Former Union minister and senior Congress leader Ashwani Kumar spoke to Ashhar Khan on the need for the Congress to have an overarching narrative of “freedom versus fear” in the coming 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He further added that the gravity of our challenges and the smallness of our politics do not go well together. Excerpts from the interview:
The 60 months which Mr Narendra Modi had asked for are now coming to an end. How do you see the significance of these upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections and what is the overarching theme of this election?
Different people may have different takes on this pertinent question. All that I can say is that the way I look at the present political scenario in the country and the way I feel one can underscore a distinction between a BJP-led political regime and the Opposition parties which are committed to fundamental freedoms in this country is to present to the people of India the next Lok Sabha election as a clear choice between freedom and fear. Freedom being represented by those political parties led by the Congress which believe in the fundamental constitutional values of our libertarian and dignitarian democracy, while fear is being represented by the present dispensation, that has not only comprised institutions of libertarian democracy but have also unleashed a repressive regime. You have seen the recent arrests of human rights activists, we have seen the unprecedented persecution of political rivals, we have seen the saga of lynching and we have seen the unleashing of violence by mobs on dissenters. All this clearly is a sign of the nation moving towards a kind of undeclared mobocracy masquerading as democracy. I think a duty is cast on all political parties which believe in India’s Constitution to come together, rising above partisan considerations, to meet this challenge. In this entire process the Congress as a party of the freedom movement will have to play a very significant role. I do wish and hope with all my heart that the Congress will speak up for the freedom of all citizens and make freedom and defence of India’s liberal democracy as the cornerstone of its electoral campaign.
How do you see the role of your party and the new Congress president? There have been a lot of aspersions cast on him after the party’s successive defeats since he took over.
In my personal view and I think that is a view which is largely shared, the Congress president remains fully committed to upholding the fundamental values of the republic. He has put his heart and soul into trying to forge a united Opposition against the present regime. He has repeatedly said that his politics is anchored in idealism and in the values of the Constitution. Having said that as the head of India’s premier political party, he will have to reach out to the largest number of people rising above all other considerations with a view to enlisting support of the best within the party and outside the party in forging an instrument of political change that can give to the people of India an alternative narrative. It is necessary not only to demolish the claim of the present government for another five-year term but it is necessary as part of that process to provide the country an alternative narrative. In my view, that narrative can be built around the overarching theme of the defence of liberty and freedom in this country and the defence of secularism, pluralism and inclusiveness in this country.
Do you think that is the strategy that the Congress should follow and is following?
Well, I believe that is the strategy the Congress should follow, whether it is following or not or will follow or not or will effectively follow or nor will depend on the times to come.
We have seen the Congress talk about demonetisation, unemployment, agrarian crisis, the price rise, faulty implementation of GST, unfulfilled promises of the BJP. Do you think these are also issues in building a larger narrative for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
Corruption, unemployment, agrarian distress are all important issues … Nobody can deny that these issues are relevant, they are extremely relevant. My view, however, is that these issues have to be built around a central overarching narrative for the 2019 elections. We know from past experience that every election has one overarching distinctive theme. In my personal view, the distinctive theme and the defining theme of the 2019 election would be to present to the people of India a choice between freedom and fear.
What, according to you, are the main challenges faced by the nation and how should the political class respond to these challenges?
There are challenges galore and if I keep counting them I don’t think I will be able to count enough. But first and foremost, let me tell you that the polity of this country is increasingly riddled by divisions that are debilitating our democracy. Whether it is caste, whether religion, whether it is social and political inequities, whether it is the gaping divide between the rich and poor, or whether it is socially horrific crimes like rape, exploitation and criminality. These are a huge challenge to India’s democracy and my biggest worry today is that I don’t see political parties taking these issues head on. In election after election, we see the parties concentrating on an immediate issue, rather than thinking of the next generation and the country. I think the Congress must show its qualitative distinction by taking up the larger issues first and foremost, which it has often done and it invariably does, but it should do so regardless of the electoral arithmetic. It should do so as a matter of principle, it should do so as a matter of non-negotiable values that define the Congress and define this nation.
Do you think sometimes the Congress also gets carried away for immediate electoral gains and diverts from its path?
I am afraid at times electoral considerations have weighed at the cost of principles, that I hope will corrected under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.
Do you think that in the last 52 months the level of political discourse has gone down, the kind of words that have been spoken about your party leaders by some Central ministers?
It is most reprehensible that the level of political discourse has been reduced to such a low by responsible leaders of the BJP. Casting aspersions against a founding father of this nation like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as leaders like Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and other Congress leaders in words that do no justice to those holding high offices in the BJP. These utterances have reduced India’s democracy to a kind of farcical exercise in mudslinging. I believe it has brought the quality of India’s democracy to a new low which is something all citizens of this country should condemn. I must say Rahul Gandhi has always instructed partymen not to use offensive language against political rivals, but I’m afraid the BJP hasn’t reciprocated. Whoever it may be, whether from the Congress or from any other outfit, there has to be a certain level of dignity in political discourse. It is the collective responsibility of all political formations. I must also add that the gravity of our challenges and smallness of our politics do not go together.
The Congress alleges since the present government came to power there have been institutions that are under attack. Your comments?
There is no doubt one hears about attempts to alter history. One hears about attempts to infiltrate constitutional institutions in order to change the focus of those institutions, but what puts me to shame is that in the political slugfest some individuals have not refrained from dragging the Army and Air Force chiefs into controversy. I read a recent statement saying that the Air Force chief had “lied”. I think such statements should be made with the utmost circumspection, if at all they have to be made. Our last line of defence is our apolitical defence forces. Speaking for myself, I would think a thousand times before casting any kind of aspersions about our constitutional functionaries and against the defence chiefs.