There are ‘good RSS people’ in the Congress, says Salman Khurshid

In this concluding part of NH Dialogue, former union minister Salman Khurshid speaks candidly on the weaknesses of the Congress as well as the Modi Government.

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NH Photo

NH Web Desk

With characteristic humour, a suave Salman Khurshid quipped during a ‘Round Table’ at the NH office that the appointment of K.K. Venugopal as the Attorney General could be a message to Arun Jaitley that now the Prime Minister also knows the law. The Congress leader did not flinch from answering uncomfortable questions related to his own party. Excerpts from the dialogue:

What is your view about the Government’s continued silence on lynchings?

I do not believe the Prime Minister of India wants people to be lynched. But I don’t think he cares about somebody getting lynched. It is like asking someone if he likes lynching. No, he would say, lynching is horrible. But if you ask him if he is going to do anything about it, he will say, well, what can we do ?

The target largely have been Muslims…

It is sad that minorities cannot even speak against lynching. During the UPA minorities had gone crazy. They accused the UPA of not doing enough for them. Since 2014 I have not heard anyone say that to the present Government. I am not suggesting that they were always or even completely unfair. But in 2014 they followed a poor, self-denying strategy that eventually proved lethal for themselves.

Do you see lynchings as a part of a political agenda, as has been suggested by some people? That it is a more cost effective way than engineering riots?

I do not know. But what is worrying is what this is doing to our society. From streets being unsafe, we now have homes which are unsafe. Police stations have become the last place where you can get refuge. The mindset that allows lynching will not stop at targeting Muslims alone. It will spread to other sections, Dalits, Christians, Adivasis, Intellectuals.

People blame the Congress for the rise of the RSS and say that when in power, the Congress did not do anything to curb it. What is your take?

I will say this; that this has never been discussed in the party. We just haven’t. Now whether it was due to lack of capacity or due to lack of courage, I will not say anything. But there have been two views. One that we had a dishonest intent in not controlling the rise of the RSS; and the other view that we had an honest intent in not doing anything. I think the dishonest intent was on the part of individuals and the honest part was a collective decision.

But there is a third dimension which is going to haunt the Congress for a long time and that is the infiltration of the RSS into the Congress. The funny thing is that they do not even know that they are RSS! They are very good RSS people by instinct but they do not know. The first time we had a whiff of this was after the Babri demolition when some Congressmen began saying that we should not use the word ‘secular’ because it sent out a wrong message. I have known about these people and if you ask my friends they will tell you that three years ago I had singled out these Congressmen and women who would join the BJP. I had named Jagadambika Pal, the Bahugunas etc but I was silenced. I was told they were good party workers and I should not bring personal differences to the table. But they are still there in the party. And I know who are going to desert the party and switch sides next.

Protests against lynching have been organised by the civil society. Why has the Congress not taken any initiative?

We have done what we could but we do not get much publicity. Also in several quarters we are still suspect. Our first problem is we are still not in conversation with civil society. In the 2004 election, Civil Society supported us hugely and expected us to run the government like an NGO. Congress found a way of involving them in Governance by way of NAC, the National Advisory Council. But civil society in India is tricky. People working at the grass roots turned against us because they said we had taken in only advocacy people. And people involved in advocacy felt we were not working sufficiently or behaving like NGOs. So, we lost them both. And Congress is yet to begin another grand conversation with the civil society.

But when Indira Gandhi was in opposition, the Congress fought back with far more vigour…

Oh, the issues are so much more complicated today. The issues in 1977 were simpler. Today they are far more complex. Take the issue of NDTV. For most people it was a freedom of expression issue. But there were nuances. As a political party, we need to articulate a clear stand and also commit that this would never happen again. But of course that is not as simple.

Take the issue of Major Gogoi who strapped a Kashmiri civilian to his jeep. Any rational person would react by saying that it was not an acceptable thing to do but unusual situations might have called for the unfortunate step. The Government could have given him a pat and asked him to disappear for a while. But it awarded him, produced him before the media, allowed him to give interviews, lionised him. Now, does Congress have a clear position on Major Gogoi ? No, we don’t. Are we in a position to say this would never happen again ? Look at poor Sandeep Dikshit. He is a thinking man and reacted sensibly by saying that one did not expect the army to behave like goondas—something that several retired Generals had also said. But the media pounced on him and he was accused of treason. The situation is complicated.

