‘The BJP has not learnt its lesson’: Priyank Kharge

The Congress leader discusses the electoral bond issue, challenges faced by the opposition during the Lok Sabha election, and more.

Published : Apr 04, 2024 13:05 IST - 14 MINS READ

Priyank Kharge, Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Minister, addresses a press conference in Kalaburagi on April 3.

Priyank Kharge, Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Minister, addresses a press conference in Kalaburagi on April 3. | Photo Credit: Arun Kulkarni

Recent arrests of two Chief Ministers by the Enforcement Directorate and financial probes targeting opposition figures have exacerbated concerns regarding fairness in India’s political discourse, making the upcoming Lok Sabha election appear far from a level playing field. In an exclusive interview with Frontline, Priyank Kharge, Congress leader and Minister of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, IT and BT (Information Technology and Biotechnology) in Karnataka, talks about the challenges facing the opposition, especially the INDIA bloc amidst allegations of intimidation tactics by the Central government. He outlines the Congress’ strategy for reclaiming ground in Karnataka, stressing economic empowerment over divisive rhetoric while addressing allegations of dynastic politics and the ongoing battle against misinformation. Edited excerpts:

In the past couple of weeks, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been arrested, the Congress’s bank accounts have been frozen, and the party has been served with notices from the Income Tax department. These are cited as some of the intimidation tactics used by the Centre to target the opposition INDIA coalition. Considering these developments, can the forthcoming Lok Sabha election be considered a free and fair democratic contest?

It is definitely not a fair contest because the BJP is using its star campaigners and its frontal organisations such as the CBI, IT, ED, etc. in full force to cow down and mow down the opposition. The arrest of two sitting Chief Ministers, [Hemant] Soren and [Arvind] Kejriwal, shows that the due processes of law have not been followed. What were they doing for so long? The timing is suspicious.

More importantly, the BJP is heavily dependent on third-party validation for its work. Let us say the US President or the Prime Minister of some other country praises Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the entire BJP ecosystem goes berserk saying Vishwa Guru! Now the same set of actors are pulling them up by saying: When there is a general election going on in the country and you are arresting people from the opposition, how can we call it free and fair? The United States of America has pointed it out; Germany has pointed it out. Even the United Nations has come forward which shows that the electoral contest is not free and fair.

The timing of the IT notices and the freezing of bank accounts of the Congress party is alarming. What were they [the IT department] doing for so long? The Congress has been served with demand notice for eight years without assessment orders. In the entire taxation history of India, never has the IT department raised a demand without assessment. They are questioning an amount of roughly Rs. 14 lakh which has been paid by MPs and MLAs with their names, addresses, and other information disclosed as per Form 24A, which seeks IT exemptions for political parties. Despite all this, the Congress was given a notice for Rs. 1823 crore! Going by the same rule, the BJP has received Rs. 42 crore of unaccounted money where there is no record of the donor and they should also be served a notice. The timing of this, everything about this is suspicious.

After the Supreme Court’s judgment on the electoral bonds issue, Congress leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, have alleged that the Centre’s reluctance to reveal the donors indicates a corrupt nexus between the BJP and crony capitalists. Although unproven, reports suggest that the issue has the makings of a major scam. Do you think this issue will resonate among voters?

We need to simplify it for the voters. If we say “electoral bonds”, they will not understand. We need to tell them where their money has gone. For example, a company whose turnover is Rs 1.48 crore bought electoral bonds worth Rs 186 crore. How is that possible?

What is the standard operating procedure? In the morning, the IT or ED issues a notice to a company or conducts a raid and in the evening the same company buys large sums of electoral bonds. After this, the investigation is truncated! What is this? We need to simplify this issue for people to understand what this game is and how the banks are colluding. Banks are supposed to be trustworthy but India’s biggest bank tells the Supreme Court that we need time for providing data. Why do they spend thousands of crores of rupees for digitisation? Despite being one of the biggest digital economies in the world, banks are fumbling with providing data. This establishes a mala fide intention. The bank is lying through its teeth to the Supreme Court!

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You may have established the mala fide intention but the challenge is to convey this to the voters. Are you succeeding in doing this?

As I said, we must simplify these issues for the voters. The issues of tax terrorism (injustice to Karnataka in the case of devolution of funds from the Union government), the issue of electoral bonds, demonetisation; all these things must be simplified for the people and taken to them, otherwise they will not comprehend the seriousness of what has happened.

