`I don’t believe in caste…Cong must become a party that represents everybody...

`I don’t believe in caste…Cong must become a party that represents everybody equally’ – Rahul Gandhi

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Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is on a farmer outreach drive in UP, covering 200km a day. In between many stops at shrines and tea stalls, he spoke to TOI’s Swati Mathur about his plans for the state and his party’s chances in the upcoming polls. Excerpts…

What was the idea behind the UP Kisan Yatra?
BJP’s government hasn’t been sensitive to farm distress. Its actions over the last two and a half years show a lack of interest in even making assurances. My yatra’s aim is to send out the message that such a large section of people cannot be ignored. Much of the economic growth under UPA was because we injected money into the rural economy -partly helped by MNREGS, partly by our focus on agriculture and to an extent, by helping farmers with minimum prices. The BJP government seems not to see the link between growth figures and the rural economy. I aim to put pressure on the BJP government.It’s unfair to farmers, and you have to think of rural growth if you actually want to make the economy move.

Farm distress is a national concern. Why only UP?
I was in two minds whether to do a UP yatra, or a longer one across states. We decided to concentrate on one state. As an opposition leader my job, as I see it, is to reflect what people say. I was asked how I came up with the three promises -of a farm loan waiver, halving of power bills, and assurance of fair MSP.These are the three points the many farmers I have spoken to bring up. There is a fourth point also of farmer insurance. But these are the key needs. Modi promised these but never delivered. This yatra is actually an expression of the farmer’s voice.I am amplifying their feelings.

In a state steeped in caste politics, the question doing the rounds is if your politics is of “forwards“ or “backwards“…
A large part of UP is stuck where it is because it has never really had a “UP government“, but governments that focused on small sections. You can’t get development like that. We are in a campaign now. We’ll do different things at different stages. Right now, we’re talking about farmers -our focus to pressure the BJP to get them to do something for farmers nationally. The UP campaign runs parallel to this. I’m using the UP campaign to do work that’s UP-centric yet, national. The yatra is getting equal traction among farmers in Madhya Pradesh and other states. A Congress government in UP -and I’ll ensure this -will give adequate representation to every community. That is what the Congress stands for.

The state leadership has a loud Brahmin-centric campaign. It’s also on the vine that Brahmins will be given 100 tickets.
First, the farmer campaign has nothing to do with caste. Second, when we give tickets, we’ll see how and who we give them to. My view is tickets be given out such that it is representative of all communities. That’s what I’m going to ensure. I’ll also ensure the Congress sends a clear message to each segment in UP what we plan to deliver in 5 years.

There are posters of you in Mathura playing up your image as `Pandit’ Rahul Gandhi.
(Laughs) We’re not a dictatorial organisation. We are a decentralised party. We don’t have one single gentleman deciding every day how everyone will work. We don’t believe in that, we don’t want that. People have different opinions. I can’t control every poster that goes up.

Do you endorse the Brahmin narrative of the UP campaign?
I don’t believe in caste, nor endorse any of that. UP needs to get out of this morass. The only way to do that is to become a party that represents everybody equally. My view is the Congress is a party for all.

Isn’t that the view that counts?
(Laughs) It’s not necessarily the only view that counts, but yes it carries a little bit of weight. If the weaker section and the poor can believe that the Congress is going to transform their lives, they’ll support the Congress. That is what counts. If the Congress can convince UP’s people of this, then the Congress will do well. I’ve no doubt that the Congress can transform UP .

How can Congress achieve this?
Many of UP’s problems are fallout of divisive politics. This road we are on (a bumpy stretch connecting Rath and Hamirpur) is so because of divisive politics.It’s the same story with roads, mining, health, and education.What’s been happening in UP for 27 years is blatant robbery.

What’s your vision for UP?
There is severe centralisation of power in Uttar Pradesh. Without decentralizing, nothing will happen. In the last 27 years, UP has either been run by one person or by four people. That’s no way to run a state. You’re going to have to distribute power to MLAs, to pradhans, and to the people. We have to move away from the idea of extracting from UP to the idea of building UP. There has to be proper strategy for roads, education, healthcare -we cannot just view these things as money-mak ing initiatives.

The Akhilesh Yadav government has worked in at least some of these areas.
I am an MP from UP. I don’t think so. Just look at these roads.Roads that are in good shape are mostly the national highways.

