Tolerance appears to have little place in the thought process of the BJP, says Rahul Gandhi

On Wednesday, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had a day’s break from campaign rallies but that did not mean rest. Numerous issues and people had been waiting for his attention, but Mr. Gandhi, in a white kurta and black jeans, appeared relaxed as he sat smiling at his 12, Tughlak Lane residence in New Delhi. He answered a range of questions — on his personality, ideology, influences and the 2014 elections and of course, his principal rival, Narendra Modi. He had already dictated part of these answers to his aides a day earlier during his campaign tour, when he sat down with The Hindu. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with The Hindu’s Political Editor, Varghese K. George:

When your political opponent, Narendra Modi, refers to you as ‘shehzada’ (prince) continuously, what emotion does it evoke in you? Are you angry?

I don’t have to listen to or react to another person’s anger. If another person is angry, he probably has reasons to be angry. He carries hatred around with him, and he probably has reasons to carry hatred around with him. That has nothing to do with me. That has only to do with him. What Modiji wants to call me, the abuses that he wants to hurl at me, has nothing to do with me. That has to do with him.

Let me tell you a story. Buddha was sitting with his disciples when a person came and started abusing him. After a while, the disciples asked him, “He abused and humiliated you so much, but why didn’t you say or do something?” Buddha said: “He has come with his gift of anger to me. He stood there with his gift for a while and he tried to give it to me. I did not take it. After sometime, he got tired and he left with the gift.” I don’t see the need to accept any of these gifts that Modiji is giving me. He can keep these gifts with himself.

Ten years of sustained economic growth, coupled with the United Progressive Alliance’s pro-people policies has not only created wealth, it has also brought 15 crore people out of poverty — more than ever before

The Congress has contested against the Bharatiya Janata Party earlier too. But do you think the contest is any different this time, compared to the times when Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani were at the helm of the BJP?

This election has lost a certain decorum that has existed historically among the national parties during elections.

The core philosophy of the BJP has always had a strong communal and centralising tendency. It is an ideology that seeks to perpetuate status quo which makes it impossible for the poor and the disadvantaged to rise above their stations through hard work. Under the current BJP leadership, this ideology has acquired a particularly virulent character. It has shed any semblance of respect for the democratic, secular and inclusive fabric of our nation. It is a politics of hubris, anger, and divisiveness. The BJP manifesto and [the] recent statements of senior leaders of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar clearly suggest that this is the direction they are taking. Tolerance appears to have little place in their thought process. But my resolve is firm and my response to this brand of politics and those who practise it is to quote what someone once said famously: “You do your worst, we’ll do our best.”

What in your view is the significance of this election? Do you think this is the most crucial election in the history of India?

This election is significant because we are at an important juncture in the history of our nation. Ten years of sustained economic growth, coupled with the United Progressive Alliance’s pro-people policies has not only created wealth, it has also brought 15 crore people out of poverty — more than ever before. This is unprecedented.

We are now faced with a contest between two competing ideas of India. The Congress’ idea of India is about inclusion, decentralisation, empowering people and building partnerships for economic growth. The Opposition’s idea seeks to divide the country on communal lines, capture resources for a select few, and centralise decision-making by putting all power into the hands of one individual. Our opponents want an India in which there is no place for the poor, no place for those with a different religion or ideology. This is a dangerous idea. It has been the proud legacy of the Congress party to fight and defeat this idea since the birth of our nation. We are committed to continuing this fight.

Do you think you are leading the party in a difficult moment in history? You took over the leadership of the party at a time when the slide had begun. Do you think you are unlucky?

The Congress has been led very ably by the Congress president and the Prime Minister for the last 10 years. We are all proud of the achievements of the party and the government and the transformational politics it has ushered in, over the last 10 years. I am not unlucky; I am honoured to lead the Congress party’s 2014 campaign. You must remember the legacy of this party and what it has stood for from the time of independence. Anti-incumbency is always a factor for any government that has been in power for 10 years. But we are confident that the voters will reward us for the work we have done and for our clear resolve to take the nation forward — united, with fairness toward every citizen.

Do you think you are leading a demoralised cadre of Congress workers?

This is again part of the propaganda machinery of the Opposition. They had said the Congress worker was demoralised in 2004 and in 2009. The truth is entirely different. The Congress worker, unlike the BJP cadres, is seen not only waving the banner on television sets but he is fighting in every village, every town and every locality against the communal and divisive agenda of the Opposition. The Congress party has a proud legacy of fighting for its ideals and each and every Congress worker is committed to it.

Do you think big business is against the Congress in these elections?

The Congress party’s vision for India’s economic progress has always seen the business community and the poor as crucial partners in achieving that vision from the freedom struggle onwards. However, the Opposition leader’s predilection to favour one or two business houses is nothing but crony capitalism and must be challenged. Such practices not only result in crores being lost but also signal to the rest of the world that India is not a level playing field. This is detrimental to the interest of creating a sound business environment in our country. Forward thinking, progressive business interests are firmly behind us. In this election, you see an icon of corporate India, Nandan Nilekani, fighting for the Congress’ vision in Bangalore.

