(EXCLUSIVE) Rahul Gandhi Interview: Election Commission, EVMs, Priyanka Effect, Rafale and Modi’s mangoes

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From being dubbed as a reluctant politician to becoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biggest nemesis, Congress President Rahul Gandhi has indeed come a long way. From being accused of not being serious about politics, he’s now seen launching repeated and sustained attacks on Modi, often daring him to debate with him. Despite being hailed as a great orator, Modi is yet to accept his challenge.

Photo: Janta Ka Reporter

The last phase of this year’s Lok Sabha elections will take place on 19 May with the counting scheduled for 23 May. Janta Ka Reporter’s editor-in-chief Rifat Jawaid joined Rahul Gandhi on his campaign trail on Thursday, a day before the campaigning for this year’s parliamentary polls came to an end, and spoke to him about a host of issues.

CAMPAIGN & DISCOURSE

How has the campaigning been? Are you relieved that this has finally come to an end?

It has been a very good campaign. It’s easy to campaign against Mr Narendra Modi, because he tells so many lies that he gives you multiple options. You can attack him on jobs, on corruption, on agriculture, on the economy and so many other issues. We’ve been campaigning for over 90 days now. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I must say, that it wasn’t in the least tiring. I learnt quite a lot, I had a nice time. I think I’m proud of the campaign the Congress party ran, we did a decent job, a solid job. But work continues.

Can it be unnerving as well because of the low political discourse that we saw in the last few weeks as your rivals attacked your father and your mother?

I’m okay. I don’t really mind if people want to attack my father, my mother or even my grandmother and my great grandfather.  That’s their prerogative, I don’t do it. When you can’t fight in the present, you’ve got to fight in the past. We are trying to fight in the present and about India’s future; we’re talking about NYAY, about rebuilding the Indian economy, about the challenges that the country is faced with, as far as unemployment is concerned, and Mr Narendra Modi is talking about eating mangoes. At the end of the election, we now know how he eats a mango by climbing up on a tree and how it tastes better when you pluck it directly from the tree. He’s even told us why he wears half sleeve kurtas and why he cut them. That’s all he’s got left. He’s talking about clouds, mangoes and kurtas.

Photo: Janta Ka Reporter

And digital cameras….

Yes, digital cameras, I’m surprised he didn’t say that he invented them, and that he only used one. In his next interaction, he’ll probably say he was the brain behind the digital camera and the internet.

Coming back to my earlier question, it’s human nature that if someone is launching a sustained personal attack…

No, it’s not human nature. It’s not human nature at all. Human nature is to control the mind. If you do that, you’ll realise the futility of spreading hatred, you’ll realise the futility of responding to hatred with hatred. I can’t defeat Mr Narendra Modi on hatred, he’s going to beat me every time. I don’t hate people. So even if I turn around and talk hatefully about Mr Narendra Modi, it’s a lie. So, it’s not human nature. I can’t fight Mr Narendra Modi on hatred, because I feel no hatred towards him.

You said that this year’s election campaign took a new low and that it must have been challenging for me, but it’s not. Because when someone throws hatred at you, if you learn to put it down, there’s no challenge. It’s easy. Everybody has his way of looking at the world. The PM knows that he’s losing, he’s panicked and worried. In fact, I have compassion for that.

You have compassion for him? What do you mean?

Yes, I feel bad that somebody who was given such a big mandate couldn’t really deliver. If Mr Narendra Modi had delivered on education and jobs, and on agriculture and the economy, it would have been a completely different campaign. But Mr Narendra Modi hasn’t delivered so he now has to talk about other stuff. Like mangoes. It shows me that he’s in panic. It shows me that he’s not in touch with what’s going on. It shows me that he knows he’s going to be losing the elections.

There’s a great amount of negativity in society today because of the politics of hate that we’ve seen in the last five years. If you come to power, how do you plan to undo this?

It’ll happen much quicker than you think. Because a large amount of the hate is actually being driven by the top. You’ll see that the moment the government changes, the moment a UPA government comes, there will be a dramatic reduction in hate. Almost naturally.

Photo: Janta Ka Reporter

The reason I’m saying this, is because I’ve come across data that says that in 2010 there were only 3 Indians who renounced their citizenship. This number was 290 between 2010 to 2018. But in 2018 alone, 207 Indians gave up their citizenship. What does it say about the living condition in India?

That doesn’t include the people who are leaving India. You’re talking about citizens, but there are thousands and thousands of people who believed in India, who are now leaving to live and work abroad because the’re loosing confidence and hope in India. The blame for that is at Mr Modi’s door. 