So you’re crediting Modi’s government?
No, I’m crediting the UPA government for building them over the last 10 years.

BJP plans to make PM Modi its face in the UP polls. Is this a leadership crisis in the party?
Modiji is now the Supreme Leader of BJP. No one else counts. Anyone else who may have mattered is terrified and doesn’t say a word.

“Hindutva“ may be the BJP campaign’s centrepiece. What will Congress’s counter be?
The BJP will provoke pre-poll violence in UP. The BJP-RSS combine can dish out nothing but violence and hate. They’ll play the communal card as soon as they get a chance. Our hope is that people of UP will have the wisdom to choose well, and not fall for attempts at pitting one community against the other.

What is Prashant Kishor’s role in the campaign? There’s talk Congress has outsourced its strategising too.
The Uttar Pradesh campaign strategy is drawn up by Congress leaders. Prashant Kishor’s role is to operationalise campaigns, its logistics. There’s confusion in the press -they use the word `strategist’.

Will Kishor have a hand in ticket distribution?
Congress has a clear way of distributing tickets. The party organisation distributes tickets.That’s clear. Prashant puts together the campaign and manages some logistics. Rest is done by Congress workers: the running around, organising and meeting people. It’s a joint effort.

What’s your assessment of the yatra and its impact on where the Congress stands?
(Smiles) I like it. I’m learning as I travel. I don’t assess or predict. But the yatra has certainly placed the Congress back in people’s minds. UP is also readying for a shift in its politics. I think the Congress has opportunity here.

In the season of gathbandhans, what’s the likelihood of Congress allying with Mayawati?
I don’t see that happening. The Congress has to build itself in UP.The Congress is the natural party of UP. We have to get our act together. I think we can do very well. We are coming to a point -in six months or a year -where Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav will both be unsaleable.

Uttar Pradesh is going to search for a new paradigm. That is where the Congress has a huge opportunity. It can take the opportunity or it can lose it; but it has the opportunity. It also means a lot of work needs to be done in the Congress, organisationally and otherwise. But it has the elements required for it to work. Elaborate on that.
People are beginning to realise that in what’s happened here in the past 27 years, very few people benefitted. For instance, on the state of mining in UP, income generated from all of UP’s natural wealth is going into the hands of about seven or eight individuals.People see that. They yearn for something new. The Congress has the ability, better than anyone else, to put together the idea of how one would transform the state. There are a number of people in UP who don’t see a clear trajectory out of the mess they’re in in -they look to the Congress to bail them out.

The Congress would want a tieup with BSP if it wants to gain ground in UP.
Congress’s best option would be to set the agenda, and be clear about what it wants to do, and have a clear vision for UP . This is the best case scenario. I’m confident that the Congress will come back to power in UP .

Is your promise of a loan waiver sustainable?
You cannot ignore the cyclical nature of agriculture, nor the farmer who suffered crop loss.You have to respond to it. That’s what the Modi government is not doing. Agriculture in India is screaming for help. They’ve suspended farm bonus, they’re not giving them the right price for their produce, and they’ve done nothing to raise farm incomes.They need to come up with a strategy . Our suggestion is to raise the minimum support prices, and to give farmers a loan waiver. If BJP has a better strategy, they should come up with it. But they haven’t in the last two and a half years.
There is a view that farm credit and loan waivers create a bad habit among farmers. It can also play havoc with the banks.
If BJP is saying our idea of a loan waiver is a bad habit, then the Rs 1.10 lakh crore waiver for a handful of industrialists is a bad habit too. Our aim is to pressure Modiji into accepting that if he must help the rich, he must assist the poor too. As for the banking sector, it is up to the government to solve their problems.
We’re in the opposition. If you want us to solve those problems, put us in government. We’ve given a loan waiver once and we’ll do it again. You cannot allow agriculture to implode. Whether a farm loan waiver or MGNREGS, the UPA government ensured that the agriculture sector was given a leg up.

Will Priyanka Gandhi campaign in UP?
I would like my sister to be actively involved in politics. It is up to her to decide when and how, and if she wants to. I will be happy to have her working with me.She’s been a lot of support in the background. I trust my sister more than I trust anyone else.

Source : TOI, Image Courtesy : TOI

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