You have said becoming Prime Minister is no priority. What then is your political ambition?

My passion for politics frankly goes much deeper than an interest in holding a particular office. The main problem with our political system today is that it does not give voice to the ordinary citizen. The ordinary citizen feels that he has no say in the everyday experiences and decisions that can make or break his life. Some believe that the way to fix this problem is to centralise decision-making in a few “good” hands. Our view is that the only way to resolve this in the long run is to decentralise decision-making and devolve power and policymaking from the hands of a few to many. I see this as a turning point in our nation’s journey. Everything I’ve done in the Congress has been toward this end. Whether it is the democratisation of our front organisations, the National Students’ Union of India and the Indian Youth Congress, the primaries initiated in a few Lok Sabha seats, our open manifesto process, or the rights-based approach — these are all examples of our effort in this direction. If, in order to achieve this ambition, I am required to hold an office, as I have said before, I will not step back. But we need to understand that decentralisation is not a destination, it is a process. It is not one law, one act or one election.

But Mr. Modi is also saying similar things.

Forward thinking, progressive business interests are firmly behind us. In this election, you see an icon of corporate India, Nandan Nilekani, fighting for the Congress’ vision in Bangalore

If Mr. Modi believes these things he is saying now, then I must congratulate our own campaign. If we have succeeded in converting someone who is on the other extreme of the ideological spectrum, surely we’ve won the battle.

But not everyone believes in what they say. The BJP’s entire campaign is about one individual. In every statement he has ever made the one big plea has been to hand over the reins of government to him — to make him the chowkidar. Over the last eight months, he has systematically sidelined all the senior BJP leaders — from Advaniji, to Sushma Swarajji to Murli Manohar Joshiji. Are these examples of working together with 125 crore people? In Mr. Modi’s Gujarat, all decision-making is centralised at the level of the Chief Minister. The entire economic policy has been to give away precious resources — land, forests, coastline — to select businesses at throwaway prices.

You have been talking about the 70 crore people who are above the poverty line but below middle class income levels — the Not Rich, Middle Class or BPL (NRMB).

We now have over 70 crore people who are above the poverty line but below middle class income levels. These are the lifeblood of our country, the farmers, carpenters, artisans, weavers and plumbers, who build our nation. A distinct and common political character is yet to emerge for them because they have not been identified as a single class until now. They are politically and socially fragmented into hundreds of castes and sub-castes, based on their distinct occupations.

Mr. Modi is not appealing to this class based on quick decision-making. Mr. Modi’s strategy is to communalise and divide it along religious lines. The BJP cannot mobilise this class effectively because the middlemen who mercilessly exploit this segment of workers are core supporters of the BJP and the RSS. They will not allow their condition to improve.

How is your economic agenda different from Mr. Modi’s? Are you focussed more on redistribution and less focussed on growth?

I firmly believe that economic prosperity must include everyone. The only way India is going to move forward is through a partnership that includes both the interests of business as well as the interests of the poor. If you try to construct a government that focusses only on business or only on the poor you will not take India forward and that is the lesson from ‘India Shining.’ The ideology best suited to build and sustain this partnership between business and people is the ideology of the Congress. This is the fundamental difference between the BJP and us. I believe poverty cannot be fought without growth. We are committed to development: over the last 10 years we have delivered the fastest economic growth, over 7.5 per cent, we have built three times more roads than the NDA did, and we have doubled the power generation capacity. But we have refused to compromise on the interests of the poor, the weak and the disadvantaged. Going forward, we are committed to ushering in a manufacturing revolution that will make India the number one manufacturing destination in the world. Our work on the industrial corridors is one step in that direction. This will create millions of new jobs for our youngsters.

How did the idea of extending MGNREGA to all districts come about? Was it your initiative or the Prime Minister’s?

MGNREGA has been a revolutionary idea for the rural poor. As you may know, MGNREGA was an idea that had been implemented in Maharashtra earlier. The UPA’s innovation was making it a “right” at the national level in a country our size. For the first time in our nation’s history, MGNREGA created a safety net for our poorest people and enforced the minimum wage. It fundamentally shaped the rural economy and influenced migration patterns. So, extension of MGNREGA across the country was not a question of “if” but of “when.” It was an expression of Congress ideology and not a choice of a single individual.

So how would you describe the nature of the relationship between the Gandhi family and the Prime Minister? Have there been conflicts? How have they been resolved?

The relationship has been a harmonious one characterised by mutual respect. We have each shared our points of view honestly. There have been differences but little conflict. The Prime Minister and my mother are both my gurus and political mentors whom I love and admire greatly. I have learnt a lot from them and will continue to do so.

How do your relate to your sister and mother? Do you depend on them a lot?

My sister and my mother, like everybody’s, are a great source of support for me. I can discuss anything with my sister and my mother, and my sister and I in particular, have been through many things in life, together. So, we have a very deep understanding of each other, and how we react to situations. Sometimes when I say something, even before I say it, my sister understands what I am trying to say. And vice versa. My sister and I have a deep relationship. And our family — whether it has been my grandmother, my father, my mother — has always been very closely knit.

varghese.g@thehindu.co.in