On Friday afternoon, more than 24 hours after Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi returned to India after a long overseas trip shrouded in secrecy, the party office in New Delhi was surprisingly placid. The enthusiasm among volunteers triggered by the arrival of the Nehru-Gandhi scion and heir apparent that Congress leaders professed was missing.
There were actually more reporters than workers at the party office. The explanation for the tranquillity was that the party was preparing elsewhere for a rally on Sunday to protest the land acquisition bill. As confirmation of sorts, Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh walked in briskly and whisked away senior leader AK Antony, who had arrived minutes before in a Wagon R almost unnoticed, to a huddle at an undisclosed location.
Singh, a Congress veteran and former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, was back nearly an hour later for a meeting with ET Magazine. He apologised thrice for the delay.
Singh is a true-blue loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi family — the walls of his room are crowded with photos of the family, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi addressing rallies — and he takes a long pause, as if to carefully weigh his thoughts, before answering questions.
The interview has to be short and quick he says because "it is a busy day" and sure enough, he is interrupted by enquiries from staff and telephone calls. Still, he spoke to Binoy Prabhakar on a range of topics, including the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the opposition of the Congress towards the controversial land bill and the road ahead for the party. Edited excerpts:
Let me start with the most important question. Where was Rahul Gandhi all these days?
Digvijay Singh:Well, that's not the most important question.
Digvijay Singh:He is protected by the SPG. The whereabouts of a person protected by the SPG are known to the government. You should put the question to the prime minister or the home minister.
By why the secrecy? He is a public figure. He is the leader of the principal opposition party of the country. Don't you think the need to know what he has been up to is legitimate?
Digvijay Singh:Everyone has a right to privacy. So let's protect it and leave it at that. Will he attend Sunday's rally? He will be on the dais and he will be speaking too.
What are you trying to achieve through this rally?
Digvijay Singh:The Congress party has always stood for the rights of the people. During the two UPA regimes, we empowered the people. We changed the 1896 land acquisition act, which empowered the state to take away a person's land without his consent. So we brought in the concept of consent of the farmer and a series of other provisions that protected his rights. The broad issues on which the land acquisition bill was amended were included by consulting all political parties. The bill was unanimously passed. Unfortunately, when the BJP government came to power, Mr Narendra Modi wanted to bulldoze the whole thing. He could have waited. He could have consulted. If there were problems in the draft of the bill, as they (the BJP) are alleging, they could have corrected with consent. We are not concerned about whether there should have been a full stop or a comma or whether a 'T' has to be crossed or an 'I' has to be dropped. Our concern was primarily consent, primarily the right of the farmer on his piece of land. These are the issues on which we would not want to compromise.
So what is it that you want the government to do?
Digvijay Singh:Why the ordinance? If they feel that there are corrections to be made, call an all-party meeting. Let it be deliberated. We gave it to a select committee, headed by Sumitra Mahajan of the BJP (who is now speaker of the Lok Sabha). Why are they shying away from discussion?
I have a related question. What exactly does the Congress stand for? Is it pro-poor, is it an aam aadmi party or does it support businesses?
Digvijay Singh:The Congress party has always been left of centre, a political party that sincerely believes the first right to resources is that of the underprivileged — the weavers, the dalits, the landless, the farmers. These people are our priority. The party believes until the purchasing power of people living in rural areas — which is more than 65% of the population — improves, the country will not progress. One of the biggest challenges we have today is the poor human development index. We are still at 135 in HDI ranking. The Congress believes it has to be a flag bearer of the poor.
That's a fair argument, but given the string of electoral defeats the party has suffered, do you think the Congress needs to recast its style of functioning or even ideology?
Digvijay Singh:This is something which the Congress party must look at. Slowly, because of the right policies of the government in the past one decade, the quality of life of the people has improved. The mindset of the dalits and tribals who have moved up the ladder from the poorest of the poor to lower middle class has changed. They think more like the middle class rather than the underprivileged. The party has to keep that in mind. The demographic profile has changed, there are many people who are opinion makers. We have to change the socioeconomic and political policies of the Congress accordingly.
What is your assessment of the declining fortunes of the Congress?
Digvijay Singh:In politics, like in any game, you can't win all the time. We won two elections. One election we lost. We will strive to win back the confidence of the people in the next election.
There seems to be a division in Congress ranks on who should lead the party. What are your thoughts on who should lead? Is it Rahul or Sonia Gandhi?
