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It’s been a long, gruelling campaign for the Lok Sabha elections. And Congress president Rahul Gandhi, 48, has been right in the eye of the storm, coming off his party’s lowest tally ever in 2014 and fighting a grim battle for centrestage, fending off vicious personal attacks, the frustration of seeing alliances made and unmade, braving rebukes and rebuffs—but “with humility”. He spoke to Outlook on board a flight for a leg of campaigning in Punjab, touching on a range of issues—from Modi, the economy, political openness, the generational change in Congress, and the charge of being the BJP’s B-team. Excerpts:
We are almost at the end of a gruelling campaign. Who are you betting on post May 23?
I’m betting on the people of India. There’s no one else to bet on.
And you think they will be the winners?
They are wise, they have understanding and whatever they do is correct.
Were they correct in 2014?
The people are always correct. In 2014, the Congress had a particular model for India that we had used successfully in the 1990s, and had tweaked and used it successfully again in 2004. Around 2012, the model collapsed; it wasn’t working as India had changed. But we went to the election with the same model, making our defeat inevitable. And we had also made mistakes. With 10 years in power, some arrogance had crept into our leaders. This was compounded by a bad economic situation. There was growing anger in India and India picked an angry person to lead her. Narendra Modi had a great opportunity, but couldn’t make the transition needed for him to succeed as PM.
Will they be right again in 2019? Meanwhile, is it possible that they might be feeling cheated?
I don’t know if they were cheated, or if Mr Modi didn’t have the strength to change himself. Cheated implies that Mr Modi could have done it. I’m not so sure about that. It could be that he just didn’t care. The people expected a thinking person, a listening person, a compassionate person. Someone who would look into the future. But they soon discovered that Mr Modi wasn’t who they thought he was. Worse, his gaze was fixed firmly on the past, instead of helping chart a course for India’s future.
Now you’re positioning yourself as an alternative to the present dispensation….
This isn’t about how I want to or don’t want to position myself. Democracy is the instrument of the people. The people are wise. They can’t be fooled by “positioning”. They choose for themselves. And if they’re choosing for themselves, every decision they make is the right decision.
What has changed in five years in the Congress? We see the same old faces, mostly of those voted out in 2014.
Not at all. There’s a layer of youngsters in place, in every state. Change requires a transition. You can’t just suddenly turn around, snap your fingers and expect change. There’s a transition underway in the Congress. You can see an Ashok Gehlot and standing next to him, you can see a Sachin Pilot; you see an Ashok Chavan and standing next to him there’s a Rajiv Satav; you can see a Varsha Gaikwad and a Challa Kumar alongside a P. Chidambaram. You can see a Bhupesh Baghel and a T.S. Singh Deo. You see a Digvijaya Singh and besides him is a Jyotiraditya Scindia. In every state, you will see young leaders full of energy, standing shoulder to shoulder with our experienced leaders. What we’ve done is nurture the younger people and tell them that they are now on a positive trajectory. There is an experienced person, and you are going to work with them and learn from them. This will help you move forward.
A lot of people say the Congress has willy-nilly become the BJP’s B-team. You are not talking about Muslims….
That’s rubbish! On minorities and on every single citizen of this country, my position is very clear. Every Indian, regardless of his or her caste, religion, gender, state and language, will be protected. Every Indian has the right to express himself or herself and dream of a great future. The truth is there is an ideological attack taking place in India today. If we’re the BJP’s B-team, why is Mr Modi attacking the Congress 24/7? Obviously, the Congress is fighting the BJP and Mr Modi effectively. Mr Modi recently said, “You cannot dismantle me.” Well, we have dismantled him. He is now a figment of the past. We have closed every single door for him. He thought he was bigger than India. We showed him that the people of India were bigger than him.
As an organisation, the Congress has a deep connect with India. Yes, we are chaotic, but we listen—even to our opponents. The BJP-RSS don’t listen; they think they know the answer. We search for the answer and we don’t make the mistake of believing that those answers are simple. NYAY—the idea that we should give money to poor people actually came from Mr Modi. In 2014, he lied and said he would give Rs 15 lakh to each Indian. We found out the truth. It’s not Rs 15 lakh; it’s Rs 3.6 lakh in five years to five lakh families. NYAY will benefit not only the poor, but will jumpstart the Indian economy. I’m pointing this out so you understand that we listen and then we work—with the truth. We don’t work with lies, and with our ears shut and our eyes closed. So no, we’re definitely not the B-team of the BJP!
But on key issues like Sabarimala you have taken a 180-degree turn. Your stand is similar to the BJP’s….
