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We lost the perception battle in 2014: Salman Khurshid

Salman Khurshid.

Salman Khurshid.  

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We were demoralised, accepted defeat when we went to the election, he says.

Barely six months after the CBI special court acquitted former Telecom Minister A. Raja and others such as DMK MP Kanimozhi in the 2G case, former Law Minister Salman Khurshid has argued in his new book Spectrum Politics: Unveiling the Defence (Rupa Publications) how the UPA lost the perception battle even though there was “no legal basis to call the 2G spectrum allocation a scam.”

In an exclusive interview with The Hindu Mr. Khurshid said the UPA went to the 2014 poll “accepting defeat and there was no platform where Ministers could take a uniform position on controversial issues and Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government gave the impression of being a lameduck government since 2012.”

He said Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, as an anti-corruption activist, had outwitted the best among Cabinet Ministers.

“We went into an election having accepted defeat. We went into the election so demoralised that we knew that this is it. Now it’s a matter of counting the days when we lose it,” said Mr. Khurshid.

He said the UPA government was cornered by the BJP in Parliament over 2G and by Mr. Kejriwal over Lokpal.

“So, we were just going through the motions. We were not really being able to do anything. And it was really sad because UPA I, of which I was not a part, had done some remarkable work. When we went to campaign in 2014, we didn’t remember the good things we had done and was just warding off the bad things.”

“And Mr. Kejriwal and his group destroyed us completely. We had no way of knowing how to handle him. The best of us, Pranab Mukherjee, who can’t be outwitted by anybody was outwitted by him because he (Kejriwal) would speak to Mr. Mukherjee in a very submissive voice and go out say something completely different. Mr. Mukherjee once called me at 11 p.m. and told me ‘Salman call the press and inform.’ And for the first time, I was calling the press at midnight to say Mr. Kejriwal has said something rubbish,” recalled the former Law Minister.

‘Tension in system’

He admitted that there was “tension in the system” because of differences among Ministers and how the 2G issue was seen only as a “problem of the Telecom Minister.” The fact that Mr. Raja was from another party made matters worse.

“We didn’t have much equation with Mr. Raja and the likes. I got involved when I became the Law Minister when they were trying to get bail or get a good lawyer. Otherwise, it wasn’t the kind of camaraderie where we would immediately go and say we will handhold for you. Don’t worry, this is a collective problem. Nobody treated it as a collective problem.”

Talking about his controversial comments of blood stains on Congress hands, Mr. Khurshid said he met the Congress president privately to explain his position. “There are things that we need to talk amongst ourselves and formulate a position. We don’t have a chance to talk and if we had found a resolution or position on various issues, my natural response to the same question would have been different,” he said.

Pitching for a grand alliance with parties like the SP and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, he said, “I see this book as a part of the manifesto, to say when we go into an election to say we were not wrong, and that the people need to review all these things that you believed about us.”

Read the full interview here:

What was the idea behind coming out with this book at this point? 

I had told the publishers that what happened was completely wrong. You may like it, you may not like it but there is no legal basis for whatever happened. They said why don't you put this in a book. My interest was actually to talk about how dealing with spectrum was perceived by judges, by the people and we, ourselves in the government. At that time, it was not in my mind that the trial court judgment would come. But it so happened that by the time I was finishing the book, the trial judgement came. And I had this extra material. And it vindicates the position that I am trying to persuade the people to take.

You have talked about the pulls in the treasury benches when it was being attacked on corruption due to a dual power centre in the ruling regime. What do you mean by this?

Our set up (Congress) was being divided between a Prime Minister and a President. In the past, the years that I have been in public life, the Prime Minister and the Congress president were the same people. Now that in this country is a huge huge pressure. Even Mr. Modi can't do it despite having incredible energy. He has got Amit Shah whom he can trust. But in our structure, it is required that one person be party president and Prime Minister. You can imagine what pressure it may have been on a single person to carry that burden. So when Mrs Gandhi decided not to accept the Prime Ministership and chose Dr. Manmohan Singh, we virtually had an American Presidential office. In the sense that he was focussed on governance without bothering about things like a local body election and the political parties was done by Mrs Sonia Gandhi. There couldn't have been a better model for the efficient governance of the country. But we as a party were accustomed to one single window. So when you went, you went to the Prime Minister and the Party president who's the same person. Having two separate things meant we had visit two people. But my experience is that whenever I went to Mrs Gandhi, she would tell me why are you telling all this to me, tell the Prime Minister! She was very particular that the PM takes the call.

