Victory in three Hindi heartland states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — has given the Congress a fresh boost before the general elections. Appointed Rajasthan state Congress president in 2014 — following which his party was defeated both in the Lok Sabha and state polls — Sachin Pilot steered the Congress to victory in bypolls to two seats in early 2018. After winning the state in December last year, Pilot, who has also held the post of Union minister in the UPA government, was appointed the Deputy Chief Minister of Rajasthan, losing the CM’s post to veteran leader Ashok Gehlot.
Sachin Pilot says the decision to make him Rajasthan Deputy CM was collective, is optimistic that a ‘solid’ Opposition led by Congress will defeat BJP in Lok Sabha polls, says loan waivers not the solution but a ‘semblance of support’ for farmers, defends Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits, and calls 10 per cent quota pre-poll jumla.
SACHIN PILOT: The fact that the Congress has won three states in the Hindi-speaking belt is a sign of things to come. Winning Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh tells you that, in a bipolar contest, the Congress has the wherewithal and bandwidth to defeat the BJP, in areas where it considers itself very strong. In Rajasthan, Mr Modi, Mr Amit Shah and an entire army of ministers and chief ministers camped in the state for 10 days and did everything under the sun… Yogi Adityanath did a very, very exhaustive touring of Rajasthan, where he spoke about Ali and Bajrang Bali. The amount of political capital the BJP burnt in Rajasthan was phenomenal. Despite that we got a clear mandate. We will see a reflection of these polls in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Things are changing very fast. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are very crucial for any government formation. The signs emerging from these parts are not very positive for the BJP. Whenever elections happen, and I suspect they will happen sooner than people expect, the entire Opposition will come together. The BJP is banking on the leadership issue in the UPA and the Opposition, but it is a non-issue… Mr Modi and his government have realised that the politics of beef ban, cow vigilantism, mandir-masjid, love jihad, ghar wapasi, all of that is not paying dividends. And so they have now thrown in this last-minute jumla of reservation…
It will be an interesting election and I am confident that given where we are today, and given how the Congress has formed governments in three states… it will be a keenly fought election. It will be an election where people will speak out against the non-delivery on the very expectations that the BJP had raised — investments, job creation, minimum government, maximum governance.
I am very confident that 2019 will be decisive, and the UPA-plus-plus — our alliance is getting stronger and stronger, a rainbow coalition is in the making — we will be able to surmount a formidable challenge and defeat the BJP.
MANOJ C G: You worked in Rajasthan for five years as the PCC chief. What do you make of your party appointing Ashok Gehlot and not you as the CM?
I was 26 years old when the party gave me a ticket to fight a parliamentary election. At 31, I became a Union minister. At 35, I was made the PCC president of a very large state. Every time there has been a challenge, the party has considered me fit enough to take it on. But one person cannot swing an election, it has to be a collaborative effort. We started with 21 MLAs in a 200-member Assembly… We built the party brick-by-brick.
After winning the election, all the MLAs sat down and said the decision of the parliamentary party leader should be left to the Congress president. After that, Mr (Rahul) Gandhi consulted a lot of leaders, including me. The Congress president decided that Mr Ashok Gehlot should be made the Chief Minister of Rajasthan. I was part of that decision-making. This is what the party thinks is best for now. We have all decided to work together because we have the Lok Sabha elections in less than two-and-a-half months…
After forming the government, we are working very quickly. Within two weeks, we have taken important decisions, including that of loan waiver. Loan waiver itself is not a solution, but it’s a platform that helps the farmer get a clean start.
SANDEEP SINGH: According to a ratings agency report, Rajasthan does not have the fiscal space to accommodate loan waivers worth Rs 18,000 crore.
It is not easy to generate resources for something like this, but it is vital… What we are going to do in the next fiscal year is to generate more resources, expand the revenue base, and figure out ways to generate this money. It’s important to give that semblance of support (to farmers). It’s not just about money. The farmer should not lose hope, because that is when they resort to steps such as killing themselves.
