Congress Party General Secretary Digvijaya Singh spoke to Open’s Political Editor Hartosh Singh Bal about the Ishrat Jahan case, the state of the Congress Party, allegations of communalism, and what he believes Rahul Gandhi thinks about some of the major issues facing the country. (Find above the video of the entire interview). The interview was part of a monthly conversations series organised by Open at Smoke House Deli. Excerpts:
Q You met the Home Minister over the Ishrat Jahan case. What were you told?
A Well, I had a meeting with the Home Minister, but not specifically on Ishrat Jahan’s case. There were other issues also, [such as] the issue of Telangana.
Let me say that people are seeing a lot of politics in this—frankly, there is no politics. It’s an issue of whether you can allow some kind of partnership between intelligence agencies and the state police to eliminate [people] at will.
Q You are fairly certain that the partnership existed?
A This is what the CBI says, I am not investigating it.
Q In this context, does Ishrat Jahan’s background matter?
A Does any organisation or agency have a licence to kill? [Agent] 007 had a licence to kill, but do they have a licence to kill? Even Kasab, caught in the act, was tried in court. Therefore, no agency or state police has the right to take the law in its hands.
Q India has a long tradition of police using extra-legal methods. You would know, for example, that in Chambal, the way the police fought dacoity was not without its problems. Is this a comparable situation?
A It’s not comparable. I don’t support any kind of false encounters, whether it is [in] dacoity-infested Chambal or in this case. The fact remains that this is quite different. Here, a false input was provided by the IB at the request of the Gujarat Police, and an encounter took place. It was not once but six different times that these false encounters have taken place, [carried out] by the Gujarat police, and ever since Mr Vanzara has been behind bars, surprisingly there has been no attack on Mr Modi.
Q Do you think the dimensions of this case suggest more than just the involvement of one rogue officer of the IB?
A See, I’m very surprised that a rogue officer of [the] IB is being protected so vehemently by the agency itself.
Q And your PMO is also supposed to be part of this…
A Well, I’m not questioning that. What I’m trying to say is that when the Judiciary called the IB or the CBI certain words which were derogatory, I was the only person who stood up for these agencies, [saying this] was not good for the nation or the agency. I am not against the IB or CBI or any agency, but the fact remains that one premier agency that is investigating [a case] under the directions of the High Court has ample evidence [against], and has gathered the courage to prosecute or investigate a senior IB officer—and not only him, there [are] three more—which means that there has to be some truth in what they are doing.
Q There’s a common perception in a large section of India’s Muslim population that the agencies and security forces have a communal bias. Do you think this is true of the IB?
A See, I can’t say that. It’s too serious an allegation. But there are rogue elements in every organisation.
Q Is the political establishment in Gujarat also culpable in some ways?
A Tell me one state government where senior police officers have been prosecuted for so many fake encounters as in Gujarat. Why [has] no other instance [of such encounters] taken place ever since Mr Vanzara and [Abhay] Chudasama and other officers have been arrested? Not only that, Mr Amit Shah has also been chargesheeted in another case, so I’m not charging [and] I’m not alleging, but does it not really point a finger at [Gujarat’s establishment]?
Q For the 2014 General Election, Amit Shah is handling the BJP’s campaign in UP. Narendra Modi is the face of BJP. The state we are talking about is Gujarat. What do you think of this whole scenario?
A Well, it’s nothing new. The BJP has been oscillating between extreme rightwing so-called Hindutva and Gandhian socialism. This pendulum has been swinging from one end to the other [for] the last three decades—so there is nothing new.
Q What are your personal views about Narendra Modi?
A Well, it’s better that I don’t speak out.
Q But at this juncture …
A Well, it’s not very complimentary, I can tell you. In fact, he was the general secretary in charge of the BJP when I won [MP] for the second time and he was campaigning—not only campaigning, he was organising the campaign in Madhya Pradesh—and if you see his track record, in spite of the APCO worldwide taking him to new levels, wherever he has been an in-charge in [a] state as a BJP general secretary, [the] BJP has never won. Also wherever he has campaigned, except Gujarat, he has not been very successful. Therefore I think he has been very successful in creating an aura, an image around him. I would give him full credit.
Q And do you think the same portent holds for 2014?
A (Laughs) Hopefully, yes.
Q But senior journalists such as Shekhar Gupta have said it is the Congress that is politicising and communalising the Ishrat Jahan issue...
A I have great regard for Shekhar Gupta, but I don’t see any substance in this. On the contrary, why is [the] BJP suddenly feeling the heat? Why are they sort of politicising it? That is my question. I have never politicised it. Tell me one instance where I have politicised it.
Q You, of course, took on your own government even over the Batla House encounter.
