Congress Within Striking Distance Of Power In Rajasthan, Says Sachin Pilot
The Congress is confident of winning elections in Rajasthan riding on an anti-incumbency wave to clinch the desert state from the Bharatiya Janata Party. But it’s not taking anything for granted.
While most opinion polls give the party an easy victory in the state that goes to polls on Dec. 7, Sachin Pilot, the state Congress chief and a contender for the chief minister’s job, said he expects the BJP to be combative.
“I don’t take things lightly. In fact, we have kept our ear to the ground,” Pilot said in an interview with BloombergQuint. “We are well placed. We are within striking distance of forming the government but work still is to be done. The next two weeks will be crucial.”
Pilot said the BJP was engaging in politics that was retrograde and backward-looking.
The BJP is re-enacting the UP template which is sad and unfortunate.Sachin Pilot, Rajasthan Congress Chief
He blamed Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje-led government for failing to deliver on promises. Pointing out the poor state of Rajasthan’s finances, Pilot said the Congress government would not discontinue popular schemes of the Raje administration, like the Bhamashah Yojana, which is aimed at women. Instead, he said, the new government would focus on improving the scheme to plug the gaps.
Here’s the edited transcript of the interview:
Is it looking like a walkover as some surveys are predicting or is it a tough fight ahead?
I am one of those people who believe that every election is a challenge. And the party in power will use every resource at its disposal to make it a combative election. I don’t take things lightly. In fact, we have kept our ear to the ground. We have worked diligently for the last five years. We are well placed. We are within striking distance of forming the government but the work still is to be done. The next two weeks will be crucial.
You are fighting the election from Tonk. Why that constituency specifically?
We have left the decision to Congress president as to who will contest and from where. I have been party president for five years. Mr. Gandhi made it clear that he wants me to fight the election. So, all of us are contesting. As far as the choice of the constituency, that was also a party decision. I have been an MP from Dausa. That seat got reserved for ST, so I couldn’t contest from there. Then I was an MP from Ajmer and recently we won a by-election in Ajmer. So, we have sitting MP from Ajmer. Tonk is a seat that is actually adjacent. It is between Dausa and Ajmer. And the party felt that my candidature there will help the party not just in that district but perhaps will have a positive impact on the Congress party in surrounding areas. I am very happy that I have been asked to contest. I have had a two-day campaign in Tonk and people have been very receptive, very warm and very loving. The area is quite backward. We’ve had a BJP MLA, BJP MP, BJP CM, BJP PM for five years and that place deserves a lot better than what it has got.
It also led to the last minute change in BJP candidate standing against you who is the sitting transport minister. It seems like a choice to field a minority candidate in a seat which has a large minority population. Do you think that makes it a tougher fight for you?
I am fighting the BJP. Who the candidate is, is not important. The gentlemen who is now a last-minute candidate was not given ticket from his existing constituency where he is MLA from because of the religion he belongs to and the only reason he’s been given ticket from where he is now contesting is also only because of the religion he belongs to. The BJP is reenacting the UP template which is sad and unfortunate because when you have been in power for five years, you have so much to show, you can flaunt your report card, show your development work and seek votes on that basis as opposed to looking at candidates will single the prism of what religion you belong to. That’s not the India we want to shape. That’s not the 21st Century young Indians have dreamed for and aspire for. We need to move on. But unfortunately, BJP has still got the dogma of religion, caste, and language.
Every party including the Congress does that arithmetic.
You look at the winnability. I am quite happy we have a candidate there. He is very reluctant to contest but he is contesting. The point is that BJP decided to not give tickets to people from a certain community. It is a deliberate political move. I am only challenging that move. A sitting MLA, a minister, how can he not be a winning candidate when he was won thrice before. Why this time he has been denied a ticket? The Whole world knows why he is being denied. That type of politics is retrograde. It is backward looking politics. Where you still think that religion and politics should come together. To my mind, politics and religion should be kept apart. It is a matter of personal faith, who you pray to, who you believe in, what rituals you do. Politics is about the work that you do, and that’s the basis on why I think Tonk deserves a better representative.
Have you been sharing notes with the Congress party in Madhya Pradesh because they seem to believe that religion and politics do go together?
I have seen the manifesto. There are few infrastructures developmental issues that people have asked Congress party to include. If the people are demanding that infrastructure in certain religious sites needs to get better, there’s nothing wrong in that.
It is a soft Hindutva approach.