Coming to Karnataka, over the past four Lok Sabha elections, voters in the State have indicated their preference for the BJP. In 2019, the BJP won 26 out of the 28 seats, while the Congress secured only one seat. What is the Congress’s strategy in this election to reverse this trend and counter PM Modi’s influence?

In each election the issues are different and this time, the trend in the southern States is for the Congress. Going by what happened in Telangana, Karnataka, and even Maharashtra, we gained quite a bit. The BJP has no stronghold in South India. If there was a Modi wave or if there was a groundswell of support for the BJP, would voters have given us 136 [Legislative Assembly] seats in last year’s election? It happened nine months back. What has changed since then? Nothing. In fact, the Congress has consolidated through our guarantees, social engineering, focus on the economy and the bridging of economic inequality. The ball game is entirely different here in Karnataka and the BJP does not stand a chance and they are a burning house!

When was the last time you heard someone from the BJP say that he is going to contest the election irrespective of whether he gets a ticket from the party or not? The banner of revolt has been raised against Modi and Amit Shah, and against B. S. Yediyurappa, B. Y. Vijayendra, and R. Ashoka here in Karnataka. In more than 13 Parliamentary constituencies, rebel BJP leaders have raised the banner of revolt including someone as senior as K.S. Eshwarappa. These rebel leaders are unwilling to even listen to Modi.

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The Congress seems to be heavily relying on two issues in Karnataka to attract voters. First, the successful implementation of its election guarantees, and second, the alleged injustice in the devolution of funds from the Central government. As political observers who have been interacting with people on the ground, we are questioning whether the Congress has been able to build a successful campaign narrative around these two issues.

The guarantees have been implemented and delivered to a tee. That is something that all the people of the State and the media also agree upon. More than 4.5 crore people are benefiting from the guarantees. There were doubts whether all the five guarantees would be implemented but we have ensured the smooth delivery of the guarantees in less than 10 months. People are happy with our government. We are looking at securing greater investments and generating more employment. Our entire game plan is on economics; we are very clear: get investments, create jobs, and ensure our youth are engaged progressively and not engaged in dharma raksha and gau raksha. Let the BJP leaders and their children do these tasks but for the youth of Karnataka, we want to create more jobs and stimulate the economic prosperity of the State.

Having said that, the BJP has to answer why an economic powerhouse like Karnataka is being short-changed in tax devolution. If we don’t ask the Central government, who should we ask? They are the ones who said Karnataka has been shortchanged and that the State needs to be compensated in one way or the other. They have not done it and we are questioning that. Imagine a Kannadiga farmer who contributes Rs. 100 and is getting back only Rs 13 but a person in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is getting back Rs. 313 and Rs. 999, respectively, for every Rs. 100 he contributes. We are not saying don’t give it to them [UP and Bihar] but all we are saying is give us a little more so that we can generate more jobs, procure more FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) and create better infrastructure for Karnataka which also benefits the country.

We have no problems sharing with other States. But this outright daylight robbery by the Central government for Karnataka’s hard work is injustice.

We understand that, but while campaigning, is the issue resonating among the voters?

Like the issue of electoral bonds, the issue of tax injustice is also similar and will not resonate with the people if we do not simplify it for them. All voters will not understand the omissions of the 15th Finance Commission, the recommendations of the Finance Ministry or the devolution part of it. But if I simplify it and tell them that look: Your hard work is not being paid for, it is something that they will understand. And I think it is ringing a bell. I mean, people didn’t expect the Karnataka Cabinet to go to Delhi, right? The entire Cabinet went to Delhi and they were surprised. Why is the Cabinet in Delhi? And quite naturally, we were successful in educating the people and that is why they are rallying behind us.

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The BJP in Karnataka has resorted to a range of polarising issues leading up to the election and has accused the Congress government of appeasing Muslims. The BJP’s focus on these issues was also evident during the recent budget session of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly. Do you think the BJP’s emphasis on such polarising issues will lead to a division among the electorate along communal lines?

The BJP has not learnt its lesson. In its previous tenure, these were the same issues that they brought up and they thought that this would fetch them more seats. They spoke about azaan, hijab, halal-jhatka cut and other issues with respect to the minorities. What did it lead them to? 60 seats? And what did we speak about? Economic prosperity. We spoke about jobs, we spoke about Karnataka’s asmithe (pride), and the respect that Kannadigas deserve, we promised the people prosperity, and economic and social equality and promised that we would safeguard the Constitution. These are the things that resonated. We focused on livelihood issues, whereas they focused on issues which they thought would work for them and even now they are trying to do the same.

