Congress doesn't take credit for the blood of our soldiers, says Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi speaks to ET on a gamut of issues including the economy & being called a ‘naamdaar’.
How do you see the Congress faring midway through the election process?
I see us doing well. I see our coalition forming the government. I don’t see BJP in a position to form the government.
Your view on Masood Azhar’s blacklisting...
I think it’s a good thing. He’s a terrorist and deserves to be blacklisted. Should have happened a long time ago.
And in context of the election?
The central issue in this election is unemployment. Today, we have the highest rate of unemployment in 45 years. There’s tremendous pain across all sections of society — farmers’ distress, shopkeepers, mid-size businesses, small businesses destroyed by the twin blows of demonetisation and the Gabbar Singh Tax. Frankly, India’s strength has been eroded.
The Indian economy was built slowly but steadily since the early 1990s. I give a lot of credit to the Congress — in particular, to Manmohan Singhji — for that, but I also give credit to Mr Vajpayee, who had the wisdom to build on the policies of previous governments. Narendra Modi has broken that trend. What you see today is a loss of confidence in the Indian economy. And it’s not just in India, it’s across the world. We have become the object of ridicule.
But the Prime Minister believes India’s prestige has grown…
In his imagination and in his own little world maybe! But on the rest of the planet, everybody understands that the highest unemployment rate in 45 years isn’t something to be proud of. Everyone understands what demonetisation did to India and what GST has done to India. We are in an economic emergency right now. And the world knows this.
Will you conduct an inquiry into demonetisation if you were to come to power?
I’m not in the business of carrying out witch-hunts. But if a crime has been committed, the law will take its course. It’s pretty clear a large amount of black money got converted to white, without any penalties or taxes being paid. A bank in Gujarat where Amit Shah was a director changed Rs 700 crore in a matter of days. It’s pretty clear there was a lot of mischief going on.
And how will you implement GST as a single rate?
We’ve already done the homework. We’ve spoken to experts who are advising us. Mr Chidambaram too has been looking into this and we’re pretty confident we’ll be able to deliver a simplified GST — one tax, minimum tax — covering larger parts of the Indian economy. When GST was being hurried through by this government, we told them, ‘You’re making a mistake.’ We said, ‘Don’t view this as an event, but as a process. Test the idea, don’t unleash havoc on the Indian economy.’ They ignored us and the result has been a disaster, frankly.
So how will you deliver GST?
One way of looking at the economy is using a framework of transactions and seeing economic growth in the context of a rise in the number of transactions. Then, study the nature of those transactions. This simple fact is not understood by the Prime Minister. He views himself in the image of, in his own words, a chowkidar!
His view is to clamp down on everything. At the core of that view lies distrust. The PM thinks the entire country is dishonest and that the only honest man is Mr Modi. That’s his starting point, though he’s actually dishonest. But economics is about trust, about faith. It’s about belief. Modi’s philosophy and approach of mistrust has been disastrous for economic growth. His idea is to mistrust. Ours is to trust, to nurture.
What would the Congress do to get the economy moving?
A lot of our work, at least at the beginning of our term, is going to be repair and undo what this government has messed up. Demonetisation curtailed the number of financial transactions. On top of that, he (Modi) created complexity where there shouldn’t have been any through the badly-executed GST. Those two actions sucked money out of the system, causing the economy to jam up. This led to NPAs rising dramatically, leading to a banking crisis and the cutting off of credit, particularly to small and medium businesses.
So now, you’ve sucked money out of people’s pockets, transactions have slowed down and businesses no longer have access to credit for working capital or growth. The economic crisis we are facing is a direct consequence of the foolishness of the current government and our PM. The Congress has some solid economic thinkers on our bench and they’re telling us that we absolutely need to prime and fire up the economy, otherwise we’re going to have a problem. That is one of the central ideas behind the Nyuntam Aay Yojna (Nyay) or minimum income guarantee scheme. Our idea is that pumping money directly into the bank accounts of the poorest will help remonetise and get transactions going, thus helping jump-start the economy.
This, without affecting the fiscal deficit?
It will actually have a positive effect on the economy. You inject money into the bank accounts of five crore of our poorest families. The minute you do that, they will start to spend, which will increase demand exponentially. Increased demand will be met by increased production, resulting in a huge reduction in unemployment. What is required right now is to jump-start the economic engine, and the longer we wait, the bigger the problem we’re going to face.
