Why Anand Sharma
The BJP’s move to shift the narrative to national security post the Pulwama terror attack and the aerial strikes in Balakot, has forced the Congress to go back to the drawing board — despite the early momentum it got in the form of electoral successes in the Assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Congress Working Committee member and former Union minister Anand Sharma says the party is working on bringing the focus back to “real issues” such as unemployment and agrarian distress. As head of the Congress’s publicity committee, Sharma is also devising the party’s digital strategy.
Senior Congress leader and Deputy Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Anand Sharma, talks about the challenge of catching up with the “well-funded” BJP’s digital campaign, accuses the Centre of deflecting discussion on real issues, calls PM Modi “clueless” on terror and Pakistan and says the Congress won’t cede seats to Opposition parties in states where there is a direct contest with the BJP.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: With less than a month to go for the Lok Sabha elections, how is the Congress’s publicity campaign shaping up?
It is something which evolves. It is not decided in a day. The narrative is changing. The new media is going to play an important role, much more than 2014. We are putting together an integrated campaign across platforms. How to reach the targeted audience, that is something we are grappling with. You will soon see the campaign picking up.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: What is your strategy for mediums like WhatsApp, where the BJP is very active?
There has been a significant improvement in Congress’s social media department. All state units, and all the frontal organisations such as the youth wing, Mahila Congress, have social media teams. There is a big network that has been created. My own committee has made a dedicated portal on which the data of users — party activists, sympathisers, from across the country — has been collated.
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I agree that the BJP has been ahead and they have used mediums such as WhatsApp very effectively. It is because they have a formidable, well-funded machine. There is no match in terms of the resources available to them. Even in 2014, the BJP had beaten the Congress party when it came to money power and resources. We are depending more on our cadres and supporters. The BJP has dedicated infrastructure for it. They do it 24/7, 365 days. We do not have the exact numbers, but in states such as Gujarat, the BJP has 18,000 people employed doing only this work.
The BJP’s move to shift the narrative to national security post the Pulwama terror attack and the aerial strikes in Balakot, has forced the Congress to go back to the drawing board — despite the early momentum it got in the form of electoral successes in the Assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Congress Working Committee member and former Union minister Anand Sharma says the party is working on bringing the focus back to “real issues” such as unemployment and agrarian distress. As head of the Congress’s publicity committee, Sharma is also devising the party’s digital strategy
We have now brought in a digital media company, Silver Push. It has been formed by IITians in Delhi. They have invented technologies that I find very helpful.
Also, political parties have to be mindful of the kind of campaigns undertaken on social media. It is a double-edged sword. If you convey the correct message, it’s fine. But if social media is abused, it is used for trolling, to spread fake news, there is a big danger there.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: What kind of expenditure do you see ahead of the Lok Sabha elections?
I don’t deal with the party funds. Anyway, I don’t think the Congress party is receiving that kind of support or money. I will give you one example. Electoral bonds worth Rs 295 crore were purchased from various SBI branches, of which Rs 290 crore went to the BJP. Of the remainder, Rs 4 crore came to the Congress and Rs 1 crore went to the others. This is the real gap if you see the resources available to the BJP and the others. There cannot be any comparison.
Secondly, as a political party, the BJP has emerged as the largest advertiser in the country. The government’s spending power on advertisement and propaganda… Between January 15 and the day the Model Code of Conduct came into force, the government had spent Rs 4,000 crore. The BJP has beaten Unilever, Amazon, Netflix, Tatas and Reliance Industries put together. In the previous three years they have spent Rs 4,297 crore only on advertisements. This is unprecedented. The question is, should this kind of money be available to any political party, particularly a party in power?
COOMI KAPOOR: The BJP has come out with its election slogan, ‘Modi hai toh mumkin hai’. Is the Congress slogan, which is not out yet, going to be focused on the party leader or the party?
Both are equally important. Our slogan will also be focused on people and their issues. In the last one month, there has been a well-orchestrated diversion, deflecting any discussion or questions on the real issues that confront India. Prime Minister Modi does not want to discuss what he said in 2014. The BJP campaign will not talk about jobs, they will not talk about farmers’ distress, they will not talk about women’s safety, social security, harmony in the country… On all these issues they are bound to be rejected.
COOMI KAPOOR: As the person in charge of the party’s publicity, how do you prevent leaders in the Congress from speaking in different voices? Like the comment made by Sheila Dikshit that Manmohan Singh was not as strong as Modi in dealing with terror.
