Interview: Jairam Ramesh

‘Out-funded and out-communicated’

Print edition : June 13, 2014

Jairam Ramesh. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Interview with Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh.

The Congress party has begun the process, however limited, of fixing accountability for its defeat in the Lok Sabha election. However, there seems to be a reluctance to address the fundamental issues. Jairam Ramesh, who was part of Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet and one of the co-ordinators in the party for the elections, spoke on his perception of the result and what went wrong. Excerpts:

How do you assess the verdict of Lok Sabha Election 2014? There has clearly been an anti-Congress wave throughout the country and a single party has secured a majority on its own for the first time in 30 years.

My immediate reaction was one of deep disappointment. My second reaction was that of bewilderment and puzzlement, wondering why such a devastating defeat. My third reaction was one of momentary dejection and demoralisation. These were my immediate reactions when the results came. But, clearly, Mr Modi has won a magnificent victory and it would be churlish not to give him credit for what he has accomplished.

From September 2013, he ran an indefatigable campaign. This victory is less of the BJP than it is of Mr Modi. He was, of course, helped by the RSS cadre who were galvanised by the substance and style of his campaign. I acknowledge handsomely what he has accomplished. It is disturbing in many respects because he represents an ideology that is fundamentally antithetical to the Congress ideology. His campaign was very shrill and very polarising at times. He got the benefit of that polarisation in U.P. and Bihar particularly. And his management style in Gujarat may have led to economic efficiency but it raises many more questions than have been acknowledged.

We can split hairs but this was clearly a strong anti-Congress vote. Without taking away from Mr Modi’s victory, I don’t want to say it was a pro-Modi vote, etc. There was a strong anti-Congress sentiment and anger against the Congress, which he tapped into very skilfully. [This was] in spite of having delivered over 8 per cent GDP growth over a 10-year period; in spite of 140 million people crossing the poverty line; in spite of far-reaching social legislation going back to RTI [Right to Information] in 2005 and most recently the new Land Acquisition Law in 2013. That is why I am puzzled in many ways.

Various viewpoints have emerged for the dismal performance and they range from organisational issues to the way the campaign was conducted and to policy paralysis, a term used by industry in particular. Some of your own party members believed that it was the failure to communicate all the so-called good in UPA II’s tenure that led to this kind of result.

Our communication from the top three was non-existent. Over a period of time, our Prime Minister, our Congress president and the vice-president were not aggressive communicators as Mr Modi was. They calibrated their communication. In today’s day and age, communication means a lot. Dr Manmohan Singh, Mrs Gandhi and Mr Rahul Gandhi are decent and dignified communicators. They are not aggressive communicators like Mr Modi or Ms Sushma Swaraj. In communication, we did fall short.

In these elections, we were heavily out-funded. I can say this on the basis of what I witnessed in several States where I campaigned extensively that we were out-funded one to 10. It was simply mind-boggling, the amount of money that has gone in. Money was not all. I am not saying that Mr Modi won because of money, but money was the lubricant certainly. What was paradoxical was that people accused us of scams and megacorruption and we found it difficult to finance an election campaign—to compete with that of the BJP. We were out-funded and we were out-communicated.

About organisational weaknesses, they have always been there. Maybe this time people did want to give Mr Modi a chance. I wouldn’t agree with policy paralysis but policy circumspection. Dr Manmohan Singh by nature is a circumspect man. He doesn’t have the macho style of Mr Modi. The nature of our election campaigns has changed. In many ways, the success of the Congress’ policies between 2004 and 2014, policies of openness like RTI, policies of empowerment like the NREGA and other programmes have created an entire set of aspirations in society. If you look at the mobile telephony revolution, when the UPA came to power we had 30 million mobile phones and today we have 900 million mobile phone users. The success of our policies, paradoxically, created new aspirations and new expectations that the Congress was not in a position to respond to. The Central government is not like a State government as Mr Modi will discover. You have to take everyone along.

Do you not think that the Congress needs to do some serious introspection and course correction in terms of the economic burdens imposed on people, like price rise, unemployment, and so on?

The challenge for us is to redo the architecture of the party. We have to develop strong State-level leaders. We need more Siddharamaiahs [Karnataka Chief Minister] and Oommen Chandys [Kerala Chief Minister]. And I would say in spite of the drubbing [in Assam], more Tarun Gogois. We need more regional bosses, the way the Congress used to be in the 1950s. I think the Congress party needs to change its system of decision-making. I still am not able to figure out why Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated.

Do you not feel that the economic policies of your government were in any way responsible for this kind of result?

There are some people who would say we were not Left enough; some would say we were not Right enough. These are simplistic binary options which I reject. Let us say we were on the right track. We were stressing growth with empowerment. Without growth, empowerment is hollow; without empowerment, growth is meaningless. We had eight years of high growth and two years of slow growth. The two years of slow growth killed us. The feel-good factor which was there in the first seven to eight years seemed to have vanished. The corruption scams, the Anna Hazare movement, which caught us by surprise, were factors.

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