‘At their peak Narendra Modi and BJP have never got more than 38-39% votes. It is imperative for all non-NDA groupings, irrespective of political colours, to leverage and consolidate 80% to 90% of the balance 61% of the votes.’
New Delhi: Senior Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who is a third term MP and National Spokesperson of the Congress Party, spoke to The Sunday Guardian on the topic of a “weak” Congress, the criticism against the Gandhi family and the “failure” of the party to counter the TINA argument that is raised by the BJP. Singhvi, who is one of the most prominent lawyers of the country, has also served as Additional Solicitor General of India in the past and has been Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice. He is regarded as one of the core strategists of the party. Edited excerpts.
Q: You have seen the rise of Congress during UPA times and witnessed the present times when Congress is perhaps at its weakest. The party has failed to cross 54 seats in the last two Lok Sabha elections. If you have to identify one single reason for the party’s collapse, what would that be?
A: I do not agree with the word collapse. The Congress still has a presence in the hearts and minds of people across India. There are always multiple reasons for a decline in electoral seats, but if I am forced to be univocal, I would ascribe it to the fact that 10 years of national incumbency sometimes can result in an electoral ennui coupled with a perceptional aura about scams created towards the end of UPA-II and the rise of a new face in national politics, Narendra Modi, with zero national baggage.
Q: In 2014, a report by A.K. Antony was submitted to the party leadership identifying reasons for the defeat and it had also suggested remedies. Has the recommendation been implemented?
A: Firstly, I agree with most of the recommendations and I am confident that they will be implemented. The process with regard to some (e.g. organisational election) has already started. I agree that the pace is slower than desirable and I think you should see significant changes by the end of 2022.
Q: Senior BJP leaders tell me that despite shortcomings in the present government, it will continue to win because of the TINA (There is No Alternative) factor. The voters, even if they want to remove the BJP, they don’t know who to elect. Does this assessment worry you?
A: I, respectfully, totally disagree. The best answer to TINA, and I can do no better, is to reiterate the article written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta two days ago with this identical theme. Secondly, we all have to remember that at their peak Narendra Modi and BJP have never got more than 38-39% votes. It is imperative for all non-NDA groupings, irrespective of political colours, to leverage and consolidate 80% to 90% of the balance 61% of the votes. Simple arithmetic teaches us that this relatively simpler exercise will defeat Modi. No doubt, that requires a submergence of egos, personal likes and dislikes and narrower consideration of region, caste and community.
But given the humongous failures of this government—wholesale prices on a seven-year high; unemployment at unprecedented levels; petrol and diesel at runaway figures, a divisive and fear drenched atmosphere across the country; polarization with crude tactics unknown to India’s proud democracy in the last 70 years; complete absence of inner party democracy even within the ruling party; vendetta politics of an unknown degree and kind ever seen in India’s past, and so on and so forth (I could continue ad nauseam)—makes it clear that Modi and BJP can be defeated but more importantly deserve to be defeated.
Q: One of the primary criticisms that the Congress faces, even from neutral observers, is that despite having such an old legacy and having leaders from across the country in its ranks, it is not able to move beyond the “Gandhi family”. I know it is a difficult question, but do you see any merit in this criticism?
A: I find such criticism to be actually a negation of democracy while swearing in the name of democracy. This is a delicious irony. The electorate may elect any Gandhi or many of them repeatedly, the Congress’ rank and files may want one or more of them repeatedly over the years, there may be no allegations of electoral rigging either in the manifestation of national electoral politics or intra party elections and yet the self-styled policemen of this new definition of democracy castigate the Gandhis for being a dynast.
Yes, family lineage involving dictatorial imposition, in non-democratic cultures is rightly called dynastic. But popularity over generations, with significant periods of non-Congress rule, can hardly be referred to as dynastic. Incidentally, it suits these vested interests and critics not to mention the inconvenient fact that no Gandhi has been at the helm of government of India for the last 30 years. Equally susceptible to selective amnesia of these vested interests is the fact that they may be in an alliance for decades with regional parties which actually have had dynastic impositions even in an undemocratic manner (e.g., alliances in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Maharashtra) and yet continue to moralise and sermonise the Congress.
Q: The much-awaited Congress Working Committee (CWC) that took place in October was expected to come up with “big” decisions. However, nothing of that sort happened. Is the Congress facing a “paralysis”, a stage where it believes it is doing everything it can, but still not able to move ahead?
