At the Express Adda held in Mumbai, Congress leader and Rajasthan Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot spoke to Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express Group, and Vandita Mishra, National Opinion Editor, on national security as an election issue, speaking to the young voter and the alliance against the BJP.
On if there is a break in the Congress’s momentum
I think the three states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan have certainly set the tone for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections and I also think that it’s a sign for things to come.
To your question on the Pulwama attack having a bearing on the Congress’ prospects, when there is a terror attack on this country, it is not an attack on the state or the government or on individuals, it’s an attack on our nation. To that extent, whatever response the government at the Centre chooses to make, the entire country stands behind that. I remember very well when the Indian Parliament was attacked, Mrs Sonia Gandhi told Mr Vajpayee that this is an attack on our republic, it’s an attack on our temple of democracy, whatever you choose to do as Prime Minister, I will stand behind you and I know that Mr Vajpayee had said something on the same lines when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister when the Bangladesh war happened. So that’s been the tremendous legacy in our country. When this incident happened, I was at Harvard University in Boston and was asked this question and I said I am on foreign soil, I have my differences with colleagues in different political parties… we’ll have differences but when it comes to issues like this, there is no difference of opinion. So the attack happened, and the response by the armed forces… it was true display of valour by the Air Force. I have a long association with the armed forces, especially the Air Force, so I feel particularly proud but the great tradition in India is that you do not involve the armed forces, the men in uniform, to do domestic political point making. That’s something we’ve avoided all this while. But when I hear Mr Yeddyurappa saying because of the incident BJP will get that many seats, it’s a naked admission of what he’s thinking.
On the Opposition’s dilemma over questioning the government
If you question the BJP today, you’re labelled anti-national. If you question the policies of the government, you’re anti- India. That’s the kind of negative narrative that we’ve seen in the last few years. I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that our Air Force, our Army, our armed forces, are our property as Indians, not of the Janata Dal or the BJP or the Congress. Sadly for this government, nothing is sacrosanct, whether it’s the RBI, ED or the CBI. We’re a great republic and a great democracy, not because of the politicians we’ve produced, but because we’ve nurtured institutions that are held beyond parties and governments. If we try and systematically dismantle those institutions, then we’re harming ourselves to a point that there is no coming back. If there are people who are trying to politicise the issue because elections are around the corner, I think people of India are wise enough to know and understand that the elections will be fought on bread and butter issues. Elections will be fought on matters that make a difference to people’s lives and will be fought in the farmlands, they will be fought in homes, they will be fought in villages, in the towns of India and not in the temples or the border.
On whether this will be India’s first national security election
National security is an important issue and there should be no two ways to look at it. But I don’t think you can make that issue into a political one. It should be sacrosanct. Ruling dispensations can’t masquerade its non performances behind the valour of the armed forces. That’s not acceptable because the man who is fighting on the border, people who’ve taken bullets, who are martyrs today, are not doing it for a party, or a religion or a state. They’re doing it for the nation, for this country. People who try and use it as a political dividend will not succeed, that’s my own understanding.
On coming from a political dynasty
Where I take birth is not in my hands. But once you are of a reasonable age, you are accountable for what you say, what you do, and your actions. So, I’m very proud to be the son of my father, who died much before I entered politics, but I take great pride in belonging to this family and what I have chosen to do after his demise was my choice, it was not forced upon me. But if being born to a family is not a qualification, then it should not be a disqualification either.
On what it is to be young in politics
I think it’s fair to say that people from a different generation have a different way of looking at things. My sons and my nieces or nephews look at things differently than I do. The idea is to assimilate what is best that they have to offer. Not everybody has all the best ideas, the important thing is to collate all of that, and as a party, as a policy, what is the most robust, most fulfilling, most appropriate way to move forward. That’s how good parties, good organisations function and survive, and I can say that for the Congress party. I was made an MP when I was 26 and it seems like a long long time ago. But it’s been a good run. I know people out there who are perhaps more talented, more articulate, more hard working than I am and I am very fortunate for the chance that I have got and not for a day will I let myself forget that because very few people get the opportunity.
On age difference between him and Ashok Gehlot becoming a problem
First of all, there is no problem. Everyone in a different generation has a different outlook. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, sometimes you have to accept that. He’s worked many more years than I have but perhaps there are certain things that I see differently, but I am always happy to take and share. We always discuss things, sometimes we go with my way, sometimes we go with his way. That’s fine, that’s how democracies are.
