The ruling BJP is blighted by divisions while opposition parties in the country are united like never before, Congress president Rahul Gandhi tells HT in an interview covering a wide range of subjects from the unemployment crisis to agrarian distress, the Rafale jet deal, and the best way forward for the nation. Edited excerpts:
Q. Let’s start with the Budget. It seems very populist, targeted at farmers, there is something for industrial workers.
A. Rs 17 per day for a farmer family is an insult. Obviously, the Modi government is trapped with nowhere to go. Hence, these are panic stop gap reactions but it is not going to work.
Q. But I think it is relative. Isn’t it? According to the last NSSO data, rural agricultural households earn around Rs 5,200 a month, so for them Rs 500 more is Rs 5,700?
A. My understanding is that the farm loan waiver in Congress ruled states far exceeds what PM Modi has done in this budget.
Q. As far as agriculture is concerned, your government (UPA) announced a farm loan waiver when in power, and then in three states where you won recently. In the last 18-24 months, several BJP-ruled states have also announced loan waivers . What in your mind is the fundamental problem with agriculture?
A. Let me just point out one thing. The question is not about farm loan waiver alone. The question is that Mr Narendra Modi has waived Rs 3.5 lakh crore bank loans of 20-25 crony friends. Hence, farm loan waiver is a question of fairness also. Simple issue is, if you can waive Anil Ambani’s loans, why can’t you help the farmers of this country by loan waiver?
Another issue is that is the agriculture crisis is a creation of Mr Narendra Modi and his government’s attitude, who view India’s farmers as liabilities. I view them as strategic assets.
I believe that the second green revolution is absolutely possible in India. In fact, it is critical. What would it entail? It would entail building infrastructure, connecting farms, setting up food processing units, providing farmers with logistic support and standing by him. This is not happening today. Can you believe that districts have been handed over to individual corporates for profiteering out of crop insurance scheme? That’s against the very fundamental rule of crop insurance benefitting the farmer, rather than the insurer. This government handed over insurance to Mr Anil Ambani’s company for the whole of Jammu & Kashmir. It is a systematic hand-out of India’s assets and wealth to 20-30 crony friends. This is happening in the defence sector, in the agriculture sector, in infrastructure, and everywhere.
Q. What is your plan for agriculture?
A. When someone is in crisis, you support them. You have a strategy for them. You don’t react in fits and starts only when the opposition questions you. Mr Narendra Modi was asleep, as far as agriculture is concerned until we started to point out the failures. India is emotionally connected to agriculture. We feel the pain and tribulations of our farmers. Mr Narendra Modi might think agriculture is irrelevant, we think the opposite. We think farmers are part of the economic structure and agriculture needs to be integrated effectively with our economy.
Q. What do you think went wrong with Indian agriculture, since it’s not a new problem?
A. I don’t think it is the question of what went wrong. Things change. Globalisation has changed the world. First green revolution’s strategies don’t work anymore. India needs a composite strategy. That’s my main issue with Mr Narendra Modi. He doesn’t have a strategy either for agriculture or anything else.
Q. One of the big things that has happened in agriculture is food prices globally have collapsed, and not just in India. Prices have gone down and there is only so much that the state can acquire.
A. Markets are far more volatile in terms of rapid price differentiation, than they were before. International trends and ever increasing input costs have exposed the farmers making them more vulnerable. But it doesn’t mean that our farmers cannot operate in that climate. If you provide the requisite protection and support and you structure it properly, it is doable.
Q. Doesn’t it need more market orientation?
A. There is no magic wand. It needs a comprehensive and composite policy and strategic intervention.
Q. Also, this equation of industrial loan restructuring to farm loan waivers, do you think it is really apt because you are not waiving the loan, it’s still there?
A. You are definitely waiving the loan. If you have taken a bank loan and you don’t pay it back, you call it NPAs. Why don’t you call it NPAs for farmers? Why don’t you use the same word for farmers? Farmers become defaulters, defaulting corporates become NPAs – why?
