Congress president Rahul Gandhi talked to Raj Chengappa, Group Editorial Director, India Today group, in an exclusive interiew about his plans to jump-start the economy, raise demand, and, in turn, create jobs. The Gandhi family scion expressed confidence that his party would come to power in the 2019 Lok Sabha election to act on his plans.
Below is India Today's exclusive interview with Rahul Gandhi:
Q. Is Election 2019 a battle between NYAY and nationalism?
A. No! 2019 is being fought on three or four different axes. One axis is that we are faced with an unemployment crisis: across the country, youngsters are just not getting jobs. The second is agriculture: Mr Narendra Modi's policies have destroyed agriculture. The third is that the economy is not firing the way it should: transactions are not taking place, the steady economic growth we had seen in the UPA years has fizzled out. Of the other two axes, one is clear-cut massive corruption by Mr Modi in Rafale and the second is the attempt to attack India's institutions the Supreme Court, the Election Commission, the Planning Commissionin a bid to shape politics in Mr Modi's favour.
Q. But the BJP and Modi have projected the election as a debate on security, nationalism and patriotism.
A. Mr Modi uses national security to divert attention from the big issues India confronts. India's youth are unemployed and can't see a future for themselves. That's a huge national issue. Why doesn't the PM speak about his record on unemployment in his speeches? Are mass farmer suicides not a major national issue? Of course, they are. So why doesn't the PM say, I committed to you that I would give 2 crore jobs, but I failed. I committed that I would put Rs 15 lakh in every bank account, I failed. I committed that agriculture would be given full priority, I failed. These are the real national issues. Why doesn't he speak on these issues?
Q. What about the security issues the BJP is referring to as real threats to the nation?
A. The biggest threat to the nation is that what worked for India in the 1990s doesn't work anymore. And Mr Modi refuses to accept it. We accepted it. Our policies worked till about 2012. They began to falter in the last two years of the UPA. Mr Modi is doing what we were trying to do between 2012 and 2014, and he has added to it completely insane ideas like demonetisation! So you have an economy that isn't firing and suddenly the PM decides to entirely decimate Indian business. Ask any Indian businessman what the Gabbar Singh Tax' and demonetisation have done to him. Large businessmen, small businessmen, ask anyone. Ask a farmer, ask anybody. Where did Mr Modi get the idea that destroying Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes would be beneficial to the country? It boggles the mind. So, absolutely, there are threats to the economy. But Pakistan's support of terrorism is something that we will fight 100 per cent and make sure it isn't allowed to get away with supporting terror in our country. But I also want the PM to answer how 45 CRPF men died. I understand that Pakistan wants to carry out terror attacks, but is the PM not responsible for protecting Indian soldiers? Why doesn't he come on national TV and say, I failed to protect our CRPF men?
Q. He says that he has conducted two surgical strikes in his tenure.
A. Very good. Manmohan Singhji carried out three surgical strikes but we didn't tell the world. The reason is we did not want to politicise the armed forces, take advantage of what our soldiers did. It's their doing, we respect them, salute them and honour them. We don't dishonour them by politicising them.
Q. But what was the outcome of those three strikes?
A. I won't talk about what happened. But the targets that were supposed to be hit were hit successfully.
Q. The other thing the BJP keeps citing is 2008 when the Mumbai terror attacks took place and the then UPA government did not retaliate.
A. The truth is we completely neutralised Pakistan and did it strategically. We carried out an international campaign to isolate Pakistan on the Jammu and Kashmir issue. We did what we had to do, without politicising it.
Q. The current government has adopted an iron-fist approach in Kashmir. Do you think it is working?
A. The current government has no strategy on Jammu & Kashmir other than leveraging the troubles in the region for political gain in other parts of India. Terrorism restarted when Mr Modi opportunistically allied with the PDP. I remember speaking to Mr Arun Jaitley about this when he had come to see me. I said, Mr Jaitley, do you realise what you are doing in Jammu & Kashmir? It's going to burn.' Mr Jaitley said to me, No, Kashmir is peaceful, nothing is going to happen there.' The truth is, Mr Modi's alliance with the PDP opened the floodgates for terrorism in J&K.