But how did that affect on defending the government like this (2G allocations)?

Where is the government together on something like this? It was one Minister's problem. Frankly, I went out and tried to do something, very peripheral but modest way. I went and met PC (P. Chidambaram) because I knew that there was stress. There was tension in the system. India was talking about all kinds of speculation about tension between two ministers, the former Finance Minister and the present Finance Minister, the Home Minister and the Finance Minister. But there was no platform, no place where all this was discussed. All we could do was to go privately and talk to them. Tell them, please talk and sort it out. Somebody is feeling upset. Now that was exacerbated by the fact that there were people from another party. We didn’t have much equation with Mr Raja and the likes. We just saw them and said hello. I got involved when I became the Law Minister to get bail or to come get a good lawyer. That’s the first time I got involved. Otherwise, it wasn’t the kind of camaraderie where we would immediately go and say we will handhold for you. Don’t worry this is a collective problem. Nobody treated it as a collective problem but the problem of the telecom minister.

You have talked a lot about the perception battle you fought and lost. But you filed cases and made the minister resign?

Yes but that didn't get us any credit. What it got was the enormous amount of resentment felt by the minister. 

But if it's all perception, why were cases filed during your tenure? 

The courts were giving us orders, saying that by next date of hearing this should happen, that should happen. So, it wasn't just somebody saying did we do the right thing. Should we allow this stand or just quash it. No, it wasn't that. They (the Court) were actually monitoring the investigation and asking the CBI to report, they were selecting prosecutors. We lost that wonderful man, Ghulam Vahanvati but can you imagine the Attorney General of the country being cross examined in Patiala House? As Law Minister I used to go and sit with him just to make him comfortable. And I have mentioned here that I told Justice Singhvi (former Supreme Court Judge) that he is the law officer. He is not mine alone. And poor Justice Singhvi said what can I do? If I walk across to his House, there would be a scandal here! But the comments that were being made in court every day and they were being reported in papers were hurting us more than the judgement finally did. 

You had a cabinet committee on political affairs. Why did 2G become a one minister problem?

You know when something terrible happens, you don't want to be associated with it. We have all become self-conscious. Look at what happened to Kapil (Sibal). He made that statement about zero loss. It was not an off-the-cuff remark. He sat and explained to me a week before he said it. About how the Planning Commission and the entire government had consciously said we are not looking for money. Our concern is not revenue but teledensity, network, mobile penetration etc. On that basis he was saying zero loss. So I knew why he was saying zero loss but, perhaps, nobody else in the government knew why he was saying it. And everybody said I am not going to get involved. We were just being pushed to the wall. So nobody who was involved in the government wanted that dirt come on them.

We went to an election therefore accepting defeat. We went into the election so demoralised, we knew that this is it. Now it’s a matter of counting the days when we lose it.

And when did you all get this sense? After the CAG report came out? 

Little bit after the CAG report. I would say 2012 onwards we started losing initiative.

So you are saying that for almost two years, Dr Manmohan Singh's government became a lame duck government?

That's what these guys (BJP) say when they talk about policy paralysis. They would not let Parliament work. We used to go there. Shouting would begin and we would come back. Anything we wanted to do would be completely stalled. So, we were just going through motions. We were not really able to do anything. And it was really sad because UPA I, of which I was not a part, had done some remarkable work. When we went to campaign in 2014, we didn't remember the good things we had done and we were just warding off the bad things. We had forgotten RTI, we had forgotten MNRGEGA, forgotten Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission.

And Mr. Kejriwal and his group destroyed us completely. We had no way of knowing how to handle him. The best of us, Pranab Mukherjee, who can't be outwitted by anybody was outwitted by Mr. Kejriwal because he (Kejriwal) would speak to him in a very submissive voice and go out and say something completely different. Mr. Pranab Mukherjee once called me at 11'o clock at night and told 'Salman call the press.' And for the first time, I was calling the press at midnight to say Mr. Kejriwal has said something rubbish.

Why do you think it could not be handled? 

I’m not saying that when something like that happens you can’t hold your breath and then bring everybody together, and say we will reverse this and we will fight. But somehow we lost that initiative, who would get this together? You know there were posters of 12 or 13 of us (ministers) saying that we were the most corrupt in the land and shoes would be given to people to pelt the posters. Now who among us would then say, never mind, I will step out and engage?

