"I didn't join to be PM"
Sonia Gandhi on why she entered politics and on Rahul's decision to contest.
Excerpts from Congress president Sonia Gandhi's exclusive interview to Vir Sanghvi:
How do you think the campaign has been going?
Extremely well. I had actually started travelling all over the country in January. That was part of a programme that had been planned out when we thought the election was in October or so. When elections were called early, I continued that programme which became part of the election campaign.
Right from January, wherever I went I was surprised by the affection I received. In such situations, political workers of course come out. But there were large numbers of ordinary people who were waving out, or stopping me. And the thing which struck me was how well women were responding to the campaign. Wherever I went, there would be women waiting on the roadside, wanting to say something.
So, I’m very happy with the response.
Were you dispirited by the assembly election defeats in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh?
Yes. Certainly. Perhaps not dispirited but definitely disappointed.
In Rajasthan, for instance, I thought we would make it, so I was disappointed by the result. In Madhya Pradesh, even though there were problems and we faced anti-incumbency after two terms, I thought our Chief Minister had done a great deal of work in social infrastructure. But obviously that wasn’t enough to meet the aspirations of the people.
Well, the BJP called the General Election early because morale in the Congress was at an all-time low.
I wasn’t demoralised. But yes, I was disappointed. And in the states where we lost there was a certain amount of demoralisation. So that’s probably why they chose that time.
Has morale improved as the campaign has gone on?
I have been pleasantly surprised by the response we are getting. If you look at our morale when the campaign began and morale now, you’ll see how much it has improved.
But no matter how much morale improves, you are still stuck for numbers because of the situation in UP and Bihar. Is that a fair assessment?
It is a fair assessment to say that we are not at the top in those states. But in Uttar Pradesh, we are not as badly off as some people seem to think. I can base this on the welcome I received when I travelled through Uttar Pradesh.
But do crowds for Sonia Gandhi translate into seats for the Congress?That’s the big challenge for our party machinery and our workers. We have to translate that goodwill into votes.
Were you surprised when Laloo offered you only four seats?
Yes. We were surprised.
So why align with him? Why not fight on your own?
We are in an alliance with him. And sometimes, keeping in mind the larger picture, we have to make certain adjustments no matter how disappointed we may feel.
But if you were willing to take just four seats from Laloo in the interests of a secular alliance then why did you hold out for more with Mulayam? Amar Singh is on record as saying that they offered you anywhere from 18 to 20 seats and you turned them down.
First of all, if that had been the offer, I would never have turned them down as you say I did. There was never any such offer. In fact, there was never any sort of discussion on numbers with either Mulayam Singhji or Amar Singhji.
So what were your meetings with them about, then?
We had general discussions on the importance of working together, of secular parties coming together.
They say that you made it clear to them that your preference was for an alliance with the BSP.
No, I never said anything like this to them. Never.
Was it ever your preference to go with the BSP over the SP?
Well, when you look for an alliance, you talk to all possible allies. You don’t exclude anyone. You can’t shut your door to one party and talk only to the other if there are two possible allies in a state.
Yes, but was the BSP your own preference?
No. Not at all. In any such situation there will be members of the party who will prefer one alliance and others who will prefer another. But these are all just inputs which come in when you are in politics.
You tell me: would it make any sense for me to focus on any one potential ally and to exclude another?
No, the argument is that Mayawati would not have aligned with Mulayam and vice-versa so you had to choose one. And that you went with Mayawati.
No. That is not correct. Not at all.
What went wrong with Mayawati?
Well, they obviously thought it was a better option for them to fight the election on their own.
But you went and met Mayawati. Things seemed to be going well. And then the BSP ruled out an alliance.
I don’t think there was a change as such. There are certain courtesies between political colleagues so I met her, I wished her on her birthday. There was always a general conversation. And eventually I guess she decided it was more beneficial for her to fight on their own.
Of course, there are reports that certain parties worked very hard to ensure that our alliance didn’t happen.
Do you think the SP and the BSP are keeping their options open for a post-poll adjustment with the BJP?
That is something that we shall only find out after the election.
That sounds like a ’yes’ to me.
(Laughs) In politics it is always difficult to assess these things, in advance.
Even if the Congress does better than predicted, nobody seriously expects you to get an overall majority. Your best case scenario is to be the largest party in a ruling coalition. But is that an attractive prospect for Congress voters? A coalition where, one day, Laloo threatens to walk out and the next day, Mulayam holds the government to ransom? Isn’t that a valid scenario? And why should anybody vote for you then?