Q. And how would you handle Kashmir?
A. When the UPA was in power, we had a well-thought-out strategy in Jammu & Kashmir. This was something I had a role in shaping, and we spent years working on it. We did panchayat elections; we took big Indian businessmen like Mr Tata to Jammu & Kashmir to show the youth of the region a new vision and help them find jobs. We linked thousands of women to the banking system through self-help groups. These steps helped us break the back of terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir. When we came to power in 2004, Kashmir was on fire. When we left, Kashmir was peaceful. I remember 50 flights a day bringing tourists to Srinagar. So, please look at our record and strategy, which is not only to crush terrorism but also to engage with the people of Jammu & Kashmir, to show them that there is a different vision and it's a much better one. It's the Indian vision and it's successful. It's bringing millions of people out of poverty. Embrace this vision, it is your future.
Q. The BJP sees the removal of Articles 370 and 35A as a solution to Kashmir. What's your opinion?
A. I'm not going to engage with this. I'm saying, very simply, that we are fighting a national election, and as far as I can see, a national election is about the future of the country. And the big issues in this country are the highest rate of unemployment in 45 years, the complete destruction of the informal sector, the wiping out of small and medium businesses, the destruction of agriculture, the destruction of the economy and an attack on all our institutions.
Q. What do you make of Mr Modi's foreign policy?
A. Mr Modi doesn't have a foreign policy! He appears to act on his whims on a daily basis. For instance, he visits Afghanistan and then suddenly decides to fly from there to Pakistan. He doesn't even understand that by flying from Afghanistan to Pakistan, he is sending a negative message to the people of Afghanistan, and his actions have upset the Afghan government. He doesn't even have basic knowledge of foreign policy. In fact, he thinks foreign policy is about hugging as many world leaders as he can!
Q. You also hugged Mr Narendra Modi.
A. He's not a foreign leader.
Q. So what's the difference between hugging Narendra Modi and another foreign leader?
A. My hug had love in it.
Q. How can you say his hug didn't have love in it?
A. I can see, I can tell. His hugs are opportunistic. I saw a PM who was in over his head. I saw a PM who realised running a country is not like running a state. And that he was trapped. And he was making mistake after mistake. And he was angry at me, shouting at me. And I felt compassion and love for him. I said I am going to hug you. So I embraced him. My message to him was, listen, I'm your opponent, but in India's interest, I'm ready to help. I reached out, but he told me to move aside.
Q. He criticised you after the hug. Then you started saying 'Chowkidar chor hai'. And yet you say you are compassionate towards him. How do you reconcile these two things?
A. I'm compassionate towards him, but I tell the truth. I cannot ignore the truth. The truth is that the PM of India has given 30,000 crore rupees to Mr Anil Ambani. You know that I know that, the whole country knows that. And Anil Ambani has never built a plane! That's the truth. I have to tell the truth and the truth is that Chowkidar chor hai'. There's no getting away from it. There's no nicer way to put it. I can say the chowkidar is a thief' if you think it sounds better.
Q. You keep saying that Anil Ambani got Rs 30,000 crore, but that may be incorrect. A news report said he got a less than Rs 1,000 crore contract.
A. There are more than enough documents that clearly show the financial figures involved in the Rafale deal. The Hindu newspaper has published documents where the entire defence department is saying the PM is doing a parallel negotiation. He has bypassed every single rule, every single process. You have the defence minister of India saying, I don't know about this new contract. The old contract hasn't even been closed but a new contract has been started by the prime minister of India. Eventually, there's going to be an inquiry on this. And he can't escape it.
Q. So will you initiate an inquiry into the Rafale deal if the Congress comes to power?
A. Absolutely! The world's biggest defence contract has been handed to someone who has never built an aircraft. There has to be an inquiry.
Q. What will you do to curb corruption if voted to power?
A. The most effective way to curb corruption is to decentralise. Today, too much power is concentrated in the hands of too few. We have to open up our decision-making to scrutiny and be more transparent in our dealings. Strengthening the RTI is crucial to this. Taking a firm, speedy action against the corrupt is also important.
Q. Will you go after the big guys?
A. It's not a question of going after the big guys. It's not like we're going to be vindictive and go after anyone. There are laws. They must be followed.
Q. But this can happen only if you come to power. Are you coming to power?
A. We're most definitely coming to power.
Q. The Congress on its own, or in an alliance?
A. I'm not a soothsayer, I can't predict the future. But Mr Modi is not winning the election, the BJP is not winning the election. The Congress-led UPA is coming to power.
Q. One of the reasons why the BJP is asking its voters to give them a majority is strong versus weak government argument. They say a coalition government of the opposition will be weak.
A. Help me understand this. Is a strong government one that takes us to a 45-year-high unemployment rate? Is a strong government one that allows a kisan to commit suicide? Is a strong government one that doesn't have confidence and has to crush institutions? A strong government is one that says we're going to give you jobs. A strong government is one that engages with the people of India. A strong government is one that says Supreme Court, we believe you, we trust you, do what you want. We are strong enough to allow you to be independent'. Is the BJP government a strong one? No, it is a weak one.
