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'There is no Narendra Modi factor in the rural areas'

March 21, 2014 18:20 IST

Congress general secretary Shakeel Ahmad has had two stints in the Lok Sabha, was a minister of state in the Manmohan Singh government in 2004 and was also on the panel of Congress party’s spokespersons. He was in line to get a Lok Sabha ticket from his constituency Madhubani in Bihar but lost out when the Congress had to concede the seat to the Rashtriya Janata Dal as part of the electoral pact sealed between the two parties.

In an exclusive interview with Rediff.com’s Anita Katyal, Ahmad analysed the political scenario in his home-state Bihar, admitting that political equations have changed after the Bharatiya Janata Party forged alliances with Ram Vilas Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha.

How do you assess the political situation in Bihar after Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan left your alliance and joined the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP.

Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan. We wanted a repeat of 2004 when the Lalu Yadav’s RJD, Paswan’s LJP and the Congress had an alliance. We contested that election together and were able to win 29 out of 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar. Janata Dal-United leader Nitish Kumar lost his own parliamentary seat. This time when the BJP and the JD-U were no longer together, there was a vertical split between the support base of the NDA and the Congress-headed United Progressive Alliance.

We had a chance of sweeping the polls in Bihar but unfortunately our performance will be affected after Paswan joined the NDA. Then there is Upendra Kushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party. He was initially interested in joining our alliance but due to certain circumstances, he also went with the BJP. It is true Kushwaha and Paswan’s support to the BJP will hurt us but the split between the BJP and the JD-U will also help us.

But you have to admit that the Congress failed in winning over allies.

The LJP has not been with the Congress since 2009. When Lalu parted company with us, Paswan chose to align with the RJD and even became a Rajya Sabha member with the support of Lalu’s party. So it was the failure of the RJD and the LJP to stay together.

The Congress was not in the picture. We always wanted them to stay together. It was for them to sort out their differences. Despite these developments, our alliance is a strong secular alliance and we will perform well in these elections.

It is also true that the political equations have now changed in Bihar. The BJP has improved and Nitish Kumar remains a factor in these elections.

Of course, no one can wish away Nitish Kumar. He is a sitting chief minister and has the support of over 100 legislators and 16 MPs despite recent desertions from his ranks. But, yes, the coming election has now become a triangular contest. Initially, we were sure it would be a contest between the UPA and the NDA but now it has become a triangular fight.

In fact, the BJP was nowhere in contention before Paswan and Kushwaha decided to support it. From nowhere it has become a force. But now the BJP is very much in contention Nevertheless, I still maintain that our alliance has an upper hand… I can say this with all confidence. There is strong anti-incumbency against the Nitish government and the MPs belonging to the JD-U and the BJP.

Do you agree that BJP’s graph has improved because of the Narendra Modi factor.

As far as I can see, there is no Modi factor in the rural areas as compared to the urban areas. Of course, people are discussing Modi since he has been projected as the prime ministerial candidate by the BJP and we have not projected anybody according to our party’s tradition. The urban areas in northern India are the BJP’s strongholds and in the urban areas of Bihar, the Modi factor is somewhat visible.

There are reports that Modi’s projection as a leader of the Other Backward Classes is helping the BJP in Bihar.

The BJP is not projecting Modi as an OBC leader in Bihar as it fears that this could result in a backlash by the upper castes, which constitutes a bigger support base of the BJP. Modi himself is playing the class card instead of the caste card….he talks about having started life as a chaiwala and how his mother used to wash utensils. He is doing so primarily because of the fear of a backlash by the upper castes.

The BJP believes that its prospects will improve substantially in areas adjoining Uttar Pradesh now that Modi is also contesting from Varanasi.

Here, I would like to cite my own example. I contested as an MLA in 1985 when the Congress won all the 11 seats in my district. But in 2000, the situation had changed and I was the only winning candidate. What I am trying to say is that in a Lok Sabha election, the situation in one constituency is totally different from the adjoining one … it varies from constituency to constituency.

A candidate of one constituency cannot affect the next one. Agreed Modi is a prime ministerial candidate but, in the end, it is the individual candidate who matters.

Will this election focus on development issues or on the secular-communal divide?

Politics in Bihar is essentially dictated by caste. The Yadavs vote for the RJD, non-Yadav backward classes favour Nitish Kumar’s party, the upper castes deserted the Congress and have been supporting the BJP since 1996. Initially, Paswan was the tallest leader of Dalits in Bihar but after the creation of a new faction of Dalits-Maha Dalits carved out by Nitish Kumar, Paswan’s party has been reduced to a party of the Paswan caste alone.

The Musilms are divided. The first preference of Muslims in Bihar is the Congress primarily because of the party’s national policies. But when they see on the ground that no other caste is supporting a Congress candidate, they shift to parties which are anti-BJP or candidates giving the closest fight to the BJP. We wanted an alliance with Lalu as we did not want a division of secular votes. There was a section in our party which was keen on partnering with Nitish Kumar, especially after he split with the BJP, because both these leaders have the some caste support.

You are Congress general secretary in-charge of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. How do you rate your party’s changes in these states?

It is not correct to say we are weak in Punjab. There is huge anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal government… there are issues of drug mafia, law and order, taxation in urban areas. You will be surprised…the Congress will do well in Punjab.

But your leaders like Amarinder Singh and Manish Tewari don’t want to contest these elections.

Amarinder Singh said he did not wish to contest from Amritsar as Preneet Kaur is contesting from Patiala and he has to assist her. As for Manish Tewari, he has some medical issues. Otherwise, he is the most formidable candidate in Ludhiana.

Regarding Haryana, I admit the Bupinder Hooda government faces anti-incumbency although it has done a lot of development work in the state. This good work combined with the fact that Haryana faces a four-cornered contest will help the Congress.

We will surprise everybody by doing well in Delhi despite the results of the last assembly elections. People are disappointed with the performance of the Aam Aadmi Party as it failed to deliver on its promises. All those who are unhappy with AAP are coming back to us and we will improve tremendously as the percentage of BJP vote is not going up.

There appears to be some confusion in the Congress. Sometimes it attacks Modi’s Gujarat development model and sometimes, it highlights his communal image. But it is not working.

We should and we will attack Modi’s false propaganda about his government’s development record in Gujarat and at the same time, focus on the misdeeds of his government during the 2002 riots and his divisive policies. RahulGandhi recently rightly described the RSS as poisonous. We are not concerned if this line of attack helps us or not. When somebody has been projected as a prime ministerial candidate, people have the right to know the truth about him.

Anita Katyal