After a poor show in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand Assembly elections there is talk of structural changes in the grand old party. Communications chief of the Congress Randeep Singh Surjewala speaks to Ashhar Khan on the party’s performance and the road ahead for the Congress. Excerpts:
How do you evaluate the performance of the Congress in the Assembly elections?
The Congress has won Punjab with a resounding majority and had emerged as the single largest party in Goa and Manipur. Yes, we lost Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, but please remember that the Congress has been out of power in UP for the past 27 years. While we will introspect to become the voice of the people, it is also a reality check for the Modi-Shah duo. People have proved them wrong in three different corners of India — Northeast, north and south by electing the Congress in Manipur, Punjab and Goa.
What went wrong in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand?
Uttarakhand has been a classical swing state from its inception alternating between the Congress and BJP. Despite good work by Harish Rawat, it appears that breakaway factions of our party damaged our electoral prospects. In UP, the Congress got into an “alliance of development” with the Samajwadi Party founded upon “10-point agenda of governance”. It appears that the din raised by the Prime Minister and the BJP undermined our sincere efforts to traverse beyond the narrow constraints of caste and religion to a new brand of politics. We accept our defeat with humility and will humbly work as watchdogs in UP’s interests. We will fight for the waiver of farm loans, creation of jobs and revival of UP’s trade and industry.
Will Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi take accountability for the debacle in these two states?
Mr Gandhi took over as the general secretary of the Congress in 2007. Since then, the Congress fought 22 state elections and one parliamentary poll under his leadership. His simple formula has always been to credit Congress workers and regional leaders for all victories and take full responsibility for all losses. This requires grit and determination. Mr Gandhi plans to rebuild the Congress organisationally and win back the support of the sections that we have lost.
Don’t you think that the Congress has been wiped out from the Hindi heartland?
In my humble opinion, the spirit of the question is incorrect. The Congress just won 80 out of 117 seats in north India. In 2015, our coalition defeated the BJP in Bihar. The Congress still rules in Himachal Pradesh, and, till recently, was in power in Uttarakhand. Any fair observer will tell you that we have revived greatly in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
Please don’t attribute ups and downs of politics in a fashion that undermines the role of Congress in the country as a credible voice of people.
Several parties have raised the issue of EVMs, what is your stand on the issue?
We have congratulated the BJP and Narendra Modi for victories in UP and Uttarakhand without raising any reservations. One must not, however, forget that democracy is bigger than each one of us. One essential prerequisite is the faith of everyone — losers or victors — in the fairness of elections. If one person questions the fairness, we must collectively redress such grievance even if it is unfounded.
Please don’t forget that till a few years ago, the BJP, including its former president L.K. Advani, had raised doubts on the fairness of EVMs. It is to redress these doubts that the Election Commission is planning to introduce voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) along with EVMs. Instead of acting arrogantly, the government must address doubts raised by Mayawatiji and Akhilesh Yadav. This will only strengthen democracy.
Do you feel that the Congress needs to go in for an overhaul so that it can take on the current political challenges?
Mr Gandhi has himself spoken about undertaking organisational restructuring and introspection.
Many of your leaders, including Mani Shankar Aiyar, Kishore Chandra Deo and Sandeep Dikshit, have said that the responsibility should be apportioned for the defeat. Do you think they are speaking out of turn?
As I said earlier, Mr Gandhi has always credited Congress functionaries for its victories, while accepting responsibility for course correction in times of defeat. This reflects his maturity, determination and humility to accept defeat and introduce changes. Unlike the BJP, the Congress has the inherent strength to listen and absorb different voices. I hope all my colleagues will also introspect regarding their roles and move forward to participate in strengthening the party.
What’s next for the Congress?
The Congress will determinedly fight for India’s core values. We will show the mirror every time Modiji’s “suit boot ki sarkar”, tramples upon the rights of farmers or tribals. We will push the government to follow a trajectory of job-oriented growth, and defend the social justice programmes against attempts of dilution. We will always fight for the idea of India that is currently under attack.
After the results of these elections, do you think the Congress has very little chance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
Many naysayers had written off the Congress on multiple occasions in the past — 1969, 1977, 1989, 1996 and 2000. Even in 2003, many people wrote off the Congress after defeats in the state elections of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and then we went on to win the Parliament elections in 2004. Rest assured, we will bounce back, for the Congress lives in the heart and soul of India.