A Congress-led coalition could well come to power at the Centre after the 2019 general elections as a large section of the people is disappointed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, says senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh. In an exclusive interview with The New Sunday Express, he says demonetisation, faulty rollout of the goods and services tax regime, gross neglect of the farm crisis, rural distress and lack of job creation had contributed to the disenchantment against the Central government and would limit the BJP’s chances of returning to power. The Congress would, therefore, need to focus on forging a formidable alliance, address organisational issues and reach out to the voters. Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has been claiming the party will dethrone Prime Minister Modi in the 2019 national elections.
What is your assessment?
I wish the Congress can get 272 Lok Sabha seats, but that is highly unlikely. We will plan to get 272, but it is difficult. I feel the BJP, too, is not in a position to get 272. There could be a coalition led by either the BJP or the Congress at the Centre. Whether Congress leads the coalition will depend on the numbers.
But would Rahul become the Prime Minister of that grouping?
Rahul recently said he would be Prime Minister if the Congress has 272. In case we have around 150, we would have to sit down with the allies to decide the prime ministerial candidate. Rahul meant that if we are in a position to choose the Prime Minister, then he would be the Congress candidate. Unlike Modi, who asserted in the BJP office in September 2013 that he wanted to be the prime ministerial candidate for 2014, Rahul has not claimed so.
I feel it is too early to start speculating on who will be Prime Minister. Every party is jostling for space, but only Congress has a nationwide presence. Mamata Banerjee cannot win seats outside West Bengal and KC Rao cannot win seats outside Telangana.
Can you tell us what kind of effort the Congress is putting in to build an Opposition grouping?
The Congress led a pre-poll alliance in 2004. Congress has prepoll allies like RJD, NCP, and NC, but it could have a pact with some parties only post-poll. The BJP, in comparison, will have only two pre-poll allies, Shiv Sena and Akali Dal, but both are unhappy with the saffron party.
What are the three big failures of the Modi government that the Congress can highlight?
Neglect of the farm sector, distress in rural areas and disconnect between Modi’s claims and the reality. A very large section of India is disappointed with Modi. He has not done what he claimed. Second, he has been claiming he has done many things, but that is not the reality. Third, the style of his governance is hollow, there is a lot of ‘dramabaazi’. People have seen through it and are becoming increasingly disenchanted with him.
What about jobs?
Rahul Gandhi keeps saying it is the biggest challenge before the country… Jobs have always been a big issue and it did not start with Modi. But what we are hearing now are completely bogus claims by the government that India does not have a job problem. The numbers of jobs created being cited are based on the intellectual dishonesty of the NITI Aayog and the Prime Minister. NITI economists like Surjit Bhalla and Rajeev Kumar have given up the pretence of honesty.
You have been a strong critic of Prime Minister Modi’s economic policies. Why?
Demonetisation was a bad idea implemented terribly as only a crank economist can think of such ideas. GST was a great idea but implemented forcibly. It was inevitable, but why did Modi oppose it for two years as Gujarat chief minister when the UPA tried to pass it?
From March 2011, Yashwant Sinha, as chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on finance, took two and a half years to give its report on the GST Bill and then rejected it. Sinha also rejected the Aadhaar Bill, because of which the UPA could not provide legal backing. Modi consistently opposed GST as Gujarat chief minister. I met him in Gujarat, but he took a U-turn after becoming Prime Minister.
You had filed a plea in the Supreme Court on why the Aadhaar Bill was passed as a money Bill. In 2013, you had hailed the Aadhaar- based Direct Benefits Transfer as a game-changer. What is your take on the privacy controversy?
See, my petition in the Supreme Court is only limited to whether it was a money Bill or not. It was wrong to make it a money Bill. I moved five amendments, which were passed in the Rajya Sabha. Had they been incorporated in the Bill, they would have addressed the issues and there would have been no need for court cases. Aadhaar is a good idea for delivery of services, but the manner of its implementation is bad. Why do I need an Aadhaar for air tickets or a death certificate? The Modi government has made a mockery of Aadhaar.
I never thought I would need an Aadhaar and I did not have it till 2017. It is needed for people getting subsidies. Further, authentication of senior citizens is problematic. To be cautious, I had started DBT in phases, first in only 50 districts.
After Rahul took over as Congress chief in December, is the promised transformation in the party happening?
It is happening, not in one tsunami but in phases. Younger people are in charge of states. Rahul is conscious that he needs to take a legacy with him as people have spent careers in the party. He has to build his own team.
I think it would be 60 per cent young and 40 per cent seniors. Over time, the 60 per cent will become 70 per cent and the organisation will keep growing. For instance, Ashok Gehlot is now AICC in-charge of organisation. He has been in the NSUI, Youth Congress, was state unit chief, Union Minister and Chief Minister of Rajasthan. He is quintessentially Congress party but no longer a younger face.