‘If you are in Punjab, Modi is omnipresent as if he is going to be chief minister of Punjab.’
‘If he is in Uttarakhand, he presents himself to be the chief minister of Uttarakhand.’
‘When he is in UP, he is touted as the chief minister of UP.’
‘There is a personality cult which is being built around a person… that he is the panacea of every democratic exercise in India, from panchayat to Parliament.’
‘Modi at some point will pay the price for trying to build a very ambitious personality cult.’
Congress National Spokesperson Manish Tewari, in his book Decoding A Decade — The Politics of Policymaking, details how the United Progressive Alliance government functioned, how it could have saved the blushes and how it was in many ways better than the present Narendra Modi government.
Tiwari spoke to Rediff.com‘s Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mumbai.
Why did you think of writing this book?
The decade from 2004 to 2014 when the UPA was running this country was a very tumultuous yet momentous decade in the contemporary history of India.
There were a number of issues around which I had written over a period of time. So I thought if we thematically put them together, even in their randomness, they would tell the story of some of the more important issues which really defined and shaped the last decade.
The UPA lost the 2014 general election owing to allegations of corruption. What issues did you want to highlight in this book?
Essentially, I have written around diverse themes ranging from fundamental reforms that needed to be carried out in our political system to the unshackling of Parliament and the politics around economic decision-making.
I also wrote about how the whole campaign that was built against the UPA around corruption and malfeasance… how it could have been better handled; how a communications strategy in the early days, when Vinod Rai (then the comptroller and auditor general) hit us with the Rs 176,000 crore 2G scam, with senior ministers speaking up would have possibly helped in correcting the perception.
I had expressed myself contemporaneously even at that point in time. Certain friends and colleagues felt that if we could actually weave this into a sort of a thematic book, we could tell a story and that is why we did it.
‘2014 actually represents a fundamental power shift from the people to corporate barons who with their control over instruments of information dissemination, television channels, private radio stations etc feel that they can not only set the agenda of the country, but also they can dictate terms to democracy.’
How can the Congress party be revived at this point of time?
It is not that the UPA performed badly in the 10 years (it was in power). On any of the indices, be it growth — on an average we clocked 7.8 percent over 10 years despite the economic meltdown and the Eurozone crisis hitting us.
And then we built the most ambitious rights-based entitlement architecture that lifted 190 million people out of poverty.
But then we did come down from 206 to 44 MPs… so we erred somewhere.
One way of looking at is that there was fatigue.
It is what I call the blue shirt example. You know you look very good in a blue shirt and you wear it every day to work.
One day you get tired of it and then decide to wear a red shirt and walk out on the street.
What happens is that the red attracts the bull and this is exactly what has happened to India.
They have donned the red shirt and they have a bull chasing them now.
The other way is that the Congress has to find a way whereby it can become nimble in its responses.
One of the biggest challenges which established political parties face in this new media age is the nimbleness to be able to adapt to an environment in a milieu which changes rapidly.
For example, if you follow analytics on social media, you would find that by the time established political parties actually react to an issue, the discourse has already moved on to something else.
So we are way behind the learning curve in our responses. That nimbleness and flexibility is not very easy to come by when you are dealing with structures, which over a period of time develop their own bureaucracy, their decision-making processes.
So that is the fundamental challenge.
The Congress had young leaders like Milind Deora and others. Why could they not adopt social media the way the BJP has? Where has your party failed?
Again, it is a misnomer to think that somebody in their 40s or 50s is young.
You may be young going by the conventional age of politicians, but the fact is young means that you are between 18 and 28 years.
It is not only about social media. Why I chose to give you the social media example earlier was because it demonstrates how you require nimbleness to be able to change the discourse.
Today, notwithstanding the great failures of this government, the fact still remains that the agenda for the discourse is being set by the government.
That needs to change.
Thirty one months into the tenure of this government, it should be the Opposition which should be setting the agenda for the discourse in this country and hold the government accountable.
How do you rate the Narendra Modi government so far?
You evaluate any government on five benchmarks.
First is social harmony, which has absolutely gone to the dogs deliberately in the last 31 months because of an environment of hate and wanting to adjust the discourse 90 degrees to the right.
Therefore, there is latent social tension across the country.
Creative people feel that they have to self-censor themselves.
Everybody has a censor in their heads. No longer are people able to express themselves freely without fear.
India’s creative and liberal spaces have been the biggest casualty in the last 31 months.
As far as political stability is concerned you have seen the manner in which this government has dealt with Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh and even Tamil Nadu.
It is another matter that now people are saying that Sasikala has been convicted so the governor was right in waiting. The governor was wrong in waiting.
Therefore, there is a pattern whereby the office of the governor is being used and abused by the government in order to ensure that people whom they consider unfriendly are either toppled or they are not allowed to come in.
