Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge (Sonu Mehta/HT)
Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge (Sonu Mehta/HT)

‘Bharat Ratna for Savarkar is a poll gimmick to garner votes’

  • BJP continues to ask for votes in the name of Modi... Why don’t they ask for votes based on their performance in Maharashtra?
  • We are fighting Maharashtra elections on local issues. We are also fighting for people affected by the PMC Bank crisis

It’s 11.30pm and veteran Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge sounds as lively as he did all day through all his public meetings in the high-decibel Maharashtra assembly election campaign. Entrusted to deliver results in one of India’s biggest and most prominent states, Kharge has been campaigning non-stop for more than two weeks, travelling to almost every corner of Maharashtra to help improve the tally of the Congress in 2014, when it won 42 seats compared to 122 by the BJP, 63 by the Shiv Sena, and 41 by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

This is a big challenge for the veteran who lost an election for the first time in his political career in the Lok Sabha polls that saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) decimate the Opposition and return to power at the Centre. The task is more of a challenge with dissent brewing within the party, reports of lack of coordination between the Congress and its alliance partner, the Sharad Pawar-led NCP, or its inability to create an election narrative to take on chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.

In a telephonic conversation from Mumbai, Kharge speaks about the party’s strategy to fight the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, the failures of the Fadnavis government, teething and unresolved problems of Maharashtra and the economy. Edited excerpts:

What has been the response to the Congress campaign?

The campaign is good and positive. It has improved a lot since Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have been here and the results will be better than last time.

Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

On what issues are the Congress fighting these elections?

We are fighting on local issues, particularly the failure of the Fadnavis government. Nearly 16,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last five years and no relief has been given. The chief minister said that more than 35,000 crore will be given to farmers but relief has barely impacted 25% of them. Instead they (the BJP) are talking about Bharat Ratna for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (Veer Savarkar). Unemployment is at a 45-year high, inflation has gone up; there is a decline in investments. Maharashtra (Mumbai) attracted the highest amount of foreign and domestic investments but has now lost this status to Bengaluru in Karnataka. They are lagging behind even in child nutrition. Irrigation has not improved and agricultural productivity is low. During the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, agricultural growth was 5.5% and now it has come down to 2.5%.

They destroyed the economy, want to privatize the railways, took 1.76 trillion from the Reserve Bank of India. The economy is in doldrums. Even (finance minister) Nirmala Sitharaman’s husband (Parakala Prabhakar) has said this. I may be accused of saying this as Opposition but why would he (Prabhakar) oppose his wife?

We are also fighting for people affected by the Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative (PMC) Bank and demanding that the depositors be protected.

The BJP claims that it has implemented almost all the promises made in its 2014 election manifesto.

Fadnavis has not kept the promises he made last time. He said the government would build a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in the Arabian Sea and a memorial for B.R. Ambedkar on Indu Mill land of 12 acres.... Nothing has happened. The only thing they have given is advertisements but publicity is different from reality. We are fighting on local issues. Why do people in Latur, Osmanabad, Aurangabad, Jalna, and many other places do not have access to pure drinking water? These are the questions they have to answer.

On what issues are the BJP-Shiv Sena fighting these elections?

They are talking about Article 370. This has nothing to do with Maharashtra or Mumbai. It is a national issue that has been supported by all parties. The Opposition has objected to the way in which this was passed. It does not mean that they are the only deshbhakts (patriots) and others are deshdrohis (traitors). Where were these people when the freedom struggle was going on, when Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and lakhs of others went to jail? There was no BJP at the time but the Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or any other organization. Now they are misleading the people and youngsters. Giving good and emotional speeches is not going to solve the problem of this country.

There were some voices of dissent in the party such as Milind Deora and Sanjay Nirupam. Will this affect the outcome?

I do not want to comment on this. We are fighting the elections on behalf of the party and leaders such as Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi are campaigning here. There are differing voices among the BJP and Shiv Sena as many of them were denied tickets. The media may not pick this up but for the first time there are several revolts within the BJP and Shiv Sena. We can accept the difference of opinion but if anybody wants to damage the party, it cannot be tolerated.

Why has the Congress been unable to set a poll narrative or even announce a chief ministerial candidate like Fadnavis who completed a full term in office?

Earlier (in 2014) did they project Fadnavis as the chief ministerial face of Maharashtra or (Manohar Lal) Khattar in Haryana? In Himachal Pradesh, Assam, and other places the BJP did not project a chief ministerial face. Why is this question posed only to the Congress? Modi and Shah are nominating people of their choice without consulting local leaders such as Nitin Gadkari. We will elect our leader in a democratic manner after the election.

Will the Lok Sabha election results have any effect on the assembly polls?

No but they (BJP-Shiv Sena) are trying this by raising issues such as Article 370. We are interested in the welfare of the people, farmers, employment, and controlling inflation. We are asking them about their performance in the last five years. Why don’t they ask for votes based on their work here? They are using the same tactics as they used in the Lok Sabha elections. They continue to ask for votes in the name of Modi. Even Amit Shah says that the people should strengthen Modi’s hands and asks for votes.

How has the coordination between NCP and the Congress been on the ground?

Leaders, both state and central, of both parties are coordinating well. The local leaders are on the same platform. They might not have projected it in a big way but both sides have been active.

In Karnataka your coalition experiment with the Janata Dal (Secular) did not go well? Are you expecting different results with the NCP?

In Maharashtra, this experiment was a success for 15 years and no one can doubt this. You are taking a bad example and comparing it to a good example. That (Karnataka coalition) is over but here (Maharashtra) we have succeeded. For 15 years we have worked together and gave better results during our alliance than the present government.

Has the Congress been able to keep up with the BJP-Shiv Sena’s aggressive campaign?

We can’t match their advertisement, their shouting but believe in improving our economy and welfare of the people. We have our own strategy. For example any finance minister may shout very loudly. But Manmohan Singh will not shout. Does it mean that such people will get preference? We have been low-profile in meetings, advertisements, hoardings and publicity. Our strategy is door-to-door and word of mouth. We are not getting that much publicity. But I can tell you boldly that every media house, TV channel, and NGO is afraid of the Enforcement Directorate, income-tax department. There is a

lot of arm twisting and threats are given. Any institution that speaks against them (BJP) is suppressed.

Why have there been no joint rallies or campaigns by Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar?

All our people are busy. We have done this in a few places but there are some health issues we have to consider. I can tell you that we are doing our best at the state level.

Will this demand for a Bharat Ratna for Savarkar have any impact on the ground?

Why will it have any effect? They were in power for the last five years in the Centre and the state. Why didn’t they confer the Bharat Ratna to Savarkar? This is nothing but an election stunt, a gimmick and they are invoking him just for the sake of votes. Even though (former PM) Indira Gandhi might have opposed him (Savarkar) on different issues, she issued a postal stamp in his name. The BJP-Shiv Sena have suddenly realised about Savarkar.

What are the prospects of the Congress in states such as Haryana and the other bypolls?

I have not travelled to these places much but have been informed that in Haryana things have been improving. We will deliver better results there as well.