RAM MADHAV: The main states, where the BJP has huge stakes, will go to polls now. We are confident of winning a good number of seats in the remaining phases. We will not have losses in states where we are have a large number of seats. We are looking at a fairly good situation in the Hindi heartland, and we are also going to win a good number of seats in eastern India and the Northeast. Then, we are hoping to win a few seats in Telangana. We will add to our numbers in Maharashtra and Bihar. Overall, I think, it will be as good as 2014, if not better. This election has become about ‘Modi versus who?’ Where there is no answer to that ‘who’, it will be Modi all the way. That has become the central theme of the campaign. It will give us good results.
COOMI KAPOOR: What are the indicators that show that your campaign has picked up?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign has always been on top. We have launched a high-pitched campaign. We have focused our campaign on four issues — national economy, national unity, national security and the projects that directly affect the lives of ordinary people. We had hoped that the Opposition would at least put up a credible fight. We have seen the drama over the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat, then the ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ slogan. It’s like the Opposition is scoring self-goal after self- goal. They have failed to come up with a strong campaign.
LIZ MATHEW: In 2014, Prime Minister Modi and the BJP’s campaign was about change. In 2019, it was expected to be about what he has done. Is the campaign going as you were expecting it to?
Yes, of course. 2019 will be about continuing the change, but it is also about hope. I have noticed the support PM Modi has received from urban Indians. I am deliberately saying PM Modi (and not the BJP) because even in places where we do not have a strong organisation, even there we see a lot of support for Modi. I have travelled extensively in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana. I won’t be surprised if our Lok Sabha candidates in these states get more votes than the aggregate votes won by Assembly candidates in the constituencies. It’s a vote for Modi all over.
Let me put it in simple terms: When a man wakes up in the morning, he needs a toilet. There is a Modi campaign for that. Next, he has to have a cup of tea. There is a Modi campaign for gas cylinders. He steps out of his home, he goes to the bank. There is a Modi aspect there. So in his daily life he remembers Modi 10 times in a day. This is the advantage we have.
LIZ MATHEW: But the BJP campaign so far has focused more on the Balakot aerial strikes, and less on the work done by the government.
You (the media) pick up things that serve as headlines. We are talking about all the issues. We speak about the economy, how we have uprooted corruption in this country, and introduced a good number of reforms. We are also talking about national security, but it’s not just about Pakistan. We are also talking about terrorism in Kashmir, Maoism in rest of the country. The Union Home Minister has said that India will be free of Maoists in the next couple of years. We are talking of creating an India where people are secure. We are trying to provide a dignified life to people.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: The Election Commission has urged leaders not to invoke the armed forces in their campaign, but the Prime Minister and other BJP leaders continue to do so.
National security has always been an electoral issue in this country. Don’t preach to us now. When Indira Gandhi had major successes, it went to her credit. In 1974, when there was a nuclear experiment, it was attributed to the then government. This is because the government is there to secure your life. We have not violated the EC’s guidelines ever. Whenever it (violations) has happened, action was taken. We don’t talk about Balakot as much as the Opposition does. They are trying to project Balakot as a failure. As far as we are concerned, we are saying that we have given people a secure nation. ‘Judge us on that’. We are not asking people to vote for us only because we have conducted airstrikes on Balakot.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: But under this government, one of the bloodiest terror attacks took place in Kashmir, which saw the death of 40 of our security personnel…
The violence in Kashmir Valley is a historical problem that we have been facing. But look at the records of previous years. We taught the terrorists a lesson. I am not saying that Kashmir is terror-free today but we have taken a number of steps to address terrorism there. We have neutralised close to 600 terrorists in last four years. We taught terror groups a lesson by undertaking Balakot. Except for the Kashmir Valley, India has largely been terror-free. This is what we are telling people.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: In Bengal, BJP president Amit Shah has repeatedly raked up the fear of the ‘other’ with statements such as ‘pure desh main NRC karenge (We will conduct the National Register of Citizens drive across the country)’. What do you make of that?