That is her view. It’s not a question of controlling leaders. The BJP can do that. If the RSS diktat comes, they will shut up. The Congress party allows people to express their views. Sheilaji, who was earlier the Chief Minister of Delhi, will have one perception about how we could have addressed the issue (post-26/11). I was in the Central government, so I have a different view. I was privy to some of the decisions taken after the Mumbai attacks. I know how effective our diplomacy was at the time, and how we succeeded vis-a-vis the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hafiz Saeed.
Effectiveness comes from whether the country is more secure. India is far more vulnerable today than in 2014. Kashmir is violently unstable compared to 2014. If we had achieved the right results against terrorism, then why are our enemies across the border, Pakistan, bolder than they were in counter-attacking and openly supporting terror infrastructure on their soil? I personally feel that on the challenge of security, terrorism and dealing with Pakistan, the present Prime Minister has been clueless, incoherent. He believes in the transactional conduct of foreign policy. One day you go to Japan and say you are my best partner, the next day you receive the Chinese President and say you are my best partner. People aren’t silly.
Manmohan Singh came from Pakistan after Partition. It was his desire also to visit Pakistan. But did he as Prime Minister? No, because the environment was not conducive. However, the present Prime Minister did, whether invited or uninvited. When he landed there (in Lahore, December 2015), there was no salute of honour. The Pakistan armymen refused to do it. It was an insult to my country. Will he then be considered a strong PM?
Diplomacy is not about photo-ops, there should be gravitas and depth. Diplomacy does not have to be loud, it has to be silent, you have to look at results. For the Prime Minister, everything is propaganda. He is a loud Prime Minister, who is clueless about foreign policy.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Post-Balakot strikes, how has the political narrative changed?
We are proud of our armed forces who defend our borders. They make supreme sacrifices. It is important that the government of the day does not politicise the Indian Army. The armed forces belong to the nation, not to the Prime Minister or a political party. With what Prime Minister Modi is doing, he is setting a dangerous precedent, which must be curbed.
HARISH DAMODARAN: There are many issues facing the country — slowing economy, joblessness, rural wage stagnation. Why has the Congress not managed to leverage these issues, and is focusing only on national security?
We realise that the BJP wants to use this (national security) issue to deflect attention from the issues that you mentioned. We want to bring attention back to these them. The economy, despite claims of the government, is struggling. All the four engines that fire the growth of the economy — the national investment rate, credit offtake, gross fixed capital formation and exports — they are all shut. How is the economy then flying?
We (the UPA) faced the financial crisis of 2008-09. In the last few years, there have been no shocks to the global economy. In fact the government has been fortunate. They have made windfall gains at the cost of the consumers, with the very low oil and commodity prices in the world. They are all talk and propaganda. Where is Make in India? Even its logo is not made in India, it is plagiarised, from a watch-maker in Geneva. It’s a shame.
HARISH DAMODARAN: But Rahul Gandhi is only talking about Rafale, Digvijaya Singh is asking for proof of the aerial strikes in Pakistan…
Rahul Gandhi is also talking about jobs. He has been talking of farmers’ loans, agrarian distress, women security.
Rafale, yes, because the Prime Minister is complicit and he is accountable. How can he refuse to answer questions on that? There is a defence procurement policy in place; you violate that. You have done away with the transfer of technology policy, you have cut out HAL. The PM has personally negotiated the deal. How can we not believe what former French president François Hollande said? The PM has not uttered a word, even in Parliament, because he knows if he makes false statements there he will be hauled up for breach of privilege.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Every day we see opposition leaders pledging to come together to fight the BJP. But you are fighting the SP-BSP in Uttar Pradesh, the TMC in West Bengal….
It is not because of lack of will on our part. We are very clear where to go for pre-poll alliance. There are states where we have done that — Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Kerala, Maharashtra, Jharkhand. The Congress has alliances in about 200 constituencies.
But there are states where we have some real issues. For example, if somebody wants an alliance with us in Rajasthan, or in Madhya Pradesh, or Punjab, we are not at all agreeable, because we want to win as many Lok Sabha seats as possible for ourselves. These are places where there is a direct fight between us and the BJP, and where we have demonstrated that we are capable of defeating them in their strongholds. In these heartland states we cannot cede space. In states where we feel that both the sides will gain with an alliance, like the RJD and Congress alliance, and the alliance with the NCP, we have done it.