Q. There is an NPA resolution process that seems to be working.
A. How many farmers can walk into Mr Arun Jaitley’s office or to a resolution professional and seek a 60%-75% haircut? That’s the crux of it.
Q. Another issue is jobs. You must have seen the report that says unemployment is on the rise. What is your party’s strategy?
A. You are not going to get jobs from 15-20 biggest industrialists in the country alone. You will generate jobs from unleashing the huge potential of micro, small and medium businesses. I am not saying that biggest businesses should not have space. They should absolutely have a space, but micro, small and medium businesses should have access to the banks and policy. Why is it that the top 40 businesses have Rs 12 lakh crore of NPAs and the small and medium businesses have only a fraction thereof? Obviously, they don’t have the same access.
How many of them can walk into FM or PM’s office? Mr Anil Ambani flies with the Prime Minister to France. Can a micro, small and medium businessman do that? Does Mr Narendra Modi call micro, small and medium businessmen ‘bhai’ – Mehul bhai, Nirav bhai? The answer is, no.
Second, every single district in India has some special skill, capability and a unique product that they produce. Link these to the manufacturing structure. Mr Modi keeps talking about start-ups. How many start-ups has he created? So, you cannot completely ignore and disrespect skills and then say we are going to enable manufacturing. There is a disconnect in Mr Modi’s mind between skill, capability, India’s unique knowledge and the architecture of manufacturing.
There is huge amount of skill in India – you go to Moradabad, Kanpur, Surat, Ludhiana, Sriperumbudur. But that skill has no access to banks. Give them access to the banking system, give them support, protect them, and see what happens. I subscribe to the view that India can compete and surpass China in manufacturing. China has successfully taken its traditional knowledge hubs and connected them to the global economy.
You respect engineers, you respect lawyers, but you don’t respect people who toil with their hands. Who founded Honda, who founded Ford, who founded Mitsubishi? Mechanics who were supported by the banking system. Now look at the Indians who have started car companies, how many of them are mechanics?
It’s a mindset and also the approach in the thinking of the BJP. The BJP fundamentally believes in hierarchy. For them, Mr Modi is the centre of all knowledge. It begins and ends there. You can ask this to Mr Gadkari, Ms Sushma Swaraj. According to the BJP, there is only one person with understanding and knowledge and that is Mr Modi. With that design, there is no way you can identify skill or knowledge. I sit with a farmer I am absolutely convinced with zero doubt that he understands farming better than I do. The Congress party as a system respects skill and knowledge. You ask any big corporate today. They will tell you that we supported Mr Modi fully and will also tell you it was the biggest disaster. They will tell you that in private.
The question is about listening, respect – it is not about policy. Policy comes after you listen and after you give respect. The whole idea is to give power to these voices. Not to crush these voices and turn yourself into an unquestionable God.
Q. One of the ideas you spoke in recent weeks is minimum guaranteed income to address the distress faced by poor people in rural and urban areas. Do you think this will lead to some issues over how these people are selected?
A. This is a revolutionary idea. It is a minimum guarantee income. It is a direction. It is a commitment that we will protect our weakest people. It is going to be done in a progressive manner and it is going to be well thought through and carried out. What we have placed on the table is a commitment. We have been doing the homework for six months now. We are going to broaden that discussion and create a policy that will work.
What Mr Modi doesn’t accept is that India today is in a crisis. India has a massive job crisis, a humongous agriculture crisis, and Indian youngsters are deeply distressed about their future. This is generating a huge amount of anger. The Congress party will assuage the anger and give a vision going forward. Linking skills to banking and political systems, listening to people and respecting skills is the answer. There are lots of people who are poor and deeply concerned about their future. We have to give them a sense that the Government of India is going to look after you, protect your interests and move forward.
Q. That’s the segment at which the minimum income is targeted at?
And this will be more substantive than the amounts you have criticised like the government has given Rs 6,000 to farmers?