On the young voter and what he wants
For example, when we go to rural parts of India, especially Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, (we find) the older generation perhaps doesn’t care so much about let’s say privacy or online snooping. But when I go to a college or university, I see the young voter really cares about that. They want their individual privacy safe and secure. They don’t want the government looking at what you are doing, who you’re chatting with, who you’re messaging. If you don’t engage meaningfully and you’re just talking at them, then you lose their interest in the first five minutes. Young people expect to hear different things, they expect you to do different things and it’s not inappropriate for younger people to want different things from their leaders as opposed to middle or older people.
On addressing issues concerning the youth
I will talk about something that affects everybody across each group — education. In an election in any state, when a government gets voted out or voted in because of the lack of teachers in government schools or because of the spectacular performance of government students or school teachers, then there will be change because I don’t know of any party or any government that has lost office because of the quality of the schools in rural parts of that state. The minute that becomes pivotal to the elections, you will see how policies change. Politicians respond to what people want. For younger people, I have tried as best as I could in the manifesto that I made in Rajasthan this year. We will have a new manifesto in March for the Lok Sabha elections, (where) we’ve tried to put in issues that matter to the young people.
On political parties paying no heed to the woman voter
I think it’s the culture of how elections are fought in this country. In my last election, I was campaigning on things that matter to women. I was in a village where there was a water problem and there were 50 to 80 men and they were all fighting over where a hand pump should be installed. So I said none of you ever take water for the kitchen, you never bring clothes to wash, why are you deciding where the water pump should be? It is the women or maybe the kids who actually take the water but they still wanted to decide. But I said nothing doing, get 10 women and they will decide where to put it. You have to push through. When I go for public meetings, women don’t come in large numbers, they feel disenfranchised. We have women reservation in panchayat elections but it has still not taken on that kind of force that it should. We are all trying hard but it can’t be a party, it can’t be a government, it has to be societal change. We can all encourage but you can’t mandate that. I’m all for promoting it personally and within the party, but ultimately it’ll have to be a change from within.
On whether the Congress feels left out in UP
I think we’ve already said that what Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati have done is their decision and we respect it. This election will throw many surprises despite the overconfidence of the BJP. Look at what we’ve done — because of the three state elections that we won, they were forced to eat a humble pie and give 17 seats to Nitish Kumar, when he only has two MPs. After all that the Shiv Sena has been saying against the Prime Minister and Amit Shah, they finally had to accept whatever the Shiv Sena wanted. I think the NDA allies must thank the Congress party because we have put the BJP on backfoot so that the allies and the NDA are getting more seats than they would have got otherwise. The elections will be interesting and I can say one thing with all humility, that May 2019 may see a different prime minister and certainly a different government.
On whether the grand alliance against BJP will work
Every five years there are elections and every party says we are the best. I think what’s happened in the last five years is that there is a real challenge to things that we always thought were sacrosanct. That line has been crossed many times over.
…We are fighting negativity… fearmongering. I won’t call it oppression. But certainly, there is a force. Why is everybody now making WhatsApp calls? People don’t talk on mobiles anymore. They call you back on WhatsApp or landline because the mind is full of fear. That’s the impression that this government has created. We are looking to make sure that the next five years are a relief from this atmosphere. So, we have Mamata (Banerjee), Mayawati and others. They have their party’s own stakes. But for the larger good, we all have to work together.
On the PM and the importance of an Opposition
He has got a lot of stamina, he travels a lot. I think as the Prime Minister of India he gets and got all my respect. But I am within my rights to ask questions. Why did he demontise? What did he get out of it? How much money came back? I get zero answers. In fact, when the RBI governor leaves, no one questions him. I can list many things that he could have done better, but my experience is that there is a certain bandwidth within which all the governments operate. When you go out and say Congress-mukt Bharat, you want to eradicate the Opposition. How do you expect me to find good in that? I just feel that it is inappropriate in our democracy to have things like that and to say that you will eradicate the Opposition. Rajiv Gandhi got 425 seats in Parliament, the BJP had two. I never heard Rajiv Gandhi say that we will finish the BJP. In a democracy, the Opposition is as important as the government. But when you are so full of your propaganda, you fail to see beyond that. And that’s exactly what is happening to the current government.