Yes, the fiscal situation is not healthy. We had a review meeting in the first Cabinet sitting. In 2014, when the Vasundhara Raje government was formed, the total debt in Rajasthan was Rs 1,30,000 crore. Today it is Rs 3,20,000 crore. So, in five years, it has more than doubled… Vasundharaji has been claiming that she got Rajasthan out of BIMARU status, but the NITI Aayog contradicts this data.
SANDEEP SINGH: What is your view on the economics of loan waivers? In the larger picture, is it a good measure?
When the economy was growing at 8 per cent (under the UPA), Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi waived off Rs 72,000 crore worth of loans for small, marginal farmers. They did not see which state was ruled by which party, it was a pan-India move. Now, when the Uttar Pradesh government does it, or Maharashtra does it, Mr Modi sees nothing wrong. When we do it, they call it jumla…
The fact is, loan waivers are not the answer to farmers’ distress in totality. But at a time when they are being forced to take their lives, you have to reach out and give an assurance. That is what we have done.
LALMANI VERMA: You said that the Opposition is coming together and that UP is an important state. But the Samajwadi Party and BSP have sealed an alliance, and so far the Congress and RLD don’t seem to be a part of it.
We have an alliance in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh… barring a couple of states, the whole country has come together to oppose the present dispensation. It is not for the Congress or Mr Gandhi, it is for saving institutions, which are being degraded every day. The removal of the CBI chief is another example… It is to save the country from the kind of atmosphere that we see today, the acrimony and hatred (that parties are coming together)….
As far as alliances go, the nation is more important than a party or a state. Every party has to make a little compromise so that national interest continues to be pivotal to our objectives. The only party that can take on the BJP politically, and defeat it, is the Congress. That is very clear. Regional parties have an important role to play in the states. The rainbow coalition will come about. When Mrs Gandhi called a meeting last year, 19 parties attended it. Now there is an understanding that the Congress has to play an integral part and everybody else has to come about and lead the party to victory in the general elections.
LALMANI VERMA: Will the Congress join the alliance in UP, or will it prefer to contest separately?
We understand the realities in UP. We have all authorised the Congress president to take the final view on pre-poll and post-poll alliances. The Working Committee met a few months ago and we authorised him to take the final view. He has formed a small committee that is talking to all parties, including some in UP. Nationally, barring one or two states, it is pretty much in place how we will fight elections together. There is now an understanding in the Opposition parties. The amount of interaction Mr Gandhi has had with Mr (Sharad) Pawar (NCP chief), Mr (Chandrababu) Naidu (Andhra CM, TDP chief)… things are taking a very solid shape.
RAVISH TIWARI: Earlier, the Congress took a conscious call and appointed a young party president. In you, a young person was appointed the Rajasthan PCC chief. In Madhya Pradesh, a young leader’s face appeared everywhere on campaign posters. There was a concerted attempt towards a generational change in leadership. But somehow, it seems, the party became reluctant in the last mile.
See, everything is not dependent on one position. You must understand the space the Congress has created in its leadership for, let’s say, my generation, as AICC secretaries, general secretaries, in-charges, PCC presidents… Today I am the Deputy CM of Rajasthan. See, change is inevitable and it is happening constantly. But you can’t judge a party’s position based on one post, or one state. If you look at how the party has functioned since Mr Gandhi has taken over, there is constant change. In Rajasthan, our youngest MLA is 25-and-a-half years old. There are about 37-38 MLAs who are under 45 years of age, or even 40.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: We saw Rahul Gandhi visit several temples during the campaign. There was talk about him being a janeyu-dhari Brahmin. Why did the Congress feel the need to do this?
This discourse that we have had in the past five years… I had never heard the term ‘mob lynching’ five years ago. Or terms such as ‘cow vigilantism’. Mr Gandhi has not become Hindu today. He has been a Hindu since he was born. But the fact that there are discussions about which church, gurdwara, gotra… who is wearing janeyu… The discussions on TV channels, press conferences of BJP leaders, they are all focused on gotra, jaati, dharm… That is the narrative the BJP wants to build. I don’t think the Congress has changed its stand at all. We are a secular republic, and there is no need for anyone to prove how religious they are. All this is being planted very systematically in the media so that you don’t ask about farmer suicides, rising prices of pulses and petrol, where are the jobs, about demonetisation, black money etc… In Rajasthan, there is a new debate, on Bajrang Bali’s caste. This is not the conversation we should be having…
If Rahul Gandhi goes to temples, why does it trouble the BJP? He is free to go, why shouldn’t he go? During campaigning in Rajasthan, when we came across a temple, mosque or gurdwara, we would visit it for blessings. It wasn’t a deliberate attempt, but there is no harm in seeking blessings.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Following the elections in Rajasthan, there was talk about you asserting yourself, positioning yourself as the CM. To what extent has the decision to not appoint you chief minister affected the morale of the youngsters in the party?