A The fact is even in the Batla House encounter I had requested a judicial enquiry, which is a fair demand. Of course, it was not acceded to. That is it.
Q The claim being made is that you are feeding the victimisation of Muslims and also raising questions about the professionalism of India’s intelligence services.
A It’s not only that. If you see in the last one decade what has happened [after] Malegaon One, Malegaon Two, Ajmer Dargah Shareef, Mecca Masjid Hyderabad, Samjhauta Express... Initially, Muslim youth were arrested and investigations found them innocent later. Within half an hour of an incident, the media comes out quoting sources, [saying] that so and so has been [blamed] and invariably it’s a Muslim name.
Are we not creating a situation where Muslim youth suddenly feel that they are targeted? What wrong [have] those Muslim youths done who were wrongly implicated? Does it not create a psyche among the Muslim youth which is susceptible to Pakistani propaganda? And [Pakistanis] have been saying this ever since Pakistan was created, that Muslims in India will never get any justice. Should we allow this to happen?
I have been saying from day one, I would be the first person to have found out the reality that some of the rogue elements in the Sangh were responsible for the bomb blasts. In fact, in 1992 they were making a bomb in Neemuch in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) office [when] suddenly the lights went off and they lit a match stick and there was a blast. One VHP worker died, one absconded [and] was later found to be teaching at a Saraswati Shishu Mandir. [But] because a BJP government was there, the prosecution was botched up and we really could not carry on the investigation. After that, a bomb was thrown in a temple in Mhow, near Indore. Again it was found that... six Sangh workers... were involved. One of them was Sunil Joshi, Sangh Pracharak of Dewas, and the other was Ramji Kalsangra, who is still absconding and has a reward of Rs 10 lakh on his head. They had done this just to create anger against Muslims. These are [also] the people who attacked Muslim habitations and burnt their houses.
Q I remember you had flagged this off in conversation with journalists in 2001, but from 2004 onwards it’s been your government... and you have raised these issues repeatedly. Why has your own government not taken these things seriously?
A It has been taken seriously. [The] National Investigation Agency was created and it has been investigating all these acts of terror. It was only at the insistence of the NIA that the facts about Sunil Joshi’s murder came to light, and now it’s one of the proven facts that Sangh elements were responsible [for] the murder of Sunil Joshi, because he knew too much and he was asking for too much and threatening that he would blurt it out.
Q But you have often had to argue with your own government over important issues and not been on the same page on law and order.
A Well, as [far] as I’m concerned I’m in the organisation and it’s the right of the organisation to raise issues and bring [them] to the notice of the Government.
Q Which often means that as far as the media is concerned, on almost every issue we look for three voices—the BJP voice, the Congress voice and the Digvijaya Singh voice. How do you manage this independence?
A (Laughs) Well, it’s not very often.
Q The charges you made about the BJP—the oscillation between rightwing politics and Gandhi’s socialism—can in some measure be levied against this government. We have gone from one extreme of liberalisation to subsidies or populism.
A I don’t think you are correct because we have been following economic liberalisation with a human face. If we don’t really go for liberalisation, we don’t really get growth, and if we don’t get growth, we don’t have the resources. So I think whatever resources we have been able to generate have been channelised for social sectors, whether it is allocation for education, health or employment. So it’s not I would [call] contradictory. In fact, it’s complementary.
Q But how is it that the human face of this government, elected in 2009, emerged only in 2013?
A You’re referring to Food Security? Food Security has been a part of our election manifesto... We have [been] raising this issue but because of compulsions... we have problems within our own government. Lot of allies have reservations on this, so therefore I think you can’t blame us for that. And in fact there were some reservations among the economists who are advising the Government also. I think that has been resolved now, but the fact remains that Food Security—and not only Food Security, we have believed in empowering the people [with the] Right to Information, Right to Education, Right to Work and Right to Food. This is the ethos of the Congress party and the ethos of the UPA. And [it] has been one of the major issues taken up by my Congress President.
Q You mentioned some economists advising this government. What are your views on the kind of policies they espouse?
A I’m not against economic liberalisation. You know, I have been supporting economic liberalisation but it has to be pragmatic, it has to be doable. In fact, I had my reservations on cash transfers initially, but when I saw it has succeeded in Latin countries and in Mexico, I changed my opinion and I thought it’s a good way to check leakages. Even on the issue of FDI in retail, I have supported it.
Q On many of these questions—since you’re the only one we can ask this question—what does Rahul Gandhi think?
A (Laughs) But why me alone?
Q Nobody else seems to know what Rahul Gandhi thinks on any issue.
A Why don’t you call him here?
Q We’re most willing—through you, or directly—if he would be willing to come.
A You’ll have to do it directly.