A: That may not be true because several decisions were taken in a series of prior CWCs including in the October one. But the timeline for them has naturally got extended due to Covid and other impending state elections. For example, a full schedule for organisational elections ending around August-September 2022 has already been announced. I agree that the pace is a little slow, but that is because of exigencies including the fighting of bigger battles at the state level rather than initiating elections in the party. That is going to happen very soon.
Q: The BJP, despite all rhetoric to the contrary, still considers Congress as its biggest opponent. I am sure you will agree with this perception, but don’t you think that this perception is because of its past achievements rather than present actions and shouldn’t this worry Congress party strategists like you?
A: I think you are guilty of wanting to have your cake and eat it too in the question that you have formulated. The BJP cannot have it both ways. It cannot write off Congress as a non-existent entity and yet chant “Congress Mukt Bharat” 24×7. The reasons are twofold. Firstly, the BJP knows in its heart of hearts that it is not the Congress as a party but the ideals and virtues that it represents which are a threat to the opposite vices which the BJP wants to propagate and impose on India.
The Congress’ view of India as a progressive, liberal, slightly left-leaning, secular, intrusive democracy is an anathema to the founding fathers of the philosophy that underlies the birth of the RSS, Hindu Mahasabha and the BJP. It is that which underlies the Congress Mukt Bharat refrain.
Secondly, as a political vehicle, the BJP knows equally that despite its current relative decline, the Congress had ruled for 10 long years at the national level till hardly seven years ago. It also knows that there are strong bastions of Congress support in every nook and cranny, in every village and tehsil of India. It is desperate to decimate that, but finds that it cannot erase the Congress from the hearts and minds of people. That is why it takes this contradictory stand of on the one hand, writing off the Congress as not worth commenting upon, and on the other displaying their fear and terror of the Congress in every action, utterance and every sentence.
Q: Old Congress leaders say that this new age Congress has fallen into the trap of BJP and is “fighting” on social media rather than on the streets. Do you agree, even partially, with this assessment?
A: India of 2021-22 must fight its battles on multiple fronts. The political battle therefore also has to be multi-dimensional and multi-hued. Physical campaigns are the heart and soul of any political party’s existence and they cannot be undervalued. But equally, to de-emphasis the social media would be a great folly. Some of these critics are the very same people who applauded with awe the “great” rise of Modi on social media between 2013 and 2015. Therefore, I think that the political battle must be holistic, multi-pronged and fought with the use of every physical, emotive, technological and a-technological means available in India of 2022. Indeed, I believe that we must invest more direct sources in strengthening the technological power of our political party so as to capture the eyeballs, not only from house to house and rally to rally but also from eye to eye and ear to ear.
Q: How correct would it be to say that TMC’s recent decisions are hurting the Congress’ bid to fight the BJP by bringing all the Opposition parties together? Also, in your view what explains the sudden “change of heart” of TMC chief Mamata Banerjee to take decisions that have clearly antagonised the Congress?
A: Firstly, I have made my view on the 38%-62% equation clear in the answer to the earlier question. Secondly, the natural corollary is that each and every party must rise to the occasion above everything else to achieve that as quickly and as nearly as possible. Thirdly, to imagine that the non-NDA space is occupied by political formations, identical or even broadly similar, would be to live in a fool’s paradise. On the contrary, it is the recognition and acceptance of the great, sometimes humongous diversity of viewpoints on social, economic and political issues within the non-NDA space which gives rise to the legitimate challenge to consolidate such space. It has been done in the past and can be done in the future. With respect to these differences and these diversities, let me make it clear that there is absolute unanimity amongst the non-NDA groupings that consolidation is the need of the hour. I have earlier gone to the extent of saying that even the non-NDA, non-UPA configurations should be drawn to the non-NDA’s side in this holistic consolidation. Obviously, this requires statesmanship, leadership and a sacrificing spirit. I have no doubt that leaders like Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, Stalin and several others have such qualities in different measures and would rise to the occasion.
Q: In the recent past, many Congress leaders have moved away to BJP. There was speculation that you too were being wooed by the BJP in view of your experience and credentials. Have you been approached by the BJP?
A: Let me assure you that the media would be amongst the first to know if and when that happens. I bow down to the compliment contained in your question, but would respectfully say, no thank you. But I do remember wishfully the politics of the Vajpayee era or even of Janata Dal groupings which had far greater magnanimity, far less vendetta, far more inclusiveness, bonhomie and cross-party communication than is possible in the present dispensation.