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Congress MP: 'The Times Now interview worked against Rahul'

April 25, 2014 11:34 IST

'India's expectations have increased'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

'A Gujarat model won't work in every part of India. We have to look at each part as unique, with needs being different from one state to another and yet we must be able to empower them and give them the kind of future the youth aspire to.'

'The BJP has not shown what they want to do. What is their vision for this country? What are the solutions for where we have gone wrong?'

'Priyanka has a beautiful aura'

'We thought our work would be our biggest ad campaign. But that did not happen.'

Congress MP Priya Dutt on why the Congress is facing its toughest election yet.

She was among the first Congress MPs to call for Rahul Gandhi's elevation as prime minister.

Her brother Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt's brushes with the law have not cast a shadow on her political career.

There is something immensely likeable about Priya Dutt, who is battling the Modi wave to retain her Mumbai North Central parliamentary seat. But does her personal warmth make her a good politician?

Find out in this lively interview with Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

Do you believe anti-incumbency will play a key role in deciding the Congress fortunes this election?

A month or two earlier, I would have thought so. I guess that's why a lot of people jumped the gun and moved out of the party.

Today, it is evident everybody wants stability. They have seen the performance of the Congress. They may want change, but I don't know if they will want someone new.

Secondly, I think the Modi factor is going to work against the BJP.

At a time when people cling to their seats, you have suggested that members of Parliament be restricted to three terms to allow for fresh blood. Could you share your thinking behind this?

It is one of the solutions to anti-incumbency. I am not saying this is applicable to everyone. But when you reach a point of saturation, you need new people with new ideas, a new vision, coming in...

We know that India has changed tremendously. India's aspirations have changed tremendously. India's expectations have increased.

Maybe a time will come when I, for example, can't fulfill those expectations. If I still cling on to my seat, it would be wrong on my part.

If you are able to deliver... great! But if you are holding on to a seat for power or money, it's not worth it because eventually you are answerable to the people.

So either you are booted out or you gracefully give up.

What are you planning to do?

(smiles) I don't know. I have five years left.

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Image: 'India has changed tremendously. India's aspirations have changed tremendously,' says Priya Dutt.
Photographs: Reuters

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'We have not been able to project the positive side of our decisions'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

It's evident that the Congress government seems to have lost its way.

Why are you saying that?

Where does one begin? A weak PM, scams, slurs on the defence forces, galloping inflation, low national morale... It is not an ideal scenario in which to walk into an election.

It's a matter of perception. Where we have failed is to counter that perception at the right time.

We took the first step towards eradicating corruption by bringing in transparency through RTI (the Right to Information Act). RTI has exposed so many cases of corruption. We took action against the people concerned even if they were in our own government.

But we have not been able to project that. Maybe our PR has not been strong enough.

As far as the CAG reports are concerned, they are presumptive losses. For example, as far as the 2G scam is concerned, it means that if we would have auctioned it the country would have got so much more money...

Even with the coal blocks, the presumptive loss is said to be a certain amount.

And the Opposition has had a field day with all this.

But it is not true to say these are presumptive losses; these things happened. The spectrum...

The spectrum was not given away. Discretion was used.

The reason every single person in this country has a mobile phone is because there was no auction. If there was an auction, you wouldn't have such cheap tariffs. Not every villager would have had a mobile phone.

Sometimes, ministers use their discretionary powers to look at the larger picture. In this instance, the goal was to have mobile phones reach every village because that is the first step of connectivity. You might not roads there as yet but the connectivity is through networking.

We were able to achieve that because of the low tariffs.

Our problem is that we have not been able to project the positive side of our decisions.

If that is what the party thinks, why did they not do something about it? The party was aware that elections were on the way. This is not a sudden election; it was scheduled.

I agree.

Why didn't the party's rank and file do anything about it if the leaders didn't or couldn't?

I think we were too confident about our achievements. We were confident that the work we have done for the last 10 years would speak for itself.

We thought our work would be our biggest ad campaign. But that did not happen.

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Image: Priya Dutt campaigns in the Mumbai election.
Photographs: Satish Bodas/Rediff.com

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'I'd love to know how the Opposition will bring down prices'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

The biggest problem the poor and the middle class face is inflation. They are paying so much more for everything. That translates into bad governance for them.