Q But where, really, does Rahul Gandhi stand on these issues?
A [From] what little I know of Mr Rahul Gandhi, I can assure you that he’s a pragmatist. He supports economic liberalisation and he has, and his heart and head [are in] the right place... He believes that we have to go for economic liberalisation, and, at the same time, with higher economic growth, channelise resources to bring about change in our human development index [score], spend more money in rural areas for infrastructure so that the quality of life in remote areas improves.
He has some very strong views on the environment and ecology and mining. He’s not against mining, but then it has to bring on board the people who are losing the land. The Mining Regulation Act amendment is pending with the Government of India. It has been to the select committee. For the first time, the Government of India has looked [at] how we can bring the land oustees in mining areas on board and let them have [a share of] profits of the mining sector delivered to them rather than giving [them] some compensation and throwing them out. So I think these are the issues which he has in mind.
Q Has he been involved in the framing and preparation?
A To some extent, but not directly.
Q But that’s a rather complete articulation. How come we don’t hear this from Rahul Gandhi himself?
A Well, at the right time, maybe.
Q What is your own interaction with Rahul Gandhi? You seem to play a key role.
A I think I must put on record that people have mentioned that I’m a mentor, I’m an advisor, I’m so and so... [and] frankly, I’m none.
He doesn’t need anyone. He is well-educated, he understands developmental economics. He has done his Masters in developmental economics, so he has a mind of his own. He reads—he is a voracious reader. He doesn’t need anyone of that kind. I came into contact with him when I was made in charge of UP because that is his state. We worked very closely, and he is extremely focused and when he takes up a task, he doesn’t let go until he completes it.
For example, he took up [the] very challenging task of having fair elections in the students’ wing and youth wings of the Congress party, which was unheard of. People in the party were very apprehensive that this would ever be possible, but he did it—to the extent that today it is only the Congress party which has elected representatives of the NSUI in every Assembly segment of the country, [something] no other political party has.
An organisation, which [includes] Mr Lyngdoh and Mr Rao from the Election Commission, has been keeping track of these elections. It’s a tremendous task that has been achieved. When he takes up a task, he is extremely focused, loves to build up systems, loves to build up structures, and leaves nothing to discretion.
Q Well, last time…
A Well, even if you see the election of the leader of the CLP in Karnataka. It was done so quickly that people never imagined this could happen so fast. [It happened] because everyone was fast, and the person who had the largest mandate became the Chief Minister.
Q Two years ago, Open had interviewed you after the Bihar results. You told us not to attribute the Bihar results to Rahul Gandhi, but you did say that UP was his baby.
A Yes, yes, yes.
Q So is that a setback?
A No, it is not a setback. If you see, post the 2009 elections, except [in] Goa and Bihar, in every Assembly election, the vote share and the number of seats [won by] the Congress party has gone up, and the number of seats and the vote share of the BJP has gone down. We have lost one state of Goa; [the] BJP lost three states...
Even in UP our vote share—the base vote share—in 2007 was only seven per cent. It went up to about 11.6 per cent in [the] 2012 elections. [Our] seats—we had 21, it went [up] to 29—but in Parliament, our vote share went up from seven per cent to 18 per cent. So therefore I think you can’t say that we didn’t do too well in Uttar Pradesh.
But the fact remains our organisation in UP and Bihar is not at all good. In states like UP and Bihar, it takes a lot of time to build up an organisation.
Q At that time you also said the Government will continue in power till 2014 and Manmohan Singh will remain Prime Minster. But during and after the 2014 elections, who will be the face of the party? Will Rahul Gandhi take this responsibility?
A First of all, what I said two years ago is probably coming true, that he will remain Prime Minister.
Q There will be no early polls?
A No, I don’t think so. I think as far as 2014 is concerned, Mr Rahul Gandhi has been given the task of organising the campaign, and there is a group set up which is doing this. The Congress party usually doesn’t announce prime ministerial or chief ministerial candidates in advance. We feel that in a parliamentary democracy, it’s the right of elected representatives to choose their own leaders. I think last time, [it was] because Dr Manmohan Singh was already Prime Minister that the [candidate] was declared, that too at the time of the release of the election manifesto. It’s too early to say what will happen, but usually the Congress party doesn’t declare its candidate in advance.
Q What is your personal view of this matter? Would you want to see Rahul Gandhi as the face of the party?
A He’s already the face of the party.
Q The prime ministerial candidate?
A That is something for the party High Command to decide.
Q What about your own plans? You had told many of us in Bhopal after the 2002 loss that you won’t fight an election.
A Again, give me credit that I stuck to that.
Q And now?
A Now I think I [am] open to fighting the Lok Sabha elections but certainly not the Assembly elections.
