The idea behind the alliance was to create a younger alternative for the State; Akhilesh Yadav has good intentions and he has an open mind, he says
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi says that India’s institutions are under attack from the RSS and the BJP and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is not open to ideas or listening to people. Mr. Gandhi thinks the Modi government has failed to deliver jobs, education and healthcare to the people. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
You have struck an unusual alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) for the Uttar Pradesh polls. How is that working?
The idea behind the alliance was to create a younger alternative for U.P. and provide a vision to the State, whereby we could transform the State. There are two elements to it, one on the policy side, the other element is the personal relationship. On the policy side, it’s going well, there are no major disagreements. The way we have designed it, they [the SP] are suggesting a few things, we are suggesting a few things and we have a broad framework within which we are going to operate. On the personal side, it’s great, there is no problem at all. There is a lot of common ground. Akhilesh [Yadav] has good intentions and he has an open mind.
But you did change tack from going it alone to having this alliance. Why did you change your mind?
We are building our position. We have to construct our space. Closer to the elections we saw this opportunity and pragmatically decided to take up the opportunity. It doesn’t mean that the Samajwadi Party (SP) is not going to strengthen itself or that the Congress is not going to strengthen itself.
Is there a Bihar model that you are looking at in U.P.?
It’s [U.P.] a totally different State. I feel that we have now put together a formidable alliance, and that we are going to win these elections. It’s basically the leading alliance now in the State.
How important is this set of Assembly polls for national politics?
I think the BJP is trying to impose a particular ideology on the country. They are trying to do it by capturing national institutions and filling these with people who believe in their ideology. Their policies are resulting in quite a lot of discontent. That is what is building the opposition to the BJP. Generally, poorer people, those belonging to weaker sections, are feeling the pain and they are building up the resistance to the BJP.
Of course, elections make a difference. But there is a lot of pain that the BJP is causing to the common man, demonetisation is an example. Complete neglect of agriculture is another example. Beating up Dalits in Gujarat, minorities across the country, are all examples. There is a general sense of fear, youngsters feel it too. The idea is that they [the BJP] don’t brook any opposition, they don’t listen to anybody and that they have all the answers. That’s not the way India runs. India develops its own answers. The political party running India needs to embrace that answer and not impose its own answers.
But the Prime Minister Modi has been saying that demonetisation has been welcomed by the poor.
How does destroying the economies of poor people bring the BJP closer to poor people? How does not giving farmers money to plant seeds or labourers wages for their work, bring the BJP closer to the poor? It’s absurd. There are two or three things that the decision to demonetise currency demonstrates. One is the complete institutional capture by the BJP. So there is practically no institution that can stand up to the Prime Minister. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is an example. You tell them eight hours before the decision that we are going to be taking, probably the biggest economic step ever taken in India. You just inform the RBI that we’ve done it. It reflects a particular leadership style, a world view that the Prime Minister knows everything and that idea is visible in how he deals with his Cabinet. I believe his Cabinet was locked up before the demonetisation decision was taken. The Economic Adviser to the government wasn’t told. The second aspect of demonetisation is that the Prime Minister says he was targeting black money; 94% of black money isn’t in cash, so effectively you are not going after the lion’s share of black money. Finally, the reality of it is that you have bludgeoned the economy, you have destroyed livelihoods and you are in some world where you think this is a great economic step that you have taken.
How is demonetisation playing out politically on the ground?
It’s going to hurt the BJP very badly. It’s a devastating step for anybody who is part of the legitimate cash economy. Another very significant thing that demonetisation has done is that it has handed massive power to the Income Tax department and they are running amok. I believe almost a million income tax notices have been given out in U.P. alone. So, even the idea of ease of doing business has been destroyed. You have unleashed the Income Tax department on ordinary citizens.
From the Film Institute in Pune to the CBI in Delhi, there is a perceived pattern in appointments. Does Mr. Modi want key people in institutions to be personally loyal to him?
One aspect is personal loyalty, the other is ideological position. It’s basically the RSS and the BJP trying to capture as many Indian institutions as possible. They did it to the Planning Commission, to the RBI. I don’t think they believe in the idea that India should decide what it wants to do. So these institutions are of no use to them, they are simply hindrances. They just want ‘yes men’ in these institutions so that Narendra Modiji has the space to take a decision as damaging as demonetisation. This is not something a Congress Prime Minister would ever think of doing. Even if he /she imagined doing this, the Congress party’s respect for institutions would ensure that it is practically impossible for him to do it. The right-thinking people in the RBI said that. I believe the last governor refused to go ahead with it. There is no space in the Modi government for the ones who disagree.
I think this is an RSS-Narendra Modi-run government. I think this is a government that has already decided what will suit India best. They therefore, feel no need to consult institutions like the Planning Commission or RBI. These are institutions that house Indian knowledge, years of experience of dealing with our issues. The RBI is not just a building, it’s years of knowledge about our financial systems.
The role of the Prime Minister and the government system is to absorb this knowledge, listen to these people, and respect India’s knowledge. To work out a way even through disagreement. This Prime Minister just decides things and asks the RBI to sign off. If you don’t want to sign off on these decisions — leave — we will put someone else in your place, who won’t have that problem.
