New Delhi: Riding on expected gains in several key opposition-ruled states, the Congress party is confident of forming the next government and intends to maintain a very strong pro-poor policy bias, party general secretary Rahul Gandhi said.
The party, he added, would be “gaining” seats in Kerala, Orissa, Punjab, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh—all of which are ruled by opposition parties—and Rajasthan, which the Congress wrested from the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, in the December state elections.
“We will improve our tally. We will win and form the government,” Gandhi, 38, said in a rare interaction with a group of journalists on Friday at his residence in Lutyens’ Delhi.
Strategy talk: Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi. Subhav Shukla / PTI
In the freewheeling discussion, Gandhi spoke candidly on his pet project of democratizing the Congress party and how this fits in with plans for its revival in several electorally important states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat. The general secretary, who is also the son of party president Sonia Gandhi and seen by many people as a future prime minister of the country, reiterated that Manmohan Singh is the prime ministerial candidate of the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, which is led by the Congress.
The final two phases of voting in the 15th Lok Sabha election are to take place on 7 May and 13 May, with the verdict due on 16 May.
General consensus among political pundits is that the election will produce a fractured mandate with no political formation having a clear edge.
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It has also become more difficult to call the election because of the 2007 delimitation exercise that has redrawn constituencies across the country.
The UPA has, meanwhile, come under pressure, with the Congress refusing to enter pre-poll arrangements with some of its allies, such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal, or RJD, and the Samajwadi Party, or SP.
The Left parties, which had supported the coalition from outside, withdrew support in July after the UPA decided to proceed with the controversial civilian nuclear agreement with the US. Its exit forced a trust vote, which the government eventually managed to win comfortably on 22 June with the support of the SP.
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According to Gandhi, the parting of ways with the Left had been prompted by the Congress party’s unwillingness to compromise, although it was aware that this would threaten the longevity of the government.
“I don’t think the Left feels a sense of betrayal. They have their point of view and we have ours. We are clear that we are not going to compromise on what we think is the right direction for the country and for the Congress,” Gandhi said.
The party would, irrespective of the verdict, focus on the long-term strategy, he said. “Of course it (a defeat) would matter to us. It matters to me as a general secretary of the Congress party. But I am very clear that we need to take a longer-term perspective. There are some issues where there can be no compromise.”
Gandhi signalled that if returned to power, the government would renew its pledge to extend the benefits of economic growth to the poor. The UPA has pursued a theme of “financial inclusion” that aims to ensure the poor get a fair share of the growth dividend.
“We simply don’t believe we can take this country forward without inclusion,” he said. What we are talking about is a core idea—that everybody should be part of the game.”
He alluded to the popular rural job creation programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or NREGS, which promises 100 days of employment in a year to at least one person from every rural household.
“The BJP believes that the poor, the Dalits and the minorities should not be part of the game,” Gandhi said.
Gandhi also sought to distinguish the Congress’ development strategy from that of the BJP, the main opposition party, indicating that if elected the Congress was likely to press ahead with its big spending programmes.
“We have two models before us. One model is the private sector, ‘India Shining’ (the political campaign that the BJP had launched in the run-up to the 2004 general election) and a focus on issues that don’t impact the people. The people of India have already demonstrated their silent resistance to this idea,” Gandhi said.
The alternative, he added, was “growth with distribution”. “This is inclusion not just of the poor but also of the middle classes. That is the idea of the aam aadmi (common man).”
The UPA came to power by defeating the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the 2004 general election.
Responding to Gandhi’s remarks, BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said the Congress general secretary was on “a discovery of India tour”.
“He will discover this soon that the suffering of the minorities, the poor and the deprived sections of our society is the result of the anti-people policy the Congress has pursued for more than half a century...our party can only hope that he understands this truth at the earliest,” Javadekar said.
Sudha Pai, a professor at the Centre for Political Studies in the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, said Gandhi’s optimism that the Congress party will return to power is not “completely justified”.
“It is very difficult to say anything now because it is too complex to predict the results,” Pai said. “The Congress may improve marginally in states such as Kerala.”
Liz Mathew and Santosh K. Joy contributed to this story.