In normal circumstances, the Congress should have been gleeful at a time when it completes 125 years of action-filled existence. For, the party has shaped an extraordinary freedom movement, has come through the worst instance of human migration, has lost several of its titans, and has survived some serious lows. But, the party is anything but happy. It is caught in a swirl of corruption revelations, many of which may yet be thrown up. Its prime minister is appearing strangely detached from the frenzy while the party president is pondering a reshuffle in the government and the party. In this backdrop, we talk to Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh, who is seven years into his self-imposed 10-year exile from electoral politics. Singh offers his views on what he thinks UPA 2 must do to help itself, and how much the party needs to do still. Excerpts:
125 years is not given to very many. In such a long journey, there are bound to be hits and misses. At this point, do you sense a less than anticipated celebratory tone?
In politics, ups and downs are inevitable. One election, like the one in Bihar, doesn’t make a difference. We really did not have the political structure there that could translate into votes. People wanted to vote for the Congress but the party has not been able to put its house in order in Bihar, which it is trying to do in Uttar Pradesh. So I think these phases come and go — and we have seen worse. In 1977, we got wiped out, and then we came back. In 1989, we had a setback and post-Narasimha Rao we were reduced to 140 seats in the Lok Sabha. But we returned with 206 seats. So, these things do not really trouble us. We have to put our house in order, and to that end Sonia Gandhi is doing her best, as also Rahul Gandhi, who is extremely democratic in his way of functioning. He is trying to bring in greater democracy in the Youth Congress and NSUI through elections. So, I think we are on the right track.
You speak of putting your house in order and you speak of internal democracy. How much you think you need to do?
A lot is to be done. The report of the Future Challenges Committee, constituted by the Congress president, has come. We now have to put it into action.
On the one hand, you have the longest tenure for one person in the Congress presidency and on the other, there is an effort to democratise the organisation. How do you reconcile the two?
Sonia Gandhi’s personality is the binding factor in the Congress. It controls factionalism and different shades of opinions within the party. We have people who are right of the centre, we have people who are left of the centre; it is her leadership that puts all these shades of opinions on one track. So I don’t see a contradiction there. If the workers of the Congress party want Sonia Gandhi as the AICC president, why should anybody object to that? After all, there is no bar on that in our Constitution.
Would then your opening up — holding internal elections — extend to the office of the Congress president?
Well, this time also, the elections were held. Anyone was free to file nomination. The first election that Sonia Gandhi won, she fought against Jitendra Prasada. So, no one is stopping anyone from contesting.
The party has mostly been in power. Your critics say that if you are out of power for any length of time, the party will implode.
No. You see, a mass-based party like ours cannot fight the challenges of a cadre-based party on the one side and casteist regional parties on the other. So the time has come to build our cadre. I think that transition is taking place.
Your base has to do with the masses and their struggles. Now, the critique is that you’ve been in power so long that you cannot connect with the struggles, because the struggles are mostly against you.
We’ve also held that struggle leads to an organisation. Sangharsh se hi sangathan banta hai. So, in the Opposition-ruled states, the Congress had to raise the voice of the people, fight against corruption and mismanagement when the ruling party went back on its promises. We have to play an effective role of the Opposition party. Sometimes, people say that the Congress party doesn’t know how to oppose and the BJP and other parties don’t know how to rule. But now they are learning how to rule and we are learning how to oppose. So we are coming to the median.
You spoke of the Futures Challenges Committee. Some of the challenges we still speak of in the future tense, unfortunately, are the Kashmir issue, Maoism, the Northeast issue, the question of how many states must India have. Please clarify for us the meaning of autonomy for Kashmir within the Indian Constitution?
It was only Sheikh Abdullah’s confidence in Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership that brought Kashmir to the Congress. They had differences that Indira Gandhi ironed out later. Our part of Kashmir, Jammu and Leh have more democracy than Pakistan- Occupied Kashmir (PoK), and is far ahead on development. What is most important is to understand the sensitivity of the Kashmiri sentiment. Don’t forget, the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits happened when the Congress was ruling at the Centre. It was Jagmohan as the governor who facilitated that, and I think it was a wrong decision. Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims have lived together for hundreds of years. The Kashmiri Muslim is highly secular, he is not a fundamentalist.
In the Valley, the issue is not communalisation of the polity; it is of greater autonomy. It is not only the case of Kashmir, I think other states too have demanded greater autonomy. We have had Centre-state relations examined by two different commissions, so I think there is a space for everyone to exist within the framework of our Constitution.
Are you then saying that the Congress might consider a separate Election Commission for Kashmir?
