UPA:‘Congress, under the present leadership, cannot provide an alternative to the BJP’
Kishore Chandra Deo is one of those very rare Congress leaders who does not shy away from calling a spade a spade. In one of the toughest interviews, the former Minister for Tribal Affairs and Panchayati Raj asserts that the Congress under its present leadership is not in a position to provide a rejoinder to the BJP, which, in his reckoning, is sliding rapidly. A six-time MP from Andhra Pradesh before he lost in the May 2014 elections, the astute Deo is unconvinced that Rahul Gandhi can bring about dramatic changes if he becomes the party President. He is still pensive about how many of his confidential notes sent to Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, cautioning them about the impending electoral disaster, were never acknowledged. He claims that the party has been hijacked by fundraisers and outsiders who have nothing to do with Congress ideology. Deo believes that there is a Congress vote, which will throw up an alternative if the party fails to lift itself. Excerpts from the interview:
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
How do you look at the Congress defeat in the Lok Sabha elections?
The loss of the party is very unfortunate, especially at this juncture because the country today needs a national, democratic and secular party with social commitments. Unfortunately, that is absent in today’s polity. The Congress manifesto is alright, the Congress programmes are fine, but we have failed as a party. It will be presumptuous for me to say that the Congress in its present state, under this leadership, will be able to provide an alternative to the ruling BJP which has already started stumbling even before a year has lapsed. When I say the leadership of the Congress party, I mean the group of leaders who, I won’t say ‘held the party to ransom’ but have gained a stranglehold over this party. A dozen or so leaders in the states, another dozen from the Centre have been playing musical chairs with the party. That is alright had they delivered the goods, made the party stronger. Unfortunately, the party has been weakened in the last two decades; though they have been in power, a lot of good work was done during UPA I and II. I don’t think the social sector ever got the fillip which it got during the last 10 years. Despite that, we were not able to take this to the people. We were not able to project the party in the proper perspective. Unfortunately, the scams which came to the fore, the 2G scam, Coalgate, or even the Commonwealth Games scam, took a toll and the party failed to convince the people that it had nothing to do with these scams. It was not able to take action against those who were responsible which would have satisfied the people as far as the party was concerned.
On the other hand, there was a feeling of diffidence among the party leadership and this gave room for suspicion. When people heard the humongous figures, the astronomical amount of money that changed hands, and especially when it came from a Constitutional authority like the CAG, it lent credence and we were not able to satisfy the people that it was not the case, nor were we able to punish, those involved. That apart, it was bad management.
Why did the party lose Andhra Pradesh?
The general feeling is that we lost the elections because of the creation of Telangana. But was there any division in Bihar, in UP, in Odisha or in state after state where we drew a blank? Despite the division, we could have won in Andhra Pradesh had we gone about it in a proper manner. First, the division should have taken place a couple of years ago. The Chief Minister, who was actually making statements against the party leadership, was allowed to continue till the elections were on the anvil. And even then it was not the Congress which got rid of him, it was he who left the party. I had been mentioning to my colleagues, to my leaders that, as far as Telangana is concerned, the credit will go to Chandrashekhar Rao and his son, and he did steal the thunder. As a sound political mind, one should have foreseen this. Once, I even mentioned that it should be bifurcated into three states with Rayalseema as the third state. This aspect was not considered at all. The packages Andhra and Rayalseema would get were not explained to the people. It was the Chief Minister who sponsored and financed the agitation which went on for many months in AP against the division from behind the scenes. So there was no opportunity for the people’s representatives to go and explain to the people. They blocked traffic and shouted slogans. The CM continued to blame the Central ministers and the leadership. Our top leaders remained silent spectators. So this is how we lost AP and Telangana and I don’t know how many decades it will take to get them back.
What needs to be done to revive the party?
I come from AP so I can talk about it. But similar things happened in all states, though the issue of division may not have been there. In the party, no attempt has been made to fix accountability on any particular leader who has been in charge of a particular state or a particular region. The leaders who have failed to deliver are still continuing. People feel that many of them have been rewarded for their failures. So many contested elections, lost and have become leaders of either House of Parliament or State Pradesh Committees. This is something which continues to irk the workers. There have been instances when people have been brought in from other parties and foisted on Congressmen who have worked for decades for the party. Unless this changes, there is nothing wrong with the Congress manifesto or its programmes. UPA did yeoman’s service for the rural areas. But that has been overshadowed by these adversities and that is why we are where we stand today.