Does the Congress then have a problem with articulation?

There are other issues. This guy (Narendra Modi) has got mesmerising power. He can say anything to anyone and he is believed. There is also a willing suspension of disbelief among large section of the people. He has also been clever in covering up his flaws and failures. And he has also been lucky with Demonetisation, with GST…

Diplomats & Modi

Do foreign diplomats share this impression of Narendra Modi?

Oh, there are all impressed with his energy and say how he has kept them on their toes. So many things are happening that Ambassadors and High Commissioners are perpetually trying to anticipate what he might do next. Some are intrigued and amused, some are concerned.

What about our own diplomats?

I carefully avoid talking to our diplomats. But they are no different from other civil servants. I wouldn’t say they live in fear. But there is certainly apprehension because unlike ‘One Nation, One Tax’ that this man promotes, it is ‘One Man, One view’ as far as foreign policy is concerned. He does not take any minister with him when he travels abroad. He is the only one who comes down the steps. Ministers do a lot of work on the sidelines but this man knows everything. He does it all alone.

Congress & farmers

Getting back to the Congress, why is it not able to take advantage of the simmering resentment among farmers and the farming community?

The Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi has consistently raised the issue everywhere. And not just now. But once again I will repeat that we are yet to begin the conversation with people at grassroot levels. The Congress also needs to explain a lot of things. Farmers can turn around and tell us that when Congress was in power in Maharashtra, there was a police-firing on farmers. Can we tell them that this would never happen again? What happens if we return to power some day and farmers ask us, “Now what” and we turn around and tell them, “What’s new? Things will continue as before”! The hard truth is that Congress today is living from day to day. But parties live for a hundred years and a great deal of thinking is required.

It is a national party. Why is it not able to formulate such a long-term response?

I remember the first cabinet meeting in 1991. I was far too junior and knew nothing. But the senior ministers were discussing the legendary blueprint that Rajiv Gandhi was said to have left behind. We were told he had a grand vision and had left behind this great blueprint for reforms that we would be embarking on. Chidambaram was there as the Commerce Minister and Dr Manmohan Singh was the Finance Minister. Today, I am not aware of a similar blueprint.

But that is precisely the point. Why is Congress unable to come up with a blueprint?

One reason is the schedule of elections. We are forever living in times of elections. You need people who would say that they are not bothered about elections, that they are engaged in preparing the blueprint, which requires long deliberations, consultation, study and so on …once it is formulated then a consensus would have to be worked out and eventually it would have to be articulated.

Neighbours & Venugopal

We are running out of time. But we are tempted to ask how you see our relations with our immediate neighbours?

In all fairness we have been spending a lot of money in assisting our neighbours. But while we go to them with smiles and promises, China goes to them with a lot more money than we offer. So, that is one issue. But the more worrying issue is the mindset, the attitude of this Government. I will give you an example.

When I was a minister, I had three rounds of meetings with BJP leaders on land boundary issues with Bangladesh. But they would not relent. They said the land where CRPF jawans were martyred could not be handed over to Bangladesh. I called the CRPF and wanted to know their view. They said the deaths took place at moments of madness, silly moments. But if we could sort it out, they would have the problem off their back once and for all. But BJP would not agree. But once in power, they went ahead and gave the enclaves back to Bangladesh, claiming that they have done what could not be done in 25 years.

Sheikh Hasina has been friendly to India. But in Bhutan, for example, there is only one man who stands between India and China. And that is the King. Not even their Parliament is in favour of India. But how long can the King stand alone?

One last question. What do you make of the Government appointing K.K. Venugopal as the Attorney General?

I am foxed. Venugopal is an eminently sensible legal luminary. He was the Additional Solicitor General under Morarji Desai and has had links with non-Congress parties since those days. But at the age of 86, his appointment came as a surprise and the Bar can only speculate on the reasons. The most accepted view is that it is a signal to Mr Arun Jaitley that the Prime Minister has now mastered the law and lawyers in Delhi ! When he came to Delhi, he did not know bureaucrats, foreign affairs, the law and so on. Now he knows them all and does not have to rely on Mr Jaitley.

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