If you recollect during the budget session, the BJP said we [Congress] are stealing from Hindu temples and giving it to masjids (mosques). What happened to that campaign? It just died down because they had not seen the Bill properly. In fact, we are safeguarding Hindu temples more, we are safeguarding smaller Hindu temples more, and we are safeguarding temples in the villages more than ever before. And when they realised that, they stopped that campaign. This is their standard operating procedure; we are well-versed in it and are equipped to handle these kinds of things. Every time they pick up polarising issues, we are picking up livelihood issues, economic issues, social issues, farmer issues etc. and that is what matters to the people of Karnataka.

“The fight against misinformation, malinformation, disinformation and fake news is not a T20 match but a Test cricket match. You need to be consistent at it.”

The Congress came to power in Karnataka with a thumping majority last year. However, political analysts have observed that the party seems hesitant to take on the BJP on ideological issues directly. It appears that the Congress leadership in Karnataka is treading carefully, perhaps fearing the loss of support from certain sections of the Hindu community. What is your view on this observation by political analysts?

If you are following Karnataka very closely, you know me and how I don’t mince words.

Yes, but we don’t see you getting a lot of support from your Cabinet colleagues.

Krishna Byre Gowda (Revenue Minister) is there; Dinesh Gundu Rao (Health Minister) is there. Siddaramaiah himself is leading from the front. We pick on RSS, we pick holes; we talk logically. Simple things like how did Veer Savarkar get his title? Who gave him that title? The BJP is still unable to answer. Did he take a pension from the British? Yes or no? We are asking simple things. When was the last time anybody challenged the BJP on RSS’ ideology in the Assembly? We have done that. We are ready to do that.

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However, before last year’s election, Siddaramaiah had assured the people of Karnataka that contentious legislation, such as the anti-conversion law and the ban on cattle slaughter, would be repealed. Why is the Congress now prevaricating on rolling back these laws?

We will stick by our statement. Any policy or scheme that is going to be counterproductive to the economic activities of Karnataka or for the progress of Karnataka will be rolled back. We have rescinded the anti-farmer laws that were passed by the BJP government. The anti-conversion and cattle slaughter laws are being scrutinised by the legal department.

The Congress has given Lok Sabha tickets to several family members of prominent politicians in the State. Even in Kalaburagi where you have camped, the Congress candidate, Mr. Radhakrishna Doddamani is the son-in-law of party president Mallikarjun Kharge. How do you respond to the allegation that the Congress is perpetuating dynastic politics in Karnataka?

It is important to notice who is making this accusation. Ordinary people have not said this. This is being propagated by the BJP. Even though the BJP claims that it is against parivaarwaad, they forget that B. S. Yediyurappa, B. Y. Vijayendra and B. Y. Raghavendra belong to the same family. Tejasvi Surya is the nephew of BJP MLA Ravi Subramanya. There are so many examples if you look at dynastic politics in the BJP. There are more dynasts in the BJP than Congress.

The point is, the Congress might select relatives of politicians but ultimately, it is up to the people to elect them. How come the same rule does not apply to the BJP? It looks like BJP leaders do not like acknowledging their relations in public. I think they are ashamed of their DNA and I am ready to give them a DNA test if they have any doubts. Why did Eshwarappa revolt? Because he wanted a ticket for his son. Why did S.R. Vishwanath revolt? Again, because he wanted a ticket for his son. Let’s make a list of all political dynasts and I openly challenge the BJP which claims to be a party with a difference but has more dynasts than the Congress.

You were instrumental in setting up a fact-checking unit at the State level in Karnataka last year to counter the spread of fake news on social media. How has the establishment of this unit played out, and has it led to a reduction in the dissemination of fake news?

The fight against misinformation, malinformation, disinformation and fake news is not a T20 match but a Test cricket match. You need to be consistent at it. We have set up a small unit which has empanelled people to warn us about misinformation and things of that sort. We also ensure a legal procedure is followed so it is not a witch hunt against anybody. It has been working for the past month now. As a result of that, recent FIRs were filed against a few prominent BJP leaders because we were able to debunk their propaganda.

You heard about the story of how a group of men beat up a trader in Bengaluru for playing the Hanuman Chalisa. It became an issue for two days but it died down when it was debunked. So yes, the fact-checking unit was responsible for this. It’s a work in progress. The Election Commission spoke about three Ms—‘money power, muscle power, and misinformation’. The EC is equipped to handle the first two because they have been doing this for decades but handling misinformation is trickier as you don’t know where it originates. The EC must be very serious in tackling misinformation as it spreads very quickly.

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