You spoke of the stranglehold of the leaders and how they are being rewarded despite their failures. Rahul Gandhi talks of inner-party democracy. Do you think there is a contradiction in what he says and what he practises?
I don’t fault him for it. But he has not been able to implement what he thinks. I will take you back to the Jaipur conclave and the speech he made there. I was also very enthused with what the youngster said. What he said was actually what was happening within the party. In fact, he chronicled the ailments the party was facing. I, for once, felt that unless he knew it, he won’t say it. And unless he wants to remedy these faults why would he say it in a public forum? So I had great hopes that something would be done. I feel that if Rahul Gandhi had implemented 50 percent of what he said in Jaipur, the party’s position would not have been what it is.
As far as internal democracy within the party is concerned, there used to be a Working Committee which used to meet before. Now the Working Committee meetings have become a formality. There used to be something called the Parliamentary Board which was actually the highest organ of the party. Now we don’t hear about the Parliamentary Board. The Core Committee is an extra-Constitutional arrangement. It is not there in the Congress Constitution. But even then the Core Committee is said to be the end-all of everything. So when decisions are being taken in this manner, where is the place for internal democracy. And then it is often said that you should air your feelings in the party fora. How many workers or leaders have the option to do this? And many of those who have done it have not found an echo from the leadership. When I go to the ground, people ask me why I am keeping quiet. Or why nobody is saying anything. Before the last elections, I wrote more than a dozen confidential notes to the Congress President, marked copies to the Vice President, President, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and AK Antony and others and I am sure that Singh and Antony have read those notes but I don’t know if the youngster ever read them. The people don’t know what I have been saying. I never received any feedback or response.
In fact, the Prime Minister once or twice told me that he has gone through my notes, Antony told me he read them, but from the President and the Vice President’s offices there was no response. My people should get to know what I told my leaders. After all, our credibility also suffers. The people say, What are you doing when you are seeing the party go to the dogs. So when things are going from bad to worse, what does one do? It is our duty to tell the workers and the people what many of us in the party feel today.
Do you feel that the Congress has lost its desire to win any elections, especially after the decimation in Delhi?
The Congress may not have lost the desire to win. How many decades has the Congress been out of power in Bihar? Why would anybody want to be a worker in Bihar unless they believe in the Congress philosophy and ideology? I don’t think they would not want to come back to power. But these are a few people who are not ready to compromise on the basic principles for anything. So it is not right to say that the Congressmen don’t want the Congress to come to power. But it may be the leadership which doesn’t want to come to power or do anything to try to come back to power. It is a sad state. And if this kind of situation continues, a vacuum cannot continue in politics. So if the Congress doesn’t revive itself, doesn’t do the right things, I am sure people will throw up some other alternative.
Do you think a party like AAP can be that alternative?
I don’t think so. The way people voted for AAP in the last elections, I think it was a warning signal for the Congress. The Congress was then still in power, and the natural opposition party was the BJP and in Delhi it is always a battle between the Congress and the BJP. So when people voted for AAP, my interpretation was that the people told our leaders that they don’t want a communal party like the BJP, but they will not tolerate the manner in which we were functioning. So, as an alternative, they voted for AAP. The verdict in that election was not very clear for AAP didn’t win a clear majority. Remember, in Parliament, BJP swept all the seven seats and AAP didn’t get anything. And now, within eight months, the reverse has happened. The BJP couldn’t win anything and AAP swept the Assembly polls. These are the votes which would have come to the Congress in the natural circumstances. So this is actually a rejection of Narendra Modi by the people of Delhi. Modi’s stint so far has been more of body language display, more of verbal diarrhoea than anything solid or concrete happening on the ground.
Next, a lot was done for the Delhi people, as far as the have-nots are concerned. Now you have a government which is totally tilted in favour of the corporates. I am not anti-corporate, anti-infrastructure or anti-industry, but you can’t let them grow at the expense of the poor. In a country like India where the disparities are so large, if a government doesn’t look into the needs of the poor then why should there be a government at all? Can’t the industrialists, the businessmen and the corporates look after themselves? So this election was yet another signal. A lot has happened in the last six to eight months, people have seen that, people are clever, the voters are very smart. Even for my defeat in Andhra Pradesh, I will not blame the voters, it is the leadership of the party that has let us down. You made the party non-existent in the state. In the 175 Assembly segments in AP, there were only two candidates who could save their deposit. There were candidates who have been winning seven-eight times straight, and all of the candidates could not have been useless. So this defeat is the contribution of the party leadership in AP.
