Madhusudan Mistry, 69, started his political career as a trade unionist before joining active politics as a leader of the Congress party. He is currently a Rajya Sabha MP and a general secretary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). He has been in charge of the party in UP, Kerala, Lakshwadeep and Karnataka. He has also worked extensively on the party’s MNREGA scheme and the Forest Rights Act. For the Lok Sabha elections 2014, he has been involved in the ticket distribution process as part of the Election Coordination Committee and is contesting against the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, from Vadodara.
The Wikipedia entry on you and several reports online say you were a member of the RSS until 1995. Is that correct? I was never a member of RSS. I don’t know where they got this. It’s rubbish.
So your first brush with political activism came with trade unions? Yes. From 1969.
You have studied development and worked in the social sector as well as been an activist. What made you join active politics after all this? When you deal with peoples’ issues, especially when issues are related to the state government, when you want to resolve those issues, there is a limit to creating outside pressure either through unions or through organisations. Unless you are in politics or in a political party that governs the state, it is difficult to resolve issues related to the masses. At one stage, I thought I would even form a political party. So in 1992 we had a meeting of 20 people from Gujarat to form a party.
Was this also because, over time, trade unions were beginning to become less relevant? Yes. People like Medha Patkar and other social activists are going that way now. I had been telling them for years that without involvement with political parties you can’t do much. Many of these activists are hobnobbing with political parties behind the scenes, but on the outside they don’t want to associate with them because they want their image to be holy and honest.
Do you feel that the stigma associated with openly endorsing a political party is becoming lesser now? Maybe, maybe not. I didn’t care. Before, when I was not in a political party, I was a good, honest person, according to people. Nobody bothered with me. The day I joined a political party I was being labelled a bad person, a corrupt man.
Why the Congress? I have had good relations with the Congress party for years. People from the Congress supported me very much. In the organisation, also in the trade union, we supported the Congress. I supported them because it was the only party which was close to the ideology we had.
It’s interesting that you say the Congress had the closest ideology to the one you were working towards. Why not the Left Front? Why was that not an option? There was no role of the Left in Gujarat, nor were they interested. They have just confined themselves to the organised sector, banks, insurance and so on, as a trade union, while I was organising forest labourers, agricultural labourers, casual labourers working in mines, construction labourers – all the masses nobody had ever bothered with. In fact, the Left sometimes even played against them, becoming a hindrance to organising them. People associate me with being an NGO-wallah, but in my mind, I’m still the general secretary and president of a number of unions.
How do you balance politics with activism today? It’s reciprocal. What you see at the ground, you take it to the political sphere, raise the issues and present it over there. Like when the Forest Rights Act was first drafted. I took the entire bill into my constituency, called all the people, village people, sarpanches, got it translated into Gujarati, organised meetings for them to suggest changes, if they wanted any. Then I took it back and suggested amendments, which I could do because I was on the committee.
There is the sense that the Congress in Gujarat has not been able to provide a strong opposition to the Modi administration, something that even Mani Shanker Aiyer spoke about in a recent interview. Why do you think this is? I wouldn’t say anything. These are organisational matters. And if I have to make any suggestion, say anything, I would rather call a forum and keep it within the party. I wouldn’t say anything outside.
Fair enough. You have supervised the party in Kerala and Karnataka, both states the party has fared well in. And you were also made in charge in UP. Was that more of a challenge, and if so, why? Every state has its own characteristics, its culture, economic activity, opportunities available, etc., and the political behaviour of individual workers and the organisation on the whole reflect the culture of that particular state. So yes, UP is a big state, highly politically volatile, very active, maybe poor, but very understanding. Kerala has the other extreme of understanding. So, every state is different in its own way, and one has to accept that challenge to work it. It can’t be a readymade solution that applies everywhere.
In Kerala and in Karnataka, despite the rise of regional parties, the Congress has held its own. In UP, ever since regional parties have started becoming stronger, the Congress has lost its ground. How do you analyse this? In UP, over the years, caste emerged as the dominant factor. So, the entire subaltern class have been organising on the basis of caste, because they want recognition. When one caste is recognised, other smaller castes also want to be recognised vis-a-vis the bigger caste. So, there is a proliferation of political parties. A number of political parties in UP are along the lines of caste, and they want representation in order to improve their socio-economic conditions. That is the issue and that is why a situation may arise in the future where all small castes will have to organise into confederation or a federation because they are a very small number. The Congress is the only party which offers upward mobility for all, so you see Siddaramaiah becoming chief minister. He is kuruba, a lower caste.