On Sabarimala, my position has been very clear. The people of Kerala made their position very clear. We believe people should be allowed to express themselves as far as their religion is concerned. My entire unit in Kerala said this is the will of the people of Kerala. I respect their opinion.
But it was more of a practical strategy for you, right?
No, it was not a practical strategy.
In that case, if the people in Ayodhya say they want a temple there, then a temple should be built.
The Ayodhya issue is crystal clear. It is subjudice. The Supreme Court will take a decision on that issue and we are committed to abiding by that decision. I’m not going to comment on something subjudice.
Do you think that, as the party president, you spoke enough and loudly about lynchings?
Absolutely. I have spoken out against all forms of injustice and violence, including lynchings, attacks on Adivasis and Dalits, and violence against women. I will always speak out against injustice, violence, oppression and discrimination.
Do you think somewhere down the line the Opposition has failed to project a united front to take on the BJP?
No, the plan was to provide a united opposition against the BJP and we’ve done that across the board. We’ve got alliances in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Jharkhand, J&K, Kerala and Bihar. In Bengal and UP, secular formations will sweep the elections and the BJP is going to be decimated in both states. I understand that journalists have to create a narrative! You have to sell newspapers and magazines, and I get that. But the truth is the Opposition is clearly coming together. You can see the pain being inflicted on the BJP and the PM. It has gone so bad for him that he’s now confused about how a radar works! He’s completely lost the plot. I just saw that video of him saying he was using the internet in 1987? He’s dysfunctional now. The idea of Modi, a leader who will come on a white horse and fix India, that idea has been destroyed.
Do you think a coalition in UP and Delhi would have been a better idea to keep the BJP out?
We work with reality. And the reality is that, even without a formal alliance in UP, for instance, I’ve told Priyanka and Jyotiraditya Scindia to fight as hard as they can to win the seats where we are in the game. In seats, where we are feeling like we’re not in the game, make sure the BJP loses. So the energy of the Opposition is united in UP and you can see the results. The BJP is not getting more than 10 seats there.
The Congress will win at least four seats in Delhi.
At this stage, this might be a little speculative, but in the case of a hung parliament, with no one getting a majority, will all the Opposition leaders like you, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Naveen Patnaik, Jagan Mohan Reddy and K. Chandrashekar Rao be able to work together?
On May 23, the people of India will decide what is going to happen. And the Opposition is mature enough to accept whatever decision is taken. And we are flexible. We will give a solid government to the people.
What role do you see for yourself?
Whatever role the people of India decide.
You once said that power was poison. Have you changed that position?
Power is poison, but you have to deal with it. You can’t run away from it.
So next time around, if an opportunity comes or a situation comes.…
On the 23rd, the people of India will decide. And I will salute that decision whatever it is and I will act accordingly.
On May 24 morning, if a situation evolves and the people say they want you as PM, you’re not going to shy away?
I said I’m not going to pre-judge. I’m not arrogant enough to say that before the people of India decide, Rahul Gandhi has formed an opinion. Let the people of India decide and, after that decision is taken, this question will be answered.
But are you up for any responsibility depending on what the people decide?
Whatever the people of India say, I will do.
Would you be willing to extend outside support?
You’ve asked me the same question in multiple ways, but my answer is the same. On the 23rd, the people of India will decide, and whatever they decide, I will salute.
In the manifesto, you’ve promised statehood to Pondicherry and not for Delhi. Why is that? That’s one of the main planks that Mr Kejriwal is fighting on—full statehood for Delhi.
The main problem with Mr Kejriwal is that he came to power with a large set of promises, which he hasn’t been able to deliver on. Mr Kejriwal should stop making excuses and focus on his work as CM.
What if a situation arises that the non-Congress parties come together and they need Congress support from outside?
I’m not going to pre-judge anything. My goal right now is to defeat Mr Modi and the BJP. I know you want to take the conversation away from that, I know you want to divert it to ‘Is the Opposition united or fighting against each other?’ But I’m not going to fall into that trap. I’m very clear, no conversation is going to be held about government formation and leadership until the people have spoken on the 23rd. All we are going to speak about is what we need to do to beat Mr Modi and the BJP.
And then anything is possible?
Let’s see. The primary goal is saving the Constitution and the institutions of this country.
Modi wishes Rahul on his birthday.
Don’t you think that with all this election rhetoric and by personally attacking you, Mr Modi has to an extent been successful in diverting attention from real issues?