Do you think there is a momentum in the country to build an Opposition alliance ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
Poor people and, by the way, even business people now feel that demonetisation was a mistake. This sentiment is only going to grow until 2019. The Opposition has to build on that sentiment and deliver an alternative idea, deliver a vision for this country.
Narendra Modi promised us a vision, he promised us Make in India – two crore jobs a year. He’s given us less than a lakh last year. This year, he’s generated no jobs. We have the highest level of unemployment in the last seven years. He has failed on jobs; he has pretty much failed on education. I don’t know where he has been successful.
Is this because the Opposition has failed to pin him down?
There is no failure on the part of the Opposition. We are going to win the next election. What I am pointing to is Mr. Modi’s inability to carry anybody with him. To his way of decision-making, his unilateral way of operating, not even taking senior members of his Cabinet along — they don’t feel part of a team. One man can’t run this country.
Do you feel that the Aam Aadmi Party is a big threat to the Congress? That it may occupy the Congress party’s space?
No I don’t think so. The Congress is a different idea than the Aam Aadmi Party. The AAP operates very much like the BJP. One man decides everything and there is no conversation, there is no listening to anybody. That’s not what the Congress is. The Congress is basically a consensus-making structure. It allows conversations to thrive, it brings in large numbers of voices.
Some of your critics may say, that’s how the Congress is also run. It is a party that is dominated by one family.
That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the Congress. These people obviously haven’t sat in on a Congress meeting. The idea that it’s run by one family is not true. Dr. Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister of the country for 10 years. The Congress is a very democratic institution.
I had an AAP gentleman come in this [Wednesday] morning to join the Congress. And, I asked him why he was joining the Congress. He said I have no voice; no one listens to me. The Congress party is a highly democratic system and a lot of conversations take place. This, in fact, is a major part of my learning as well.
The design of the Congress party is about listening. That’s what we do at our meetings – we sit, people talk and we discuss, listen and decide. That’s not the design of the Aam Aadmi Party or the BJP. They tell you what they think. We in Congress listen to what you say and then we try to build a structure. And, you can see the results. If you see the Congress party and the type of policies we come out with, they are generally well thought through.
In these conversations, people in your party must have asked you to take the top position in the Congress formally. Can we expect that to happen soon?
That is for the party to decide.
You’ve said that every 10 years the Congress rewrites its policy platform. So what are the contours of your new policy platform?
India needs to solve its job problem. It simply cannot carry on the way Mr. Modi is doing. Mr. Modi, for all his speeches, is failing India with regard to job creation. That is one central idea.
I think completely differently from Mr. Modi on jobs. Mr. Modi thinks that job creation can happen top down. I think job creation has to happen by bringing the Indian people together. There is a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge in this country. My belief is that this knowledge hasn’t been allowed to unleash itself. That is what we have to build on.
Mr. Modi’s vision of Make in India is a top down vision. He meets the same 10-20 bureaucrats, the same business people and then he expects that jobs will be created. They won’t.
If you want to create jobs — revive the leather industry in Kanpur, revive the brass industry in Moradabad. Create a vision for the country, bring people in, give them financial support, give them infrastructure support.
How is India going to compete with China? Pretty much everything today is manufactured in China. We need to have a response to that. Mr. Modi hasn’t clearly told us how he wants to take on the challenge. There is a lot of room for cooperation, but we have to have a vision for the next five, ten years. He has failed on that.
You also have to think about how you will make education and healthcare affordable. In an urbanised India, you simply cannot operate where large parts of your population don’t have access to healthcare and education.
Then there is infrastructure and how this infrastructure fits into the job creation model. I think it can be done. I am pretty certain that by utilising India’s strengths, India’s big businesses, small and medium businesses, India’s agriculture and India’s youngsters; we can develop a vision that will give serious competition to anyone in the world.
But we are not really working on it. Mr. Modi comes up with the idea of Make in India, but I haven’t seen anything robust happening on the ground.
The Congress has been reduced to 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha.
I think a number of things happened. We were in power for 10 years, a certain amount of anger was there. It was a very well orchestrated campaign against the Congress by the BJP, RSS and other forces. Oil prices were at an all-time high and people were a bit tired of 10 years of Congress party [rule]. But the reality is that the Congress party is the organisation that can give you a vision. A vision cannot come from one man, from the mind of Narendra Modi, it has to come from a conversation with India, with all segments of India.
There has to be a balance in the system, everybody has a role, everybody needs space, but we need a push in this direction. The RSS and BJP are not capable of having that conversation.
Have you ever met anybody from the RSS and tried to have a conversation?
I meet the BJP-RSS MPs in Parliament.
I have spent quite a lot of time reading about the Upanishads, the Vedas and the different scriptures. Whenever I try to engage the RSS people in Parliament on this, it’s pretty clear they actually don’t understand these scriptures, they don’t read these scriptures. And their response to me is: ‘tumhe nahin maloom’(you don’t know). We know it, there’s no way you can know it. We don’t need to ask anybody what it is, we know already. That’s the model. And that will not take India forward.
A vision cannot come from one man, from the mind of Narendra Modi, it has to come from a conversation with India, with all segments of India.