I am not saying that because I am not authorised to speak on that subject. And I am not really a Kashmir expert. But I do think that efforts have been made earlier — and efforts should be made — to find a solution within the parameters of the Indian Constitution. There is enough scope to do that.
Regarding Maoism, the Congress has always felt that we have to address the socio-economic conditions of the people living in the Naxalite areas — whether there are forest issues, mining issues, land acquisition issues or the empowerment of the people. The Naxalite problem cannot be fought only through the armed forces. We have to win the people’s confidence; that is most important.
The Northeast has its own ethnic diversity that has to be brought in. Take Mizoram, for example. It is the most peaceful state today. At one time, it was one of the most difficult states to rule. So we have to bring in suitable changes within the system and give them the authority to rule. Their ethnic diversity is something that has to be compromised at appropriate levels within the system. This was understood when Indira Gandhi divided the Northeast into different states. But then how could we ignore the ethnic aspirations of the Nagas, the Mizos and the other people? Therefore, she took a conscious decision to divide the Northeast into seven states. I think it is a problem that can be resolved by effective leadership in the state and the right attitude of the government.
Having been a minister and chief minister of that area for a long time, you are one of the best persons in India to understand Maoism. How come there has been no gesture from the Congress to convince the people that this is beyond the paramilitary and they are going to the people?
I am not the best person but I have seen it. Of course, that has been understood. And today you will see the changes within the home ministry’s functioning. And Sonia Gandhi has categorically said in her writings in Congress Sandesh and in features that we cannot ignore the socio-economic issues of the Naxalite areas.
‘The Congress and the BJP are coming to the median. The BJP is learning how to rule and we are learning how to oppose’
What is the one big idea that can help India transform itself?
Improving our service delivery system. By that I mean if we can plug leakages, plug corruption, things will be much better.
But how do we do that?
By the Right to Information Act. And by coming out strongly against people who have assets disproportionate to their income. You have got the laws; enforce them.
Where is the law that says you can seize the property of the corrupt?
Of course, you can. There are laws for taking action against the people who have amassed wealth disproportionate to income. We can take action against them.
Whoever they are?
Whoever they are.
Wouldn’t several roads then lead to the ruling collation?
Go ahead. Someone has to take the courage to do it.
How should UPA 2 act to curb corruption in UPA 2?
The Congress Party has always been sensitive to charges of corruption. Only on public perception we asked Shashi Tharoor and Ashok Chavan to resign. CAG’s is an audit report; seldom is action ever taken on audit reports, unless the responsibility can be fixed. There was a public perception about the involvement of A Raja in corruption in allotting 2G licences. We convinced the DMK to make him resign. We also initiated the CBI probe into 2G before the Opposition raised its demand for a JPC. We initiated enquiry into the CWG allegations as soon as the Games were over.
It is the BJP that conveniently shuts its eyes to the corruption charges against their Karnataka chief minister, against Sudhanshu Mittal in the CWG, and also on one of the major players in the 2G scam during the NDA regime. His proximity to Pramod Mahajan was well known.
Do you think it’s time for a people’s revolution to build pressure against corruption?
Yes I agree. In a democracy it is the people who ultimately matter and therefore any people’s movement against corruption would be most welcome. The Right to Information Act and stringent action against all those who have amassed wealth disproportionate to their known sources of income would go a long way.
Politicians must declare their assets and bring it into public domain. Why don’t we bring the assets of bureaucrats, judges and now even captains of the media into the public domain? I also think the Lokpal Bill must be brought to Parliament. We could also look at the draft Bill prepared by some of the Civil Society activists.
To round off, how do you see the party in light of its 125 years?
Half that period was the Freedom Movement. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had a vision that he put in action in the first few years of Independent India. We went for non-alignment, we went for a mixed economy; there were people who criticised him for these. But now, after 63 years, we see that the mixed economy saved us from the economic recession.
Between 1967 and 1990, we saw other parties coming to power. After 1990 emerged regional parties and a backward caste leadership. In north India, particularly in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, we failed to realise the social change in the political milieu, because of which we had to suffer. At the same time, the Babri Masjid demolition was a definite setback to this party’s secular character. We are one party that has never compromised to fundamentalism, Muslim or Hindu. Whenever there is a communal riot, the first party to suffer is the Congress; the communal parties gain from riots. If you see the biggest beneficiary of the Babri Masjid demolition, it was the BJP on one side and the Samajawadi Party on the other.
Therefore, the first political challenge today is to see that social fabric of India’s polity is maintained. The second is to ensure the GDP growth, which has really resulted in huge revenue for the government of India. We have to ensure that the gap between the poor and the rich is bridged. The biggest political challenge is to ensure the emergence of the Congress party in Hindi- speaking states to fight regional, communal and casteist parties at all levels.