Coming to your own electoral battle in Vadodra, this is one of the 16 places the Congress held primaries in. Why then did the party decide to not field the winner of the primaries, Narendra Rawat, and field you instead? I was told he expressed his inability to contest. He wrote a letter to the Congress president saying so. I was keen to contest because I find Modi manipulative. He doesn’t have the guts to face those who challenge him, those who question his mind, those who question what is going on. So he has created a kind of facade with the help of financial resources. That’s why there is so much protection around him, not to get him exposed.
Does this wave that people are talking about make your battle tougher? There is a sense that you have little to lose given you are already a Rajya Sabha MP. First, I have political workers and political activists with me so I don’t lose confidence. Second, I feel I will not be able to justify myself if, knowing the things I know about Modi, I don’t expose him. It will be an injustice to this nation and to the people. This vote is not a vote for me, it’s a vote for the next generation. What kind of country do we intend to pass on as an inheritance? That’s what worries me. When you begin to treat people as your subjects and not as human beings, it’s the end of this country. This is precisely what is going to happen. I’m telling you now, on record, if this man ever becomes PM, there would be war between India and Pakistan or Bangladesh – Muslim countries. And there are a lot of outside agencies who will play a role.
Agencies within this country or agencies within Pakistan, Bangladesh you mean? Outside. Agencies which are against the Muslim world.
What are some of the local issues on which you are fighting this election? Local issues are the state itself. Where is the development? I am not asking this, the people of Vadodara are asking this. I had thought this city is his fortress and it hardly has any Congress presence. But when I came and started meeting people, I found that the scenario is quite different. There are pockets of BJP presence, but there is also support for the Congress. It’s all down to the workers. When the workers get motivated, no one can stop them.
And is that something that is happening now in this election with Congress workers? Yes, very much.
You’ve been with the ticket distribution this time. What did your party set out to achieve when you were planning ticket distribution, and to what extent are you happy with the way tickets have been distributed? My job was to look at the background information in every parliamentary constituency and to give that input. That was one component but there were other components also. There were other people as well. Candidate A has one plus point, B may have another, C may have a third. You have to choose. That choosing was done by a number of people, not me alone.
And are you happy with the way the ticket distribution has happened? Oh yes, for the first time…
Why so? In every state, almost every state, young people have been put forth, good people have been put forth. Whether they win or lose is another thing altogether, but the characteristics of the party are changing. Elections are where you have to infuse new blood. And 36%-37 % of our candidates this time must be below 40 or 45 years – no small number in the Congress. And, without any patronage.
How has the national campaign fared so far? What do you think are its strengths and weaknesses? I have not been involved much in the national campaign, just some bits of the manifesto. I am more invested in the seat-wise campaign. What is being done on the ground in constituencies matters. National campaign may affect a floating vote to some extent, maybe some new votes, but it doesn’t affect the communitarian vote.
You were in the news for tearing off a BJP poster recently. What made you do that? I didn’t tear it. Unfortunately the media does not cross-check before reporting such things. The issue was that we should get a fair opportunity to display and to campaign. I have a trade union background. I come from a labour class. I am proud of it. I gave them a day’s notice, saying that by the next day, if I’m not given space I will put my poster over Modi’s. I wrote to the Election Commission, I wrote to the police commissioner, like we give notice of a strike, that if this demand was not made out from such and such day, we will go on strike. I’m not someone to back down. I don’t bother about police and cases and such. I even forget I’m a general secretary, I always feel I’m just an activist.
You were not being given adequate space? Could you elaborate a little? The Election Commission’s directive says even if you’ve given a contract in one area, that contract stands null and void in favour of equal opportunity being given to all candidates for displaying their billboards, hoardings and so on. In Baroda, there are certain roads on which there are 100 poles, roads that 100,000 people use, and all the poles are given to the BJP. So you see only Modi’s posters.
They told us, we can give you a pole outside, where even 5,000 people don’t pass. I said it was unacceptable. I said, let them have one pole with his picture for one pole of ours. If there is a third candidate, let every third pole go to them. But here, the machinery is influenced by the BJP government since they have been around for so many years. Nobody was ready to take a decision, not even the Election Commission of Gujarat. They were being shifty for two-three days because they had to take off Modi’s poster. That was the issue.
Rahul Gandhi has taken on a much larger role in the party in these elections. What are some of the changes you feel he’ll be able to bring to the organisation, and what do you think are his biggest challenges? Many. We’ll have to wait till the outcome of the election.
I meant in the long term, not just for this election. I’m not talking about the long term. The outcome of this election, I feel, will change the very colour of the party, and it should. I feel, with the new challenges in the party’s future, you need to stir the entire water; it just can’t be one odd change here or there. That’s my view.
(Part of a multimedia series for India.com and DNA)