Sanjay Jha, who is suspended from Congress for his views on leadership, is vocal about the leadership question in the Congress. He has just launched his book ‘The Great Unravelling: India After 2014’ (Westland) in which he tries to analyse what happened in the past six years during which the country saw the rise of the BJP-RSS and a decline of the Congress. In his book, he seeks to find out the reasons for his party's lack of oppositional ability and what it would take for its revival. His book comes at a time a number of senior leaders, known as the G-23, has come out in open against the Congress leadership. He spoke to DH’s Shemin Joy.
Q. Your book deals with the India of the recent times. Is India after 2014 a story of hopelessness and despair?
A. I see India as a story of hope. The reason why I have actually painted some of its very dark interiors is because you cannot lay the foundation of change or hope or as Dr Amartya Sen calls in the cover of the book as the curative movement until you recognise how frail the foundations of India have become. The whole structure, the edifice on which the great India story is actually fashioned is today wobbly. India has plenty to be worried about, especially when it comes to its institutions, its governance and the rise of bigotry. India has usually overcome, what many people have said in the past, insurmountable obstacles. I do believe that India will be able to survive through no matter what kind of crisis we face with a great deal of character.
Q. How did Modi manage post-2014? What helped him? What were the situations that allowed him to have this kind of massive majority and taking his agenda to a logical conclusion?
A. The UPA literally gave up the fight in 2014. During those sensitive times when every day there was breaking news of corruption allegations, ministers resigning left, right and centre, the three principal faces of the Congress did not speak at all. Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister by his very nature is diffident. Sonia Gandhi was never comfortable in-front of the camera. Rahul Gandhi surprisingly had a lot of cynicism or even disdain towards mainstream media. I don't think that helped our cause. There was nobody who was actually addressing the problems of the UPA. Congress' communication vacuum was perceived by the public as guilt conscience and arrogance. There can be nothing worse in politics than guilt conscience and arrogance. Guilt conscience makes you go on the back-foot. Arrogance makes you believe that you are the umpire and you don't even need to play the game to win it. I do believe that these were the principal reasons why Modi had a cake walk in 2014. I think Modi sensed there was a vacuum. Literally he bulldozed, he was like a bull in a China shop. Congress just collapsed on internal inconsistencies and its inability to realise that an election is an election and you need to fight to win it. In 2019, I think Congress was doing reasonably well. There was some hope after we did well in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections. But remember, India is now voting very differently in states and at the Centre. Modi and the BJP have made it so personality centred. Modi doesn't seem to have any competition at the national level. Rahul, despite trying vehemently, has fallen woefully short. I do believe that it is the reason why Modi raised the muscular nationalism pitch after Pulwama and the entire Opposition collapsed. The party that had fought for the country's freedom struggle and had won many wars against Pakistan, built modern India, the Congress did not know how to communicate. Modi called us pro-Pakistan and the Rahul team had no answers.
Q. Speaking about the inconsistencies in the party’s strategy, you have written about a senior Congress leader who told you earlier that it is better to lose the 2014 elections and it could help in reviving the party. Is this a strategy that could help Congress?
A. In one word, it is preposterous. It is absurd. I would like to perhaps use a more strong term -- stupid. You fight an election to win. I was hearing from somebody who is very close to Rahul Gandhi that if we lose this election, it is going to be an excellent situation so that the party can purge itself of the carpetbaggers, of the opportunistic power grabbing characters, those who have no ideological commitment. I do believe that if the party wants to lose an election, then it is committing political suicide. The Gandhis may have the luxury of losing an election. But what about the average Congress worker? I can give you one instance during the 2019 Haryana Assembly. Congress was doing much better than what was expected. A Congressman told me that this is very disturbing news. I said why, the Congress is doing more than expectations. Isn't it good for the Congress? He said he would have been happy if Hooda had lost because we don't want people like Hood, who is facing corruption allegations, to win. I believe this is bizarre, this is some intellectual garbage, because you got to know if you want to protect your ideology and your entire lineage and history, first you need to know how to win elections. But here there are people in the party who were very happy that we lost the 2019 elections because they must have foolishly believed that now, the party will do the cleansing act.
Q. Do you think Rahul Gandhi also subscribes to this idea that an electoral defeat could lead to Congress’ revival?
A. There are many people in the Congress who celebrate a defeat because it is good to see that some potential rival of yours is looking weak. Now, the way the party should operate is first you defeat the BJP and then you decide who will get what position or responsibility. To answer your question, I don't know about that. But I can definitely say that people in close proximity to Rahul Gandhi have this opinion. Then it is reasonable to arrive at a conjecture that this may have been his view in 2014. By 2019, I think, he has changed his mind.
Q. With the latest election results in Bihar, there is a chatter that Congress has lost its pole position in the Opposition? What is holding back Congress to be an effective Opposition leader, to be the major anti-BJP force?
