Raj Babbar, Uttar Pradesh Congress president, is not in an enviable position at the moment. He is heading a party whose fortunes have hit rock bottom and chances of revival seem bleak right now. But Mr Babbar is spearheading an unrelenting campaign against the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh and the death of 30 children due to lack of oxygen in Gorakhpur, seems to have given the much-needed oxygen to the Congress. In an interview with Amita Verma, Mr Babbar candidly spoke about the issue, his party, its future and also the strategy for bringing the Congress back to the political centrestage. Excerpts:
The Congress is running a campaign on the Gorakhpur tragedy. Is this an attempt to cash in on the incident?
For the Congress, the death of children without oxygen is an issue and not a political campaign. We are protesting against the arrogance of power where the entire government is not even willing to admit that there were lapses. No one is directly blaming chief minister Yogi Adityanath for what happened but, at least, someone must take moral responsibility.
Do they realise that when children die, it is actually the future of the country that is dying? This is a serious issue and the Congress realises the sensitivity of the matter. Sadly, the BJP does not.
Has the Congress in UP already slipped into the election mode? The flurry of activity in the party makes it seem so.
There is no election round the corner. We have just learnt from our mistakes. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi discussed the issue with PCC chiefs and everyone decided that the party must connect with the common man. We are not in government, but we can always reach out to the poorest of the poor and that is what we have started doing. This is not aimed at any election. Even the Lok Sabha elections are about two years away. This time, we are building up our own strengths and not banking on others’ weaknesses.
In Uttar Pradesh, you have been touring extensively since the past few weeks. What is the purpose of your tours?
We have started a “Haq Mango” campaign. I am going into the districts and villages where I interact with different groups of people —- farmers, students, employees, traders, etc. There is no formal programme, no stage and no speeches. More than talking to these people, I try to listen to their problems. They raise questions and so do I.
We want to reassure the people that the Congress is ready to listen to them. We may not be able to solve their problems since we are not in power, but we can still raise issues with them. We hope this will get us acceptance at the village, block and district level and also mobilise our party workers.
What has been your feedback after these meetings?
It is shocking to learn that the government is more concerned about its symbolism than it is about addressing real issues. In several villages, cows are emerging as a major problem for farmers. This may sound shocking but it is true.
After the crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses and the incidents of cow vigilantism, people have started abandoning cows once they stop giving milks. These cows run amok in the fields and destroy crops. The farmers said that they cannot even protest because the “gau rakshaks” will get to them. I have got recordings of what the farmers said. The new generation in farmer families is at crossroads — there are no jobs and no avenues for them. They are migrating to cities yet they remain jobless.
It seems that you are single-handedly going ahead with this programme. What is the response from the people?
No, I am trying to involve the entire PCC in this. I have requested our seven MLAs and two MLCs to remain present at the UPCC office and meet party workers who come with problems. It is not necessary that only the PCC president should deal with everything. I have asked even the PCC leaders to start moving out of Lucknow. People are happy that someone is willing to listen to them.
When you took over as UPCC chief last year, your own party leaders did not take you seriously. They thought you were a star, who was not familiar with the nitty-gritty of politics and would leave soon. Suddenly they seem to be taking you seriously now.
(laughs) I have tried to convince everyone that “main yahan tikne aaya hoon, basne nahin” (I have come to stay but not stay on forever). I treat all party workers as my colleagues and I am certainly not their boss. I have always been passionately involved in what I do — earlier it was films and now politics. I followed my director in films and now my leader in politics. I will never exceed my brief and my colleagues have nothing to fear.
The alliance with the Samajwadi Party has caused a lot of heartburn among your party workers. They want to know what will be the Congress’ stand for 2019 polls?
I cannot say anything on this because the Lok Sabha election is a national election and the decision will be taken by the party leadership keeping national issues in mind. My efforts will be to increase our presence in the 80 seats and strengthen our footprint.