I can comment about Rajasthan. I’m sure in Rajasthan we will have a Jan Ghoshna Patra out in few days’ time. Congress party is singularly focused on Agrarian crises, young people getting employment, economic growth that creates jobs as opposed to jobless growth that the state is now facing. These are the core issues. BJP wants to divert the issues to Ram Mandir, temple, Ayodhya, cow vigilante, mob lynching, Ghar wapsi. All these issues are not pertinent to today’s average Indian’s life. What he wants is progressive looking policies. which, unfortunately, the BJP hasn’t provided.
You have an election is less than 20 days. Why is your manifesto not out?
The manifesto is not what people should receive from the government. We have got more than 95,000 suggestions from people through social media, websites, phone calls, emails and sometimes people want to be anonymous, but they want to ask for things. Every district has a different aspirational, societal setup. So, we will take the time to draw up demands. As far as the broad things are concerned, it is very clear.
Two important things for Rajasthan. One is Agrarian crises which farmers face. I think we need to get that out of the way. Second is, young people are either unemployed or under-employed. These are two basic things that the government will do once we are given the blessings of the people Rajasthan. The other are district specific issues that we think must be included. Our Ghoshna Patra will not be like Vasundharaji. She made 611 promises in the last five years. One must ask her how many of those have been implemented. We are not going to promise jumlas, or Rs 15 lakh in every bank account, etc. We will promise what is tangible, what is possible and what is implementable, and we will go to people with that blueprint in mind.
Are rebel candidates keeping you busy and maybe that has delayed the manifesto?
Everyone knows that Congress party is the most likely party to be the party in power. So the Number of candidates was very high this time. It takes time to make everyone understand, everyone gets heard, everyone gets listened to and then you make a conscious decision based on feedback and consensus among readers. It takes time. There are people who believe that they were better candidates, but the party can give a ticket to only one person.
Some of them have decided to fight as independents?
It happens in every party. But now we have two days and we have spoken to most of them. A true Congressperson is one that will stick by the Congress decision and help the official candidate to win. There are a few people who have filed nominations as independents or rebels. That is all under control. We are talking to a lot of people. Tomorrow things could be very positively placed.
We have seen, especially for garlic farmers, a huge issue taking place. You are pointing out what this government has not implemented well enough. But what would you do instead? Is there a blueprint in place?
There are two things. When you spend four years in government and almost 200 farmers commit suicide, then on your way out you start clutching at straws. You start making policy announcements. Here is the funny thing. Half an hour ago before the election code of conduct actually kicked in Rajasthan, Vasundhara ji made some announcements about electricity waivers for farmers. She knows, I know, the whole state knows hat it is never going to be implemented because A) they won’t come back to power and B) It is something that is done half an hour before the code of conduct is actually in place. What was she has been doing for 4 years, 11 months and 29 days? If you want to improve the agricultural set up in the state, the ecosystem needs to be re-engineered. Access to markets, seeds, electricity, credit facilities, all of this work in tangent. You can’t make knee-jerk reactions. And Farm loan waivers also cannot be the only thing the farmers want. They want a fresh start no doubt, but to my mind agriculture should be the priority for the first day of office of the new government as opposed to the last thing they do while in office.
Is there a blueprint in mind?
Yes. We have everything very clearly lined out. We think it will take few years to get translated into real policies on the ground, but the blueprint is ready. The first thing we need to do is (to) soften the blow that the farmers of Rajasthan face.
So that’s the farm loan waiver bit?
We will organize that as soon as we get a chance to be in power. Second is that farmers of Rajasthan are very hard working, but even the announcement of MSP are just announcements. On the ground, when the agencies are told to procure crops and grains, then it doesn’t happen. They are made to wait 3-4 days and they get sucked into hoarders and black marketeers. So, implementation is also important if not more policy itself. Announcing MSP sounds very good but how much of the crop is being lifted at that price.
Higher MSP and farm loan waivers have been the combination for several state governments and central governments including previous UPA governments. Implementation has been patchy in all cases. So, you are basically saying that you are going to try the same things and try and do them better?
I am going to try and see that whatever is said is actually done. There is a difference between what the governments try, governments announce but what is happening in mandis, ground and markets is a totally different story. That’s part one.