I must ask you about Amethi. Your rival Smriti Irani has been repeatedly attacking you. Why have you chosen to ignore her? Is it that you don’t think that she is worthy of  a response? Because in 2014, when Priyanka was asked about her, she had said ‘Smriti who?’ 

It’s not a question of worthiness. I have a direct relationship with the people of Amethi. It’s a long relationship, they know what I’ve done for them, they understand what I’m involved in, and the fight that I’m putting up against Mr Narendra Modi. So, as far as I’m concerned, my election is about my relationship with the people of Amethi. What’s it got to do with Smriti Irani? Smriti Irani can make her case, she’s welcome to do that. I’m not going to stop her from making her case.

PRIYANKA EFFECT

Has the Priyanka effect worked in this election?

(Smiles) You’ll have to ask her that.

Photo: Janta Ka Reporter

…but what do you think?

She and Mr (Jyotiraditya) Scindia have made a big difference. Their primary goal is to help us win the Vidhan Sabha elections for the Congress (in 2022), to defend and spread the Congress ideology and to defeat the BJP. We’re expecting decent results in this Lok Sabha election as well, but the real goal is the next Vidhan Sabha (assembly polls).

In hindsight do you not think she should have been brought in earlier? And not in March of this year?

No, I’d spoken to my sister and we’d agreed that till her children were at home, and going to school, she wouldn’t be involved in politics. She wasn’t able to do it. I did ask her a couple of times and then I thought it was unfair of me to pressurise her and possibly make life difficult for her children.

That video of you bumping into her in Kanpur went viral. It was a sweet moment of brother-sister camaraderie. How often did you interact and exchange notes with your sister while on the campaign trail?

All the time, and we don’t actually have to bump into each other. We carry each other in our hearts. So we’ve been through a lot together and we love each other. And we’re very similar in many ways.

She’s very protective of you and we’ve come to know that.

I don’t think so.

She’s made it clear, in Wayanad, when she said ‘please look after my brother.’

(Smiles) Well I suppose you could say that we’re both protective of one another.

ELECTION COMMISSION AND EVMs

Let’s talk about the Election Commission. There has been a question mark on the conduct and functioning of the EC. Bengal is a classic example. We have seen various other instances, with Modi getting clean chits on almost 7 occasions. How do you view that?

All institutions are under systematic attack. The media is under attack, the Supreme Court is under attack, you had 4 judges coming out and saying they weren’t being allowed to work. It’s pretty clear that the EC is under pressure, it’s clear that the whole schedule was made keeping in mind Mr Narendra Modi’s preferences. You can see what’s going on in Bengal. You can see the pressure being put on every institution by Mr Modi and the fear people are under.

But that’s going to be a huge challenge if you come to power, because if institutions are being bulldozed the way they are, rebuilding wouldn’t be easy. Would it?

No, it’s not rebuilding. Its releasing the pressure that is currently on the institutions. Of course there will have to be some work that needs to be done, but a huge impact is just fear of the PM and his cronies. No Congress PM has ever made institutions afraid.

On Wednesday night, during West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s extraordinary press conference, she said that RSS men had infiltrated the EC. How do you react to that?

I think there’s some truth in what she’s saying. I think RSS men have systematically penetrated pretty much in every Indian institution.

On Bengal, crisis we’ve had reactions from Mayawati, from Akhilesh. But no reaction from you. Would you like to react now?

No, my reaction is very clear. I just told you. I think what’s happening in Bengal is absolutely wrong. I think the EC is not being fair. For instance, Mr Narendra Modi is allowed to campaign and after his rally, there’s a ban on campaigning? That’s just unfair. 

You think it will make a difference?

No, I don’t think it’s going to make a difference. Mr Narendra Modi is not going to win the election. He’s going to be decimated. He’s certainly not going to win seats in Bengal. So it doesn’t matter. These are like the last gasps. It doesn’t matter. It’s okay, we’ll take care of it.

What do you think about the EVM controversy? Should India not return to ballot papers given the malfunctioning and other complaints in the ongoing elections?

I think this is a conversation the people of India are going to have to have sooner than later. There can be no doubt about whether or not elections are free and fair. Elections are the cornerstone of any democracy and there should be zero doubts about the process and the results they throw up. At present there are serious concerns that haven’t been addressed. Across India, there are reports of thousands of EVM’s malfunctioning. EVM’s have been reported missing in transit! Trucks carrying EVM’s are showing up in strong rooms sometimes more than 24 hrs after polling is complete. What’s going on? I’m sure this will be one of the major issues debated and a consensus arrived at between all political parties, in the new Lok Sabha.

