In conversation with the Hindustan Times Chairperson Shobhana Bhartia at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Congress president Rahul Gandhi spoke about politics, economy, religion and functioning of the Narendra Modi government.
He slammed Modi government for demonetisation and GST, calling them “disastrous” steps. Rahul said that there is hatred and fear in India today, stressing on the difference between Hindutva and Hinduism. He exuded confidence that his party is going to gain political grounds in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana. Here’re the edited excerpts:
Q: I want to start by asking you about the policies of this government. Your government was actually in power when reforms started, liberalisation was ushered under Congress dispensation and yet one has seen that Congress voice has become very anti-industry. So, do you think that to be pro-poor you have to be anti-big business?
A:I don’t think you can develop this country if you think in terms of pro-poor, pro-industry, pro-one segment or another segment. Every single person, interest in this country has a role to play. Big businesses has a role to play. You simply can not build jobs in India without business. If somebody thinks you can bring employment to India without business, that you can bring business to India without small and medium enterprise, without trade, that’s just impossible.
I don’t view the world in these silos. I view the world as a set of partnerships, and there is space for everybody. The problem today is that the conversation between these groups has broken down.
Farmers and industry have to work together, that conversation isn’t taking place. And that’s where the real problem is, its across the board.
You spoke about Dalits, tribal, backwards. There needs to be a conversation, a conversation that provides a vision of going forward and that’s what really is missing. You need to speak to all these groups and bring them together. You need to work hard and compromise in need to move forward. You will not be able to get everything that farmer wants, you will not be able to get everything what business wants, but if you start a conversation, you go somewhere.
I just want to touch the GST and demonetisation. There is no serious economist who will tell you that demonetisation wasn’t an irrational and ridiculous thing to do. Demonetisation just wiped out two per cent of our GDP.
Our vision of GST was completely different from BJP’s vision. Our vision was a simplified GST, a GST that was designed not to harass people. GST that was actually delivered was a five-tier GST that pretty much any small and medium businessman will tell you that it is destroying their lives. As far as the GST is concerned, we had a different concept of the GST and frankly speaking we tried speaking to the government and they really refused to listen. In fact if that conversation would have taken place, the government would have got a proper GST.
The question is not whether I am happy with GST or not, whether the small industry, shopkeepers and others are happy with this decision is really important. They are not and they are clearly saying that listen simplify these things, its killing us.
The idea of Aadhaar was to support people, to help people make their lives simpler. The visualisation of Aadhaar now is one of monitoring, checking, seeing what is everybody doing.
Basically, difference between current dispensation and our way of thinking is that we trust people of India. We think that knowledge lies with you. As I said in my speech, the current dispensation believes knowledge lies with them, that understanding lies with them. And they don’t feel that there is a need to have a conversation at all. And the problem is that you can’t run a country without a conversation. That’s the only way you can run the country.
Q: But have you ever tried to cooperate and have the conversation......as constructive opposition?
A: Absolutely, many a times I have sort of attempted conversation, we are snapped.
Q: At what sort of platforms?
A: I have said it number of times, once Mr. Arun Jaitley came to see me and I started a conversation on Kashmir and this was before violence started up in Kashmir. I said, we have serious problem coming up in Kashmir and his answer was ‘no, we don’t’. Now, what do you say to that. I asked him, how many Kashmiri people you have spoken to lately.
It was pretty clear that the politics that was taking place, the alliance between the PDP and the BJP was to set Kashmir on fire. But there was no interest in listening and tremendous damage has been caused.
Q: Moving to politics, the recent BSP decision to go it alone for the assembly polls. How do you think, it is going to impact the 2019 elections and how willing is your party to cede space to ambitious allies? Even if some of them want space disproportionately.
A: The alliance in the states and the alliance at the Centre are different. I think Mayawati ji has sort of indicated that. We were pretty flexible in the state, in fact, I was more flexible than some of our state leaders. We were in the midst of the conversation, but they decided to go on their own way.
I don’t see BSP alliance impacting us much in Madhya Pradesh, it would have been a great thing to have but we are winning Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. I think in the national elections, the party will come together, particularly in Uttar Pradesh.
Q: So you are saying that it does not rule out alliance for 2019?
A: That’s the indication we have.
Q: You feel very optimistic about elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh?
A: In Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana we are pretty confident.
Q: The religious side of Congress is becoming very visible, something one didn’t see earlier. A lot of analysts are calling it a soft Hindutva. Is this an endeavor of you to take on BJP on their own terms? Is it a conscious effort?
A: I mean it is interesting. I have been going to temples, mosques and gurdwaras for the last 16 years. Then no one questioned it. This issue was made only in Gujarat elections. Even in my last election campaign, I went to temples but suddenly it is becoming publicised. I guess this kind of thing irritates the BJP. They feel that only they can go to the temples. Maybe they don’t like it. There is a difference between Hindutva and Hinduism. Hindutva is a political ideology, whereas Hinduism is a spiritual idea. To say it is a soft Hindutva, No, this has nothing do with Hindutva.
However, I don’t see why I can’t go to a temple. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why I can’t go to a gurudwara or church or mosque. If someone invites me to something they believe in, me not going there is actually insulting.
I as a political leader, if I am invited somewhere, I need to reach out. I need to stand with those people. But for some reason, it irritates the BJP. It actually infuriates them.
They have a sense of monopoly. They want to have a monopoly in everything they deal with. They want to have a monopoly on the institutions, that their nature. That’s not India’s nature. India’s nature is 1.3 billion imaginations and you really can’t suppress them, that’s frankly India’s strength. It’s chaotic, its sometime confusing, that what we are. That’s frankly our strength. So re-imagining India for me is allowing those 1.3 billion imaginations to thrive. Re-imagining India for BJP and RSS is to shutdown that imagination of that 1.3 billion people and impose one big imagination on the top.
