics, adversaries and opponents, but he did not have enemies. That’s what we have to learn both within the party as well as in the overall political environment, which has become very toxic.
MANOJ C G: Why have such frank discussions vanished now?
It has literally vanished… Last time the Congress party had a vigorous debate was when Manmohan Singh presented his budget. It was in July 1991. There was tremendous criticism. Narasimha Rao thought that the best way to defuse the situation was for the MPs to congregate in the Central Hall. Over 350 MPs gathered and everyone berated Manmohan Singh’s budget. There were only two people who supported it. One was Nathuram Mirdha, and you will be surprised to know that the second was Mani Shankar Aiyar. For three days, the Congress parliamentary party ripped the budget apart, the historic 1991 budget. At the end of three days, the budget was passed. The only change was that the fertiliser price hike was rolled back; that was the concession that Manmohan Singh had to make. That culture of debate has vanished in not just the Congress party but in all political parties.
MANOJ C G: Is it because of the overbearing presence of the family?
Do you find anyone criticising Mr Modi in his party, or (Naveen) Patnaik in the BJD or anyone talking back to Sukhbir (Badal, president, Shiromani Akali Dal)? If you raise some questions, motives are attributed. If I say something critical of the Congress, the immediate reaction will be that he is headed for the departure lounge, that he is going to join the BJP. Paradoxically, the only party in which the culture of internal debate and discussion is alive is the CPI(M). They have this great culture which none of the mainstream parties do. There is no debate at all in the BSP. At least in the Congress party we have meetings, different points of view. We need to now go back to the internal debates that we had earlier.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Do you think the Congress is making enough noise about the economy or the Citizenship (Amendment) Act?
The mantle of the Opposition seems to have been taken over by university students. Three years ago, Congress walked out when the CAB was introduced and debated in the Lok Sabha. But subsequently, our view was crystallised, there was a group formed by the Congress president, of which I was a member. We went to the Northeast and firmed up our position after discussing the issue with our colleagues. It was a firm position. We spoke against the CAB in the Lok Sabha and voted against it; we didn’t walk out. That’s the important thing. We voted against the Bill in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. And we lost, the numbers were against us. Two days after the Bill was gazetted, I filed a petition in the Supreme Court. It’s going to be heard on January 22. These are the two things we could do within the confines of the Constitution.
I think the protests you are seeing, it would be wise for the Congress not to be seen to be orchestrating them. These are spontaneous expressions of anger, frustration, fear… I think one should recognise that there is a space for spontaneous protests by ordinary citizens, students and political parties, but on an issue like the CAA there is a dangerous potential for it to be exploited by Mr Modi and Mr Amit Shah — to convert a genuine issue into an issue of communal polarisation. You are already seeing this happen in different parts of the country, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. So, we need to be careful, (the reaction) is going to be nuanced.
Also, people are frustrated as things are not moving the way they were claimed to be moving. There is an economic link to it. There is a disenchantment with Mr Modi. As a historian, I always draw a parallel… Indira Gandhi won a two-thirds majority in 1971. But in 1973, things were beginning to unravel with the oil price hike, double-digit inflation etc. It took two-and-a-half years for things to unravel. In the case of Modi 2.0, it has begun to unravel in less than a year, in six-seven months. I think, perhaps, we underestimated the degree of unravelling. Removal of Article 370, the CAA, the NRC, on top of an economy that is literally moribund…
LIZ MATHEW: But why is the Congress not in control of the narrative? It only seems to be reacting to what the government is doing.
The BJP is the party in power, it controls the government’s agenda. In a way, it is inevitable for any political party, big or small, to be reacting to what the government in power is doing. Earlier, the people were reacting to what the Congress was doing during its long years in power, and now the people are reacting to what the BJP is doing.
But the (agenda) on the economy is certainly not being set by the government…The Congress has been very much at the forefront, not only here (in Delhi), not just in Parliament, but also in different states. So, I don’t see what gives you the idea that the Congress is sleeping on the economy. But certainly, the CAA, NRC, Article 370, these were not issues that the Congress brought up. The BJP brought up these issues, and so we have to react to it.
LIZ MATHEW: But we have how it was when the BJP in the Opposition…
The BJP has been genetically programmed to be an opposition party, like the Congress was genetically programmed to be the party of governance. There is no doubt about it. Now, we have to learn to be in the opposition… If you spoke to any Congress leader, they would say give me a draft. That comes after being a minister for years. So the spontaneity gets lost with being in government for long years. I am sure this is going to happen with the BJP also, if they are going to be in power for a long period. That is the nature of power.
VANDITA MISHRA: Is this the culture of entitlement the Congress has, even when they are not in power?
Any party that remains in power for long will inevitably get a certain sense of entitlement. Any party. Do you think the BJP doesn’t have the culture of entitlement? It is obvious, power tends to give you certain conveniences, which you have to make do without when you are not in power. (While out of power) you tend to think more on your feet. You end up being a little more spontaneous. I am beginning to see this (entitlement) in many of my friends in the BJP in their second term.
AAKASH JOSHI: The Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat spoke about the anti-CAA protests. What is your view on his remarks?