Why should there be any fear over a citizens’ register? The NRC in Assam is a result of the decision taken by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951. It could not be completed though the Act had been promulgated. It had to be done in Assam in 2010. (The then chief minister Tarun) Gogoi developed cold feet because there were protests. We completed it and the Act is only limited to Assam. Following that, there have been demands from other states in the Northeast (for the NRC). The NRC in Assam is being directly monitored by the Supreme Court.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: The BJP has fielded Pragya Thakur from Bhopal. You may have been within the law but don’t you think you have violated the spirit of Indian elections?
All moral questions should now be left to the people. There is a strong feeling that she has been wrongly implicated for a fictitious thing called ‘Hindu terror’. So many people have said that it was something that the UPA government had deliberately created. The prime mover of the whole campaign was none other than Digvijaya Singh (the Congress candidate from Bhopal). So the local state unit decided to challenge him on the same ground… Even people who are out on bail are contesting.
LIZ MATHEW: But don’t political parties have the responsibility to field clean candidates?
What do you mean by clean? The EC does not stop you from contesting elections merely because you are an accused. Anybody can be accused in any case.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: The Prime Minister has said that a Hindu cannot be a terrorist. How can one say that?
A true Hindu who believes in the real essence of Hinduism can never become a terrorist. People misled by circumstances or motivated by wrong interpretations of religion or provoked by happenings in the country and the world, take up weapons. These have to be addressed through the law and order machinery.
The incidents which have been branded as Hindu terror are part of a fictitious propaganda. If in any incident some persons are found to be involved, it has to be seen as a larger issue, and not as Hindu terror.
AMRITH LAL: So could it be that Pragya Thakur is not a true Hindu?
She is only an accused… Until you are proven guilty, you are only an accused.
SUNIL JAIN: In your alliance with the PDP in J&K, where do you think you made a mistake?
Our tie-up was with Mr Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (the late PDP chief). We came together on the agenda to give good governance to the state. We had a comfortable understanding with him (Sayeed), but it lasted only for 10 months. Subsequently, after a gap of three months, we had to have a government headed by Mehbooba Muftiji, where we found certain things unacceptable and so we walked out.
LIZ MATHEW: During the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the BJP raised demonetisation frequently. Why is the party silent on it in these elections?
Whether it is demonetisation or any other reforms that we have undertaken in the last five years, the objective was to set certain economic fundamentals right. The Insolvency Code, Goods and Services Tax, demonetisation… At the end of the day, results speak. Today, we have a strong economy, with a 7.2 per cent growth rate.
LIZ MATHEW: Has demonetisation contributed to the loss of jobs?
First of all, the entire argument about joblessness is not based on facts. I’ve seen massive infrastructural development in the Northeast, Kashmir, and in many other states that I travel to. Lots of new jobs are being created, new kinds of jobs, especially in the service sector, and in large numbers. I see the number of e-rickshaws… I really don’t buy this theory of national joblessness. But the figures also vary so much. Some reports say 50 lakh jobs lost, some say 5 crore. There is massive employment generation on the ground.
AAKASH JOSHI: Under the earlier draft of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, the Rohingya, Hazaras, Ahmedis were eligible. Under the new Bill, which you have proposed, will that be the case, as it explicitly lists religious minorities excluding Muslims?
This new Bill is applicable to persecuted minorities coming from erstwhile Pakistan and Afghanistan. In that sense, it doesn’t apply to Myanmar. The essence of this Bill is that if under the Foreigners’ Act a foreigner comes to India, and he/she wants to seek citizenship, he/she will have to live in the country for 12 years to be eligible. Under the new Bill, one can seek citizenship after living in the country for seven years. Also, foreigners coming into India had to seek citizenship on the basis of employment, livelihood etc. Under the new Bill, the reason can also be religious persecution. But in this case, the process is more strict than the citizenship Act. It’s a very strict Bill. The whole argument of it being against certain communities is totally baseless.