Q. In terms of finding allies, the BJP seems hungrier than the Congress.
A. I love you guys! You have different rules for the Congress and the BJP. Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Jammu & Kashmir, we have alliances in place in many key states. In some states, they didn't work out, and that's fine too.
Q. Why don't you have an alliance in Uttar Pradesh, the most significant state?
A. We wanted one in UP, but the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party felt they wanted to fight by themselves. Respectfully, I said fine, but we're also going to make our space. And I've told Priyanka and Jyotiraditya very clearly, agenda number one: defeat the BJP in UP.
Q. And why couldn't you reach an understanding with Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal?
A. Is Mamata Banerjee going to support the BJP government or a secular one? Are Mayawatiji and Mulayamji going to support the BJP or a secular government? Any way you look at it, the BJP is going to be defeated by secular parties everywhere in the country.
Q. What about Delhi?
A. We had a discussion with the Aam Aadmi Party. They had agreed to a seat sharing [arrangement]four for them, three for us. And after my party and I agreed to this deal, Mr Kejriwal said that he wanted Haryana and Punjab too.
Q. He says you walked out of the deal.
A. That's not true at all.
Q. And he calls you a liar.
A. When I say something, I commit to it. You can look at my track record and judge for yourself.
Q. If the UPA and its allies form the next government, are you okay with having a non-Congress prime minister?
A. My focus is on defeating the BJP and defending India's institutions. Let's get to the end of the election, see what happens, get the results. Then we'll have a discussion. Right now, I'm focused entirely on making sure that we and our allies win the election.
Q. Sharad Pawar has said that only someone who has been a chief minister can become a prime minister. Do you think that's a prerequisite for becoming the prime minister?
A. That's fine, that's his opinion. As far as I'm concerned, I have one goal that of protecting India's institutions by defeating Mr Modi and the BJP in the elections. I'm not seeing anything else. Like Arjun, I'm seeing only the eye of the fish, and I'm going to hit that eye.
Q. One of the things being said is that you had a choice between defeating the BJP and rebuilding the party, and you chose the latter. That you're really planning for 2024, not 2019...
A. Absolutely not! There's no such thing. We're going to win this election. We're going to win the election soundly. You guys don't report it, you guys aren't excited by it, you have different pressures. There's a massive undercurrent. Mr Narendra Modi and the BJP are going to be decimated.
Q. Where will the funds for NYAY come from?
A. NYAY is two things. It is helping poor people break the shackles of poverty but, just as importantly, it is about remonetising the Indian economyjump-starting the economic engine that has stalled because of demonetisation and a poorly executed Goods & Services Tax. We have excellent economists in our system and they have worked on this for many months. This money is not going to come from the middle class. That is my guarantee to you. That not a rupee of this thing is going to come out of your taxes. We've done the calculations, the money is going to come from present revenue streams, from reducing inefficiencies in government schemes and from better monetisation of government assets. Some of this money is going to come from crony capitalists like Anil Ambani.
Q. How will it happen? Or will it be like Modi saying he'll put Rs 15 lakh in every bank account from black money seized abroad?
A. Absolutely not! I keep my promises, unlike Mr Modi. We have made a financial model for NYAY and tested it thoroughly and my team believes that it can be executed without causing any damage to the economy. This view is supported by some of the world's best-known economists whom we have consulted and asked for help in validating our approach.
Q. Jobs are a very critical issue. Congress's initial plan seems to be to give a lot of government jobs.
A. First, we have to fire up our economic engine again so that demand increases, which, in turn, will help create a large number of jobs. That will take us to where we were before Mr Modi destroyed our economy with demonetisation and the Gabbar Singh Tax. NYAY is crucial in getting our economic engine restarted because it will remonetise the economy by putting cash in the hands of the poor, who will, in turn, spend it, creating demand and helping jump-start our economy.
Now let's talk about how we move ahead from where we were. India is the skills capital of the world. Every single district has skills, except that we don't respect them. We don't think about linking those skills to the economy. The basic principle is to identify areas with specific skills and link them to the Indian and global economy. People talk about IT as a big success story. What actually happened was that the skill of Indian software engineers was connected to cities like Bangalore and even Silicon Valley, and they were given an avenue to express themselves through their skills. There are thousands and thousands of other skill centres, like Mirzapur or Sriperumbudur, which have the potential to grow and create millions of jobs.
