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'We beat Vajpayee, Modi can't be as popular as him'

Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh is coordinating several task forces of the Congress for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Ramesh spoke to Varghese K George on what the recent debacle in state polls means for the Congress and the way ahead

india Updated: Dec 15, 2013 22:23 IST
Varghese K George

Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh is coordinating several task forces of the Congress for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He has been a key strategist of the party in the last 15 years. Ramesh spoke to Varghese K George on what the recent debacle in state polls means for the Congress and the way ahead.

He refused to be drawn into a prediction on Narendra Modi’s chances of becoming prime minister, but said the BJP leader was a dangerous cocktail of political autocracy, social divisiveness and crony liberalism.

What went wrong?
It is certainly bewildering and disappointing. We had a good campaign; in Rajasthan and Delhi, we undoubtedly had strong achievements. Strong support was evident in Chhattisgarh. In MP all leaders were together and ticket distribution was fairer. But there are silver linings. We recorded a strong showing in Bastar. And this defeat is not unprecedented. We were in the same situation in December 2003. We had lost Mizoram then. But then we were the challenger and had some advantage of being one. This result forces us to get our act together. It is a wake-up call.

So what are you going to do in the next few months before the Lok Sabha elections?
Our plans will unfold in the next couple weeks and we have had discussions. We have an internal challenge to galvanise the cadre who are naturally downbeat and demoralised. The external challenge is the campaign, to communicate what we did in the last 10 years and what we intend to do. It is going to be a positive campaign. The BJP is naturally upbeat. In 2003 also we were in a situation of despondency. Sonia Gandhi was the only person who thought we could make it in 2004. She came out aggressively, galvanised the cadre and had an outreach programme for allies.

Would you like to see that kind of aggression in Rahul Gandhi too now?
Individual styles can be different. Mr Gandhi has his own style. Given the magnitude of the challenge that we are confronted with, both the president and the vice-president of the party have said we must draw our lessons and get ready for the fight. We have a story to tell, we need to tell that. We need to find the right alliances.

What will the party leadership do in the next four months or so?
Not only that they are involved in the strategy, they are also involved in day-to-day functioning. We have just 120 days. We have to have a day-to-day plan now. It is not only for the president and the vice-president to act. All of us have to recognise that we have a collective responsibility.

Do see the possibility of a division of labour between Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in the coming weeks?
Mr Gandhi is a hands-on vice-president of the party. He is actively involved in appointments, decision on alliances and manifestos, and is travelling extensively. Mrs Gandhi is the biggest boss, she is the president of the party. Mr Gandhi, by his training, background and youth would be doing much more, things that we cannot expect Mrs Gandhi to do now. I don’t know whether we can call it a division of labour. He will even more visible in the coming days. Yes we did badly in these elections and our political assessment went badly wrong. But the national election will not necessarily follow the same path. As I said, after the defeats in 2003, we won the 2004 national election.

By not announcing CM candidates, the party has adopted a strategy of diffused leadership. Do you think this needs to change?
The real lesson we need to take from this is that we need to announce candidates months in advance. We give candidates just days to campaign, whereas other parties give months. This is no rocket science, and both the Congress president and vice-president are frustrated that we have not been doing this. I know that that the vice-president has been doing a lot of homework on this aspect. One change you will likely see is that we will announce candidates for the Lok Sabha elections well in time so that the electorate can know the candidate better and the candidate can reach out to them. Mr Gandhi has already drawn a list of people from diverse background and qualifications and he is working on it.

Do you fear a clash between the old guard and the new?
I don’t see that conflict. There is no old guard and the new guard, there is only guard. At Jaipur earlier this year, everyone saw and recognised that Mr Gandhi took over the reins of the party. He took over in a dramatic manner and is in charge. He is the leader, people recognise that he is the future. Yes, he is under the chatthar chhaya of the Congress president. She is the supremo, but he is not a glorified vice-president. It is not a clash of generations, but there may be a clash between the old way of doing things and a new way of doing things.