Digvijay Singh:The Congress party sincerely believes in the leadership of Mrs Sonia Gandhi. And we stand by her. There was lots of apprehension in the media when she became the Congress party president. All kinds of horrible things were said against her. She survived. She also defeated the BJP-NDA combine in the Lok Sabha elections. Twice. But then the changes came, we lost the perception war and there you are.
Right now, should she continue or make way for Rahul Gandhi? Where do you stand on the young taking over from the old? Please give me a clear answer.
Digvijay Singh:Digvijaya Singh is a political worker who has been in the party since 43 years. And I have sincerely believed in the leadership of Mrs Sonia Gandhi. So in which category would you place me — young or old?
Because I saw you walking briskly, I will put you somewhere in the middle.
Digvijay Singh:Rightly placed I would say (laughs).
You are evading my question. Who should lead?
Digvijay Singh:I am not evading. We are all followers of the Nehru-Gandhi family and we shall abide by whatever decision they take. I always speak my mind when I meet the Congress president or Mr Rahul Gandhi. I don't mince my words. But once the directions come, we implement them.
So what's the direction you have received on leadership? You must have got some cues at least.
Digvijay Singh:The direction is to make the rally successful. That's our priority for now
The answer might be predictable coming from a loyalist. And you may have answered this question in the past, but I would still like to hear from you why the Nehru-Gandhi family alone should lead the Congress
Digvijay Singh:The Nehru-Gandhi family has been one of the prime leaders of the freedom movement. And it is the only family that has had two of its leading members, ex-prime ministers, assassinated. They have made the maximum sacrifices for this nation. And they have a certain charisma amongst the people. Personally, I admire them because they believe in decentralisation, they believe in empowerment of the people.
Leaving aside Rahul Gandhi, what is your opinion about youngsters leading the party given that the old guard — some would say even you — are suffering from lacking a mass base or are unpopular or are simply past their prime?
Digvijay Singh:I don't go by that. Congress gives opportunities to all kinds of people. It depends on your capacity and dedication.
What do you think has been the problem in Rahul Gandhi's leadership style?
Digvijay Singh: He has to be hands-on. He has to be seen and heard more. People in the country want to what Rahul Gandhi stands for — what his views on trade, commerce, industry, power, health, skill development, tribal issues, environment, forests etc are.
The difference between Prime Minister Modi and Rahul Gandhi, it is said, is that Modi exudes the conviction and confidence of a leader while Rahul doesn't..What do you think?
Digvijay Singh:There are two kinds of leaders — the ones who are in politics for themselves and others who are there for others. Mr Modi comes in the first category — it is me, mine and myself — which means that his politics is to empower himself. Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi belong to the second category. Both could have become prime ministers in the last 10 years, but both refused. Mr Rahul Gandhi said when his mother appointed him as vice-president, she had told him that power is like poison. And look how right she has turned out to be. So they (Modi and Rahul) have two distinct personalities.
No doubt. But Modi has won an election almost on his own while some say Rahul has lost one on his own. And some would say Rahul is simply shirking responsibilities by his rejection of power.
Digvijay Singh:Mrs Sonia Gandhi is not a shirker. Mr Rahul has been given a task and he's doing it. But he doesn't want to go beyond his brief, which people expect him to. Now it is a question of will he.
The refrain is that the Congress has been enjoying a resurgence of sorts when Rahul Gandhi was away. Do you agre
Digvijay Singh:I don't agree. Mrs Sonia Gandhi led 14 different political parties in a march to the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Land acquisition is one of the major issues now and there is a broad consensus among all political parties to oppose the government.
But that was recent. Mrs Gandhi has always been proactive.
Please shed light on some of the changes we can expect to see in the Congress now that Rahul Gandhi is back.
Digvijay Singh:There have been many discussions on the way of functioning and the road map. Those are over and the reports prepared by the general secretaries have been placed before the Congress president. She now has to take a call. We shall move ahead based on her decision.
After the assembly poll debacle in December 2013, Rahul Gandhi said the party will transform itself in ways that can't be imagined. What is the status of that transformation?
Digvijay Singh:I am not privy to the changes, but he has the vision, capacity and will to do it.
What do you think the Congress party should do as an opposition party?
Digvijay Singh:Well, the Congress party has to play an important role of a constructive opposition — not opposing for the heck of it. Opposition to make this country more powerful, more liveable where there is communal harmony and peace and the economy is flourishing.
What about elections?
Digvijay Singh:For us, elections are important. But they are not the only means to an end.