A. Firstly, Congress failed to win elections and now we are beginning to lose the status of being the principal Opposition party. The most disturbing example is, when the Congress party loses, it loses and doesn't come back for a long time. You can just look at when we last won Bihar, it was 30 years ago. UP 33 years ago. West Bengal over 40 years ago. Tamil Nadu 53 years ago. Odisha 20 years ago. Gujarat 25 years ago. We were out for 15 years in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Congress has surrendered its formidable bastions of the past to either regional parties or the BJP. The reason behind that is very simply that the party does not have a leader with a passion for winning. What Modi and Amit Shah have done is that they have redefined Indian politics. It is very easy to say that saam-dhaan-bhed-dand (trying to win by all means). By the way that is the way we did our politics once upon a time. Let us not try and believe that we are any different.
I do agree that the institutions have collapsed under the BJP. But we can't deny that the institutions were weakened by the Congress. The 'caged parrot' happened during the Congress time. One of my friends told me an interesting thing. He said Congress is like a petty thief while the BJP is a hardcore mafia. The BJP took over the entire system while you continued doing your small-time robberies. I thought it was very funny. Congress is still under the delusion that it is the natural party of governance and that the BJP is terrible and it can't do anything, that Modi will get exposed soon and Congress will be back soon. What the Congress party doesn't realise is that after 1984, the Congress has not won an absolute majority. It is not just that we got just 96 seats in the last two Lok Sabha elections. Are we encouraging state leaders? Today all decisions are taken by the High Command. There is no election for the Congress president or the Congress Working Committee or even at the block level. If the G-23 or I say that the leadership has to answer, they become BJP agents. In a democracy, these conversations need to happen all the time. The other day Sonia Gandhi met with some of the G-23 leaders. Why is it breaking news? Shouldn't the Congress be meeting its dissident leaders ten times? When you meet people, it is like you are doing a big favour. After the meeting, what is the big decision? We will hold a ‘chintan shivir’ (brainstorming session). For god-sake, you don't have to meet to decide that you need to meet again.
Q. Do you think Rahul Gandhi is the problem?
A. I do believe that Rahul Gandhi at this point of time does to his personal credibility and Congress' organisational heft a great favour, if he allows a non-Gandhi to take charge. He himself has given in writing that there should be a non-Gandhi leader. Therefore I have raised this point. Personally, I like Rahul very much. The mistake Rahul is making in terms of political leadership is that he should know that at the moment there is a very anti-Gandhi wave outside the Congress. If Rahul contests for the post of Congress president, he will probably win it hands down. But if he is leading the Congress in 2024, I am not so sure that the Congress party is going to do well. People of India want to see a non-Gandhi leading the Congress. I think that is the writing on the wall. The election verdicts tell you that.
Q. Why is the delay? Is it because of the coterie behind him?
A. I believe the coterie is singularly responsible for the mess in the party. Forget me. Leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia and several others cannot get access to Rahul Gandhi. I believe the coterie has got people who do not have the political maturity and are driven by their personal political aspirations. Once they invest all their money and time around Rahul and if Rahul doesn't become the Congress president, their whole strategy backfires because a new leader will probably have a new team. So they always give the leader a wrong impression that without him or her the Congress cannot survive. But I don't blame them even as much as I blame the leader. The leader should have his sagacity, pragmatic wisdom to be able to see what kind of people should be around.
Q. But Rahul Gandhi has a complaint that he is taking a fierce anti-RSS stand but the party isn't supportive. When you talk about elections within the party, as General Secretary in-charge, he attempted elections in Youth Congress and NSU(I) but it was sabotaged. How do you respond to that?
A. Despite Rahul Gandhi resigning as party president and saying that a non-Gandhi should lead the party, the Congress is still going and telling him please be the party chief. This is the party's culture for you. For Rahul to say that nobody listens to him, I am sorry, I don't buy that story. If you go about bringing change, there will be resistance. You will have to learn to overcome it. Why do you say that somebody sabotaged the system? Fix the person who has sabotaged it. Punish them. Rahul started primaries in Karnataka for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He gave it up. Are you trying to tell me that if Rahul Gandhi insisted on primaries, it would not happen. Rahul says he is the only one who took on the RSS. I do not agree with that. I took on the RSS on television. P Chidambaram wrote about it in his columns. Manish Tewari spoke about it in press conferences. It is very unfair to say that I did it and no one else. My larger point is that a leader has to work with a team you have. If you decide to go solo, frankly, that is your choice. Look at the talent in Congress. Jyotiraditya (Scindia), Sachin (Pilot), Milind (Deora), Manish (Tewari), Shashi (Tharoor), Ghulam Nabi Azad, Salman Khurshid, Kapil Sibal, Bhupinder Hooda, Deepender Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan, we have all the leaders in the south, including D K Shivakumar in Karnataka. There is no dearth for leaders in the party. Why is Rahul Gandhi flying alone? I think Rahul made a terrible faux pas in saying that. I am putting it on record that Rahul Gandhi is wrong in saying that he fought it alone -- whether it was ‘chowkidar chor hei’ slogan or whether it was taking on the RSS. Taking on RSS is not Rahul Gandhi's personal crusade. It is Congress' core ideology.