There has to be some systematic change also. The crop pattern, the choice of crop, the technology use and sometimes the farmer gets a pittance for its produce and the end consumer ends up paying 20 times the price. That is not the fault of the farmer or consumer. It is the gap in the middle that needs to be sorted out. Who will do that? It is up to the government to do it. Sadly, there are some vested interests which keep the government from doing such things. They need dramatic actions. Every state has the power to take action against these people who enhance the price, hoard commodities and sell at a windfall. It is not the fault of farmers. Consumer feels that it is inflation. Farmers itself gets Rs 3-4 for a kg of tomatoes. But what we pay in the market is Rs 30-50. So there is a problem there. It is not about not knowing what it is, it’s about how much will you have, how much time and effort you are willing to spend to resolve this particular issue.
There are a couple of schemes that this government has implemented. One of them, that they (BJP) claim is popular is, of course, the Bhamashah scheme. What will you do with the scheme if you came to power and if you become CM? Will you discontinue it?
First of all, who will become the CM is a question that will be answered once the election is won. You keep referring to me as someone who might or might not become the CM.
But that’s a possibility?
Everything is possible. But what the reality is that the Congress party will take a decision once we get a majority and the party will decide. Having said that, I can speak on the behalf of the Congress party that no matter who heads the government, the Congress party will do certain things which I am telling today on camera.
The Bhamashah scheme is very well publicized scheme but it is faced with many lacunas. I am not the kind of person who will say that because of vendetta because the scheme was a BJP government scheme, we will close down. It needs to be re-examined on how better to implement it. There is a carter formation now. People are using Bhamashah cards to siphon off money through hospitals, agencies etc and the citizen is not really getting the benefit. Like all schemes, there is scope for improvement. I don’t think the concept is wrong. But the fact that you have the CM’s face and you should have the party symbol on the card, that I think is very political. We have to really think and I not thinking about this government and this election, but generally, why must people issue cards to citizens which are government schemes, which have political undertones or political symbols on the cards. That is something we should have avoided.
So, no replacing Lotus with the Hand. You are rethinking altogether?
I am talking about all parties. What has been wrong and has been done needs to be corrected.
So, you are saying you will continue the scheme?
There are many allegations of corruption in these schemes. So, they have to be examined. I am not going to take revenge by shutting down the schemes of Vasundhara ji. That’s not what the Congress party wants to do. If there are shortcomings, faults, complaints, then they need to be addressed.
The point I was making is that a lot of this social sector welfare schemes have not left the treasury of Rajasthan government in a good shape. Do you have a plan of action for it?
Let me tell you the numbers. When 5 years ago this government was formed, the actual debt on the people of Rajasthan was Rs 1.5 lakh crores. Today, it is Rs 3.2 lakh crores. So, the fiscal health of the state economy is actually in tatters. So, the tall claims that we have taken the state out of the BIMARU category is absolutely false. There is no money for the government to pay salaries.
You are helping me to make the point that I am (trying to make). I have not seen your manifesto, it’s not out yet. But looking at M.P. and what you are saying, I am assuming it is going to be one chockablock with freebies as well. You are going to pay for that as well and fix this economy which you say is in tatters.
Managing the economy requires a lot more acumen, a lot more thinking on your feet. If you generate resources, if you are able to create wealth for the government, you can actually then help and subsidise the poorest of the poor.
And how are you planning to do that?
We have a lot of issues (to deal with), I can tell you 10-15 of them. Generally I think expanding the tax base, that I think is one. Making sure that people comply with all the regulations that you already have in place. If you weed out corruption at the grassroots level, the government actually earns lot more money. We can spend a lot more money on the social sector schemes like education, healthcare etc, as opposed to the flamboyant resurgent Rajasthan that we had (on which we) spent hundreds of crores. It was a meet and greet show. People did not gain anything out of it. So there are a lot of political decisions and financial decisions that can lead Rajasthan onto a good path
You know, I will not ask you the obvious question about whether you will be the CM or Ashok Gehlot.
It could be a third person or a fourth person. We don’t know. That’s the beauty of our democracy. It is the MLAs who will get together, once we win and get a majority and they will decide who should head the government. The Congress party will take a final call.
I mean, you are in the top two contenders. Can I at least say that?
I am today party president (in Rajasthan) for five years. I have worked hard and I think, if I can get the Congress party to get a majority, I will feel that my job is done.
Then you would deserve the post?
That is (for the party to decide). There is an old saying ‘kismat me jo lika he, use koi chi nahi sakta, aur kismat me jo nahi lika, use koi de nahi sakta’, do your best, do your karma and leave the rest to what happens in the future.
What I was asking you is that is this also in a sense a test of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership? I know you only want to talk about Rajasthan right now but the management of the elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, especially in M.P. and Rajasthan where there are big regional leaders. Do you think the way these elections pan out will have a huge bearing on the way people view Rahul Gandhi’s leadership in the Congress and the 2019 elections?