We poll regularly during the election. The number one issue is jobs, number two is farmers, number three is the economy and number four is corruption. This hasn’t changed over the course of the election. I’ll tell you what has changed though. When we started the election, 27 per cent of people had heard of Rafale and thought Modi was corrupt. As we come to the end of the campaign, that number has risen. Now, 68 per cent of the people believe Mr Modi did some corruption in Rafale. When you study an election campaign, a successful campaign is one that picks up the core issues early, and runs with those issues through the campaign. Mr Modi is dithering. First, he said ‘Phir Se Modi Sarkar’, then he said ‘Mumkin’, then ‘Vikas’, then he said ‘Nationalism’, then he went back to ‘Vikas’, now he’s on ‘Dynasty and Family’. So you can see there is confusion and he’s running around looking for anything that can save him. But, nothing is going to save him. As a phenomenon, we have dismantled Mr Modi.
You have been focusing on corruption, and you’re saying it is gaining traction. When you talk about probing Rafale, do you mean probing Anil Ambani or will you go to the extent of probing Mr Modi as well?
You don’t probe an individual; you find out if the law was broken. And if the law was broken, you take action against those who broke it.
Against anyone who broke it?
This isn’t going to be a vindictive exercise. Procedure was broken, the French President clearly says he was told certain things by the Indian PM; defence ministry officials have raised serious objections in writing about the parallel negotiations undertaken by the PMO, and those objections have even been published in The Hindu. The Rafale deal is seriously problematic and it has to be investigated.
Would you be willing to scrap it?
The Rafale deal will be investigated. What we will do is an objective inquiry, not a vindictive one. It won’t be a witch-hunt. A decision on whether or not the deal should be scrapped can be made only after such an enquiry is conducted.
NYAY has been a game-changer, but there’s still some anxiety about it. Some of your leaders say it is a top-up scheme; others say it will subsume other subsidies. What exactly is it?
Mr Modi demonetised the economy, which was an absolutely crazy thing to do. He took the purchasing capacity out of the hands of the poorest of the poor and even the middle class. Our economy took a severe beating with demonetisation. But Mr Modi didn’t stop there. After that, he did Gabbar Singh Tax! The combination of demonetisation and Gabbar Singh Tax, broke the back of the informal sector, and of lakhs of small and medium industries. As a result, today we have the highest unemployment in 45 years. We have an economic crisis, an unemployment crisis and an agriculture crisis. The banking system has practically shut down with even working capital credit not available to small businesses.
So NYAY has two goals. One, give support to 25 crore poor people and pull them out of poverty once and for all. Second, inject money directly and quickly into the economy. The moment you inject money into the economy, disposable incomes will increase, and purchasing capacity will pick up. The people who get the money will start to buy goods. Factories will need to hire youngsters to meet the rising demand for their goods and that will help employment pick up. So NYAY is an attempt to jumpstart an economy Mr Modi has devastated.
Rahul Gandhi speaks to Outlook.
Do you think any of his schemes like Swachh Bharat, Ujjwala and Jan Dhan Yojana actually worked?
You see, that’s like saying you have an aircraft and you’ve blown up the aircraft in the sky; its wings have fallen off, the windows have come out, and the passenger is sitting in the sky in his seat and falling through the air, but you’re saying his seat belt is working! So okay, it’s working, but you’re going to die. So there’s simply no point in talking about this scheme or that. It’s irrelevant when the economy itself has been blown up. We are now in an economic freefall. It’s going to be a very difficult task to undo the damage Mr Modi has done.
So you’re not promising any paradise?
It’s going to be hard work. We’re faced with a complex international environment. We’re faced with an emerging China. We’ve been hit with economic devastation and unemployment. So no, it’s not going to be easy. These problems can’t be solved by any one man. India has to push together as one nation. That’s why I’m against Mr Modi’s politics. He divides everyone. India today can’t afford division. India today needs unity. India today needs everyone to stand together and say we need to push together and get ourselves out of this mess. With love, not anger. India needs to remove anger from its heart. Because anger is confusing India and hurting her future.
Do you think all these regional leaders—Mayawati, Akhilesh, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee—have it in them to discard anger and work together?
When you say, “these regional leaders”, this is not a correct description. They are representatives of the voice of this country. Mayawatiji represents a certain group of people just as Stalinji represents the Tamil people and Sharad Pawarji represents Maharashtrians. They’re not just regional leaders; they represent the voice of India. Cumulatively, without them, without all these voices, there’s no India. Even Mr Modi represents certain voices and that has to be respected.
Do you think the Congress should have given more leadership roles to Muslims and Dalits? Do you think they have got their due?