Q You are now in charge of Andhra, you mentioned at the very beginning of this interview. Is there any decision on Telangana?
A Maybe, in the very near future. I think the widest consultation has taken place and now it’s in the final round. And I think I have requested the CM, the PCC president, [and] the deputy CM to prepare a roadmap for two options:
1) Bifurcation of the state, and 2) United States of Andhra. And they’re working on it. And I would be submitting to my Congress leadership [that it should give a] hearing to all the three [leaders] and then take a conscious decision.
Q And you think this is very much on track? It will be before the elections?
A Much before the elections.
Q Are the [various] factions of the Congress from both these regions on board?
A It’s not easy. There are such hard feelings on both sides, but then most of the Congressmen will sort of abide by the decision of the Congress party.
Q In this roadmap, what happens to Hyderabad? Is that on the table? Has some decision been taken on that?
A You see, Hyderabad is no longer a city which belongs to one or the other. It’s a cosmopolitan city where most of the people from Andhra and Rayalaseema have settled down and have become voters in Hyderabad. So it’s really not an issue. And if you see, most of the corporate leaders of Andhra Pradesh are from Hyderabad and... most of the business community is from Rajasthan. So therefore I think the Telangana issue is not so serious in the city of Hyderabad.
Q Sure, but I mean the status of the city...
A Status of the city... if it’s bifurcated, then of course the choice is obvious.
Q Clear enough. So it’s not a Chandigarh-like solution?
Q The other issue which you have been taking up in a serious way is the issue of Naxalism. What is your impression of the recent attack in Chhattisgarh? Why was the Congress party targeted?
A I’m very surprised. In fact, if you see, there was a Vikas Yatra at the same place, Sukma, where more than 6,000 policemen were deployed. For the Parivartan Yatra, with a fair amount of advance notice, there were hardly any policemen in sight of the public meeting. If you count the security people with the Congress people, it would not be more than 100. Then if you drive down from Sukhma to the other part near Darbhaghati, the only place where the ambush could have taken place was this place. And it was so obvious that if ever there was an attack or ambush, this was the only logical place. And the Naxalites had a free run for more than four-and-a-half hours.
From the place of the incident, the police station was 4 km away. They were informed within 15 minutes of the incident, and the policemen in Darbha police station had locked themselves from outside and... were sitting inside. In a situation of this kind, how can you fight Naxalites? You cannot fight left-wing extremism unless you win the support of the people living in those areas.
We had involved Dr BD Sharma in bringing gram swaraj, empowering the people. In fact, [when I was] CM we had passed a unanimous resolution to give the Sixth Schedule to Bastar, which was unfortunately rejected by the Government of India. [T]herefore I think the issues of governance, issues of tribal unrest, of land, forest, and mining are the real key issues which the Government of India and the state government have to address.
In 1927, the British brought in the Indian Forest Act, which took away the rights of the Tribal, and there was a huge jungle satyagraha led by Mahatma Gandhi, where thousands of people were killed, mostly Tribals. Unfortunately, when we became independent, the same Indian Forest Act continued, and after the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1980, people living in forest villages lost their livelihood also. I have been saying... for a long time that the Indian Forest Act needs to be revisited now, and we have been giving the rights of minor forest produce to Tribals, which is not enough.
I must give full credit to the UPA Government that in their Forest Rights Act they have included bamboo as one of the minor forest produce, which has led to huge income. For example, in Maharashtra, in one year, one village made Rs 1.5 crore, which went to people in the forest areas. I have been saying that the forest rights which they enjoyed pre-1927 [have] to be restored to Tribals and forest dwellers.
The amount of money that we are spending on security forces would be much less if we had done this empowerment [of] Tribals. Balaghat in MP has the highest growth of bamboo and it was leased [out to a] paper company till 1996. As Chief Minister, I did not renew the lease and we said that it is for the paper industry to buy bamboo from depots in auctions.
And Naxalites would tell the Tribals not to cut the bamboo. Of course, bamboo was cut as per the forest plans. So what we did was, we said the forest committees of the area [would have] to be sitting in the auctions, and 30 per cent of the proceeds would go to them. We raised the labour charges of cutting bamboo by 50 per cent.
They used to burn the trucks which were transporting bamboo from the depots to the railways. We said we will have no contractors, [and] we gave the funds to Tribal societies for transportation, and gave them tractors and trolleys. After [that], there were no instances of burning of tempos and burning of depots.
You have to eliminate the institution of contractors from these areas. Naxalites love contractors because that is their source of earning. I will give you one figure: from Bastar itself, Naxalites collect Rs 300 crore every year from tendu patta, from beedi leaves. This is the kind of money that is involved.