I have got a leadership position. I have never positioned myself as anybody. I am still party president in the state, and my job now is to win Lok Sabha seats. It came out in the media, but there wasn’t any case of asserting myself.
As far as young people go, if you look at our Cabinet, of the 23 ministers, 18 are first-timers. It shows that the Congress is willing to take the risk of letting younger people govern. This is also true for Madhya Pradesh.
RAVISH TIWARI: In an interview, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot spoke about how leaders should be patient, wait for their time, suggesting that perhaps Sachin Pilot was a man in a hurry.
Ashok Gehlotji is 28 years older than me. Whatever he says, I accept it with humility. He has all the freedom to say whatever he wants, he is 28 years older.
RAHUL TRIPATHI: There has been a lot of debate around EVMs and VVPATs. Now that you have won in three states, have those concerns been put to rest?
Winning and losing are one part of it. The Election Commission told us that there have been errors in only 0.5 per cent of the cases. But every vote is important. The EC is duty-bound to ensure that no voter feels that his/her vote can be misused, aborted or duplicated. I don’t think the EC has done enough. VVPAT is a good solution, but it is not implementable across the board.
AAKASH JOSHI: On the 10 per cent reservation, is the Congress party okay with this, given that Constitutionally reservation is for the socially backward and not the economically backward?
Our manifesto in 2009 and 2014 says it. In 1998, the Congress party’s Rajasthan manifesto advocated 14 per cent reservation for the economically backward forward communities. For the BJP, if they had to do it, June 2014 was the appropriate time. But now, suddenly, after the state elections, this has come about. Article 343 says that socially and educationally backward classes qualify for reservation. Reservation is not a poverty alleviation programme. We believe that anybody who belongs to a forward community and is not well-off, he should not be deprived of benefits.
However, there has been no debate, there is no data, there is no analysis. They have just chosen the 10 per cent figure. Why not 9 or 11? It has been done non-scientifically, with elections in mind, but because in principle they have said what we said in our manifesto, we have supported it. Jobs are hard to come by… there are elections in a few months… It’s all a jumla.
RAVISH TIWARI: Do you have a vision to ensure job creation in Rajasthan?
My biggest concern is jobs. We really underestimate the anger of the people about losing jobs. In Rajasthan, four young boys committed suicide in Alwar because they couldn’t find jobs. If young people are going to lose hope in the future, what are we fighting elections for? It’s not about reservation, or government jobs, it is about creating an economy that can sustain a huge population of young people. We need to get investment. Now we hear of mob lynching, cow vigilantism; who will come and invest?
MUZAMIL JALEEL: You said in the run up to the Assembly elections there were polarisation efforts; you called it diversionary tactics. Now that we are heading towards the general elections, what do you think would be the BJP’s tactics?
The BJP has a good cop, bad cop strategy. There are few leaders who will keep making statements. They are not fringe leaders. MPs, MLAs and ministers make these statements so that the polarisation pot is always simmering. But I think it is too late for them (the BJP) now. No matter what they do, people are going to ask questions. People will show you your old speeches on social media and question you.
Mr Rahul Gandhi is making the government accountable. Today, the tone, tenor and narrative is about why haven’t you done this. They (the BJP) are on the back foot, defending themselves on questions which they thought would never be asked, both inside and outside Parliament.
It also tells you how far the Congress party has travelled from 2014 to now. Rahulji is aggressively asking questions now, and it is making a lot of people uncomfortable. And not just Congress workers, but also workers of our allies, are energised when the powerful government of the day is made uncomfortable.