Are you saying that there is resistance to Rahul Gandhi?
I don’t call it resistance. It takes time to change a 128-year-old party. Mr Gandhi, from what I understand, wants to change the way politics is done. He wants to replace the politics of parikrama with the politics of performance, patronage, with productivity and accountability. He wants leaders to emerge rather than be imposed. He represents a fresh way of doing politics and 2014 results will prove the prophets of doom wrong.

Rahul Gandhi has said power is poison. What do you think he means by that?
It is a personal statement. Mrs Gandhi was also unhappy when Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister, from what I read. But Rajivji became prime minister as circumstances forced. In a way, Mr Gandhi has also been catapulted by circumstances. What he perhaps means is that he is not in politics to seek office. He continuously underscores the point that we must do certain things whether we are in power or not. And we have to take certain positions regardless of their electoral consequences. Good if we get some votes, but even if we don’t get them, we still need to do the right thing.

Congress support for gay rights is one such?
Absolutely. It is a wonderful example. We came out strongly because today it is gay people, tomorrow this could happen to any minority. You could be jailed. It is matter of basic of human rights and we had to take a position.

But it is also a classic case of resistance to a new way of doing things. Many in the Congress are unhappy about the support for gay rights.
India is a society that prefers ambiguity and the Congress has understood this Indian psyche. But now, Mr Gandhi is saying, look guys, make up your mind. And articulate that position. When you take a position, 10 people will be out there to get you also. But that is what he is saying.

Do you think Rahul Gandhi must be announced as the prime ministerial candidate?
The Congress president has already said it will be announced. I have nothing more to add to that.

You have protested the fund cuts in flagship programmes. Are you and finance minister P Chidambaram on a collision course?
He would not be a responsible finance minister if he didn’t look for ways to cut expenditure. I would not be a responsive rural development minister if I did not fight for our flagship programmes.

Do you think he is a fiscal fundamentalist?
I don’t think he is a fiscal fundamentalist. I have worked with him, seen him at close quarters, he is genuinely concerned about the credibility of the government’s economic stance. Having made a public stance, he is striving hard to maintain that. I have to help him, and at the same time, I have to protect the flagship programme. I have to protect the social sector programmes. And things such as rural roads, where we cannot expect the private sector to invest. Or build housing for BPL families; or give funds to women’s self-help groups. It is after all a political choice we must make. I am sure that we will ultimately come out of this, without compromising on the fiscal stance of the government, and at the same time maintaining our flagship programmes.
I have worked with the finance minister as an advisor in 1996, and I know the pressures he is under. He has to maintain the credibility of the fiscal stance. He has made a public commitment that fiscal deficit will be kept under 4.8% of GDP. I respect that commitment. After all, it is a commitment of the government of India, not a personal commitment.

Do you think that the inclusion agenda of the Congress is under threat?
To sustain growth you need inclusion and to sustain inclusion you need growth. There is a symbiotic relation between the two. At a time when the fiscal situation is tight, it is but natural that all options must be explored to keep expenses under check. The situation has become a little difficult in the last two years. We did not face this situation in the first six years of the UPA when we were on 8% growth trajectory.

With that decelerating to around 5%, we are facing tough choices. I think this a temporary phase and we will be back to 7-8% growth in the next two to three years and the inclusion agenda will continue.
Inclusion agenda is not rocket science. It is absolutely necessary. On economic grounds, on social grounds and, I think, even on moral grounds. In the mid-1980s when I began talking about privatisation and globalisation, I was accused of being a CIA agent. Today, I am accused of being a closet KGB agent. It is ridiculous. India needs faster growth. No question about it. We need 7-8% growth. I believe we should have faster privatization and far greater integration with the world economy. Not financial, so much, as in trade in goods and services. We need a social agenda too given the problems that we have in areas of education, health and so on.

Do you think Narendra Modi will be or can be the prime minister of India?
I am not an astrologer to predict that, but what I can say is that he is a dangerous cocktail of political autocracy, social divisiveness and crony liberalism. But one thing I can tell you. We defeated (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee when he was at the peak of his popularity. Modi can never become as popular as Vajpayee.

Are you worried about the support that Modi gets from the social media, the corporate world?
He has a lot of buzz in the social media and a lot of my corporate friends are great fans of his. What can I tell them? Pasand apni apni….