JAIPUR, Rajasthan—As Rajasthan gears up for assembly elections on Friday, many analysts and people on the ground say that voter sentiment is inclined against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and chief minister Vasundhara Raje and towards the Congress. There is also a parallel narrative that the saffron party has regained some ground. State Congress president Sachin Pilot spoke to HuffPost India about why the Congress seems to be ahead in the perception battle and why the party has not announced a chief ministerial candidate yet. He also denied that the Congress is playing "competitive Hindutva" with the BJP in the campaign. Edited excerpts from an interview:
As polling day nears, there is talk that the BJP has bounced back and it is not going to be as easy for the Congress as previously expected. How do you read the current political situation?
Spending large amounts of money and getting people to fly in from Lucknow, Bhopal and Delhi to make speeches at the last minute does not change the mind of the people. Vasundhara ji has made people suffer for five long years and what has the BJP done in the last three or four days that will change their fortunes? What tangible work have they done? They are basically trying to salvage an already worse situation. So, to my mind, people have made up their mind—we are getting an overwhelming response to our campaign and with the Prime Minister and Mr. (Amit) Shah and other BJP leaders coming here; they are only making noise, but it can never be converted into votes because people have made up their minds. We are going to win.
But the campaign one is witnessing only seems to have become about competitive Hindutva, with Rahul Gandhi saying something in terms of a Hindu identity and the Prime Minister responding...
Mr. Gandhi's speeches are primarily focused on agrarian crisis, jobs, economy and corruption. It is the BJP that is desperate and is clutching at straws by talking about Hanuman and his caste and Ram Mandir, Masjid. They want to change the narrative to something that is very religious and emotional as opposed to the people's issues that we have tried to raise every time. And they are trying to appropriate the media by making speeches and statements that are taking people's minds away from what is bothering everybody. A gas cylinder is costing Rs 900 and a kilogram of Dal is Rs 125. These are not the issues they want to discuss because they have no answers to give. Therefore, the easiest trick in the book is to deflect the people's attention to non-issues.
So how do you respond to those who claim that the Congress is falling for the BJP's trick of dragging the discussion towards religious and polarising issues?
Not at all. We are squarely putting the issues back on the table that matter to the common person. You can have a look at our manifesto, at our speeches, we are only asking for accountability from the BJP government. Asking about jobs, agrarian crisis that has engulfed all of us. And we are getting no answers. Instead, there have been talks about nani, chacha, sasural, maika, this caste, that gotra. Vasundhara ji spent the whole day talking about a fake news video about Navjot Singh, knowing very well that the video was fake. So, to my mind, they are clutching at straws. They know their ship has sailed. The fact that they are putting out an effort now is to maintain some dignity in numbers; when they lose, they don't want to be a washout. They are trying to claw back into some respectable numbers.
You mentioned jobs. So let's come to that specific question. The BJP manifesto claims that their government created 16 lakh jobs and self-employment over the past five years. How do you respond to this claim?
Pure white lies. They claimed that they will give 15 lakh jobs. Now they have changed the word from jobs to employment. I challenge the BJP: why don't you publish the names and mobile numbers of all those people that you claim you have given employment to so that I can call up the people and congratulate them? Basically, they have given all lies. Even the numbers they have given are all outlandish lies.
So then, what is the Congress' plan for creating jobs, if you are elected?
Two things. One is the kind of education that is given to the young people, degrees and diplomas, there is no meeting of minds between the academic institutions and the corporate world, the factories, the business—what kind of skill sets do they require. We are teaching them courses and curriculum that has no connection with what the job market requires. We want to create a platform where the corporate world discusses with the academic community that such and such course needs to be implemented so that these kids become employable.
Second is that the Rajasthan government is chasing multinational companies who come to make sheer profits. But the Rajasthani people are so entrepreneurial in Bengaluru, Bombay, Chennai—they are all scattered and have made a name for themselves. Why can't they do the same in Rajasthan? They will all be welcomed. And even if they don't make money, they have love for the land, so they will contribute to create jobs. They want to give back to the community and the state. So, to encourage people we will finish licence Raj, give a very warm welcome and not go gushing over these multinational companies which will only be here so long as profits are to be made. There has to be a will power to do it. We have it.
Raje has tweeted that the Congress manifesto has no vision and responded to the 'Rahul Model' phrase used by Ashok Gehlot at the press conference where the manifesto was launched. How do you respond to it?
I have never seen the party in power trying to accuse and criticise the opposition. It is for the first time. It is a role reversal. But I think our manifesto is very clear, very pro-people. Yes, it's not making any false promises and, unlike the BJP, we will actually implement them.
I noticed your manifesto, unlike the BJP's, does not mention the number of jobs you will create.
I don't think anybody should make claims (about how many jobs they will create). We have got the intent, we have to give jobs, access to credit. If both of them do not work, we will give some monthly financial assistance also to young people. With will power and commitment, we will be able to do it. You cannot quantify how many jobs you can provide over five years because the private sector also has to do it.
When we were speaking in 2013-14, I recall the state of Rajasthan was almost like a hopeless situation for the Congress, with the assembly election leaving you with just 21 MLAs. You had just taken over as as the state president but since then there is a perception shift and people are actually thinking of a possibility that a Congress chief minister will take over soon. What do you think you did do right?
I started work and campaign for the Congress party from the first day that I took charge. I did not wait for the last day of election. We focused a lot on the local body elections, sarpanch, pradhan, Zilla Parishad, dairy elections, agriculture marketing mandi elections—because they form the bedrock of our democracy. Once we get strong at the grassroots, other things come by easily for us. So I focused on the smaller elections. And you create a big wall building brick by brick. We started doing booth management, travelled across. Nothing works like hard work. So, a lot of pain and sweat and blood has gone into creating a party that today is robust and within striking distance of forming the government. We fought and won all the by-elections. You know, to create a perception, it doesn't happen in two months or three months. It requires sustained, consistent hard work on the streets. I have been arrested, lathicharged...dharna, gherao, padyatra...to become the people's voice requires a lot of effort and long time. I am glad that all the party leaders worked with me. And party workers are now fully enthused to take on the BJP.
So given this situation, don't you think it would have been better if the party had announced a chief ministerial candidate? You have been seen as a potential chief ministerial candidate for a long time. Instead, we hear talk of a split in the party between you and Mr. Ashok Gehlot.
There is nothing like that. For 70 years, the Congress has never done this. In fact, barring mention of one or two exceptions like Punjab, etc, it has never been done. Party has never mentioned a CM candidate. This is in the tradition. We all fight. We all win and the MLAs sit and decide who will be their leader. I don't think it is important because our parliamentary democracy is like that. First you fight elections and win. If this has worked for us all these years, why change it? Same situation is applicable in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Telangana. Rajasthan is no different.
But do you believe that, as some people say, this is the manifestation of a long-drawn-out generational transition that the Congress is going through? The old guard is simply not going away quietly.
People start putting too many theories into practise. My singular focus over the last five years has been to make the Congress party strong. Take everyone along and am very glad and happy that everyone has contributed and now to win elections. What happens post-elections, I can't tell.
But since this is a question everybody in the state and beyond seems to be thinking about, I must ask: will it be right to say that, in the event of a Congress victory post-election, you will be there in the chief minister's position or will there be a deliberation or is there any other possibility?
Who knows what the future may hold? But the party policy is absolutely clear: post our victory, god willing everybody has given their best during the elections, the MLAs will decide along with the party and the party will take a decision as to who will lead the government. But that's not important for any of us right now. Main focus is to win the polls.