Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi appeared confident that his party will form the next government at the Centre, and claimed the BJP's "disrespect" of the election commission (EC) reflected the saffron party's nervousness about the outcome of the polls. He said this in an exclusive interview to Hindustan, a sister publication of HT.
"It is sad to see the BJP's disregard of national institutions such as the EC. This attitude does not bode well", Gandhi said.
The principal opposition party has been scathing in its criticism of the poll body this week with BJP prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi accusing it of doing "unlawful things" at the behest of the Congress after the EC denied Modi permission to hold a rally in Varanasi on Thursday.
Gandhi claimed that while the BJP was better at "marketing itself", the electorate trusts the Congress more than communal parties. "Let us not forget that the wisdom of the Indian voter can easily see through campaigns like India Shining," Gandhi said.
Calling the BJP's campaign "high on noise", Gandhi admitted that the Congress' marketing abilities weren't as good as the "advertising blitz" of the saffron party. He, however, stressed that the Congress was more capable of working on the ground and delivering programs. "The Congress understands the needs of the people, particularly those who are poor and disadvantaged", Gandhi said.
The Congress vice-president said that the UPA's strength was its "transformative politics" that delivered the benefits of growth to every Indian. "I am confident that the voters will give a mandate to an inclusive, fair and unifying government that the Congress party offers", he said.
When asked if Congress' prospects suffered due to UPA'S perceived failure to rein in prices, Gandhi stressed that "price rise was an issue in every election for the incumbent".
"However, the UPA delivered the highest average 10-year growth in the history of India", he said.
But the Congress vice-president avoided a direct response when asked if the Congress would have been better served if he had become PM a year ago. "The UPA government had been led very ably by Manmohan Singh," was his response.
Rubbishing talk of a "policy paralysis" of the UPA government, Gandhi said the Congress was committed to decentralisation and devolving powers to the people. "The UPA introduced an unprecedented rights-based framework of legislations over the past decade", he elaborated.
Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Reports are suggesting the BJP will be the single largest party in the next Lok Sabha and the Congress will be a poor second. Do you agree?
I do not agree. We have governments in 14 states, either on our own or with allies. Many of the Congress governments are 10 to 15 years old. We are the main opposition in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and many other states.
The BJP and its allies, on the other hand, have governments only in seven states. The BJP has no presence in states such as West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, as well as much of the northeast. The BJP once had TMC, BJD, AIADMK and JD(U) as allies. Now these parties are the biggest critics of (BJP prime ministerial candidate) Narendra Modi.
If you're talking about opinion polls, I need to only remind you of the fate of the opinion polls in the last two Lok Sabha elections of 2004 and 2009. They were wrong on every parameter. They predicted a win for the NDA in 2004. It lost. Similar predictions were made in 2009. But we came back with more seats than last time. I'm confident the UPA will win the mandate and form the government again.
You recently said the Congress won't support a third front government. In case you are not the single largest party, what will be your strategy?
Congress will get the required numbers. There will be no need to support any front.
Congress workers and leaders feel if you had become Prime Minister a year ago, the situation would have been different now.
The UPA government has been led very ably by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ji. I have travelled the length and breadth of the country in these past few months. I've covered 26 states, over 1.6 lakh kilometres. Away from television sets everywhere on the ground the feedback is that, despite the negative propaganda from the BJP, the electorate trusts the Congress more than it does communal parties. The poor and vulnerable sections have been appreciative of the UPA's work over ten years.
After the elections what will be your agenda vis-à-vis the party organisation. What type of changes do you want to bring about?
We are already making the changes needed. We believe the only way to resolve the major problems in our country in the long run is to decentralise decision-making and devolve power from the hands of a few to many… I want a day to come when the Congress' decisions are not taken by one or two people, but by hundreds and thousands of people.
This will empower the public. Every party talks about being democratic and involving people while giving tickets, but nobody has done it. Only the Congress has taken this step.
It is being said the Congress is suffering losses because of the UPA's failure to control prices and the allegations of corruption against it.
Price rise is an issue in every election for the incumbent government. However, you must acknowledge that the UPA has delivered the highest average 10-year growth in the history of India. Our average per capita income has tripled during the UPA's tenure.
Some senior congress leaders have said the top leadership of the party, including you, failed to communicate with the people. Is that correct?
The BJP is much better at marketing themselves. If you've observed their campaigns, they are high on noise. Our marketing abilities may not be as good as their advertising blitz. But our ability to work on the ground and deliver programs is way ahead.
We saw a lot of bitterness and communal overtones during the election campaigns this time. What do you feel about that?
I think the BJP's campaigns have always been very loud and full of noise. But I agree that this campaign has been particularly negative. The level of debate we should be having is really not taking place.
In our election campaign, we have focused mostly on the positive, on what the Congress wants to do for the youth, women and people of our country over the next five years.
The issues important for the future of our country are getting lost in the noise and aggression. Where the opposition is concerned, the Congress has shined a light on the contradictions the BJP's ideology represents for the people of our country. We have tried to set the record straight on the marketing around the poor record of governance in Gujarat.
Unfortunately, the other side has indulged in an extremely negative and rather crude narrative, which appears focussed on personalised attacks on individuals. They distort facts, deliberately misinterpret and manipulate statements, and make false allegations.
When everything fails, they even resort to attacking the constitutional institutions of our country. This sets a very bad precedent for political discourse and is against the best traditions of parliamentary democracy.
Over the past several days, much has been said about the election commission (EC). The BJP has been publicly critical of the EC. What's your take on this?
The Congress and I myself have the deepest respect for the election commission and other institutions of our country. During the course of these elections, we too have had our own set of grievances, including the usage of religious symbols by the BJP in its rallies and slogans, the choosing of the date for release of its manifesto and filing of nomination papers (including the manner in which it was filed) in Varanasi by the BJP candidate, and lodging of FIRs against Congress candidate from Vadodara on frivolous issues to intimidate him.
Though action was taken only on some of our complaints, unlike the BJP, we did not try to demean or degrade the constitutional authority of the EC.
In the past, we have seen the BJP's disregard for institutions like the Lokayukta and the information commission in Gujarat.
I am sad to see the disrespect that the main opposition party in the country has recently been exhibiting towards our national institutions. The BJP's remarks about the EC are a glaring example of this. This attitude of theirs does not bode well.
I recently read a senior commentator writing that people who think they are poised to win in a competition don't normally abuse the umpire. These comments by the BJP reflect their nervousness about the outcome of this election.