Exactly.

But the perception that the government is solely responsible for this is inaccurate.

Inflation is always dependent on the global markets. It is dependent on how much oil we import and much we pay for it.

As oil prices rise, so will inflation. But our government has still tried to stabilise it.

We started off with a fantastic growth rate. The whole world was looking at us because when the world went into recession, India was doing well.

Yes, we did take a downturn, but it been a global phenomenon and we are part of that global phenomenon.

Yet, we have kept the growth rate between 4.5 per cent and 5 per cent and will bring it up. We have got the best minds where economics and stability are concerned.

But all this is not just the government's responsibility. We, as citizens, must also contribute.

It is the duty of every citizen to contribute to the growth of this country. We cannot say it is not our job, it's the job of the government -- UPA or otherwise. It has to be a collective effort. There has to be a feeling of belonging, a sense of ownership.

But inflation has dealt the Congress a severe blow... How is your party dealing with it?

Anyone who comes to power will not be able to do anything about it.

The Opposition is taking advantage of that situation, but I would love to know what they would do about it and how they would bring down prices.

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Image: The prices of fruit have spiralled, putting them out of the reach of the common man.
Photographs: Vivek Prakash/Reuters

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'The BJP has never once shown a vision for this country'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

Do you expect to see a Congress government at the Centre?

Yes. I do.

Can I have a Priya Dutt answer to that question and not a Congress MP's answer?

(laughs) I still have hope.

A voter goes alone into that polling booth to cast his or her vote. I think they will give it a very sincere thought before they press that button.

Because of the hype that is surrounding this election, the people are very aware. They want to read about everything. They want to know about everything.

I think they will make an informed decision. I just hope they look at the positive side of what the government has done and how this government has had a vision for the country.

The BJP has unleashed a systematically planned tirade against the UPA for the last three or four years, but they have never once shown a vision for this country.

They have been critical about everything. They have not allowed Parliament to function. When you talk about policy paralysis and lack of governance, it is also thanks to the Opposition.

When you don't allow Parliament to function, when you don't allow very important Bills to be passed, it shows what the Opposition really wants.

I believe the Opposition plays a very important role in a democracy. They have the right to say correct the ruling government. But, instead of working with us towards solutions, they had a stall-and-stop strategy.

Their plan has been pretty systematic and hats off to them for building it to this crescendo.

But, till today, they have yet not shown what they want to do.

What is their vision for this country? What are the solutions for where we have gone wrong?

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Image: Priya Dutt campaigns in the Mumbai election.
Photographs: Satish Bodas/Rediff.com

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'This is a man who is ready to take risks'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

You were one of the earliest advocates for Rahul Gandhi becoming prime minister. Could you share your insights about him?

Rahul Gandhi is very different. He is a very silent worker.

For the past few years, his focus has been organisation. He wants to transform the way it works. That why he never wanted a ministerial job.

He has done it with the Youth Congress; he has done it with NSUI (the National Students Union of India, the Congress's youth wing).

At first, people could not understand what he was doing. But now, after three or four years, you can see what he is doing.

He is very clear it is about inclusive growth. He wants everyone to be part of governance. He wants to empower people. He wants to empower women.

He is including people who are not someone's son, someone's daughter. We had forgotten those levels.

I think it is a pretty impressive model. He had the guts to take these steps for the primaries as well. Nobody would think of doing that during an election year. He did.

When you look at this whole picture, you feel this is a man who is ready to take risks. Who is ready to take this country forward with a vision.

That is what a diverse country like India needs.

A Gujarat model won't work in every other part of India. We have to look at each part as unique, with needs being different from one state to another and yet we must be able to empower them and give them the kind of future the youth aspire to.

Strangely for politics, he is an extremely private person.

Yes (smiles). I know.

What do you think about him maintaining that kind of privacy? Can you share some insights that most people may not know.

I think he's just like one of us.

Many people who see him from the outside may think he is unapproachable, but he is not like that. He is a very warm person when you meet him.

