Congress prez talks to Sriram Karri in an exclusive interview about the party’s future, Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s role in establishing Telangana state and the Rafale deal where he says Modi arm-twisted the French to benefit Anil Ambani and much more
HYDERABAD: On the last day of the campaign in Telangana, Congress president Rahul Gandhi arrived to address a meeting, and a press conference before heading back to Delhi. It has been a hectic campaign of several weeks, where he has travelled across the five poll-bound states extensively, galvanising and motivating the party, leaders and cadre, to put up a united fight.
He was instrumental in creating a coalition in Telangana that is now increasingly confident of dethroning the TRS government, and which, if it wins, will enhance his reputation as a leader who can both defeat BJP in one-on-one in states dominated by the saffron party, especially in the north, as well as create and manage coalitions with several opposition leaders to take on the BJP in 2019.
His spirited addresses and interactions with the people have given his party hope and fire to fight against the might of the ruling State governments in four states as never before since 2014.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Mr Gandhi.
QThe elections at the near end of 2018 are happening in states spread across different parts of India: north-east, west, central India and the south. What kind of public response are you seeing for the Congress party? Will it be resounding enough to build a foundation from which to mount a challenge to the BJP in the run-up to the 2019 General Election?
I am not a soothsayer, neither am I in the business of predicting election results. What I do know is that our campaign in each of the five states going to the polls has touched a chord with the common people.
Our party workers and leaders have run inspired and relentless election campaigns in each state, working as a team and speaking in one voice. I am sure their hard work and efforts will be rewarded when votes are counted on December 11.
Most surveys predict that the Congress is winning in Rajasthan and has good chances against the BJP-ruled governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
QDo you see voters in these three states, if they elect Congress, as being opposed to the respective BJP state government, or is the anger against the Centre too?
There is strong anger against the BJP building up across India. The problems people are facing are real. The issues are numerous. Farmer distress, a stagnant rural economy and a growing sense of insecurity across all sections of society are visible to everyone. Unemployment amongst educated youth, the tyranny of the Goods and Services Tax (Gabbar Singh Tax or GST), and the devastation wrecked all across India by Demonetisation, rising corruption and crony capitalism, these are some of the key issues that will have a huge impact on the outcome of these elections.
The Prime Minister launches fancy schemes with big marketing budgets, but the delivery on the ground is abysmal. All sections of society are feeling the pinch of rising fuel, cooking gas and food prices. Certainly, there are local issues at play as well in each state which may be different but the anger is co-located both against the Centre and the respective state government.
In Telangana, the anger against Mr K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), who has locked himself into a proverbial ivory tower and has lost the connect he once had with the common man and the issues on the ground has left people disenchanted and angry. Corruption too is a big issue as is the high-handed manner in which opposition and criticism are crushed.
QIn Telangana, where your party is in alliance with the Telugu Desam party, the Communist Party of India and Telangana Jana Samithi, the alliance is perceived as having a chance to dislodge the TRS government. However, there is an allegation that an alliance with the TDP will give people from Andhra control over the future of Telangana. How do you react to it?
The Congress and Soniaji played a key role in establishing the state of Telangana. The people of Telangana know that very well. They trust the Congress party and they know that we will never let them down or make compromises with their future. We have formed a Prajakutumi with a number of opposition parties and we are all committed to working together to fulfil the aspirations of the people of Telangana.
QA lot of the difference between the Congress and the BJP hovers around secularism and the view of the Idea of India. What, however, will be the pragmatic, qualitative and specific difference to an average Indian’s quality of life that you will promise to make if Congress forms the next Central government?
India is a land of peace and tolerance. Rapid development and growth in ourstates and as a nation is only possible in a climate of mutual respect, peace, tolerance, understanding and love. We in the Congress understand this. This is the first big change that every Indian will experience if the Congress were to be given a chance to form the next Central government.
We need to give our people a tremendous sense of self-confidence. Self-confidence that they are free to pursue their dreams and chase their aspirations, that they can achieve great things, both for themselves and the nation. For that to happen, we need to solve some of the key problems we are faced with.
How will our farmers be self-confident if we cannot work with them to transform agriculture? How do we assure the farmers that they will be compensated fairly and adequately for their effort and that the entire nation stands with them?
How can our youth be self-confident if we cannot arm them with a good education and with life skills, also making sure there are enough jobs out there for them to earn a good livelihood?
How can our women be self-confident if we cannot create a safe environment for them to live and work in, and to treat them with the respect they deserve? These are all areas in which every Indian can expect a Congress government to make a difference.
QThere is an accusation now that the Congress is practising ‘soft-Hindutva’ in some places, like in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan. Does Congress really treat Muslims any better in terms of empowering them and developing them in real terms as opposed to using the BJP-RSS to create fear in the minds of the minorities and to render them a mere vote bank?
Unlike the BJP, the Congress party believes in and celebrates India’s diversity. We are not rendered insecure by India’s diversity of thought, belief, expression and religion; we cherish and celebrate it. We do not mix religion with politics.
This, however, does not mean that as individuals we do not have our own religious beliefs. We certainly do and like every other Indian, we too express our religious beliefs and faith with confidence and with pride. I have my own personal beliefs and I enjoy discussing them with others.
As a political leader, I respect each individual’s belief, and if they invite me to their place of worship, whether a temple, mosque, church or gurudwara, I go. With humility in my heart and the expectation that through each experience, I will learn and grow as a human being. Unfortunately, these visits seem to have started upsetting the BJP immensely.
QHave you been able to take the message to India at large that Rafale is a defence scam involving Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself in a way that it is the central focal point against the NDA-government in 2019?
I think India has woken up to the fact that Rafale is not just a scam, it is a mega scam that involves the Prime Minister directly. They have begun to understand that PM Modi arm-twisted the French into partnering with Anil Ambani, gifting him a Rs 30,000 crore contract that should have gone to Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL). Indians are angry that PM Modi paid the French more than double the actual price of the aircraft, costing India thousands of crores more than it should have. They have understood that our defence forces have been short changed and cheated for personal gain.
The people of India are seeing that as the pressure is beginning to mount both in India and in France, and more details of the deal are being revealed each day, that there is a massive cover-up operation going on behind the scenes to try and prevent the scam from being investigated.
The chaos in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) with its chief being sacked at 2 am is nothing but a reflection of the government’s desperation to prevent an investigation into what is the biggest defence purchases scam ever.
Yes, the Rafale scam will certainly have an impact on the results in the upcoming state elections and will also be a very important part of our campaign in the 2019 elections.
QIf the Supreme Court verdict comes in its favour, would you personally support the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya?
Our stand on this has been very consistent. We will support the Supreme Court ruling.
QYour political rivals, especially the BJP leaders, attack you in scathing manner. But you seldom show any ill-will or personal anger. How do you deal with attacks on you and remain stoic, and have this attitude of sangfroid?
I do take the negativity some people throw at me seriously. I have learnt to ignore the barbs and vicious attacks and stay focused on what I need to do as a political leader. My opponents would love me to get distracted and react to them. That would be both pointless and foolish of me to do.
I have no hatred or animosity in my heart to anyone. That is the truth. I fight for the principles I believe in and I fight for the truth. If this causes some people to hurl abuses at me, then so be it.
QWhat is the one change you wish to see, and promise to make, to India and the life of every Indian during your political career? What is your dream for India that you would hope to achieve in your lifetime?
I dream of a nation where every man, woman and child can live in peace and be secure; a nation where we treat each other with respect and understanding; a nation where each individual is free to follow his or her own religious beliefs, express themselves without fear and chase their dreams. I dream of a united India that stands strong together and has an important role to play on the world stage.