The BJP says the Congress did the same thing when it ran the country…
Between 2004 and 2014, there is not a single example they can cite on the misuse of Article 356 (President’s Rule).
Economic development has been the biggest failure of the Modi government.
In a span of 31 months, you effectively brought down the growth rate to 3.5 percent.
The IMF forecast for this year is 5.5 percent. 5.5 percent, if viewed keeping 2004-2005 as the base year actually means 3.5 percent.
Then when you come to internal security, you have seen how Kashmir went belly up.
The Naga Accord, which was the much touted swansong of this government… nobody knows what has happened to this agreement.
Similarly, left-wing extremism has started manifesting itself in a big manner. It does not get picked up on the radar of the media in that way.
And Pakistan, the Modi government has completely messed up the one fundamental foreign policy challenge that India has had for decades.
The message they have sent to the Deep State in Pakistan is that they are dealing with a bunch of amateurs in South Block and that is why the Pakistanis have been running circles around us.
In perspective, this government has failed abysmally on every count.
Prime Minister Modi is still the most popular leader in India today.
Prime Minister Modi’s popularity will be tested in 2019.
At the moment, Modi is hologramming himself into every state.
If you are in Punjab, Modi is omnipresent as if he is going to be chief minister of Punjab.
If he is in Uttarakhand, he presents himself to be the chief minister of Uttarakhand.
When he is in Uttar Pradesh, he is touted as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
I was surprised to see hoardings of Modi in Mumbai as if he is going to become the mayor of Mumbai.
Therefore, there is a personality cult which is being built around a person… that he is the panacea of every democratic exercise in India, from panchayat to Parliament, which is the complete antithesis of democracy.
And Modi at some point in time would really have to — for a lack of a better word — pay the price for trying to build a very ambitious personality cult.
Why has your party taken a secondary role in Uttar Pradesh and a similar role in Bihar?
Why does your party feel that an alliance works better rather than fighting elections on your own strength?
For the simple reason that you have to recognise the reality on the ground.
Rather than delude yourself and put your head in the sand and be like an ostrich it is much better that you recognise the reality and start building yourself from the bootstraps.
Will it help your party grow?
Oh yes! Obviously it gives you a presence in the government. It energises the cadre; it gets the party going.
Alliances (in places) where you are weak is not a bad strategy.
BJP President Amit Shah says the day you had an alliance with the Samajwadi Party you conceded defeat. What’s your take?
It means that in Punjab the BJP has been in defeat mode since 1997. (The BJP is in an alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal in the state.)
In your book you write that corporate India defeated the Congress party…
Corporate India — or the Bombay Club 2 after the Eurozone crisis — somehow came to the conclusion that the UPA would no longer serve their interest.
This is not withstanding the fact that even after the economic meltdown, the UPA delivered 9 to 9.5 percent growth when everybody else was in the negative.
Therefore, they threw all their money, muscle and media resources behind Narendra Modi.
In fact, the coup d’etat against Nitin Gadkari, when he was removed as BJP president, was also orchestrated by these very same forces.
They thought Gadkari was anathema to Modi being able to take control of the political processes of the BJP.
Modi was a project of corporate India and unfortunately for democracy the project has succeeded.
In many ways, 2014 was a watershed. It actually represents a fundamental power shift from the people to the corporate barons who because of liberalisation and globalisation, and especially with their control over instruments of information dissemination, television channels, private radio stations etc, feel that they can not only set the agenda of the country, but also they can dictate terms to democracy.
Fortunately, what has happened in the interim is that you have got the phenomena of social media which has become a great leveller whereby the discourse is no longer top down, but horizontal.
As in the case of US President Donald Trump, despite the mainstream media not being with him, he was able to triumph.
Similarly, you will find that notwithstanding corporate India’s picks and choices for India’s prime minister there will be a push back from thye people of India.
Rajiv Bajaj has criticised demonetisation. Do you think corporate India has started to feel the pinch of the downturn in the Indian economy?
Demonetisation was the stupidest thing to be done.
It is illegal, unethical and immoral… there is absolutely no justification.
It is good that some people in corporate India are finally showing some spine.
Demonetisation is illegal because under section 26 (2) of the RBI Act you can only demonetise a series. You cannot demonetise an entire denomination.
Similarly under section 24 (1) of the RBI Act, you cannot — without specifying — introduce a new number in terms of currency like the Rs 2,000 note.
Similarly without imposing a financial emergency, you cannot impose arbitrary limits on withdrawal.
Therefore, you have a situation in this country whereby an illegality has been perpetuated and that illegality has caused pain to millions of people.
It is good that at least some influential people in corporate India have started saying what is right.