We have some great leaders. Mr Ghulam Nabi Azadji, one of our seniormost leaders, comes from a minority community. (P.L.) Puniaji, who is running Chhattisgarh is a Dalit, and an absolutely stellar leader. We have many tall leaders in the Congress representing a wide range of religions, communities and regions.
But do they have an appeal beyond their pocketboroughs or constituencies?
Of course! The media doesn’t focus enough on them, that’s all.
Do you think you should have joined the government in 2004 or maybe in 2009?
No, I don’t think so. I had made a commitment to Manmohan Singh ji that he is going to run the government.
No, not as PM.…
My entering the government in any capacity would have disrupted Dr Manmohan Singhji. And I didn’t want to do that. I respect and love Dr Manmohan Singhji.
You’re batting for 33 per cent women’s reservation. Wouldn’t you have set a good example by nominating 33 per cent women candidates?
I would’ve liked to, but again, it’s a process. We’ve started that process of building capability. We have an excellent Mahila Congress president in Sushmita Dev, who is identifying solid women leaders from around India and building them up. We want to see a Congress that has a large, serious, presence of women.
Apart from being the Congress president, you are also a citizen. An allegation of sexual harassment was recently made against the Chief Justice of India. The way the Supreme Court disposed it, a large section of women were very unhappy about it. What do you feel?
Women’s rights should be protected. However, I’m not going to comment on the processes of the Supreme Court.
So you have no opinion on that.
It’s important to see that women’s rights are protected across the country. It’s not my place to comment on the Supreme Court.
The PM and the BJP have gone on and on, and tried to portray you in a certain way. They have called you Pappu. You’ve taken all this very stoically.…
No, I haven’t taken it stoically, that’s not needed. I’ve taken it with happiness. I enjoy myself. When someone abuses me or says something nasty about me, I listen carefully to what they’re saying. I’m a listening person, and try to learn from everybody. My basic tendency is to return hatred and anger with love.
Was there any moment when you just wanted to give it all up and just walk away?
It’s not a question of ‘give it all up’. There are forces I am fighting. The reason I am attacked is because I am a threat to those forces. They’re not attacking me because I’m Rahul Gandhi, but because I’m a serious threat to them. And those forces are going to keep attacking me. But the good news is that their attacks help me learn. When somebody attacks me, I learn and I improve. If there’s one thing about me, you will see that I am improving.
How did you do that?
I still get angry every now and then, but I don’t hate anyone. I don’t hate the people who killed my father or the people who killed my grandmother. I don’t hate Mr Modi either or those who have anger in their hearts against me.
How did you manage to reach this state of mind?
After my father was killed, I was quite angry. And I would carry this anger with me. And one fine day, I realised it’s just something I’m carrying around in my head. I had to drop it in order to be able to move on. And I did.
Tell us something, being from the Gandhi family makes a lot of difference in this country. And you talk about internal democracy and democratic norms within the party.…
Look, being from the Gandhi family has its advantages and its disadvantages. You deal with that.
About internal democracy, your sister joins politics and straightaway becomes the general secretary of the party. There are millions of Congressmen who are still struggling at the bottom of the ranks.…
Ask any Congress member whether they would like Priyanka as general secretary and you will get your answer. The demand for Priyanka to play an organisational role in the party has come from across the Congress. I’m just listening to its voice and acting accordingly.
But there is an inherent unfairness in that, right?
We have a large number of first generation leaders whose families have never been in politics, but who are in positions of great importance in the party. Like Bhupesh Baghelji, Ashok Gehlotji, many others. There are also others who come from political families like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot. They are all great assets to the party. So I don’t think the Congress is unfair.
But you tore up the ordinance (that sought to protect convicted legislators). Anybody who speaks up about your leadership or against the party will get suspended or thrown out.…
No, not at all. Please go and ask Sunil Jakhar. He said, “I don’t believe what you’ve done.” I said, “What have I done?” He said, “I spoke out against you and yet you made me PCC president of Punjab?” I said, “You’re the right man for the job!”
How have you changed in the past five years?
I’m constantly evolving. I have realised that listening is very important, humility is important. That you don’t have all the answers. That you have an opinion, but there are 1.4 billion other people in this country, and they are very intelligent and have opinions too. My challenge is how do I tap into those opinions. Into that incredible energy. Into those ideas. How do I get people to work together to really push this country forward? How do I make big business feel that actually Rahul is objective and, if we go to him with pain, he will respond to us, just as he responds to farmers. How do I make labourers feel that they have a place in India? How do I make the RSS feel that if unfairness is done against them, Rahul is actually going to step out and treat them fairly? My job, as I see it, is to spread happiness and prosperity in this country. There is no living being I feel hate for or whom I don’t love. That’s the truth.