In an interview, Congress president Rahul Gandhi talks about a wide range of subjects from unemployment to agrarian distress
My understanding is that the farm loan waiver in Congress-ruled states far exceeds what PM Modi has done in this budget, said Rahul
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is blighted by divisions, while the opposition parties are united like never before, Congress president Rahul Gandhi said in an interview, covering a wide range of subjects from unemployment to agrarian distress, and the best way forward for the nation. Edited excerpts:
Let’s start with the budget. It seems very populist, targeted at farmers, there is something for industrial workers. Do you think these are empty promises?
₹17 per day for a farmer family is an insult. Obviously, Modi government is trapped with nowhere to go. Hence, these are panic stopgap reactions, but it is not going to work.
But I think it is relative. Isn’t it? According to the last NSSO data, rural agricultural households earn around ₹5,200 a month, so for them ₹500 more is ₹5,700?
My understanding is that the farm loan waiver in Congress-ruled states far exceeds what PM Modi has done in this budget. Farmers will reject Modiji’s electoral jumlas.
When your government (UPA) was in power, it had announced one farm loan waiver, besides loan waivers in three states. In the past 18-24 months, several BJP-ruled states have announced partial loan waivers—some have announced larger loan waivers. What is the fundamental problem with agriculture?
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 off ₹3.5 trillion bank loans for 20-25 crony friends. Earlier, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh had no qualms about waiving off loans of defaulting industrialists, but refused to provide relief to farmers. Hence, farm loan waiver is a question of fairness also. The simple issue is, if you can waive Anil Ambani’s loans, why can’t you help the farmers of this country through a loan waiver. What wrong has the farmer done? You can’t have one rule for 15-20 crony industrialist friends and a different rule for the crores of farmers.
The other issue is that the agriculture crisis has been 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 government should unlock the insurmountable potential of India’s farms and connect them to the plate, that is, the consumer, both domestic and global.
Mr Modi told a set of experts that if India cannot grow wheat, if India cannot compete in growing sugarcane, let’s get it from Brazil. I don’t believe that. I believe that we must support our farmers, both by providing him the technology as also the market access. Our nation must stand with the farmer.
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 logistical 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 has even finished competition, while awarding contract for insurance per se. This government handed over insurance to Mr Anil Ambani’s company for the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. Which rule of competition states that you take one entire state and hand the entire insurance coverage to one company? It is a systematic handout 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.
What is your plan for agriculture?
When someone is in crisis, you support them regardless of who they are. 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 at the wheel, as far as agriculture is concerned until we started to point out the failures, as also the looming crisis. India is emotionally connected to agriculture. We feel the pain and tribulations of our farmers. We defend them as our duty and that is what we have done successfully. 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.
What do you think went wrong with Indian agriculture because it is not a new problem?
I don’t think it is the question of what went wrong. I think development is a process, development is not an event. It is not a flag that you put now and say everything has gone right. Things change. Globalization 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 for anything else.
In agriculture, food prices have collapsed not just in India, but globally, and Indian farmers’ productivity has increased. So, there is a lot of supply but not enough demand and, therefore, prices have gone down. There is only so much that the state can acquire.
No, what has happened is volatility. It is not that demand has gone down. It has become volatile. 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.
It needs more market orientation. Doesn’t it?
There is no magic wand. It needs a comprehensive and composite policy and strategic intervention.
Also, is it apt to equate industrial loan restructuring to farm loan waivers, because there, you are not waiving the loan, it is still there?
You are definitely waiving the loan. If you have taken a bank loan and you don’t pay it back, you call it NPA. 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? If a powerful person has taken a bank loan and defaults compared to a weaker person, why are both defaults not termed as NPAs?
There is an NPA resolution process that seems to be working.
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.
Another sector which is seeing significant trouble is manufacturing services in terms of job creation. It is a huge problem. You must have seen the report that says unemployment is on the rise. What is your party’s strategy?
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. That’s where the jobs will come from and that’s where manufacturing is going to come from. I am not saying that biggest businesses should not have space. They should absolutely have space but micro, small and medium businesses should have access to banks and policy. I asked in my meeting with small and medium businesses, how many NPAs do you have? They say very little. Why is it that the top 40 businesses have ₹12 trillion of NPAs and the small and medium businesses have only a fraction of that? Obviously, they don’t have the same access. So opening up the system, giving access to micro, small and medium businesses is important. How many of them can walk into FM’s 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 startup, startup, and startup. How many startups has he created? So, you cannot completely ignore and disrespect traditional skills and then say we are going to enable manufacturing. Manufacturing is a skill. 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. Wherever we have done it, we are successful. 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 with the global economy. You look at the number of unicorns in China and see how many of them start from small and medium businesses. And you look at the number of unicorns in India. Hardly any small and medium businesses become unicorns in India.
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? So there is a massive bed of skill lying underneath, that this government has suppressed.
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. I sit with you and I know that you understand journalism better than me. 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.
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?
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 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. I have told you that supporting and defending the basic idea that agriculture is a requirement for India and cannot be just wished away is critical. 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.
That’s the segment the minimum income is targeted at?
And this will be more substantive than the amounts you have criticized—the ₹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.
And it will not replace any of the existing benefits?
That’s not the intention. The intention is not to replace existing schemes.
So, something like MGNREGA would continue?
We would think so. Yes.
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?
Mr Modi claims to understand Hinduism. If he comprehends Hinduism and 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, which Mr Modi calls forces that are divided, 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 away.
So, you don’t think that the lack of that one candidate in the opposition alliance matters?
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. I have no doubt that the opposition unity will work for it is founded upon defending India’s intrinsic values, Constitutional guarantees and institutional integrity. This is a united fight for India of today and of the future.
The latest CBI-related incident in West Bengal, what are your views on that?
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. He can brush aside the Supreme Court, he can extort any amount of money he wants from any corporate, he can go and brush aside the Election Commission, he can tell his MPs and MLAs to shut up and break the federal structure for fulfilling his political whims. That is what it is. Any Indian institution can be brought to its knees if it is in Mr Narendra Modi’s personal interest. 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 destroy the judge. 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.
A lot of people see parallels between how Narendra Modi acts and the kind of decisions he takes, to how your grandmother used to run the country. Do you see any parallels?
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.
Why did the alliance with SP (Samajwadi Party)and BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) in Uttar Pradesh not work out? Do you think, as the third force in the state, you will end up splitting the anti-BJP votes? Or, would you tactically seek to chip away at the BJP’s upper-caste base?
I personally respect Mayawatiji and Akhilesh Yadavji. I am fond of them. And in their own way, they have given a 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.
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