Also, the Bill has not been passed yet. Once that is done, we will need to define persecuted minorities. There are certain minorities mentioned, and then there is a term ‘and others’. Which communities fall into that ‘others’ category is not detailed and the Home Ministry will work on it.
SUNIL JAIN: What has been the reaction to the Bill in the Northeast?
It has been beyond our imagination. We thought we would face some opposition… Ultimately, we handled it successfully. It’s there in our manifesto and we are talking about it.
COOMI KAPOOR: Do you think the mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh can put a spanner in your election plans?
It could throw a big spanner in the Opposition’s plans. The way UP is responding to the Prime Minister’s call has me convinced that we will do pretty well in the state.
LIZ MATHEW: No one is talking about Ayodhya in the campaign…
Ramjanmabhoomi is an article of faith for us. Every election we do not want Ramjanmabhoomi to be converted into an electoral issue. It’s a question of a larger commitment, a principled commitment. Ideology is our inspiration but Statecraft demands the nation’s good.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: The BJP has a very strong stance on J&K and Articles 370 and 35A. The statements by the mainstream parties in the state, the PDP and National Conference (NC), probably reflect the sentiments of the people. In the face of this, do you think your party can go ahead with the total integration of the state with the rest of the country, as you keep repeating?
Firstly, I don’t think only they are speaking for the people. Had that been the case, there wouldn’t have been 7-8 per cent polling. That is not the mainstream mood of the Valley. These leaders are misleading. Kashmir’s technical and constitutional integration with India was full and final on the day the Instrument of Accession was signed by Maharaja Hari Singh in 1948. But there is an emotional issue which was created due to Articles 370 and 35A in 1954. It is creating emotional separateness. What I’m saying is that they (the NC, PDP) are not helping in the integration. Politically speaking it is a part of India, and that’s where we stand. Let the Supreme Court take a view.
[ie_backquote quote=”When a man wakes up, he needs a toilet. There’s a Modi campaign for that. Next, he has tea. There’s is a Modi campaign there. He goes to bank, there is a Modi aspect. He thinks of Modi 10 times a day. It’s an advantage” “]
AVISHEK G DASTIDAR: But irrespective of the Instrument of Accession, don’t you think the Indian State has failed in handling the situation in Kashmir in the past five years?
People have a tendency to only pick and highlight certain aspects of the Valley. If there is one Pakistani flag, it is highlighted throughout the day and then there is a big debate over it for one hour on television. The Valley has various facets. I am not denying that there is a narrative that is anti-India. But it is not as though we have lost the plot. We have minimised that narrative. We have to further overcome that narrative.
We are working on three fronts. First of all, for that narrative to fall, you have to remove the gun-wielding terrorists. When they are there, no sane person can raise his voice for India. If they are not going to be killed for saying ‘Hindustan zindabad’, then they will have the confidence. We have done our best at removing terrorism. Today it is confined to two-three areas in South Kashmir.
A large network of people from the Hurriyat, Jamaat-e-Islami, businessmen, traders, politicians, and middlemen go to Pakistan at the drop of a hat, and they have access right up to the Pakistani Prime Minister. Then they come back to give their narrative to the people of Kashmir. We stopped all that through legal means.
Third, we have invested in development activities. Most importantly, we have taken democracy to the grassroots. Parties like those of Omar Abdullah and Farooq Abdullah were opposed to panchayat elections, local body elections, because ‘Article 35A was under threat’. But they are not opposed to parliamentary elections. They don’t want grassroots democracy. You give democracy at the grassroots and the narrative will change. You don’t see stone-pelting today, and if it is happening, it is because of Mehbooba Mufti.
RITU SARIN: How many seats do you expect to win in Kashmir?
We hope to win three seats. We hope the Valley votes for pro-India elements in a big way.