Well it is as valid of a Congress-led coalition as it is of a BJP-led coalition. The BJP is not going to get an overall majority on its own either. So these are the risks of coalition politics. I can’t understand why this argument should be used only against the Congress.
After all, we’ve seen how they’ve been held to ransom in this coalition. Their government even fell because of coalition partners.
Since you’ve raised the subject yourself, do you think it was a mistake to have brought down the last Vajpayee government during the confidence motion?
Yes, I think it was. But we didn’t bring them down. Their coalition collapsed. Nevertheless, it was a miscalculation on our part. We were depending on assurances given by certain persons and those assurances were not fulfiled.
Still on the same subject, what were you thinking when you stood on the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan and said: “we have 272…?” Did you really believe that?
I obviously didn’t mean that I, Sonia Gandhi, had 272. For God’s sake, grant me a little more sense than that! (Laughs)
What I meant was the opposition now constituted a majority of the House because the government had just been defeated in a confidence vote.
Since we are still on that subject, why does Jayalalitha now seem to have it in for you?
You’ll have to ask her (smiles).
Well, during that Confidence Motion were the two of you friends?
Not only were we on very good terms but her party even wrote to the President saying that it supported the Congress led by Sonia Gandhi, if I remember correctly.
No problems with foreign birth, in those days, then?
Yes, that would seem to be so (smiles).
Talking about foreign birth, are you surprised that the issue has resurfaced in this campaign?
No. They brought it up halfway through the campaign. First they talked about India Shining and feel-good and then they began to get worried by the fact that our campaign was getting a tremendous response.
I don’t like to boast but there was a tremendous response to our Jan Sampark abhiyan and that worried them. If you analyse that period you will see that soon after that, Advani decided to go on a yatra and this issue was dragged out again. They always drag it out when they think the Congress is getting stronger.
Do you think it is still a live issue. Or has it played itself out?
I have travelled throughout the country, to every place, and I have never been made to feel that I do not belong. So I can’t see that they are getting any response from this issue.
Well, let me turn it around. Supposing you hadn’t met Rajiv Gandhi. Supposing you were still living in Italy. How would you have felt if an Indian was running for office in your country?
Let me tell you, in the small town in Italy where my mother lives, recently there was an election for mayor. And one of the candidates, the front-runner, was an Indian.
I am told by my mother that he was a much admired and loved person. Eventually he didn’t win the election but his Indian origin was not an issue.
So, to answer your question, I don’t think I would have felt bad if one of the leaders in Italy was born outside the country, or born in India.
I noticed from your statement of assets that you still own a house in Italy. That’s a bit odd, isn’t it?
I don’t own a house. My father died without making a will. According to Italian law, the bulk of a man’s estate goes to his wife and the rest is shared among his children.
So, I am entitled to some share of the home he left behind. That’s hardly the same thing as having a house of my own in Italy.
I am going to ask you this straight out: do you really want to be Prime Minister?
I have answered this question. I’ve answered it with my actions. In 1991, when my husband was assassinated, the Congress party asked me to take his place. It would have been easy for me to become Congress President and as you know, the Congress then formed the government. But I refused all offers to join politics.
When I did join, I did it only because I felt that the party my husband, my mother-in-law and so many members of his family had given their lives to was becoming weak. And because of this, communal and divisive forces were on the ascendant.
At that time, when there was no question of becoming Prime Minister, I decided that it was cowardice for me to sit back and stay at home. I owed it to the family that I married into to do whatever I could.
It is hard for some people to understand why anyone would join politics except to become Prime Minister. But that’s not why I joined. I joined because I couldn’t have faced my own conscience otherwise.
How did your children react when you decided to join?
I had opposed my husband’s joining politics. And I had opposed it because I feared that I might lose him.
I was right.
So when I took the decision, this was one of the main factors my children were concerned about. Both my son and daughter were very worried about this aspect but eventually they said they would go along with any decision I took.
Now that Rahul has actually taken the plunge, I can ask you this: when was that decision taken? Was it always on the cards?
Well, we all knew that at some stage we would have to decide one way or the other. That was a given. We sat down and discussed it like all families do and then Rahul decided to file his nomination.
Yes, but when did you discuss this? Was this decision taken years ago? Or was it taken say, last month?
No, not years ago. It was as the campaign drew nearer that we finally sat down and discussed it.
What about Priyanka? Is it also just a matter of time now?