This is a principle. We structured the principle and the idea. Now we have got experts who are going to go into the details of this idea and they will flesh out the details. We are not going to promise a guaranteed income to our people that doesn’t have the semblance of a substantial income.
Q. And will it replace existing benefits?
A. That’s not the intention. The intention is not to replace the existing schemes.
Q. Something like MNREGA would continue?
A. We would think so. Yes.
Q. The BJP’s main campaign plank is the issue of leadership. While they have Narendra Modi, the ruling party claims the Opposition is synonymous with chaos, with multiple leaders and competing ambitions. Do you think this is your biggest vulnerability in the 2019 election?
A. Mr Modi claims to understand Hinduism. If he reads the essence of Hindu philosophy, he will find that order comes out of chaos and chaos comes out of order. What you will find is that all these forces that are standing together are absolutely united on a couple of things. One we have a job crisis; two, we have an agriculture crisis; and three, we are not going to let Mr Modi and the RSS destroy India’s institutions. But if I speak to Mr Gadkari, Ms Swaraj, Mr Rajnath Singh and their entire leadership, I wouldn’t be surprised to find absolute rejection for Mr Narendra Modi’s style of functioning. So, the division is actually in the BJP and what is keeping that division publicly out of sight is fear. Privately, it is visible. We do talk to these people. So, what Mr Modi has not understood is that Mr Modi is only Mr Modi’s leader. That’s it. His entire party is waiting for the day to push him aside. That day is not far.
Q. So, you don’t think the lack of that one candidate is vulnerability for you?
A. I have not seen in my 15 years of political career the type of Opposition unity that I am seeing today. Mr Chandrababu Naidu fought us tooth and nail, and now he is working with us.
Q. The latest CBI-related incident that has happened in West Bengal, what are your views on that?
A. Every institution in India is facing Mr Modi’s autocratic backlash. Mr Modi believes that he is the Lord of India, just like the British believed.
That is just not how we operate. We have been in government, we have been in Opposition and we believe that you simply do not touch institutions or attack India’s federal structure. You protect institutions because institutions are the soul of India. And Mr Modi is not bigger than India. India is bigger than everything and everyone.
You have a political fight, you engage with the Opposition but you don’t ever make yourself the judge. Because that is challenging the Constitution and that is challenging our country. And that would be anti-national.
Q. A lot of people see parallels between how Narendra Modi acts and how your grandmother used to run the country. Do you see any parallels?
A. I think that’s an insult to Indiraji. My grandmother’s decisions came from love and affection, her work was uniting in nature and she carried along people and cared for India’s poor.
Mr Modi’s decisions come from anger and hatred and his decisions divide the country. And Mr Narendra Modi has absolutely no empathy for the weak and the poor.
Q. Why did the alliance with SP and BSP in UP not work out?
A. I personally respect Mayawatiji and Akhilesh Yadavji. I am fond of them. And in their own way, they have given tremendous service to this nation, particularly Mayawatiji. They have the right to partner with each other and come together to fight elections. We also have the right to say that we would like to fight for our ideology in Uttar Pradesh. We will work with the SP and the BSP because we have ideological agreement on a number of issues with them. But we are not going to give up our right to push our ideology in Uttar Pradesh either.
Q. So, there will be some kind of contest?
A. It is fluid. I see a political space in UP opening up for the Congress. My personal view is that actually the Congress has a huge opportunity now because a space is going to open in Uttar Pradesh which is the Congress core space.
Q. Which is?
A. Mayawatiji’s community is the dominant community among the Dalits. That’s the same with Akhileshji and, that’s the same with the BJP. There is a feeling in Uttar Pradesh that if you come from a non-dominant, small community, if you are a person who is disenfranchised – a farmer, a labourer — then there is no room for you. And that is the exact space that the Congress works in. I am pretty confident that I’ve put Jyotiraditya [Scindia] and Priyanka [Gandhi] there. I am pretty confident that they will lay the structure for the Congress’s revival in the state.