I guess he also has to deal with a lot of, I would say, perception problems (smiles).

I think you are saying more than that.

(Laughs, then on a serious note) There's the whole campaign against his family... the political manoeuvring.

You know, I don't think that entire family, including Mrs Gandhi, his sister or him are the kind who will backlash or talk ill about somebody... they've never done that.

They have been at the receiving end constantly, right from Mrs Gandhi's time, but they have always maintained their dignity. That is what is so different and good about them.

As leaders, they maintain their dignity. People respect them for who they are.

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Image: Priya Dutt says Rahul Gandhi is a politician with a vision.
Photographs: Utpal Baruah/Reuters

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'Rahul was not allowed to say what he felt'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

Three things you wish people knew about Rahul Gandhi...

That he is a very compassionate and committed person.

That he has a vision for this country.

That he is a very nice human being.

One of the biggest complaints against Mr Gandhi is that he does not react even on the most serious of issues. He seems to be on a different track from his party. Is there a sense of frustration within the party with his methods?

We are a democratic party.

There are times when I have taken a morcha against my own party in Mumbai.

My father has stood up against his own party.

We are representatives of the people and if we feel there is a policy or something that will be detrimental to the people, we will stand up against it. There is no harm in that.

If he feels that certain decisions -- and it is not necessary that he is involved in every decision because everyone has their role to play -- are not right, he will stand up against them.

Why shouldn't he? He is doing it for the larger benefit of people.

This is a very normal thing in every party and it's pretty healthy.

But how do the rank and file feel when they see this kind of cross purposes happening between the old and the new?

Isn't that pretty natural anywhere where there is a newer generation coming up?

I used to have the biggest arguments with my father; I didn't necessary agree with everything he said.

We need to have an opportunity to express ourselves, to express what we feel and how we want to go forward. Alternately, you have to convince me that your way is right.

The youth of the country were once Rahul Gandhi's biggest fans. Today, that fan base seems to have moved to the AAP.

I am pretty saddened to hear you say that.

He is a youth leader and a youth icon. It is very sad that these perceptions about him have been created and people still don't know who he is.

The Times Now interview worked against him. He was being very polite. I wouldn't have been that polite.

He came in wanting to say what he felt, but was not allowed to do that. Yet he sat there and stuck it out, which was quite commendable. I would have gotten up and walked out.

He was asked everything except what his vision for this country was.

So I guess it turned out to be...

A PR disaster?

Yes.

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Image: Rahul Gandhi is a compassionate and committed leader, says Priya Dutt.
Photographs: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

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'Priyanka will make a great politician!'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

What do you think of the move by senior Congressmen like Mr Janardhan Dwivedi to bring in Mrs Priyanka Vadra into the party?

Will her charisma revive the party, enhance its appeal with the people?

I guess that is Mr Dwivedi's opinion in the matter. There may be a lot of people who want Priyanka to come in the fray in politics.

Do you think her charisma will revive the party? Every year, there is a clamour, but this year it is quite loud.

It is really up to her, you know. Earlier, people would regularly ask me why Rahul is not leading from the front.

I feel it is each person's choice. When he feels Rahul is ready, he will take a larger role.

I guess it is the same with her. When she feels she is ready, or if she would want to fight an election or be part of politics, that's a decision that will have to be left up to her.

Do you feel her entry will revive the party?

I really don't know.

She has great charisma and she is very much part of the party.

She handles her mom and brother's constituencies, especially during elections. Maybe you won't see her through for the five years working there, but during elections everybody knows she has a very important part in the campaigns.

She has an energy about her.

What are your impressions about her? Will she make a good politician?

I think she will make a great politician!

But I don't look at her as a politician, and I have never interacted with her as a politician.

But you have met her and interacted with her.

Yes. She has a beautiful aura about her.

She has that warmth and yet she is a strong personality.

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Image: Priyanka Gandhi in Rae Bareli.
Photographs: Pawan Kumar/Reuters

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'He has given our country a lot. We cannot forget that'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

Do you think Dr Manmohan Singh has been a good prime minister?

Yes.

Do you think he would have been a better prime minister had he been given a free rein by Mrs Gandhi?