While we are doing all this, Nirbhaya happens. In that situation we couldn’t even go across to Hyderabad House for President Putin’s dinner. We had to squeeze ourselves into the Prime Minister’s residence, because we couldn’t cross the road. There were crowds of these beautiful kids who were just angry and were facing all kinds of adversity there - weather, water - and none of us had the courage to step across and talk to them. I think it was [Former MP] Sandeep Dikshit who tried to talk to them but his car was overturned. None of us had the courage to go talk to them. Can you imagine what a pathetic situation it was? We were ministers who didn’t matter anymore. Anything we did, went wrong.

I see this book as a part of the manifesto, to say when we go into an election to say we were not wrong, and that the people need to review all these things that you believed about us. 

Your statement in Aligarh created a huge controversy but did get Congress president Rahul Gandhi to defend you. Could you explain what happened?

I met Congress president Rahul Gandhi a whole month after he made a statement defending me. I told him that I was stunned and grateful that he made that statement, which no leader in this day and age does. I respect that. My statement in Aligarh happened during a meeting of young Muslims, who asked me that question and to not answer would have been seen as a cop out. I had answered that “fine, you may think that we have blood of Muslims on our daman (clothes) but should we not protect and warn you now?” The word “daaman” became hands, semantically very different, and the full statement was somehow lost in the din.

It is also the same thing that happened when we were in government. There are things that we need to talk amongst ourselves and formulate a position. We don’t have a chance to talk and if we had found a resolution or position on various issues, my natural response to the same question would have been different. My natural response would have been that look, we should discuss this and this is our internal position. For us, the problem is we don’t have an idea on how a party works. When we have conclaves here or outside Delhi, it should be an attempt for us to do what is lacking, that we talk to each other on a subject that is not an immediate issue of the day, and thrash out positions on issues when the glare of publicity is not on us. 

Have you spoken to Rahul Gandhi that this is an issue?

I told him that this is what somebody like me wants. He is very good at it, he will hear you out, give you half an hour of time and thrash issues, but there is nobody else who does that. We were not even clear on the issue of triple talaq, we were so unsure that I had to write a whole book to explain what triple talaq was, and I’m not even sure if people have read the book. 

UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi recently said that an impression has been created that Congress is a Muslim party and has hurt the party’s prospects. Mr. Antony too had suggested that the perception of being a minority oriented party hurt the Congress.

Mr. Antony gave me a prompt explanation of what he had said. He said what he said was in the context of Kerala, that when someone asks him to include more Muslims in a UDF government in the State, he has to tell them that we have a surfeit of Muslims because of our alliance with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), and on Christians the situation is the same as we have an alliance with the Kerala Congress and now if we go looking for more Christians and Muslims, there will be no positions left in the government to give anyone.

He said that this was his context and not minority representation in the rest of the country. There is however, a self consciousness that is being created by the BJP by saying that “you are indulging in appeasement politics.” We were squeezed between a civil society that was saying that we have done nothing for Muslims, and Muslim leaders who were saying we have done nothing for Muslims and another section that we are appeasing the community. The BJP gave it such an ugly spin that we have all become self-conscious. My view therefore is that we have to be careful in our strategy but we cannot compromise on our ideological position of justice for minorities has to remain intact, all we have to do is strategise that this ideological position is not exploited by the BJP and make it worse for the Muslims. You know when the Aligarh incident happened, I thought Modi and company would go to town on it, but they dropped it, and I wondered why? Somebody from their side explained that appeasement and killing don’t go together, we (BJP) are interested in your appeasement issues only.

The SP-BSP alliance is on the anvil in Uttar Pradesh but there is no word on including the Congress. What is your position?

I wish we will be a part of the alliance. The SP-BSP are a formidable alliance but it will still give many slippages to the BJP. If Congress is on board it will be a water tight compartment.

Will you settle for being a marginal player, as it appears to be panning out?

We have to be realistic and practical. What should be balanced should be our standing versus their standing and what would be our standing vis-a-vis the rest of India. Their maximum position would be 25-30 seats each, but that will be 25 in Delhi as against Congress getting over a 100 seats all over India. If that could be seen in a sensible way, then it would be a way forward. At least for Uttar Pradesh the arithmetic is very important.

 

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Printable version | Dec 11, 2019 8:27:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/we-lost-the-perception-battle-in-2014-salman-khurshid/article24038464.ece

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