(Laughs). You’ll have to ask her. She is a young mother with two small children and a husband to look after and naturally she feels that she has to look after her family. If she entered politics, she wouldn’t be able to given them the attention they need.
So she’ll wait till the kids are older.
(Laughs). You should ask Priyanka all this, not me. It sounds silly to keep repeating this like a stuck record but I have always said that it is my children’s decision. We may have discussed Rahul’s joining. But it was his decision. And it is up to Priyanka to decide also.
Are you upset or are you secretly pleased when people say that Rahul is the crown prince, that he’ll be your successor?
This is quite absurd. How can anyone say something so absurd? He has just joined. Let him win an election. His focus is on Amethi.
Who am I, anyway, to decide who my successor will be? The Congress elects its President. And there is no shortage of young leaders in the Congress. It is absurd to talk about Rahul as though I can arrange his succession.
Well, that rather depends on how you see the Congress. The BJP regards itself as a party based on ideology but argues that you are simply a family business run on the basis of the cult of personality.
We are a party which elects its leader. We have organisational elections. I have been elected. We stand for certain values and we are fighting this election on the basis of ideology and a vision for India, not on any family name or any personality.
It is the BJP that wants to turn this election into a personality contest. They are the ones who believe in a cult of personality. We say: talk about the issues. They say: talk about Vajpayee.
Have you seen their Vision Document? It is like a photo album with a few captions. There are, I think, 50 pictures of Vajpayee. So, who believes in the cult of personality? Us or them?
Have you seen that old picture of the young Vajpayee sitting down, where he’s wearing an RSS cap? There is Advani standing behind him. Then there’s a new picture, and again Vajpayee is sitting. And Advani is still standing.
When will Advani finally sit down? That’s the only serious question posed by their Vision Document. Otherwise, it is all personality, personality, personality.
Why do you think the country should not vote for the BJP?
The BJP government has failed on many counts but four are most crucial. First, it has destroyed social harmony. It is not just what happened in Gujarat. What is worse is that the law of the land was simply not enforced against those who preach and practice bigotry and hatred.
Second, its economic performance has been dismal. Economic growth in spite of the so-called feel-good factor of recent months is lower than under previous Congress regimes. Unemployment has mounted. Never before has the country seen this unprecedented level of suicides of farmers crushed under the burden of debt.
Third, there has been erosion of institutions. The CVC, the NHRC, the CBI, the PAC, the CAG have all come under assault. The autonomy of IIMs and IITs is being eroded. Academic bodies are being drained of professional competence. And fourth, there have been a huge number of scams whether it is in the sale of PSUs, allotment of petrol pumps, purchase of coffins for our brave Kargil martyrs and the UTI in which lakhs of middle class families have lost their hard-earned savings. I find it very sad that the BJP is negating the achievements of the past five decades. Many challenges remain but to deny what has been accomplished is partisanship of the worst kind. Calling Indira Gandhi Durga once means nothing.
What are the important reasons why the country should vote for the Congress?
The Congress’s policies have consistency and clarity. Its nationalism is all-inclusive nationalism that integrates, not divides; that instills pride, not stokes prejudice. The Congress has built modern India and under its leadership, India has emerged as the fourth largest economy in the world, according to some indices used internationally. Whether it is agriculture, industry, higher education, science and technology, rural development or democracy itself, it is the Congress that has provided the leadership. It has provided continuity with change. ‘Congress ka haath, aam admi ke saath’ sums up our priority.
What is the main difference between the Congress and the BJP?
Well, our nationalism is secular, liberal, tolerant, all-inclusive unlike that of the BJP. Our agenda is transparent and not hidden. We do not hide behind mukhotas as the BJP does. The BJP tries to put on a veneer of moderation to hide its real agenda of divisiveness. Our core is secular. We believe in celebrating India's diversities. We combine economic liberalism with social inclusiveness. We believe that economic growth cannot be sustained in an environment of social polarisation. We continue to believe in a selective and strategic role for the public sector. For us, priority for agriculture and rural development, for panchayati raj is an article of faith, not just rhetoric.
Are you awed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s stature and the difference in the ratings between the PM and you in all pre-poll surveys?
Vajpayee is a senior leader who has had over half-a-century in public life. But who is the real Vajpayee? On every major issue — Pakistan, Gujarat, Ayodhya and RSS to name just four — Vajpayee has flip-flopped and shifted his stance. He has said things to suit the audience and the occasion. He has left the nation confused. There has been neither consistency nor clarity in his stewardship. It was his own colleague Govindacharya, I think, who described him as a "mukhota". There is actually a double mukhota here. The NDA itself is a mukhota for the BJP. A vote for the NDA is actually a vote for the BJP and its divisive agenda.