We have tested our idea earlier. And the money is not going to come from the middle class. It’s our commitment that not a single rupee is going to be raised in new taxes on the middle class. Money will come from increased government efficiency, reworking of subsidies to make them more effective, better monetisation of government assets and from crony capitalists like Anil Ambani. Nyay will be fiscally prudent.
What will the initial cost be?
Estimated cost is less than 1% of the GDP in the first year, and less than 2% of GDP from the second year onwards. Once the scheme is fully implemented, it will cost approximately Rs 3.6 lakh crore. Over time, as more and more families are taken out of poverty, the cost as a proportion of GDP will decrease. We have checked and rechecked the scheme by running models and it is fiscally doable.
You say economy is about trust but your statements make corporates think you may be pro-poor but against industry...
Absolutely not. I want to be very clear; there are large numbers of Indian corporates India should be absolutely proud of and protect. These are legitimate businesses and people who have helped build India. But there are also crony capitalists like Anil Ambani, who are dishonest and who are the problem. I’m absolutely convinced India has to be developed and grown keeping in mind all stakeholders.
My point is, there should be fairness. Wherever there is pain, I will go. It does not matter who is hurting — big business, small businesses, shopkeepers, farmers. And if tomorrow I find that the honest corporates of this country are in pain, I will be the first person to defend them.
Is there a role model from history you can think of?
I’m not going to take names but there are many corporates that have made India proud. You can’t build a modern nation without corporates; so it’s an absurd idea that Rahul Gandhi doesn’t like corporates. It’s crazy. What I don’t like is Anil Ambani taking Rs 30,000 crore of defence money and getting the world’s largest defence contract despite never having built an aircraft. He can owe Rs 45,000 crore to banks, be on the verge of going to jail, and yet be given the world’s biggest defence contract. That’s what I don’t like.
What’s your approach to land acquisition?
My view is very straightforward. I want fairness and transparency. If you are fair to farmers, transparent and clear with them, you’ll make it much easier to acquire land. A clear policy will make land acquisition easier. I’m also flexible on some of these things. I think there should be a conversation between all stakeholders — farmers, corporates, NGOs and the government — saying, let’s discuss this. Let’s build national consensus. If changes are needed, let’s make them, but not in an ad hoc manner.
Some Congress governments are also saying land acquisition isn’t working…
So that’s why I’m saying, let us have a discussion. I view corporates and farmers alike as stakeholders. I actually think a partnership between farmers, corporates and small and medium businesses is the way forward. (But) a conversation is required. And the Congress wants to be the catalyst for that conversation.
Do you support reservations in the private sector? What’s your approach to that?
I’d like a discussion on this (too). I don’t do politics based on what I think. I don’t do politics like Mr Modi, who “thought” demonetisation should be done, went ahead and did it without consulting anyone.
You have been receiving several notices from the Election Commission...
It’s interesting. Comments the Prime Minister makes don’t get the same attention as comments I make. I am curious as to how that happens. The Prime Minister has made comment after comment that go against the Model Code of Conduct and nothing happens. Yet, other people have been banned for making the same comments. Obviously, there are some sort of double standards. Okay, fine. Eventually, the Indian people will see through all this.
How much is this election a battle of ideologies and about the two ideas of India?
The entire election is a battle of two opposing ideologies. What else is it? What the BJP-RSS wants is to capture all of India’s institutions and have only one institution, the RSS, oversee the others. They want a singular idea of India imposed on every Indian. What we’re saying is that India’s strength is her diversity. We believe in a billion voices and that the voice of the Indian people should control the institutions, not a political institution.
So, you will never see the Congress putting organisational people to monitor the working of ministries, unlike the RSS. You’ll never see a systematic attack on the country’s institutions by a Congress government. We would never do that. We believe India’s institutions — the judiciary, the Election Commission, education system — should be independent.
What is your approach towards Pakistan and terrorism?
My approach is very easy. Any attack on India, any terrorism in India, is going to have a heavy price that will have to be paid.
Do you think we didn’t exact the right price after 26/11?
I think we extracted a huge price. We ripped Pakistan apart. Strategically, we destroyed Pakistan’s reputation and turned it into a pariah. Everyone said Pakistan was a global supporter of terrorism. We ran a systematic campaign that brought them to their knees. And we used that campaign to bring peace to Kashmir. By the time 2014 came round, Kashmir was peaceful. We broke the back of terrorism in Kashmir and we did it because we had a strategy, which was to eliminate terrorists and embrace the people of Jammu & Kashmir.
So it’s not necessarily about conducting attacks in Pakistan...
