Congress did not have a good run at the Assembly elections and didn’t have much time before the Lok Sabha elections either. There have also been constant reports of factionalism within the party. Having recently taken charge as the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee head, what kind of a challenge are you up against? The Assembly elections certainly were a setback and we fared very poorly. But since I’ve taken charge as the party head in Rajasthan, it’s been my endeavour to reach out to all sections of the state in Rajasthan and also to re-connect with workers at the village level, at the grassroots level. I spent a week interacting with all the people who get elected by local body elections, the municipal elections, Zila Parishad, panchayats, sarpanches and those are the people that are the engines of the Congress party when we fight elections.
So it’s been a challenging task because time is limited but I’m happy that in the last three months or so there has been a change in perception for the people who view political parties as the Congress vs the BJP. So we’ve had a setback but we’re fighting the election with full force and we’re fighting to win. We won 20 seats out of 25 last Lok Sabha (election) and we are hoping to repeat that performance at least, because we have put up many more women candidates and many more younger people who are now candidates from the Congress’ side. These factions, this groupism etc – in a large party you can have difference of opinion on a few issues but largely we work together, we work under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi; she is the Congress president. And I have been given the charge to rebuild the party from scratch, from bottom up and that’s the attempt that I’m trying to make.
You’ve been a Minister at the centre. What made you want to take this up? I think I’m a Congressman and I was made Minister by the party. I’ve been asked to run the show in Rajasthan. I’m glad that the party feels that I’m upto the task because as you just said it’s not an easy task. It’s a tough challenge and I’m used to such challenges and I’ll give it all I’ve got to make sure that the party is back again in power in four years and eight months.
The campaign rhetoric in various parts of the country is getting increasingly distasteful and polarising. What sort of a campaign is being run by both parties here? Well I think Rajasthan is a different state. And I have also said that any campaign we do publicly should adhere to standards in public life. There is no point in making personal allegations. I view it differently. I believe that at any point you can make corrections and we have been very constrained and very restricted in what we say. We have differences of opinion on ideology, on working styles, on policies and what’s happened in some parts of UP, and I dare say some leaders of BJP have made statements which are very unbecoming of people who are aspiring to take up the top job in India. Polarisation of votes has always been the last and ultimate weapon of the BJP and I think they’ve done it more subtly this time. But under the cover of all this talk of governance, and investment, good performance and GDP numbers etc lies the core of BJP which is to somehow polarize, divide and get the benefits out of that tension that has been caused.
Polarisation has not been as subtle in UP. Are you saying it’s subtle in Rajasthan? Well I think it’s become blatant now because of some expose which happened with Shah. But other than that Modi has been going to town talking about his good governance in Gujarat but he does talk about him being OBC and being a chaiwallah etc when he goes to UP and Bihar because he wants to get the OBC votes. And the Muzaffarnagar riots are something that should send the alarm bells ringing because I think to some extent it is politically motivated and we all know who is gaining out of this. So the finger of suspicion points clearly at the BJP. There is no doubt in my mind.
Voting along caste lines is a reality in India. Has it made your electoral battle tougher? I think it’s wrong to say it’s disappeared. It’s very omnipresent in some parts of India. But I think India is changing. I think the younger generation of India looks at performance, because an MP or an MLA should be judged by what he or she does or does not do and not by where he was born or she was born. I think caste has become much less relevant in educated areas in large cities than it is in rural areas but even in rural areas people understand that performance is better than your gotras and your caste lines. But it’ll take time to change. At least in my constituency I think this will be an acid test because here, no matter what caste combination the BJP claims in its favour, people understand who can take everybody along. 2 million people live in this district and unless you take people along, it’s impossible to move forward collectively.
Your national campaign has been run to a large extent on communicating the welfare schemes that UPA I and UPA II came up with. Are people responding to that or is there a sense that that should vary from area to area? I think it’s anyway varied. When you say NREGA, it’s for rural areas, it’s not for…
But the emphasis in speeches has been on welfare and rights based schemes.. I think it’s true that one shoe can’t fit all but you can’t also be micro managing things so much that they become difficult to take off, you have so many contours how do you decide. But the policies I think are well received, people appreciated the policies. But I believe that with technology, with UID numbers, with more specific targeting of subsidies and programs like this, it’s certainly the call for the day. And everybody agrees, even the government of the day, our government has said that you must be more focused, more pointed in how we deliver our subsidies and help.
What about the focus on agriculture in Rajasthan? Agriculture is important. We’ve had the highest food production in the last 10 years, this year. But productivity has to be increased and the focus has been there. I think in the last 4-5 years we’ve increased the MSP (Minimum Support Price) every year. We’ve tried to incentivise farmers. Farm loan credit that 10 years ago was 68,000 crores, is today at 7 lakh crores. So people have been availing access to credit and banking facilities. It’s coming up, but perhaps more needs to be done in the farm sector.
And what about jobs and the manufacturing sector? Manufacturing of course, need a big push, there’s no way we can bypass that. We have to ship the workforce from the farm land to the shop floor. But now that so many industrial corridors are coming up – like the DMIC (Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor) – corridors of pure manufacturing hubs… they are going to absorb a lot of the work force. And we need to create those jobs.
What might be some of the things you’ve managed to do in your last term? And what will be your priority for your next term? The first thing that we’ve been able to do is to make Ajmer the only district in India which has blanket coverage in government schools in rural areas with internet. 50,000 kids are getting access to free computers, printers, video conferencing, teleconferencing, solar panel battery back up chargers, computer labs in every school – 50,000 kids, 253 schools. That’s been one good thing that we’ve been able to achieve in the rural areas. We’ve also been able to start work on the airport in Ajmer which has been pending for 30 years. We’ve got a new railway line sanctioned from Ajmer to Sawai Madhopur. We’ve got 42 new trains started in the last 5 years. We’ve got a central university to start operations here, it’s going to cost 1000 crores. It’s already got students from 5 different countries studying in the university. We’ve got a girls’ college. We’ve got an e-learning institute worth 80 crores for giving technical education for the kids – skill building, vocational training, higher education, and job-oriented education. That’s the thing we’ve been focussing on along with infrastructure. Incidentally, Ajmer is the first city in India to be declared a slum free city by 2020. It’s a 3000 crore project and it’s going to make Ajmer city slum free. It’s the only city to be picked up by the Government of India.
What would be your priority in the next term, other than that? I can’t be specific but generally, overall development. Like I said, jobs coming into this part of the country, manufacturing, sector-wise investors, the airport- greater connectivity will certainly help.
(Part of a multimedia series for India.com and DNA)