Interview: Anand Sharma

Anand Sharma: The BJP has lost its sheen

Print edition : November 22, 2019

Anand Sharma. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Interview with Anand Sharma, senior Congress leader.

The Congress party, badly bruised after the Lok Sabha election in May, sees a ray of hope in the results of the recent Assembly elections and byelections. While the party has not been able to muster enough numbers to form the government in either Haryana or Maharashtra, its performance in terms of increased vote share and seats in both States has rejuvenated the organisation, which now plans to hold a fortnight-long protest in November before the commencement of the winter session of Parliament. Senior Congress leader and former Union Minister Anand Sharma spoke to Frontline about the present political situation in the context of the recent electoral outcome. Excerpts from the interview:

In the context of the hypernationalistic campaign built up during the recent Assembly elections, how would you assess the outcome of the elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, and the Congress’ own performance?

The BJP has pursued an agenda which is divisive and emotional. They have inflamed, successfully and repeatedly, the sentiment of hypernationalism. I use the word “divisive” as they draw lines to say that those who subscribe to the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and endorse the government are patriotic and those who oppose them are not. This has to be opposed as it is dangerous for our democracy. Every Indian is a nationalist. But they [the BJP] believe in creating a mirage of hopes based on false promises to get popular support, knowing that they will fail to deliver. This narrative they have built is a politically expedient tool to deflect attention from their misgovernance and monumental failures and betrayal of the people, and also gives them a cover to escape accountability.

As we saw, within months of the Lok Sabha election, people’s issues have come to the fore. The BJP’s vote share has declined by 16 percentage points in Maharashtra and by 22 percentage points in Haryana. Our own vote share may not have gone up that much, but the BJP has lost its sheen. All emotive issues have an expiry date. It is a transient phase in which we are living, and there are people who have been intimidated, compromised and forced into silence.

But those who have experience and exposure to democratic movements and a connect with history can reassure the vulnerable ones that this imposition of uniformity and the culture of intimidation, violence and hatred will not be perpetual. So it is the people who have demonstrated this.

I will first give credit to the people of Haryana and Maharashtra. In Haryana, some organisational shortcomings, choice of candidates and the late start were responsible for our performance. In at least 10 seats in Haryana, we lost by a margin of fewer than 1,000 votes. There are a large number of seats where the Congress lost by very narrow margins in both the States.

The election results are a message from the people that they will ensure a balance is maintained in Indian democracy, and that is where the Congress party comes in. It is our national duty. We are not there only to capture power or be in government. A Congress revival is a must for Indian democracy to survive. Otherwise the foundational values of India’s Constitution and the republic may weaken under the sustained assault.

Do you think the performance of the party is satisfactory?

You see, we were being written off in both the States. Match-fixing is a crime. We saw it happening in the opinion and exit polls. Together, the Congress and the NCP [Nationalist Congress Party] were given 50 or 100 seats [in Maharashtra]. In Haryana, it was said we would not cross the single-digit mark. Our performance has helped lift the morale of the party cadre. It has also sent a signal that the opposition still has the support of the people and the will to fight. We know it is a long road ahead, but we are not going to give up. The Congress party, with its long history, cannot withdraw from its national duty and it will not. We concede that if organisational changes had been carried out a few months earlier, it would have helped us. We started late.

It was a result of a late start and selection of “wrong” candidates. We have a strong leadership in both the States. Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Haryana won with the highest margin in his constituency. In all the segments in Rohtak, the party did well. Prithviraj Chavan also did well [in Maharashtra]. So we have a good leadership and support base. We have the support of the rural voter. We did badly in Mumbai. The farmers and the poor have begun to support us as they are the ones who are suffering the most under this government.

Do you think that people voted on issues that mattered to them most and were less impressed by the nationalistic hyperbole during campaigning?

Look at the functioning of this government. The Prime Minister in his election speeches does not talk about the unemployed youths or the collapsing economy. We are in the midst of not an economic recession but a grave economic crisis. Factories are closing, consumer demand has collapsed, the currency has become devalued, and lakhs of blue-collar workers have lost jobs. This is a ticking time bomb. Given the demographic profile where two-thirds of our population comprise youths, if we fail to invest in them and preparing them to embrace the new wave of disruptive technologies, India will pay a very heavy price.

Is there any scope for the opposition to come together and forge a unified front?

There are challenges that the Congress and other opposition parties face. Even in the post Pulwama-Balakot hyperbole, if the BJP has got 37 per cent of the national vote and 43 per cent along with its allies, the United Progressive Alliance has around 25 per cent and the regional parties 22 per cent of the national vote. So it is not a hopeless situation for the opposition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah and their leadership have been carried away by their own propaganda.

What we are seeing is a subversion of institutions that was unleashed in 2014, and this has been incremental. Now it has escalated and they have become overconfident. The agencies of the state and the tools of governance are being treated as private property, which can undermine the architecture of our federal policy and constituency democracy.

The media have a very important role to play, but media monopolies have been created. Some among the electronic media have become amplifiers of the BJP. The overfeeding of the people will invite a reaction. It will have a backlash. The outcome in these elections is a beginning. It is a law of nature. After every high tide, there is a low tide. It is inevitable.

The BJP has neglected the agricultural sector. Also, small entrepreneurs, traders, have all suffered. The lag effects of two decisions are being felt now: demonetisation and the hasty imposition of a flawed GST [goods and services tax] regime. The revenue is much lower than the targeted figure given in the Budget. Revenue receipts until the end of September are Rs.8.1 lakh crore. What people do not realise is that there are unpaid bills of the PSUs [public sector undertaking] and the Central government, which amount to almost Rs.10 lakh crore. If those bills are to be paid, one anticipates the fiscal deficit climbing to 7-8 per cent. Where does one go? The estimate for the gross tax revenue for 2019-20 was revised to Rs.24.6 lakh crore; what we have until now is about Rs.9 lakh crore. Where will they collect the GST after the factories have closed down? The government should have put money in the hands of the people. Corporates have huge debts to repay, and they will use the tax bonanza to pay their debts. This government is insensitive to the poor and is promoting crony capitalism.

As a former External Affairs Minister and the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Home Affairs, what do you make of this unofficial visit by a section of Members of the European Parliament?

First, the stealth with which the government moved by bypassing the constitutional processes is astounding. The real issue is that of the downgrading and bifurcation of the State of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories. In a democracy, people must be reassured that their rights are fully secured and well protected. The people of Jammu and Kashmir have the same rights as anyone else in the rest of the country. Communication networks have to be restored and the healing process must be taken up with all sincerity. It has never before happened that a government does not inform Parliament or its committees but bends backwards to ingratiate itself to parties that are not part of a formal European Union delegation.

And who brings them here? An international broker? I have been Minister of External Affairs and I have never heard of this sponsoring institute. Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India, and the consistent position of successive governments, including this government, is that matters pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir are internal matters. Now they have ended up internationalising it. In the upcoming Parliament session, the Prime Minister and his Ministers have much to answer for.

Your party plans to go to the people and raise economic issues. Is it going to be a joint protest?

Yes, we are going to have a nationwide agitation and are reaching out to like- minded parties in the opposition. We will consolidate and coordinate the movement to reassure people that their pain and difficulties are not lost on the parties that are in the opposition. We will fight to get people justice. From November 5 to 15 we are planning a nationwide agitation along with like-minded parties. You will see that the mood is different from what it was in May. In five months, things have changed. The second honeymoon is over.

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