Coming back to your question, AAP is an expression of the view of the people. Delhi is representative that way. You have people from different parts of the country. Plus, you have the media, you have activists, intelligentsia, people from different categories and we must not forget that the largest section is from the lower strata of society. This entire cross-section voted in a particular manner, which means it is a statement that has been made. AAP is not mature enough to become a national party, it is a fledgling party. I hope they do well but it will take time before they find roots in other parts of the country. This is the time for all secular, democratic forces to combine. The country needs a national party with a credible leadership. There is nothing wrong with the Congress in theory. Today, it is the credibility which is lacking.
You spoke of the discredited leadership. Even then the Vice-President may take over as the new President in spite of his share of failures. What is your view on that?
What were his shortcomings as a Vice-President? And what is it that he will gain additionally after becoming the President? After all, it’s between the mother and son. There is no outsider. So when people say that Rahul is going to launch himself, I think he has already launched himself. The nomenclature may change, you may call him President, or working President or whatever you like, but he has already been the Vice-President of the party. He has been at the helm. Basically, it is the mindset of the party, the functioning of the party which has to change. If Rahul is able to get out of the clutches of that stranglehold and choose the right people—the Congress has good people in every state and unfortunately they are not at the fore and if you are looking for a credible party, then you must not expect all the people to have money with them. And now if you only want fundraisers, well, you can’t run a political party only through fundraisers. Look at the Upper House, it has become a sanctuary for all kinds of moneybags.
So you are saying that the party is in the clutches of these fundraisers?
How do you look at Rahul Gandhi’s decision to go on a sabbatical right before the session?
Too much is being made of that issue. This is not the core issue. If the so-called sabbatical can result in what is expected of him then it is a good thing. The core issue is, how to rid the party of the undesirables, how to bring about a change in the leadership both in the AICC and the PCCs.
Do you think the top leadership has the will for this purge?
I can’t comment on that. But the leadership has the authority to do it. And these are not things which can be done peacefully. They have to be done with a bang. You have to go to the people in a forthright manner, and they will respond.
But there is an impression that the Congress has become a spent force?
The Congress is responsible for this impression. It can never be a spent force if it functions in the manner in which it should function. And if this impression has gone to the people then we can only blame ourselves for it.
There have been reports of a rift between the young and the old leadership in the party. Is there the kind of generational gap which is being talked about?
I think this is all being made out to be so. Where actually is the rift? Old or young doesn’t matter, what matters is the kind of people you have. And if they belong to the same stream then why should there be any rift? There are many youngsters who are doing well, working hard, and they have never made me feel unwanted because I am old. Basically, there should be desirable people with similar commitments to the party’s ideology and principles.
What are your views on the demand to get Priyanka Gandhi formally into the organisation?
You can get Priyanka Gandhi or another Gandhi but individuals are not going to make a difference unless the mindset and intrinsic functioning of the party changes. That is more important.
How do you see the BJP’s first eight months in power?
They have been disastrous. Look at what is happening in Jammu and Kashmir. Look at the way all the social sector allocations have been cut. When I was the Minister for Panchayati Raj, the allocation for my ministry was `250-300 crore and then the backward region grant came which was more than `5,000 crore. Then I set in motion the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayat Sashaktikaran Abhiyan and got the Cabinet and the Planning Commission to approve `12,000 crore for five years. So, from almost `8,000 crore per year it has come down to `95 crore today. If you want to empower people, if you want to make them feel that they are a part of the process of governance, you need to empower panchayats and encourage gram sabhas. It is very well for you to say that it is a Concurrent List subject so the implementing authorities are the state governments so why do you want to give money for that? In that case why do you need to have a Panchayati Raj ministry at the centre at all? The tribal sub-plan has also been cut by more than half. None of the social sector allocations have been up to the mark in this Budget. It has been a totally pro-corporate Budget. The Prime Minister is paying back the people who sponsored his campaign. He is repaying debts. That apart, there has been an increase in communal tension which bothers me. India is not a theocratic country or one built on linguistic lines. And if you continue to fan the fire of religion or of language then that could lead to disintegration of the country for we are a country full of sub-nationalities. And this is a factor which has become more important since the NDA came to power, especially under Modi.