We are co-owners of the Congress party and not tenants, says Anand Sharma

File Photo: Anand Sharma.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Congress’ Deputy Leader in the Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma, who was among 23 leaders who had expressed concern over the state of the Congress in a letter to party chief Sonia Gandhi, in an exclusive interview told The Hindu that the party needs a new narrative and cannot be in denial. Calling the group of letter writers as ‘reformists’, Mr Sharma asserted they are not tenants but co-owners of the party. Edited excerpts.

Why did you all feel the need to express your views in writing? Could you not have met Ms Gandhi and expressed your concerns?

As political activists and leaders who have given an entire lifetime to the Congress party, we have been concerned over the developments of recent years. This rise of the BJP and the political narrative being dominated by their divisive agenda. Also, a subversion of institutions that uphold the foundational values of the Republic as enshrined in our Constitution. We felt there is an environment of fear, and people are increasingly feeling helpless as there is a delay and denial of justice.

Now, many of us were discussing these issues after the 2019 defeat of the party. There could be multiple factors which led to the electoral outcome. And we, as members of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and party leaders, submit ourselves to collective accountability. I, for one, do not believe in apportioning the blame. But having said that, we cannot ignore that there has been a drift and uncertainty in the party after the second disastrous defeat.

Many party leaders in different States including few prominent faces left the Congress. Many senior colleagues have been talking as to what should be done to arrest the slide and revive the Congress. There is a great sense of urgency to restore the balance in the political narrative by re-energising Indian National Congress (INC).

There has not been any physical meeting in the last five months. Had that been possible, we would have gone, sat across the table and discussed our concerns frankly and openly and given our proposals. But we had strong reservations on discussing sensitive organizational issues through virtual platforms. I want to clear the air that the letter was written in the best of the interests of INC, reaffirming of our commitment to the Congress ideology.

But the timing of the letter was questioned by the Congress Working Committee (CWC) members including Rahul Gandhi. Many others slammed the letter writers at the CWC meet.

I want to put this on record at this stage that we have the highest respect for Sonia Gandhi. And for us to upset her and hurt her in any manner is unthinkable. I do not know from where the timing issue comes. It is 15 months after the defeat. It's unfortunate this was misunderstood. This letter was signed by all the signatory somewhere around July 25 but Ms. Gandhi was not well and her health is of paramount importance to us. So the letter was actual sent on August 8 when she had recovered. There is some misunderstanding there. There was an orchestrated campaign that started the day before the CWC.

That should not have happened. We had, in fact, a large number of people who are unhappy that we didn't ask them but we didn't want to make it a mass campaign because we have been lifelong Congressman. Some of our colleagues, I don't want to become personal, had the copies and they were selectively reading or misreading some excerpts. When you read selected few lines or a paragraph, it is not put in context and creates more misgivings rather than clarifying the situation.

What saddened me is that we were given sermons by people who had betrayed Indira Gandhi when the Shah Commission was set up, abused Sanjay Gandhi and left the Congress while many of us faced police lathis, went from jail to jail and still carry injury marks. We took all that was all hurled at us.

But the letter does say that the CWC failed to give direction to the party and mentions the need for a “full time and visible leadership”

No, we have talked visible leadership at every level. I am myself a member of the CWC and when we say so, it is not the CWC minus Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mukul Wasnik or myself. In my view, we can't be meeting just to react to an agenda set by BJP or the government. After 15 months, we should have had a road map for revival. We expected the issues to be discussed freely and fairly.

Ms. Gandhi herself said that there are some suggestions that was worth discussing but there was no discussion. What we meant is that the CWC in its collective wisdom needs to deliberate, maybe for a few days, and give a narrative which finds resonance with the people, the youth, the women, the working class, the farmers, the weaker section, Dalits, and the minorities.

The people must understand that we are not a party in denial but committed to serve them. We can’t expect the Congress president to agree with all our points but we need an internal consensus at revival. We are neither dissenters nor rebels. I would say we are reformists.