Do you feel that people have got tired of the word “secularism”?
Not at all. An India that is not secular will simply not survive. Secularism is our destiny. Secularism in the sense of equal respect for all religions, in the sense of combating communalism of all kinds, in the sense of giving minorities safety, security and equality of opportunity. For me, secularism is more than a majority-minority issue. It is an issue that involves crores of Indians, deeply religious but liberal on the one hand, and a handful who seek to destroy the essence of their faith.
You are accused of following “soft Hindutva”. Why is this so?
Absolutely not. If I go to Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati as I have been doing for many years, why should I be accused of soft Hindutva? If I meet Muslim clerics and visit a dargah, why should I be accused of appeasement? These are labels that have no meaning.
How do you react to the latest news reports on Bofors?
The Delhi High Court upheld my husband's innocence. There is nothing new in the latest round of innuendoes. They were made six years back as well. What has the government been doing for these six years? Bofors has become a convenient political football that surfaces every time there are elections and the Congress seems to be on the upswing.
Why is the Congress appearing so weak in north India?
Not all of north India, perhaps only UP and Bihar. Well, the Congress has been elbowed out by caste and communal politics over the past decade in north India. We are a responsible, middle-of-the-road party that appeals to and derives its strength from each and every section of our variegated society. But I think our party's fortunes in UP will be revived in the forthcoming elections. People have tried all others and I think they have realised that it is only the Congress politics that works. We have many challenges in Bihar though.
How do you look back on your tenure as LOP?
It was eventful and educative. We were a constructive and responsible Opposition, much more constructive and responsible than the BJP when it was in the Opposition. We extended our support to the government on major political, economic and foreign policy issues when we felt that it was in the national interest. I have been criticised by some of my own colleagues for this approach but I stuck to my position. We extended full support to the government on its peace initiatives in J&K and with Pakistan. I was in regular touch with the Prime Minister on many issues like drought relief, PDS, employment guarantee and security in the North-east. But I hardly received any response from the PM. We took a firm and principled stand against sending Indian troops to Iraq and it is this that forced the government not to send troops when it had already decided to do so.
What is different about your 2004 campaign as compared to the 1999 polls?
Well, my Jan Sampark in different states has got new direction. You people in the media called it a "roadshow". Of course, I had started these Jan Samparks last year but these elections gave it fresh momentum. This Jan Sampark met with a most enthusiastic response. I am now in the phase where we have traditional rallies and public meetings and by May 10 would have addressed close to 70-80 rallies across the country. Our media campaign this time is far more structured and focused and is quite extensive in the regional media. It started with the ‘Aam admi ko kya mila’ campaign that highlighted the BJP-NDA's colossal failures, sought to be brushed under the carpet by the so-called India Shining campaign. Then we moved to our achievements phase with the theme ‘Congress ke raj mein hai hamari sunvayi’ and now we are in the final phase with the theme ‘Mein Congress ke saath hoon’. The emphasis is overwhelmingly on youth, women, farmers and the middle classes.
How do you see the post-poll scenario?
I see the emergence of a strong, effective, secular alternative to the NDA that will give good governance based on programmes, not personalities, based on ideas and institutions, not individuals.
What is it in our politics that you would like to change?
I would definitely like professionals, youth, women and minorities to be represented better in the Vidhan Sabhas and Parliament. Not just represented but also empowered fully. We are trying but clearly must do more. Then, we must clean up electoral financing for which the Congress had taken the lead two years back. The disclosure of assets by candidates is a step forward. We must also recapture the spirit of service and sacrifice in politics and rediscover a culture of austerity.
You seem to be the only campaigner for the party. One doesn’t hear much about any other Congress leader in this campaign.
Far from it. There are many others. In February/March, we had 30 young leaders campaigning all over the country under a theme — Disha 2004, Shiksha aur Rozgar. They were very well covered in the regional press. Many of our senior leaders are also out in the field. We have involved a large number of NGOs and technocrats like Sam Pitroda, for example, to recall Rajivji’s contributions in IT and science and technology. Many of the BJP's campaigners are ministers and therefore it is natural that they receive greater national publicity. The media focuses on me for obvious reasons but our campaign is much more broad-based this time.