Mr. Gandhi has led from the front, right from the time when we lost the elections (in 2014). We became a party of only 45 MPs. But don’t forget the kind of questions he has asked and how uncomfortable he has made the BJP government and he has held them to account which I think inspires not just Congressmen and women, but also the opposition parties and leaders. So today, he is leading from the front in terms of confronting the government with obvious questions which they haven’t answered, whether is the raiding of the CBI , ED raids, Rafale case or the corruption issues or on economic issues. So I think he has led us from the front. These elections are important because they will set the landscape for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. I am confident that in all the states that are going to poll on this season, we will get a majority in most of the seats. And Mr. Gandhi is one person, who I believe is committed to doing work for the society, for the party and he is not a power-hungry individual, that’s been very clear in the last 15 years that he has been in active politics.
Does he (Rahul Gandhi) have the support of the other opposition parties? That seems to be iffy because you had Chandrababu Naidu meet Mamata Banerjee a couple of days ago in Kolkata and of course he has met with Rahul Gandhi before. But it isn’t clear whether Congress is going to be at the forefront of this alliance. Will 11th December determine that?
The Congress party nationally is the only political party that has the bandwidth to take on BJP on a national level. Every regional party has a very important role to play. We need to work in tandem with those interested and make sure the NDA is challenged and defeated in Lok Sabha. The leadership issue will be decided once the elections are over. It is clearly mentioned by Mr Gandhi and other leaders including Mr Pawar, Mr Naidu. Today, India is more important, people are more important. Today institutions are being marginalized, compromised to suit the interests of the BJP. We are fighting for the issues which are important for the people, farmers, economy and we hold true to our republic.
What is this soft Hindutva approach in the middle of all of this? Talking about which God does Rahul Gandhi worship, that he is a Shivbhakt and the Janaeu and all of that. So do you run of risk of alienating your core supporters? And you know of the risk of those who you are trying to attract saying that we don’t really believe them. Are you playacting the BJP?
These issues were never in the public narrative until BJP came to power. I have never heard of word called mob lynching till the BJP came to power. Who you pray to, which temple or gurudwara you go to is never debatable before until BJP came to power. Suddenly today, the champions of nationalism, religious righteousness, they are dictating what the population discussion should be. If Mr Gandhi or someone goes to a religious place, take blessings then it is not for the first time. But it gives huge stomach aches to BJP. I don’t understand why that happens.
Let’s be honest. It seems like you are saying if you can’t beat them then join them and we will fight them on their term.
There is no beating and joining. We should be very clear of what our priorities are. Mr Gandhi made it very clear. Fighting for farmers, laborer, weaker sections of the country and for well being of the country is more important. BJP, on the other hand, is trying to divert the attention from what we think are the core issues and we will not let them succeed.
How big do you think is the dynasty issue because this is something that the PM keeps talking about, the BJP President keeps talking about it in every platform. And this is not just about Gandhi, it is a question for you as well?
Why don’t you ask the same question to Vasundhara ji? I am asking that the dynasty question comes from Congress party. The so-called party with a difference, Vasundhara ji’s mother was a politician, she is a politician, her sisters are a politician, her sons are MP.So when it comes to BJP, the CM of Chhattisgarh, his son is MP. The CM’s wife is an MLA. When you talk about family and dynasty politics, somehow, they think it is Congress party. If someone is born into a political family that can’t be his or her qualification, but it can’t be (grounds for) his/her disqualification. People are working hard, making a mark for themselves and voters are electing you, you should respect that collective wisdom. We should be fair in saying that BJP has no leg to stand on when it comes to families being in politics. I can name 100 people in BJP who are either uncles, aunts, daughters, son in laws or grandchildren of some other leaders. And the Congress party is much older party. They have a tradition of people who want to contribute to society and want to join politics, I see nothing wrong. If they are undeserving, they will get booted out. Your last name will only take you so far and so far and further. Whose nephew you are and whose grandchild you make some difference but not pivotal to anyone’s political future.
Do you think it is an issue with young aspirational Indian who doesn’t want to be kept out of an opportunity because they don’t have the right last name?
The number of people who are young, who have taken leadership challenges in municipal, corporation and Vidhan Sabha, in Parliament level, a large majority of people are those young people who are educated and whose family members are not in politics but the once who are talked about often gets repeated. So one feel that every single person who is young is either a dynast or from a family of politicians that is not true.