Q. How did you revive your party while still building partnerships? That’s the big challenge in coalitions?
A. By respecting your opponent’s space and ideology but by defending yours.
Q. You spoke about appointing Priyanka Gandhi as the general secretary in charge of east UP? How do you see her role evolving over the next few years? Will her focus remain on east UP or will she have a national role?
A. As a general secretary of the party, she has, by definition, a national role. As Congress president, I am keen that the party is revived in UP, Bihar, Bengal and Tamil Nadu. That’s quite a big job – it’s not a small job. I am reorienting the Congress party towards successful completion of jobs. I give a job, and then I give another job based on the success of that job.
Q. One of the big issues this year will be the Ram temple. The Congress’s view on this has never been expressly articulated.
A. It’s not correct to say that. The Congress party respects India’s institutional and judicial processes. This matter is sub-judice. It would not be fair for me to opine as the highest court in the country is deliberating on it. There is absolute clarity.
Q. So, you will not say whether you would like to see the temple there?
A. I would say that what the Supreme Court decides is what the Congress and everyone will accept.
Q. It’s now fairly obvious that Congress will not do as badly as it did in 2014. But where do you see your big gains coming from?
A. I don’t see a single state where the Congress party will not improve. We will improve in the North-east, Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra, in northern belt, probably in UP, Bihar. There is an undercurrent of anger against Mr Narendra Modi. It is not fully visibly right now, but it is showing. The pain Mr Narendra Modi has caused to India, particularly the poor people, through demonetisation and GST, ignoring farmers and destroying the economy that was functional and resilient, has created a backlash. You saw the tip of the backlash in three recent elections. Please also note that the Congress fought Mr Narendra Modi in his home state of Gujarat and our idea and vision found large scale acceptance. He barely escaped defeat.
Q. How would you define yourself in terms of your political worldview? On the economy, your positions resemble the Left; on religion, you increasingly resemble the Right; and on free speech issues, you have a liberal streak. Which ideology do you relate to the most?
A. I don’t subscribe to the paradigm of Left, Right or Centre. I subscribe to the paradigm of voice. I subscribe to the paradigm that everybody in India needs to be heard. Where there is unfairness, it needs to be targeted, That simply means, if somebody is unfair to biggest industrialists in the country, I will be the first person to try and make it fair. At the same time, if somebody is being unfair to the farmers of this country, I am the first person you will find protecting their interests. That goes for the small and medium businesses too.
I am pragmatic. I will not define myself by saying that I am left of centre or right of centre. If I find there is something right of the centre that needs to be done, I will do it. If I find something left of the centre needs to be done, I will do it. I believe fundamentally in India. I believe that everybody here, from the biggest industrialist to the weakest person, has a role to play. The most important thing is that the leadership in this country should make them feel and believe this. I do not use the type of language that my opponents use. I believe in non-violence. So, where I draw the line is when somebody in India is violent against somebody else. That’s my main issue with the RSS — you are spreading hatred and violence, you are creating an atmosphere that is weakening India. I will fight you for it.
Q. In terms of religion, you haven’t been averse to going to temples which again one would associate with slightly right of centre …
A. Why would you associate going to temple with right of centre? There is nothing right wing about going to temples. Somebody invites me to a temple, I visit the temple with respect and faith. If somebody invites me to a mosque, then why should I insult him by saying that I will not visit? I am a public person.
Q. What I meant is that it is seen as an effort at what is being called soft Hindutva?
A. What is soft Hindutva? Where did you get the idea? If you asked Buddha or you asked Mahaveer or you asked Guru Nanak, or any of the great people of this country to go to a temple — do you think they would decline? Guru Nanak went to Mecca.
Q. Still, when a politician goes there…
A. No, I absolutely refuse to accept this. Anybody including a politician has the right to pay respects and have faith. And I absolutely refuse the right wing to tell me that you can’t go to a temple.
