IN A WEEK when the prime minister attacked Rahul Gandhi for reportedly describing the Congress as a ‘party for Muslims’—comments the party has called “fake”—the Congress president also announced his new working committee. Senior Congress leader Randeep Surjewala, who is in charge of the communication and media strategy of the Congress, talks about the party’s 2019 strategy and these controversies.
Reconstituting the Congress Working Committee was Rahul Gandhi’s first major decision after taking charge of the party. There are some younger inductees, but the average age of 23 members in the CWC is 68.
Rahulji always said that Congress party will have space for experience. Why should we disregard our senior leaders who have acumen and experience? And, unlike Modi who chose to disregard people like Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and many others, because they are politically unsuitable to him, Rahul Gandhi does not throw away people.
How do you respond to the omission of senior leaders like Digvijaya Singh or C.P. Joshi, or prominent faces like Shashi Tharoor or Jairam Ramesh from the CWC?
Making the CWC is always an exercise which will have some omissions, some additions. Ultimately, it is the discretion of the Congress president to utilise everybody. For example, Shashi Tharoor already heads the All India Professionals’ Congress. So he is somebody who already has a role inside the party.
As a young generation Congress leader, aren’t you frustrated that there are some veteran leaders who refuse to go away gently and cede that space?
People will have to take a call themselves. Some people will cede the space, some people will continue to be utilised. For example, P. Chidambaram has immense value in terms of experience and acumen that he brings not only on economic issues but on many other political issues. Why should the Congress party let him go?
Is that also an assertion that in the cases that his son is facing, the party is putting its weight behind him?
Majority of the Congress leaders are being haunted by Prime Minister Modi with a view to seek revenge. Let the judicial process take its own call. Not a single allegation has even been prima facie established against Chidambaram. It is a completely malicious exercise on account of a personal vendetta that Modi has.
Recently, a media report came out that Rahul Gandhi had allegedly or reportedly said the Congress is a party for Muslims. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman attacked the Congress saying ‘from janeu dhaari to Muslim dhaari’. The Congress appears very defensive. Why not just say that the Congress does speak for all, including Muslims?
The publication in question was started by the RSS that was later transferred to a newspaper group. They printed a fake news deliberately and maliciously to serve the agenda of the BJP and the RSS. What Rahul Gandhi said is that the Congress is a party of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Parsis, Buddhists, and even those who don’t believe in any religion.... We believe the minorities are an important ingredient to the Indian identity. We will represent every section or people, that is what we say. Rahul Gandhi is a Shiv bhakt. But, that doesn’t deter him from protecting the rights of minorities.
You described him as janeu dhaari, before the Gujarat elections, and you spoke about his religion. It seems to me that Congress is struggling with this issue and is trying to be Hindu-Lite to take on BJP’s hindutva?
What is Hinduism? Forget about the BJP’s version of hindutva. Hinduism is when I am able to practise my faith. If I am able to practise my faith, I should not be hiding it. If a particular section of liberals feel that practising my faith or following my rituals makes me illiterate, then they are actually doing what the BJP is doing.
So, you don’t regret that janeu dhaari comment.
But, that is a caste-related ritual.
I got married in a particular fashion. I cremate my dead in a particular fashion. You may call it a ritual. But, it is also a tradition in this country which has gone back generations. What is wrong with it? I am very proud of the fact that my Hinduism permits me to protect your faith, and your right to question my faith and rituals that I follow. But, it is also my right to follow what has been my tradition.
This defensiveness also seemed evident in the Gujarat campaign. Weren’t Muslims kept at a distance from your public platforms?
Absolutely not. Whether it is Hindus or Muslims, both are an intrinsic part of the Congress leadership, which is apparent for everybody to see.
How did you see the prime minister’s comment on Rahul Gandhi’s remarks—which you said was fake news?
Mr. Modi has become a troll rather than a prime minister. It is very sad that a country’s prime minister himself becomes a troll, that also in fake news. Modi knows that in the last 50 months he delivered zero. There is no real MSP for farmers, there are no jobs, no black money has come back, it has actually increased in the Swiss banks, economy is in doldrums, businesses are shutting down, and Modi does not know what to do with foreign policy and neighbours. So, he is bringing back the only agenda and the only game that he knows the best: do the Hindu-Muslim divide, abuse, polarise, divide, spread hatred and consequently garner votes.
Shashi Tharoor recently said if India continues like this it will become a ‘Hindu Pakistan’. How do you see that remark?
What Tharoor was trying to say was that the BJP was polarising. And I completely reject the metaphor that he used. I think Congress leaders need to be far more careful in the language they use to describe a particular situation. Yes, the BJP is polarising and dividing, and they have an agenda of hate. But, India can never become Pakistan.
In 2019, does the Congress expect to lead the non-BJP front, or are you willing, like in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, to take a back seat?
The Congress is the largest political opposition to the BJP. That is a fact. In terms of number of seats today, yes we have 48 seats (only). But, in terms of our national presence and the seats that we hope to get, we are the only political party that fights elections from Kashmir to Kerala, and from Tripura to Porbandar. Is there any other political party, other than the BJP, which is fighting on this scale and level?
So, naturally we hope to emerge as the largest political party. I feel that the Congress is going to repeat the 2004 performance, which will be going closer to 200. I know you may find it extremely hard to believe, but the numbers on the ground are saying that we are doing extremely well, considering how much the government has failed.
Who should lead this federal front?
The leader of the Congress is Rahul Gandhi and he will be a natural person to lead the federal front.
But, Mamata Banerjee is already not on board with that.
Let us not reach 2019 in 2018. Let us wait for things to emerge. After all, who is Mamataji? She comes from a Congress family. She is not somebody alien to the Congress culture and thought process. And Rahul Gandhi has shown that he can walk across and also speak to people who have difference of opinion with the Congress.
Do you see yourself as the next chief ministerial candidate of the Congress in your home state, Haryana?
Those are questions that should be left in the realm of absolute speculation and I reject them. Who will be chief minister is not important. Whether we will get a government is far more important.