As we approach 2019, what is your assessment of the political situation?
The next election will be defined not by election manifestos but three-four other factors. One, the fear of prosecutions and coercive tactics by agencies like the ED (Enforcement Directorate) and the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation). Two, the caste combinations, particularly in the Hindi heartland. If you look at two large states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar only, if the right caste combinations work, that itself will turn the entire election. The third factor is a very clear fear in the minds of secular people that there will be no more elections after 2019, that democracy will be mangled beyond recognition, that the rule of law and the secular order will end. As I said, the election will not be based on manifesto promises because the government has done so poorly on the previous promises that one more set of promises will not work. From the government side I see a three-pronged strategy. One, coercive corruption cases against opponents and even difficult allies. Two, communal polarization. And three, massive use of money power coupled with the threat of prosecutions in each state to see that our alliances don’t work out. In Maharashtra, they will again use the coercive power of the state to see that their alliance partner does not break away. That is going to happen in every state. In Bihar, too, they will see that Nitish (Kumar) does not join our alliance. It is too late for Chandrababu Naidu now but for all others their first priority will be the use of saam, daam, dand, bhed to see that their the alliance partners don’t join the opposition. Their fourth strategy is letting the opposition parties fight independently so that likely alliances which are being shaped are not allowed.
How do you think the Congress can counter this?
From our side, one factor will be the threat to democracy itself and the real fear of the fascist dictatorship taking over. The fear of false cases being launched would be second. Third is the economic mess we are in. We will argue that we have handled economy better and we still have the depth of leadership to handle it better. Only thing is that the Congress will now have to start talking about what we will do when we come back to power because Modi bashing is all right but it can only go that far. After that we will have to say that this is where the economy has gone bad and this is what we will do to correct it. In a way this should be a diffused manifesto for us without actually bringing out a document. Our idiom has to change. Rather than Modi bashing we should start saying this is where he is wrong and this is what we will do to correct it.
Post Karnataka, how are other opposition parties responding to this Congress approach and how are things shaping up towards formation of this grand alliance?
While being in a grand alliance, every party will like to further its own politics. Parties will not sign their death warrants by signing into an alliance. There will be tensions and contradictions but those can be handled creatively without trampling upon each other or without letting anybody feel that there is a big brother who is going to swamp you out. The leadership will have to take a statesmanlike role everywhere and see the larger picture, which is getting Modi out. It can’t only be my party, my positions.
You mean the Congress leadership?
All of us, all parties. Congress, being the largest party, will have to play a bigger role. In this the Congress will have to take the role of a conciliator. If we have to take a back seat somewhere, we have to take the back seat. The only objective should be getting this man (Modi) out because he is personally dangerous. We have lived through the BJP regime earlier under Vajpayeeji and we did not agree with everything he did. But then we didn’t have this kind of visceral atmosphere as it exists today. This man has an inherently dictatorial style of functioning. The way he has trampled upon his own senior colleagues, he is not willing to take advice from his colleagues. I see a Jayaprakash Narayan-like movement emerging without defining who is our prime ministerial candidate. Because that is precisely how Modi would like us to fight. That will be difficult because one person can scare away other parties which may want another person. JP was that respectable personality who brought everybody together and who everyone listened to. He did not have prime ministerial ambitions and strong regional leaders would get their own space and respect in that formation. I see that kind of situation emerging today. Now, will it lead to instability like it did then? I don’t think so because we are much more mature today.
Who do you see playing that kind of role today?
I think Sonia Gandhi can play the Jayaprakash Narayan kind of role today. She is the most senior person among us. Like him, she does not have prime ministerial ambitions herself. If anybody else is projected, that could happen. Say Mamata (Banerjee) or Chandrababu (Naidu) have their own ambitions. But there is a father figure like Jayaprakash Narayan who is not running for the top post and she can play that role as the leader of the Congress.
And later stake the claim of the Congress to the prime minister’s post?
Well consensus on that person will have to be built.
But isn’t Modi already running a presidential-kind of campaign which is asking you who is your leader?
