Ahead of the launch of his autobiography, former Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad spoke about his differences with the Gandhis, relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his political plans. Excerpts from the interview:
Your recollections cover several decades and are full of events you were closely involved with. You might well have been able to write a few hundred pages more.
There is going to be a second volume. I could not cover everything in this book. It would have been too bulky and a load on the reader. I have decided some most important events will be dealt with in the second volume.
Among the major events you have written about, there is a lot on the PV Narasimha Rao government. You speak of your unhappiness about his not acting on Congress organisational matters.
He was a good prime minister but a very bad Congress president! Which is why when I moved the vote of no-confidence against him in the party as a working committee member, I started by saying “Mr Rao, you must be a good PM but one of the worst presidents in the history of Congress. You had no aptitude for party work but stuck to the position and did not take any decisions… The government did well but there was no party… you killed it and the message was not carried.”
After the political crisis caused by the Babri demolition, when Arjun Singh made his intentions (to oppose Rao) clear, you supported Rao. Why?
Who said that? In the Cabinet, only Arjun Singh and I raised the issue of the dissolution of BJP governments.
But you did not support the demand for a change in leadership, that Rao should step down.
I did not.
What were your reasons?
The government had been working well under Rao. The big decisions relating to the economic opening up were his. Manmohan Singh was finance minister, but it was the prime minister who took the call. He gave the directions and he also gave a free hand to ministers to work and deliver. As prime minister, Rao was accessible and listened to people. Where there were mistakes, I raised those, too. At a Cabinet meeting, I raised the issue of (godman) Chandraswami and asked, “Mr Prime Minister, who is the PM? Is it you or Chandraswami?” Only I did that. The problem with Arjun Singh was that he would not say anything, or hardly much, inside (at the Cabinet or party forums) and spoke all the time outside.
At the Working Committee (CWC) meeting, when we lost state elections (in 1994), and it was said Muslims and Dalits did not vote for us, I pointed out several tough truths. Why should they vote for you, I asked? Representation of Muslims in government offices was 1 per cent. Dalits have a constitutional guarantee but do not get any respect. I asked why not ask the 99 per cent who are represented why they are not supporting… You want the 1 per cent to give you 100 per cent of their support. I later suggested a minorities corporation with a financial corpus. Arjun Singh said Rao would never agree. Yet, Rao accepted the suggestion, saying it was the only one that broke new ground. Rao observed that I took the government to task in the Cabinet and CWC but there were senior leaders who only aired concerns outside.
You have repeatedly referred to frank discussions with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and Rao.
That is what I am saying! Rao took it like a suggestion. He could have dropped me. I could have done nothing. That was his tolerance, and mind you, I would have been half his age. I was not a stalwart. He believed I did what I did for the government and party.
So when did this culture change, when did the party seem to lose touch with reality and suffer a series of electoral setbacks?
Look, all this happened because… I have cited an example of Indiraji when she heard what was said and would not find fault with that. During Rajivji’s time, we were all colleagues. Same age group. Then, even with Rao. Lekin ab wo nahin hai. Wo nahin hai to there is no input. When you stop getting inputs you don’t take the right decisions.
Has this process died out?
Beyond repair. I then decided that instead of rotting there and getting acidity, I should leave.
You have said legacy is a matter you need to work on, invest efforts in.
No, no. It is not just succession. Legacy is not just a matter of genes. Maybe it worked when kings ruled the country. But even then, there are kings who ruled for 50 years and some for just a few months. Legacy in any aspect, in family, in business, in politics, is not to be taken for granted.
You have written about the reasons why the ‘G23’ group of leaders wrote a letter raising party issues. But Sonia and Rahul Gandhi did not see it in that light.
No. They did not have the capacity to listen and understand criticism like Indiraji or Rajivji or Rao saab. A leadership that does not have the capacity to accept criticism cannot succeed. If you want to learn, not repeat mistakes, and take everyone along, then you must be ready to listen to criticism. That is the case with any political party.
You have worked with Rahul Gandhi. He is not new to politics. It’s been about 15 years or so.
I think more than 15 years. Almost 20, I think.
So, in politics how much time is needed to learn?
I don’t want to say anything about this. I want him to be happy and healthy. It is for him and his party to decide whether to navigate the ship in the right direction or doom its prospects.
You have noted that Rahul Gandhi destroyed the consultative mechanism of the party.
That is true.
Wouldn’t the Congress leadership listen to you?
Well, they would listen and then do the opposite! Listening alone is not enough. You need to act on issues. You are then dependent on people with no presence on the ground. It would seem like everything is about Twitter and social media. But the voters are different, they go by real issues. That is what matters, the ability to build credibility with them.
Your references to Prime Minister Narendra Modi indicate that you have regard for one another although you are not on the same side.
Ideologically, we are North and South Poles. But not just BJP; there is hardly any other party with which I do not share good relations. I may or may not agree with them, but I have good relations. We are political competitors, not enemies.
Yet, Modi’s speech at your farewell in Rajya Sabha was held against you? As to why he praised you?
All the 20-plus speakers praised me. Some people did not like the fact that I was praised by all parliamentarians. Now, it is for such people to do something or act in a manner that they also receive praise from all. What can I do about that? I opposed the government for seven years, opposed its Bills, but I was still praised. If people do not do anything at all and still want to be praised…
You have spoken of the need for genuine introspection in Congress. Do you think personalised attacks on the prime minister did not work?
See, all prime ministers are attacked. But there have to be other narratives also. You can’t have one narrative for a decade or more. The listeners get fed up with one song. The opposition needs to build its credibility. That, and the organisation. Simply abusing somebody will not fetch you votes. It has to be a mix of 10-20 things.
To return to organisational matters, the G23 called for elections at various levels and now there is an elected Congress president.
It is a matter of great concern that it has been 26 years since the CWC elections took place. Although elections for the party president took place, it was not the way… no list, no proper membership. Then the Working Committee is left to the high command. Nowhere in the world is a committee formed 26 years ago still distributing tickets. A century has changed in between.
You have spoken of your opposition to the revocation of Article 370. But you have also said there is a need to look ahead. So, what is your message?
Besides Article 370, there are burning issues like unemployment and rising prices. And statehood and land ownership.