One more thing, we can no longer afford to focus only on GDP growth in isolation. GDP growth must be seen in the context of job creation. GDP growth without creating new jobs is not the kind of growth India needs at the moment.
Q. Where does the private sector come in? What role do you envisage for it?
A. The private sector is a key partner in the creation of new jobs. There is space for both the private and the public sector in India. We're going to invest serious money in education and healthcare and that will create millions of new government jobs. Urbanised India needs a public healthcare system and a much stronger public education system. I'm not saying we should shut down private enterprises. But there is space for world-class public, IIT-style institutions, so that private players can say, Oh, so that's what an A-grade institution looks like', and aspire to it.
To help with the creation of private enterprises, we have proposed a unique idea in our manifesto. The biggest problem for young start-up entrepreneurs today is that whenever they try to open up a business, the first thing they need to do is go to 15-16 government departments for permissions, which usually means having to pay bribes. So, we've decided to give new businesses a three-year moratorium from government permissions. If you're a young person and want to start a business, no one will ask you questions for three years. Do what you want. You want to start your business, do it, become successful. Three years later, when you have 20-30 people working for you, come and say, now, I need permission. And we'll give you permission. We will help you unlock value. That's how we think. We think about unlocking value. We want to unlock the value of our farmers, of our youngsters and of our entrepreneurs and we believe unlocking this value will create millions of new jobs.
Q. Are you for or against public sector disinvestment? Does Air India need to be shut down?
A. This, if I may be blunt with you, is too basic a question: are we against it or for it? We have a strategy on public disinvestment. Some things, it makes sense to privatise. Some others, it does not. So, don't come at me simplistically, with an are you for this or against this. This is not the kind of question you should be asking a national political leader, it's the kind of question you ask high school kids. Come at me with sophistication and I'll come back at you with sophistication.
Q. Let's come to agriculture. To relieve agrarian distress, you have promised loan waivers. But the charge Mr Modi makes is that you haven't delivered on it in the three states you won recently. What's your big idea for agriculture?
A. First, we have delivered on our promises and officially announced these farm loan waivers within 48 hours of our governments being sworn in. Obviously, there is a process involved in the execution and it takes time. Second, we understand that a farm loan waiver is not a solution to agrarian distress. It is a confidence-building measure and our aim is to relieve farmers from their immediate pain. Third, farmers don't get value for their produce because there is no cold chain, no storage facility, no easy connection between the farm and the dining table. So, how do we unlock India's farm sector? We connect the farm using infrastructure, technology, food processing units. To connect them to the Indian economy and the global economy. At the same time, we have to be sensitive so that farmers don't lose confidence so that they don't say, we're done, we're not going to do this anymore. That's the nature of the farm loan waiver.
Q. What is your personal philosophy of governance?
A. I deal with fairness. If tomorrow, I see that the biggest industrialists in the country are being treated unfairly, I'll work for them. If I find farmers are being treated unfairly, then I'll work for them. If the poor are being treated unfairly, then I'll work for them. I don't differentiate between the Indian people. My model is that I go where I see pain. If tomorrow, governments are being unfair to the biggest corporate houses, I'll defend the biggest corporate houses. I don't view India as either/or, this/that. I view India as a beautiful compromise. With our collective wisdom and with our conversation, we can do very powerful things that other countries can't do, because we fundamentally believe in things like non-violence and compassion, things that are deeply ingrained.
Q. If there's one thing you would want to learn from Narendra Modi, what would it be?
A. How to give multiple messages to multiple people simultaneously. How to say something to you, and say the opposite to someone else at the very same time! There's a certain amount of deception in that, though, that makes me uncomfortable and I won't be able to do it. But it's a skill he certainly has. It's a powerful thing. For me, the defeat in 2014 was the best thing to have happened, it taught me that my job is to be compassionate, even if people are abusing you and shouting at you and hitting you. Don't hit back, embrace him. The guy is abusing you, you respect him. I saw Mr Narendra Modi's interview the other day, Only Narendra Modi can challenge Narendra Modi! It blew my mind. I was like, Oh my God, how can a person's worldview be like this? A farmer will challenge me when it comes to farming, you will challenge me in some things; everyone can challenge me in everything. There are certain things I know, but I don't know everything. Knowing everything... that's the definition of insanity! I'm human.
Q. What are the leadership lessons that you have learnt from your father and mother?
A. Again, a simplistic question. Leadership is dynamic. What worked five years ago doesn't work now. Leadership is to listen. You don't like something, listen. It's irritating you, listen even more. Someone's abusing you, try and understand why. It's a dynamic process, it's a learning process. It is an ongoing process.