So what is it, in your view, that the Congress has been doing wrong in these past 6 years?

It’s not a question of wrong. The question is: do we need to reflect and analyse our continuous slide? Our virtual eclipse from the large States in the country... and without a revival there, we cannot expect a national revival.

In 2009 Lok Sabha elections, we had 11.92 crore votes while the BJP had about 7.80 crores. In the 2014 elections, 10 crore new voters were added and BJP’s votes went up to 17.60 crore. In the 2019 elections, another 8.5 crore first voters came and the BJP added 5.5 core votes and went up to 22.94 crore voters while we crawled back to our 2009 position. We have to seriously reconnect with the youth and students and in that context, we want the party to have a good look at the revival of the student and the youth movement.

From Shimla to Nagpur and beyond to Karnataka, the party has barely 15 Lok Sabha seats which includes 8 from Punjab. BJP, in this belt alone, has 272 seats... Can a Congressman be happy with that?

We need to analyse the reasons. In fact, after our 2019 defeat, it was Dr. Manmohan Singh who had first suggested appointment of a committee to study the reasons for defeat while asking Rahul Gandhi to continue in his post.

There is a view that the letter was aimed at preventing Rahul Gandhi from taking over the reins of the party again?

This is absolutely false and I reject it. We were the ones who elected him and requested him to continue. Rahul Gandhi had resigned and went to the extent of saying no one from the Gandhi family should become the president. We were in a limbo for three months and requested Sonia ji to take over. Now why this situation? Because Rahul Gandhi gave no indication, one year [of Sonia Gandhi being interim president] was ending on August 10 and there was total uncertainty.

Do you expect an election to the top post or have elected members to the CWC after this letter episode?

There should be or else Congress will continue to weaken. Don’t take them as personal enemies if somebody contests against you. This is democracy and that’s what the Congress party always had. If I have to honestly give my opinion, then we have to immediately connect with the new voters. Our last membership drive finished in 2015. We should immediately go for a nation-wide membership drive and based on that membership, have your Blocks, District and State elect the new All India Congress Committee (AICC) delegates. These AICC delegates should then elect the president. These are my views but it is the CWC that can take the final call.

There are fears that going ahead the Congress party may split. How do you respond?

Who splits from whom? I fail to understand. I think those who were not part of building this party, they may say something like this because they don't understand Congress culture. We are the core and have built this party under Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi's leadership. We have a strong sense of belonging to the Congress ideology and have co-ownership. We are not tenants in this party or lateral entrants. We are the Congress.

The CWC has asked for an end to this debate debate but some of you continue to speak out. Is this not defiance?

No. We are a democratic party. The letter was not made public nor circulated in the CWC. There was deliberate disinformation by certain sections which created a lot of anger and anxieties among Congressmen. It had become absolutely essential to reassure our comrades. There was always discussion and debate in the Congress and that’s how it became a movement. If we internalise our culture of vaad vivaad samvaad [argument and dialogue], you cannot take offence to the letter.

Some of your colleagues have pointed out that many of you have been 'beneficiaries' of the system that you now want to change. They point to the fact that some of you may lose your Rajya Sabha seats soon and, hence, this letter...

I can only sympathise with such people for their petty thinking and small minds. It is an insult to my lifetime commitment to the Congress.

Parliament session is about to start soon. Ghulam Nabi Azad is the LOP in Rajya Sabha and you are the Deputy Leader. Won't the letter episode have a bearing on your role in the Parliament?

No, not at all. As I said, we are reformists and have given some suggestions. If some of them are accepted, we will be happy. If someone has something against us, we have the maturity and the largeness of our hearts to deal with it. Last six years, we have been effective, and have challenged the government and their wrong policies. You will find the same courage in both the Houses. The Congress Parliamentary Party is firmly united and will work collectively.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 3:03:55 AM |

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