If the Opposition has the numbers, are you keen on becoming Prime Minister yourself or would you be happy to take a back seat, and support a regional leader, even another leader from the Congress?
The Opposition has discussed it. Our primary objective is to defeat the RSS-BJP combine and defend India’s constitutional values. That is goal number one. Once goal number one is achieved, then we will decide who is going to be the Prime Minister. This is a tool that is used by the BJP to divide the Opposition. We are not going to fall for that.
Q. You are convinced that there is something wrong with the Rafale deal?
A. Let me put it to you like this. I know that there is something wrong.
Q. Okay, what is wrong in your opinion?
A.One, the decision to make the new deal was Mr Narendra Modi’s and Mr Narendra Modi’s alone. Mr [Manohar] Parrikar (the then defence minister) was not involved. This was a bypass surgery done individually by Mr Narendra Modi. People in the Air Force, people in the defence and finance ministries, were all bypassed by him. Secondly, an aircraft the UPA negotiated for Rs 526 crore was bought for Rs 1,600 crore. This is a fact available on the annual report of Dassault.
You don’t accept what they say about inflation, function of time, weaponisation, customisation?
A. No. Our RFP [Request For Proposal] included an aircraft that was fully loaded with weaponry and avionics. Mr Arun Jaitley just likes to lie about it. Not only this, the French ex-President [Francois Hollande] turned around and revealed that Mr Narendra Modi asked him to give the deal to Mr Anil Ambani.
Q. But he’s not going to make the planes…
A. It doesn’t matter. HAL [Hindustan Aeronautics Limited] was going to make the planes, and also execute the Rs 30,000 cr offset contract. Modiji sacrificed the tranfer of technology and snatched the contract from HAL. What does Mr Anil Ambani’s company have that makes it qualified to carry out the Rafale deal offset contract? Has he got any defence experience? No. What is his financial position? His companies have a debt of Rs 1 lakh crore. And why was he on the delegation in Paris, when Modiji signed the deal?
Q. I am asking that are we just taking an offset component and looking it as a whole deal?
A. Please read Dassault’s Annual report again and you will have the answer. Let’s just ask another question. Did Mr Parrikar say he has nothing to do with this contract? It is public. Why did the defence minister publicly say that I have nothing to do with it? The only reason was to cover himself. I still can’t understand why Mr Narendra Modi signed this deal in such a blatant manner violating defence procurement procedure and bypassing the Cabinet Committee on Security .
Q. What do you have to say about the court’s verdict in this case?
A. The court’s verdict is founded upon the CAG report, but the CAG report neither exists, nor has been sent to the Public Accounts Committee. Obviously, something went turtle. You can’t hide a lie. It’s not possible. And you will see that the truth is going to come out.
Q. Is Rafale a big campaign issue? Do you think it worked in the assembly elections?
A. Mr Modi’s credibility is gone. Do me a favour, when you go out of here, when you stop at a red light, look at someone who is not really rich, and say ‘chowkidar’, and see if he answers ‘chor hai’. When I am riding around Delhi, I hear them saying, ‘chowkidar, chor hai’. So, Mr Modi’s lie that he is a crusader against corruption has been destroyed. Mr Modi is corruption. Mr Modi is protecting the very forces he claimed he would fight. Everybody has understood it. Now the question of the legality of Rafale, that will take its own course of investigation. If Mr Modi has nothing to hide, why is he scared of facing a JPC, despite the fact BJP members have majority in the JPC?
Q. So, if your party comes back to power in any form, will you revisit the deal?
A. My understanding is that Rafale is a good aircraft. I am not an expert on military aircraft and negotiations. These questions will be asked to the experts. And if they feel that something needs to be done, it’ll be done. I am not the judge, jury and executioner. What I can tell you is that if any criminality has been carried out, and I suspect it has, then a process will take place to find out what exactly happened, who exactly gave who the kickback, and the relevant punishment. You can see Mr Narendra Modi’s demeanor — he knows that he has been caught.