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'Modi has peaked; his popularity is on the wane'

Last updated on: June 27, 2013 08:48 IST

'Public perception doesn't match the work done by us'

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Ajay Maken has literally risen from the ranks. Starting off as a student leader with the National Students Union of India, he moved on to serve as an office bearer in the Youth Congress and subsequently became a recognised name and face in Delhi politics.

The 49-year-old has held several ministerial posts in the Sheila Dikshit government and the Congress organisation before he graduated to the national stage. Maken was a Cabinet minister in the United Progressive Alliance government, but was handpicked by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to work in the party in the recent AICC reshuffle.

The young Congress general secretary has been given charge of the crucial communication, publicity and publications department where he has the tough task of publicising the UPA government's achievements, countering the Bharatiya Janata Party's propaganda against it and changing the current negative perception about the Congress and the ruling alliance.

In his first interview after he took over his new assignment, Maken talks to rediff.com's Anita Katyal.

You are back in the party organisation after a long stint in the government. How do you feel about the change? 

The new assignment is very challenging. It's also good to be back in the party organisation and in a parliamentary system, the party and its ideology are paramount. 

There is a view that the Congress and the UPA government have not been able to effectively communicate their achievements to the electorate. How do you plan to change the perception about your party and the government? 

The UPA government has done a lot of work in the last nine years, but unfortunately the public perception about the party and the government does not match the work done by us.

My first task is to correct the negative perception about the UPA and the Congress. We have lined up several new measures, which will change the perception about our government but I would not like to elaborate on them at present. 

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'UPA government gave India the biggest tool to fight corruption'

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There is talk about corruption and scams, but it is also true that it was the Congress-led UPA government which gave this country the biggest tool to fight corruption -- the RTI Act.

Our opponents also accuse us of misusing government agencies, but they forget that former CAG Vinod Rai was appointed by this government on whose reports they stalled Parliament for weeks.

The transparency brought in by this government in institutions should be appreciated.

The Congress media department has now been rechristened as the media, publicity and publications department. How will this improve the functioning of the department?

Earlier, the media, publicity and publications functioned separately.

Rahul Gandhi decided to merge them so that there is greater synergy in their functioning, as everybody's task is to communicate the government's achievements and focus on the shortcomings of the opposition. 

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'We have to keep up with changing times'

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What is the party's roadmap for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which are less than a year away? 

We need to update our systems, have to keep up with changing times as we have a large population of young voters and a growing number of urban voters who are using internet and social media.

We have to reach out to these sections through the presence of volunteers in social media.

We have plans in this regard and are actively working on them.

Earlier, communication took place through print media which was followed by the arrival of electronic media and now we have social media. I have personally been active on Twitter for long time now and will continue to do so. 

We have a handicap -- many of our articulate leaders are in the government and they have their constraints in speaking out on behalf of the party while there's nothing to hold back opposition leaders. 

We are also planning to set up a research team, which will provide necessary inputs to our spokespersons on key policies and other current issues so that they are well equipped to participate in television discussions and respond to queries from the media.

To begin with, I have been holding daily meetings with all spokespersons, which ensures that all are on the same page about the party's position on various issues.

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'We have no reason to be defensive or apologetic'

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But are you not handicapped in your task by the fact that the UPA government's credibility is at an all-time low.

We have to change that perception, convince the people that the instruments to identify and fight corruption were provided by this government and that it was the UPA government, which initiated action against the corrupt. 

We are fortunate that we have leaders like Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi whose credibility cannot be questioned.

We have no reason to be defensive or apologetic. We will highlight the government's pro-poor policies and propagate its model of inclusive growth. We will approach the people on the plan of continuity in development.

The BJP wants to convert the next general election into a Rahul vs Modi contest, but the Congress appears to be shying away from this prospect

First there is no clarity within the BJP if Narendra Modi will be its prime ministerial candidate. 

L K Advani's resignation letter clearly indicated his opposition to Modi. Recently, Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar went on record to say that the 2002 Gujarat riots were a reflection of poor governance. 

Only after Modi crosses his biggest hurdle -- the BJP and the NDA -- can the BJP ask the Congress party, Modi vs who.

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Tags: BJP , Modi , UPA , NDA , Congress

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'If the youth and middle classes were with BJP, what happened in Karnataka?'

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Besides, this is not a presidential form of election. Let the BJP first decide who their prime ministerial candidate is. Besides, everybody knows that the BJP cannot win 272 Lok Sabha seats on its own.

Let the BJP convince its own party and allies to endorse Modi and then ask us about our PM candidate. 

Isn't the Congress in denial about Modi's popularity with the urban middle classes and the youth, which had voted overwhelmingly for the Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections?

That's not true. If the youth and middle classes were with the BJP, what happened in the Karnataka election? It has an urban population of 38 per cent as compared to 31.1 per cent at the national level. The party lost wherever Modi campaigned -- Bangalore and Mangalore, considered the laboratory of Hindutva in the South. The communal card did not work for the BJP. 

As Modi touts his Gujarat model of development at the national stage in his capacity as the BJP's campaign committee chief, he will have to face more uncomfortable questions which he would not be asked as Gujarat CM.

For instance, he will be questioned on his home state's social indicators. The Planning Commission had recently reprimanded Gujarat as it is placed 16th on the health , 12th on education and 11th on infrastructure fronts.

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'Modi has peaked; his popularity is on the wane'

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But you have to admit that Modi has a very strong and effective PR machinery. Don't you think it is going to be tough to counter it? 

In our assessment, Modi has peaked. His popularity is on the wane. His rally in Jammu was lacklustre and his recent statement about how he rescued 15,000 Gujaratis from flood-ravaged Uttarakhand in one day was another form of boasting, which has not been appreciated by the people.

You must remember that India has never had a prime minister who has been overambitious and in a hurry to grab this post. And Modi is doing exactly this. Such people never got an opportunity to head the country.

Do you believe that the BJP, especially Modi, will play the Hindutva card in this election to consolidate the majority in their favour and how will the Congress respond to it?

Indians are, by and large, secular. And after having tasted the fruits of development, they will never support a person with a divisive agenda, who is unable to carry everybody with him.

The fact is that the Gujarat model of development is a failure and Modi's model of propaganda fake. Modi has nothing new to say.

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