Q: You kind of keep talking about BJP-RSS in a hyphenated manner. Do you think they are really working in tandem on everything because one keeps hearing many reports that the RSS may not be very happy with everything that the government does. But in you speeches, one has always heard you talk about BJP-RSS ?
A: There is an ideological war taking place and the people who define the BJP ideology are the RSS. The BJP, does it really have the understanding of the core ideas that they are fighting for. The RSS have those ideas, the RSS understands those ideas.
On the other side, there are multiple visions that are contesting one vision. The Congress party is the ideological centre of that fight. One of the senior leaders from the Opposition who fought for the Congress for 40 years, he was having a chat with me some months back. He said I have fought for the Congress party for 40 years and after fighting for you for 40 years, I have realised that the ideological centre, that is fighting the BJP can only be maintained by the Congress party. The Congress party itself is an ideology. It is a set of ideas that we are fighting for. These are the ideas that have made India successful today.
Q: But the Congress doesn’t have the cadre that the RSS have and the Congress doesn’t have the cadre that the BJP has. You undertook an exercise quite early under your presidentship and even before that to try and rebuild cadres. How successful you have been and where do you see the Congress in terms of having the strength at the ground level?
A: If the Congress had to build a cadre like BJP, it would become the BJP. The Congress party can have limited cadres, can have a set of people who are deeply ingrained but the Congress party can not and should not develop a type of cadre system that the RSS has. The aim of the cadre system is to capture India institutions. The aim of the RSS is to capture and infiltrate Indian institutions. We don’t want to do that. We want to leave all institutions alone. We just want to manage the conversations between the institutions. We have never viewed Supreme Court as something to take over. We have never viewed Election Commission as something to take over. That’s not our design, we can’t do it even if we want. But the idea of the RSS cadre is to systematically capture one institution after the other. Then penetrate that institution with one idea. We are perfectly happy, with multiple ideas in this country. In fact, we believe that multiple ideas should co-exist.
Q: You mentioned the NPAs in the banks, many would argue that most of the NPAs actually accumulated because of the policy decisions taken under the UPA time?
A: Mr. Modi argues, that every single thing originated because of the Congress party over the last 70 years. So the fact of the matter is that 12 lakh crore NPAs today. We had 2 lakh crore NPAs in the Congress time. Now please explain, why in the four years, it went to 12 lakh.
You can’t keep blaming the Congress even when you are in the power. They are in the government, please explain to us, why India has the highest number of unemployment rate in the 20 years.
Please explain to us why informal sector and MSME (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) sector’s back has broken. You can’t keep saying that these are the policies of the Congress party. If you give us this much importance then let us run the place and we will show how to fix it.
The problem again is that visions don’t come from three or four people. The vision comes from a conversation with a million people and you really can’t run India by isolating yourself, by cocooning yourself. And then you say, knowledge comes from the minds of Mr. Modi or Mr. Jaitley, two-three other people. Knowledge in this country is everywhere!
You go to a farmer and talk to him about agriculture, he will tell you... I am telling you from the stage, that as far as your business is concerned, you know much more than me, that’s my starting point. My starting point would be to understand what you require and come to you, listen to you, maybe I get irritated, maybe you say something that I don’t like. Okay. But that’s how the country functions.
One central problem in India is that they are not creating enough jobs. All they talk about is growth, ‘we are doing well 8% et cetera, et cetera’. I have said this many times, China produce 50,000 jobs in 24 hours. India, according to our government’s statement in the Parliament, produces 450 jobs in 24 hours. We are the same size. We have the same capability.
How do you fix the job problem? You open up the banking sector to small and medium business. You transform small and medium business into big business, you support those business. What is the government doing, the government is attacking them. You put technology into agriculture, you build a cold chain, you build food processing plants. You link agriculture to the industrial system. Today, these two things are not linked.
These are the type of things one should do but what one gets to hear is people being lynched, women being molested.
The conversation between all these groups is broken. I know it because I speak to the farmers, I speak to the small and medium businessmen. They are literally not talking to anybody. So you bring these people together, you listen to them, you tell them this is what we can do for you, let’s get going, let’s move forward. That’s what really is required.
Q: How will you improve India’s human development index?
A: I think, the one area where UPA has a phenomenal record is pulling people out of poverty. It happened because we had strategic programmes that protected people: MGNREGA, RTI, Tribal Bill...some of those programmes were misunderstood by the industry. MGNREGA was an injection of capital into the Indian villages. It was designed to fire the rural economy and MGNREGA fired the rural economy. And it resulted in tremendous growth of economy. Again, (MG)NREGA without economic liberalisation is a complete waste of time.
Poor people are not going to pull poor people out of poverty. They are going to be pulled out of poverty by the businesses. I am often misrepresented that I view the world as we have to help only poor people. I view the world as a conversation where big business has a role, smaller-medium business has a role and a farmer has a role. But they need to be brought together to work. And certain compromises have to be made on all sides. To me the central skill is to going to people, talking to them, listening to them and understanding where they are coming from. And not getting agitated if somebody is saying something you don’t like.
I am sitting here you are asking me questions. I am perfectly happy to take sledgehammer…and I’ve done it. Why is the Prime Minister of India incapable of doing this? Why is the Prime Minister of India incapable of sitting here, saying, ‘okay, throw whatever you have on me. Because his view is ‘I understand. I know. And they don’t.’
My view is that ‘Look,maybe I am not able to see something from your perspective, explain me your perspective. Maybe, I won’t like it. Okay. No Problem. I’ll talk again’
What India desperately needs is listening.