UP is a large state. We respect the decision of the SP-BSP, but we cannot euthanise ourselves. There is always hope for revival. We cannot kill the Congress. Somebody gives us two seats and should we be happy and say you take 78 seats? We are not comfortable with that. Don’t forget 2009, we all fought separately and later we had a post-poll coalition. All opposition parties are of one view, that post-poll coalition among all these parties is definitely on. I am very optimistic that people of India have maturity and wisdom. 2019 will be different from 2014. There is no way, no matter what Modi and Amit Shah do, that they can repeat 2014. That is a firm, firm no.
KAUNAIN SHERIFF M: In these general elections, most of the voters are going to be in the age group of 19-35. What alternative narrative will the Congress provide to this chunk of new voters?
The first issue is jobs and we will come up with an actionable plan to revive job creation in India for the youth. Secondly, we will take forward the national priorities. Why has the government not spoken about industrial and freight corridors in the last five years? The Prime Minister’s priority has been a bullet train. His priorities are wrong. India does not need bullet trains, India needs completion of work on these corridors, which will revolutionise job creation and economy.
RAVISH TIWARI: How are you looking at the Congress’s 2019 numbers vis-a-vis previous elections. Have things changed? Also, what is your position in states such as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana?
There are states where we will improve upon even our 2009 performance. Don’t count us out in UP either. We surprised in 2009 and we are going to pick up seats this time too. We are going to win many more seats than what people think we are capable of. We have some very good candidates.
Andhra has been a huge setback. It has been a sensitive issue. Some of us thought that the bifurcation should not have happened. Our calculations may have gone quite wrong in the Assembly polls in Telangana, but for Parliament, there will be a fight. I think we will do much better in Lok Sabha polls in Telangana.
We are also hoping to pick up a sizeable number of seats in the Hindi heartland, besides in west India. We got nil in Gujarat, that is not going to repeat. We got zero in Rajasthan, that’s not going to happen. We got two seats in Madhya Pradesh, and another after a bypoll. That will not be repeated. Chhattisgarh we had one and the BJP had 10. Look at the size of the mandate we got in the Assembly elections. Perhaps there are challenges… I can’t speculate on the numbers. But I can tell you that the BJP numbers will come down, sharply. The Congress will emerge as a party with a strong presence in the Lok Sabha.
RAVISH TIWARI: Since the UP polls, Congress leaders seem reluctant to use the word ‘secular’ in their speeches. Is there a hesitation?
I don’t think there is any hesitation. We talk about India’s pluralism and diversity, and the importance of treating all religions equally in our campaigns. We have not moved away from that commitment. I feel politics and religion is a toxic mix and dangerous for any society. There is nothing wrong in going to a temple, mosque or gurdwara, but don’t use religion to capture power, to divide society, to discriminate.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Does poaching by the BJP worry you?
The same is happening with the BJP also. Why did Kirti Azad and the others leave? I am talking about sitting Lok Sabha members of the BJP. They left because they were disgusted with the politics of Modi and Amit Shah. In Gujarat, if the PM and BJP are so confident, why are they stealing MLAs? Poaching is one thing, but there is daylight dacoity. Look at what happened in Manipur, Goa, Arunachal… They tried it in Madhya Pradesh. They are still trying in Karnataka. (Poaching) is part of their political philosophy. It is in the BJP’s political DNA to steal MLAs and governments.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: What role will Priyanka Gandhi Vadra play now?
She is a valuable addition to the Congress organisation. She has spoken about her intention to strengthen the party and she is in charge of Eastern UP. She is a forceful campaigner, orator. We cannot say when she will contest. It’s her decision.
RAVISH TIWARI: Throughout its campaign, the BJP has spoken about having a clear, decisive leader. Who is the Opposition’s leader?
The wisdom is in leaving the choice to all the coalition partners. We are very clear that for the Congress it is Rahul Gandhi. All leaders will decide together after the polls.
It is easy to use the word decisive and strong. You don’t expect your PM to be a WWE wrestler. He should be strong in the mind, convictions… Mr Modi fails on all paramaters. He is not a strong leader. Will you call his move of demonetisation reckless or decisive? The hasty imposition of the GST, terming it second Independence. It was only imposing a tax! You don’t have to be loud, shrill, to be decisive. My concern is that the political atmosphere is getting very vitiated. The PM and his party president are responsible for it. The PM’s language has lowered the dignity of the discourse and his own office.