Q. Okay, so what are the value systems you learnt from your parents?
A. Just love. Nothing else matters. Love everybody. Your opponents, your loved ones, your enemies, the people who hate you, animals. Love the universe, because it's a beautiful thing!
Q. You are a fitness freak, what is your advice to those who want to stay fit?
A. Persistence. Sometimes I teach my friends how to run, and they say, I can't run 5 kilometres. And I say, don't be crazy, you can't run 5 km right now, but you can run 5 km if you're persistent. We'll get you to 5 km to 10 km to 20 km, to 200 km! But don't start with the idea that you can't do it. You can. All it takes is persistence. It applies in everyday life too. Everyone told me Mr Narendra Modi can't be defeated. I said, Yeah, you really think so?' I asked them, Tell me what Mr Narendra Modi's strength is.' They said, His strength is his (incorruptible) image.' I said, Okay, I'm going to rip that strength to pieces. I'm going to take it and shred it.' And I've done it. Persistence, my friend! Keep going and keep going and keep going. And I will keep going until the truth on Rafale is out!
Q. Between your mother and sister, who do you confide in first?
A. I confide about different things to my mother and sister. But, generally, I'm quite open.
Q. Any preference?
A. My mother is my sister. My sister is my mother. They are the same thing, the same force. They are not different.
Q. But why did you hold Priyanka back from joining politics earlier? And why are you fielding her now?
A. While Priyanka's children were young, she chose to stay away from politics and focus her attention on them. Now that her children are older and going to university, she felt she could take on a political role.
Q. When you took over as the president of the Congress party, the stage was filled with old Congressmen and you said you will empty the stage and allow youngsters to rise to the top. Yet, on the day Priyanka joined, she became general secretary and was inducted into the CWC. So there is one system for some people who want to join the Congress, where they get into the CWC straightaway, and another for others who have to slog for years. How do you justify this?
A. Saying that I will empty the stage looks inspiring, and easy, when you look at it. But it's a battle, it's a fight. It's a real fight. And my sister is an asset in that fight. I don't see my sister as my sister, I see her as an asset in emptying that stage. There are many other assets like her in the Congress.
Q. Why did you not hand young leaders like Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia the leadership in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh?
A. There are a large number of senior leaders who have spent a tremendous amount of time, made sacrifices for the party and have great wisdom and experience. And there are some extremely talented youngsters with tremendous energy and potential. I took the decision to deploy wisdom first and, after some time, deploy the energy of the young.
Q. Wayanad or Amethi, which will you keep if you win both?
A. I haven't decided right now. I will take the decision when the time comes.
Q. Did you decide to contest a second seat because you were afraid you would lose in Amethi?
A. Not at all. Amethi is my family. However, when I went to Tamil Nadu, for the first time in my life, I felt that people there were asking, do we have equal rights in India? This is a sentiment that runs throughout south India. The moment I sensed that I said, I have to fight from the south. I have to tell the south that, no, you're as important as the north. Which is why I chose to fight from Kerala in the south.
Q. Since Narendra Modi told Akshay Kumar he liked mangoes, we have to ask which flavour or fruit do you like?
A. I do Vipassana. The mind constructs the flavour of the fruit. You can like or dislike any fruit you want. You can choose to like mango, you can choose to hate it. You can choose to like poor people, you can choose to hate them. You construct everything in your mind. The mind decides everything. I might start off hating someone, but after a bit of interaction, I'll see things through their eyes, and be like: Actually, I like him; he's great'. But to answer your question: I like mangoes, I like bananas, I never used to like carrots, but now I do. I never used to like asparagus, but I do now.
Q. Would you like to be the PM?
A. Who am I to decide that?
Q. Well, then, are you ready to be the PM?
A. Again, who am I to say that? About 900 million people are casting their votes, it's up to them to decide. Whoever they choose, I'm happy with that. Frankly, the decision the Indian people take on May 23 will be the right one, regardless of what happens. That is the right decision, and I will respect it. It doesn't matter what they do, that is the right decision. That's what it means to be India.
Q. Not because, as Mr Modi says, you are a naamdaar, a dynast?
A. That's simplistic. Members of my family have been in politics, but their experience is not my experience. My experience has been of tremendous battles and violence. I've seen my father and grandmother get killed, I have seen elections being won and lost. How can you encapsulate my entire experience in one word? Understand me for what I am. Listen to me carefully and judge me for what I am.