He is because this is all about himself and that is how his politics has been. But this is what we did in 1977 and failed (when Congress under Indira Gandhi lost out to the opposition parties in the elections called after the Emergency).
Modi made three major promises in 2014—jobs, minimum support prices (MSP) for farm produce that gave 50% profit over and above the cost of cultivation, and achche din. How do you rate the Modi government’s performance on delivery of these promises?
There is deception and sleight of hand on the MSP. A simple thing to see is what is the average annual growth in MSP during the UPA years and during Modi years. The CACP (Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices) should academically fix the cost of production and not determine the MSP itself. The price has to be determined by the cabinet. There is a clear sleight of hand in the sense that the government is not revealing the formula it is using to arrive at the cost of production. Cost of production goes up in the C2 and Swaminathan (agronomist M. S. Swaminathan) has clearly defined the formula.
Would economic issues form a major part of the Congress campaign in 2019?
Well, the defining factor would be protection of democracy itself and we are going to paint Modi as someone who is fast turning into a fascist dictator. Economy would be a secondary issue. The challenge for us will be how we play up this agriculture and rural discontent. Another challenge is how we address the urban middle class and urban youth. They are not a voting class as they don’t vote in large numbers but they are an influencing class. And this urban middle class has not still turned against Modi. Agriculture crisis will be the second most important factor in our campaign. We will talk of the economy in the context of jobs not being created.
In the 2014 campaign, Modi largely spoke to aspirational India and won. But once in office, especially after that suit-boot sarkar jibe by Rahul Gandhi, Modi started swearing by the poor...
Rahul Gandhi did use that idiom. It hurt Congress somewhat. But it hurt the BJP for two reasons. One, the farm economy is in great distress. As a part of BJP’s policy and not by accident this government has practised a clear consumer bias against the producers’ interests. Second, the farm crisis has been manufactured by the BJP government in the sense that it has artificially kept the farm prices low to keep inflation low. So that pro-poor, pro-rural idiom helped us in hurting the BJP on this front. But it also hurt the Congress, especially in the urban areas, in the corporate sector. It created the impression that we would always be against the industry and corporates. It was aimed at crony capitalism and not the entire corporate sector. That idiom has now to be slightly refocused and redefined in the sense that we need big industry, we need the corporate sector to create jobs. We need to strike a balance between pro-consumer bias and pro-producer bias and explain it in layman’s language in the elections.
Last week, Rahul Gandhi reached out to some prominent Muslim personalities and activists and some of them asked him inconvenient questions about his temple visits. Shashi Tharoor spoke about India becoming a Hindu Pakistan if Modi were to sweep the next elections. How does the Congress balance its politics? Can it reclaim its position as the default party of majority of Indians in the matrix of Hinduism and not Hindutva?
It’s a tightrope walk. Engaging in Hindu politics will be difficult because there will be criticism as to why not go for the real article than the fake article. But I think there should be a movement towards reclaiming that centrist—not left or right—and strictly secular space which belongs to the Congress only.
Would you concede that there has not been a big corruption scam against the Modi government?
I think we have not been able to prove it. We need to talk more about crony capitalism and how Jio Institute gets the IOE tag, how certain businesses and personalities get support from the banks (rather) than others, how people have run away. I think the Raphael deal is a scam, the bullet train project is a scam, the banking crisis is a scam. We will talk about all these things and how these scams make Modi extremely corrupt in the elections.
Lastly, Modi does not look as invincible as he did in 2014 or even in 2017 after the Uttar Pradesh elections. But he has been around for a long time now and surely can turn things around. What could he have up his sleeves that can still work for him?
I see lot of triangular tensions and problems among the Modi-Shah entity, BJP, and the RSS, as we approach 2019. He is going to insist on that one-man show again. He has demolished the cabinet structure and I think we are getting into a situation similar to what existed in Germany in the early 1930s when Hitler convinced the president to appoint him the chancellor. And then he effectively ended democracy in Germany. Something similar could happen in India unless we watch out. As for what Modi would do, I am apprehensive there could be attacks on personalities, blatant communalization of internal politics using some attack against Pakistan with or without the knowledge of America, Ram Mandir, beef politics, and vigilantism to polarise the voters.