We did multiple surgical strikes that we don’t talk about because we respect our Army. We know it is the Army that does the surgical strikes, not the Congress or anybody else. We don’t take credit for the blood of our soldiers, we leave it to them. They are owed the credit for their actions. Nobody else.
Is there a north-south divide in elections?
Absolutely. Go to Tamil Nadu; they are furious. One of the reasons I’m fighting from Kerala is because I want to send a message to the South to say, ‘You are India too. And your voice is as important.’ They feel the RSS out of Nagpur is trying to crush the south Indian way of life.
Why did Priyanka Gandhi not contest against the Prime Minister?
There was never a plan for Priyanka to contest from Varanasi. I was very clear, I said it in an interview. They asked if she was going to contest and I said ‘wait and see. I’ll keep you in suspense.’ But our decision was very clear.
Word is that you’re very protective about your sister...
No, no, I’m not protective.
Is your alliance plan starting to collapse?
Where are you getting this idea from? Has it collapsed in Tamil Nadu? In Maharashtra? Bihar? Jharkhand? Jammu & Kashmir?
What about Uttar Pradesh?
In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party decided that they wanted to fight the election on their own. No problem. A vast majority of the seats, I guarantee you, are going to be won by secular parties — either SP, BSP or Congress. Yes, there is no alliance between these three parties, but there will be a secular outcome in Uttar Pradesh.
But in Barabanki, you said the SP-BSP has a history of going back to the BJP?
No, I didn’t say that. You are twisting my words. What I said was, ‘Please take a look at who is fighting Narendra Modi. It’s the Congress.’ Narendra Modi has no leverage on me and I am not scared of him.
But are they scared of him?
What’s your view on Chinese goods flooding Indian markets?
I am very confident India can challenge China in manufacturing — not the large scale massive type that China does, but the modern 21st century type of manufacturing, which will be smaller high-tech units. If we lay the groundwork properly, we will become a competitor to China. There are serious problems with the Chinese model. But we are losing the opportunity because we are not being strategic. The Prime Minister is into event management; he doesn’t understand strategy. You’re not going to compete with the Chinese on manufacturing without a strategy.
Will Aadhaar be the basis of subsidy transfer for your government as well?
We view the instrument (Aadhaar) as something that liberates India, that helps India flower. The Prime Minister views Aadhaar as something that allows him to see what people are doing, what they are saying, what they’re spending, what are they buying. We are against that aspect of Aadhaar. We want it to be an instrument of the Indian people, but we don’t want it to become a weapon of surveillance.
What about great wealth from Indian data?
Again, we have no strategy on data. India is to data is what Saudi Arabia is to oil.
Has the Congress thought about it?
We have spent a lot of time thinking about it. Just healthcare data on its own is enough to transform this country. If we understand how to use it, we can make India the healthcare centre of the world. The nature and history of our population give us massive advantages. I think the next government should make two to three strategic bets like the ones we made earlier with computer and telecom revolutions — maybe one in healthcare, maybe another in aviation and a third in agriculture.
On one hand, you say you have no anger against Prime Minister Modi and yet you say ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai?’
‘Chowkidar chor hai’ is a fact. The fact is that Anil Ambani has been given Rs 30,000 crore with absolutely no procedures followed. Defence ministry bureaucrats are saying a parallel negotiation was going on. The former French President is saying he was told that Anil Ambani should get the contract. What else do you want me to call him? Find a more polite word for ‘thief,’ I’ll use it. Chowkidar chor hai.
How will new jobs be created?
There are two axes on which jobs need to be created. The first is the government sector. In our manifesto, we are committed to filling 24 lakh government vacancies in a year. The cash injection into our economy through Nyay will also result in creation of a large number of jobs. The second axis is the private sector. India is actually the skill capital of the world. We need to identify these skills at a local level and then link them to the Indian and global economies.
How do you respond to the PM’s ‘naamdar versus kaamdar’ construct?
That’s a very simplistic division. Members of my family have been in politics but their experience is not my experience. My experience has been of tremendous battles, of violence. I’ve seen my father and grandmother killed, elections lost, elections won. How can anyone’s experiences be described in a single word? Instead, understand me for what I am. Listen to me carefully and judge me for what I am. If you still think you can describe a person using a single word, fine, I’ll accept that too.
What will you do if a post-poll scenario calls for a Congress- supported government instead of a Congress-led one?
I’m not thinking of that right now. Our job just now is to defeat the BJP. Everything else will come after May 23.