RAFALE

Let’s talk about Rafale, a story that we broke in 2017. You based your election slogan Chowkidar Chor Hai on this story.                                                       

It’s an open and shut case. There’s no question that Mr Narendra Modi and Mr Anil Ambani have stolen money in the RAFALE deal. There’s no question about it. It’s absolutely clear. Thrice Mr Parrikar denied knowledge of the new deal. The French President said it was Mr Modi who told him to give the contract to Mr Anil Ambani. What more do you want? And the entire Indian media is silent? No one has the guts to ask any questions? On RAFALE, with a few exceptions, the Indian media has embarrassed itself.

And Mr Hollande repeated it when he went to Canada when he was asked the same question there. It’s clear. And it’s amazing and shocking to me how the Indian media reacted to RAFALE. It’s unbelievable. I pushed it and pushed it and pushed it, but I’ll tell you, there was massive resistance from the media. And I’m glad that you were not scared, and that you put the story out.

So what will you do if you come to power? Will the deal be there?

The law will take its course. This is not a complicated case. All procedures have been broken, the defence ministry themselves, have put it in black and white, that the PM is directly negotiating with France, bypassing them. This is black and white, it’s pretty straightforward.

Would you like to bring back terms and conditions that were discussed with Dassault Aviation during the UPA regime? 

It’s not for me to say right now. I don’t have the information. What I do know is that it appears that corruption has taken place in Rafale and it must be investigated. I’ve asked the PM many times that you talk about corruption, come and debate with me, anywhere you want. Any time, any place, and I’ve said it 30-40 times. He doesn’t have the guts, because he knows that the moment he comes, and debates Rafale with me, that’s the end of Mr Narendra Modi.

There’s palpable fear among minorities and Dalits. What steps would you take to instill confidence in them if you come to power?

The first thing that needs to be understood is that Mr Modi manufactures a lot of that stuff. So, this is not inherent in India, this is created by the political machine of the BJP and the RSS. We’re going to defeat them in the election, and that’ll be the first step. Everybody in India will see that Mr Narendra Modi has been put in his place, not just by the Congress party, but by the people of India. Because of how he has treated India in the last 5 years. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, what community you belong to, what language you speak or what state you come from, if you’re an Indian, you’re the same, and you’re going to be treated as such.

CONGRESS’ TARGET

So the BJP says it’s targeting 300 plus. What’s your target?

300 plus what? You mean booths? (Laughs)

Seats! Lok Sabha seats

I don’t have such targets. My target is to express the voice of the Indian people, my target is to listen to them carefully, to try and understand what they want and to help them get what they want, and achieve what they like. I depend on the will of the Indian people. What they decide on the 23rd, I will respect.

You talk about how you’ve learnt and evolved as a person in this campaign. Do you see yourself as an improved leader?

That’s for other people to say. That’s not for me to say. What I do notice is that I am constantly changing and evolving. Whether I’m evolving in a good way, is for the people of India and yourself to say, not me. I try to listen, learn and understand. I would say that that I observe and listen much more carefully now than I used to, and the credit of that, can squarely be given to the people of India, and press people like you.

How often have you been able to speak about the elections with your mother, also an ex Congress President?

I try to chat with both my mother and my sister everyday.

About the elections?

No no, just hello, how are you. What’s going on? Stuff like that. 

Does she inquire about your movements, your rallies, how they went?

Yeah, she wonders where I am. She worries about my safety. She’s mainly worried about the planes and the helicopters and stuff like that.

So Modi has also started giving off the cuff interviews during election rallies. What do you make of them?

I mean, that’s a good decision that he made. It’s nice to see political leaders engaging with the crowd. I normally do it, it’s good that Mr Narendra Modi is also doing it now. But, I don’t really spend my time watching too many of his interviews. I found that mango statement to be bizarre. That we’re sitting in an election, and having a discussion on jobs, education, healthcare, violence, everything under the sun, the future of the country! And while we’re discussing the future of the country, the PM is telling the country how he eats mangoes? I thought it was just bizarre. That’s the day I realised we’ve won the election and it’s over.

Last question, you spoke about the media. Does it need regulation? What steps would your government take if you were to come to power after 23 May? 

We’ll have to have a conversation with our friends in the media. I don’t believe in suppressing the voice of the media or crushing their voice. I think that you are a very important pillar in this country, and any modern democracy requires a free media. But I think there are things that we can improve, and I would do that through a conversation.

 

 

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