Q. In the book, you said you prepared a political strategy report in 2017 and you tried to reach out to Rahul Gandhi. You didn’t manage to meet him but one of his close aides found your report interesting. Could you shed some light on what your suggestions were?
A. I was having a conversation with former president Pratibha Patil. This was before Priyanka Gandhi stepped into Uttar Pradesh. We were talking about Congress, why it has become so weak, and how we should fight back. She came up with an excellent suggestion. She said there is a lot of talk about Priyanka going to Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh is a snake pit for the Congress because we are virtually wiped out of the state, it will be very difficult for her to revive it during an election. She told me, why don’t you suggest to Rahul that Priyanka should head the Mahila Congress. She said that don’t restrict Priyanka to UP. If she becomes head of the women’s unit, she will have a pan India footprint, address issues of violence against women, gender equality etc. Her view was that it will also make out her political character. She can participate in protests, she can go all over the country, she can galvanize voters and she can change the narrative. I thought that was brilliant. So, one of the suggestions I gave was this one. Nobody heard it. Later on when I met a very senior leader, I told this was one of the ideas that I had suggested, he said ‘oh my God, what a great idea!’. I said well, nobody heard it. Another one was on electoral bonds. BJP was getting 95% of the electoral bonds. Congress is getting nothing but 5%. Why aren’t you taking on the BJP on this? Say, I will not take any money from electoral bonds. My suggestion to Rahul Gandhi was, do a nation-wide campaign. You go all over the country and say you all want to know who really is the corrupt guy? You see, you need game changer thinking. Today, the Congress gets 5% of the money and it seems to be quite happy with that. The Congress today should have been in the Supreme Court, putting pressure on the Chief Justice of India to say, I want you to please pass your verdict on the electoral bonds issue. These were the things I had put up there.
Q. You referred to leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia or Sachin Pilot not getting their due in the party. But there is one criticism that many of the rebels went to the BJP. Is there a problem of ideological conviction?
A. Congress itself has compromised with its foundational ideology of secularism. We should have never done this 'jhaneu-dhari politics'. You are trying to catch up with the BJP with ‘Hindutva Lite’ politics. How many leaders in the Congress today, including Rahul, have talked about anti-love jihad laws? No one. It is so disruptive that it will destroy Indian secular fabric. How many times did we do mass protests on lynching murders? We did not, it is a fact. How many people fought for that young girl, a pregnant girl who was arrested during the time of the pandemic. Very few. Did the Congress come up in defence of the Tablighi Jamaat? We did not because we are also playing this game of catching up with the BJP. It is a lost battle. The time has come for Congress to kind of agree that you yourself have allowed political opportunism to create a strange ideological obfuscation within the party. To answer your question, why do leaders leave. The leaders leave only when their private ambition is thwarted, not because they are necessarily ideologically compromised. I do know Jyotiraditya very well and I know he was not very happy to go to the BJP. My friend Priyanka Chaturvedi has joined Shiv Sena. I do know her and at that point of time, she had very very true commitment to secular values. So, I think a lot of the leaders leave because of their private ambitions. I can’t comment on their ideological compromises. But the party needs to understand that if you cannot hold your people together, it is you who have to look into it, just don’t blame an individual alone.
Q. Do you still believe that Congress is central to the revival of the idea of India?
A. I do believe that the Congress still remains a party with a reach in every household of India. The problem is poor leadership, pathetic communication and an inability to make an outreach. This is the reason why we are not able to make an impact. It doesn't take too much to fix it. I always believe that when you look at India today, it cannot become a left versus right battle. India is always going to be a centrist country. It has to be able to marry all contradictions. That is the beauty of this country. In that sense, Congress is a natural claimant to centrism. Congress under Rahul Gandhi moved too far to the left of centre in economic thinking and almost allowed the BJP to make it more polarised. The Congress should know how to balance it out.
Q. Lastly, is Priyanka a better leader than Rahul?
A. Let me bite the bullet on that. I am not going to be one of those politicians who plays it safe. I do believe that Rahul has been there for a while. He is hard working, he could do more. But at the end of the day, there is a pushback against him leading the party forward. I did hear a lot of people saying that if you have a different leader, we will vote for Congress. That is very distressing to know. Congress needs a change and preferably, a non-Gandhi. I do feel that Priyanka is more communicative, she has a higher emotional intelligence, she is definitely more charismatic. I don't know how hard working she is. Her instinct is very sharp. I do think that she has potential. But at the moment, I would still go with a non-Gandhi leader.