…I think there’s a Lakshman rekha there. Just as politicians should be careful about weighing in on matters of military strategy — this is the great lesson of the 1962 war, that military decisions are military decisions — issues that are political in nature, which go beyond the confines of military matters, are best left to politicians. I don’t think Generals should wade into this. But General Rawat, I am sorry to say, has on more than one occasion expressed his views, which I am sure everybody is entitled to in private, but he has spoken out in public. It gives the impression that the line between what is clearly military and what is political is getting blurred. I hope that doesn’t happen. I think Chidambaram said it best — he’s wading into issues which are not his core competence.
HARISH DAMODARAN: But it is also true that P Chidambaram was a hawk when it came to issues such as the National Population Register (NPR)? He was very clear that one needs citizenship, that everybody has to be identified.
The NPR was never envisaged as an instrument for determining citizenship. The NPR was envisaged by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, who was reporting to Mr Chidambaram, as an alternative instrument for determining identity… When were your parents born? Who are your parents? What are these (new) questions meant for? Determining citizenship. And, what was the NPR earlier? The NPR was, have you been living in this place for six months, and will you be living here six months later. That was the only purpose of the NPR. Mr Amit Shah’s NPR bears no resemblance to Mr Chidambaram’s NPR.
MANOJ C G: Both Mamata Banerjee and Pinarayi Vijayan have said that they won’t allow NPR in their states. Why aren’t Congress governments stopping the exercise?
Well, that’s a tricky issue. Citizenship comes under the Central list of the Constitution. It’s interesting. When the land acquisition law was passed by Parliament in 2013, Mr (Arun) Jaitley actively encouraged states to pass legislation to override the law passed by Parliament. Now, Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad says no state government can pass laws overriding the Parliament law… Strictly speaking, that’s not true because, in the last five years, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana have all passed laws overriding the 2013 land acquisition act (LAA). Now the difference is this: LAA is a concurrent subject. Article 254 (2) says that on matters in the concurrent list the state government can pass a resolution… I am not so sure whether state governments saying that we will not implement CAA will stand judicial scrutiny. I know that the Kerala government has passed a resolution but it’s a political resolution. Whether it will stand the test of judicial scrutiny, I am not 100 per cent sure.
The NPR is an executive action. You are sending out state government employees to gather the information. Now the state governments can say that we will not depute our officials, teachers, local revenue officials… The state government can say that we will not have NPR in our state. I’m not 100 per cent sure what the legality is… CAA is a clear violation of certain articles of the Constitution. Constitutionally that is very clear. But whether a state Assembly passing a resolution negating CAA will pass constitutional scrutiny, I’m not sure.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: One of the responses of the BJP to the Congress on every issue has been that your party has done the same, whether it is the NRC or revoking Article 370. If the Congress were to come back to power, would you bring back Article 370?
The party’s official position is that we stand against the abrogation of Article 370... Also, we were against demonetisation per se but weren’t against the GST. We were only against the manner in which it was designed and implemented. Similarly on Article 370, the view of the Congress party was articulated in the working committee as well. The Congress as a party doesn’t support the abrogation of Article 370, but individuals can have their views. But once a decision is taken, you go along with it and that’s what happened with Article 370. I don’t see that as a sign of weakness in a party.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: But what is your view on chief ministers of J&K, and former MPs being kept in jail for the past six months?
It’s atrocious. I mean not only have they (the Abdullahs) been CM multiple times, they have also been allies of the BJP.
Mr Omar Abdullah was minister of state for commerce, minister of state for external affairs… Mr A S Dulat (former R&AW chief) has said in his book that Atal Bihari Vajpayee was thinking of offering the vice-presidency to Dr Farooq Abdullah. Mehbooba Mufti was in alliance with this government… They (the BJP) have completely choked and clogged up the political process and, frankly, it’s learning by doing. They don’t have a game-plan except bludgeoning people into submission.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: So what do you think is going to happen there?
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know a lot of my friends, officers who have worked with me, who are going every other day to Jammu as a part of some delegation or the other, and have told me privately that we are doing what a politician should be doing. You don’t need a bureaucratic outreach, what you need is a political outreach, which is completely dead.
RAVISH TIWARI: After the general election defeat last year, Rahul Gandhi resigned and since then there has been a churning within the party. Is there a scope of a non-Gandhi ever leading the Congress party?
We work for whoever is the Congress president. Mr Rahul Gandhi resigned on a matter of principle, no doubt about it, and I think that was an admirable stand. I was not part of the process that led to the re-emergence of Mrs Gandhi as the Congress president. I see her as an interim full-time president, and there’s no vacancy as of now. People can hope… I am not his (Rahul Gandhi’s) conscience keeper or gatekeeper or advisor, and so I am not privy to what he wants or doesn’t want. All I know is that he took a decision after the election results, which I think was a very brave. Now I am watching how the Labour Party (in the UK) is dealing with the transition with a great deal of angst… That should answer your question.
MANOJ C G: Are the Gandhis a stumbling block in Congress revival?
No. If you look around the Congress party you will find a large number of people who carry a lot of credibility. But yes, we are not being able to match up to people’s expectations. There’s a gap between people’s expectations from us and our capacity to deliver on those expectations. I think that’s very clear. Without getting into individual A or individual B, I think wherever I go, people are asking me when is the Congress going to get its act together. I think India has changed, people’s expectations, aspirations have changed… It’s a post-’91 India, and I think the sooner we recognise this, the better it is for us.
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