Ahead of 2019, there is hope but little time left, says veteran Congress leader Salman Khurshid
In an exclusive interview to The Sunday Standard, Salman Khurshid also spoke of the party’s debacle in Uttar Pradesh, and its position on the law punishing instant triple talaq among Muslims.
Veteran Congressman Salman Khurshid says Rahul Gandhi has taken charge of the party at a very difficult time, and that outgoing president Sonia Gandhi’s ‘clarion call’ at the party’s 84th plenary session to defeat the BJP would require a lot introspection and hard work.
While alliances with like-minded Opposition parties were being considered, he said this was a touchy subject with several Congressmen insisting that the party should go it alone in the 2019 parliamentary elections.
In an exclusive interview to The Sunday Standard, Khurshid also spoke of the party’s debacle in Uttar Pradesh, and its position on the law punishing instant triple talaq among Muslims.
According to him, the biggest challenge faced by the party was the counter narratives and confusion being fomented by the BJP among different communities in the country.
On a more positive note, he said his party was vindicated after the courts absolved those accused in the 2G scam, and said that the people would soon see through the false promises of the BJP.
The Congress faces many challenges ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, but has an opportunity to work with like-minded parties in removing the BJP from power, former union minister and senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid tells The Sunday Standard in an exclusive interview.
The Congress is holding its 84th plenary session, in which Rahul Gandhi formally replaced his mother Sonia Gandhi as party chief. How significant is this transition?
In the life of any organisation or a country there are moments when transition happens, when change takes place from one generation to another. We have a new leader facing very tough circumstances. Within a year we need to sprint towards fundamental change and work on removal of BJP. We have to see how he will play it out. Today a clarion call was given by Sonia Gandhi to defeat the BJP in 2019 polls. It was very moving to see the large crowd applaud her.
You spoke of the challenges. What are the three specific issues that Rahul should address?
Well the biggest challenge is the confusion spread by BJP among different communities, about the Congress, the place of India in the world and the counter narratives to the thoughts that emerged from the freedom struggle. There is an effort to impose a contrary narrative in the country today by the BJP. Then there are other bread and butter issues like providing food, jobs, security to the people and ensuring a good life for the aspirational class aged below 35. We have to do more to convince them and to say that we have clear plans. How much would be possible only time will tell.
Rahul keeps attacking Prime Minister Modi over his divisive politics. How does the Congress plan to counter it?
Well, he has tried to paint us in a dark colour but we believe the Congress is a secular and liberal party and does not distinguish between people based on their caste or creed. This could lead to great difficulty as we look at strategies to counter them. We must connect with the people and do that extra bit for the weak. We need to help them find a place in society.
How would you respond to remarks that the Congress lacked a cohesive response to the PM’s attempts to reach out to Muslim voters through the controversial law punishing instant triple talaq?
I agree they were trying to force us into an unnatural position on instant triple talaq. But let me assert that it is non-existent as per a Supreme Court order and has no legal implications. What sense does it make then to punish triple talaq? It is against the idea of punishment. Yes, in the beginning we had a problem on how to respond to the BJP on the issue. We could not articulate an effective position. We should look at whether it has anything better for Muslim women but see if it is better for all women who are deserted by their husbands. Certainly we can make a law for it, but it has to be a civil law, however tough, and not a criminal law.
Would corruption be a big poll plank as it was in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections?
Well, people can see the truth. Courts are acquitting those accused of corruption, and people will understand there were not enough reasons to level charges against us like the 2G spectrum case. We have to learn from the past and not get bullied by any allegations. At the same time we should not level false charges against our rivals, but do our homework. Corruption involves something which is morally wrong and legally wrong. Someone in government needs to be judged on both counts.
The Congress is trying to stitch together an alliance to defeat PM Modi in 2019 polls. What are the challenges involved?
Well, what Sonia Gandhi said in her speech was a guarded statement. She mentioned past experiments without affirming an alliance. At present there are many signals that are good and many that are not good. But the basic signal is that we should give alliances a chance as it would sound the death knell for the BJP. Any failure to do so might give them a chance to survive. However I must say that alliance is a delicate issue and will be handled accordingly by our leadership. Soniaji’s recent dinner for opposition parties was a forward step.
But how does the party plan to deal with sections within the Congress which keep harping on the go alone line?
I agree there has always been a small segment in the party that feels that way, especially in the states. But we need to look at the larger perspective. The leadership will take a decision in due course.
You are a former UP unit chief. Why is the Congress still struggling in that key state?
UP is a complicated case. We contend with two regional parties SP and BSP and both are strong there. But we did well in 2009 winning 22 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats getting our highest vote share of 14 percent. Even in 2014, though we got just two seats, the SP got 5 and the BSP zero. The difference between us in terms of seats was narrow but significant in terms of vote share. However, when we talk of alliances all of us will have to keep in mind that the two regional parties hardly have a presence outside UP while the Congress, even at its worst, has a much wider presence across the country. We need to prioritise the gains step by step. I admit a lot of things have gone wrong in UP for us. We experimented with pacts but could not succeed in getting more assembly seats. Somewhere down the line we lost faith and confidence to go along the path we should have. Ahead of 2019, there is hope but not much time. It is like trying to finish a job of 10 years in one year.
Any thoughts why the BJP has managed to get voter support and expand across states in the past four years?
I would say it is patchy. The BJP registered a grand win in UP in 2017 but that does not count now. They almost lost the Gujarat polls, and need to watch Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. They are also facing problems with their allies. They barely have the numbers today. There is great disenchantment within the party, it is suffering from fatal flaws and that does not bode well for them.
In 2014 Modi influenced the first time voters. Would Rahul be able to turn the tables in 2019?
What more can we do? There are a lot of younger leaders in the states and in the AICC and they are trying to reach out to the youth. I believe, as the youth realise the false promises Modi made to them, they will switch sides.