Ten years back, when Manmohan Singhji became the prime minister, our economy grew in leaps and bounds.

We fought the second election with him as the face.

When Obama visited India, he praised him to the skies. We praised him as the best prime minister we have ever had. He was on the cover of Time magazine.

Was he then being controlled by Mrs Gandhi?

This is what I don't understand. People completely forget the good you have done.

India is a very diverse, difficult country. Like I said earlier, economically we have managed to stabilise it as compared to any other country that is going through recession.

We keep criticising ourselves constantly. But we've forgotten what has happened and how the growth spurt has happened, how the changes have taken place in India, only because that the next five years have not been that great.

So, suddenly, the accusations have started that he is a weak prime minister. It is very sad and I feel really terrible about it. He has given our country a lot. We cannot forget that.

I just feel that what is happening to him today is very, very unfair.

It is evident you think he has been a very good prime minister...

Yes.

But was he a good choice for the Congress?

Why not?

Very few governments can go through 10 years with alliances.

Both Mrs Gandhi and he had a role to play.

Mrs Gandhi took care of the allies. She took care of party decisions, whereas Manmohan Singhji took decisions for the country.

I think that partnership was great.

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Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not get his due, says Priya Dutt, who says, 'I just feel that what is happening to him today is very, very unfair.'
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters

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'He's trying to be a Superman who has come flying into India to save it'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

Do you think the minorities of India need to be worried if Mr Modi becomes prime minister?

I definitely think so.

I know people who have visited Gujarat. I know people who are in Gujarat. The minorities there, even now, live in that little fear that we've seen what has happened and we don't want this to happen again.

When you see the governance of Gujarat, it has just been a one man show. It has not been a collective where ministers take decisions.

Maharashtra is way ahead of Gujarat in economic development, but nobody is talking about it.

Our chief minister has invited Mr Modi to debate with him about the development in the two states, but there has been no answer from Mr Modi yet.

So you believe that if he comes to power...

You are projecting one individual. That has never happened in this country. It is always a projection of the party which then chooses a leader.

Today, nobody's talking about Bhajapa sarkar (BJP government)). Everybody is talking about Modi sarkar. What does that tell you?

Within the BJP too, they have sidelined the moderates.

Today, when BJP candidates ask for votes, they say 'Modiji ko vote dijiye (Vote for Modi).' They are not even asking the votes for themselves. What does that tell you?

What are your impressions about Mr Modi?

I find him very authoritarian and that's scary for India. He may not be that person -- I don't know him personally -- but that is what I perceive of him and what I feel comes out through the media.

He's trying to be a larger than life kind of character, a Superman who has come flying into India to save it.

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Image: Narendra Modi flashes the victory sign as he heads to file his nomination in Varanasi.
Photographs: Sandeep Pal/Rediff.com

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'If you say one word about Modi, 20,000 trolls will attack you'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

While social media is a strong part of both the AAP and Narendra Modi's campaign strategy, the Congress seems to be lagging behind. How do you think this has impacted the party this election?

Both AAP as well as the BJP have spent huge amounts of money on social media. We started much, much later.

I am a secretary in the media cell and we have a section on social media and communication. I think we are doing pretty well

The BJP has done a lot of trolling and is very aggressive online.

If you say one word about Modi, there'll be some 20,000 trolls attacking you with nasty comments.

We can't do that kind of stuff.

How would you suggest the Congress counter the AAP?

For me, the India Against Corruption platform was great because it brought many people together on one agenda. We could have worked together with that.

Then, suddenly, it blew out of proportion and a party was formed.

I look at AAP as more as agitators. Look what happened in Delhi. It has worked against them.

Being an administrator is very different from being an agitator.

In administration, you have to work with the system and try and improve the system while you are in it.

You can't suddenly be beating up cops, going and doing your own vigilantism.

If you want to have stability and governance, you can't work like this.

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Image: 'The BJP has done a lot of trolling and is very aggressive online,' says Priya Dutt.
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters

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'I miss him greatly. I feel bad he is not here'

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Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com

Has your brother being in prison impacted your campaign?

Not at all.

I miss him greatly. I feel bad he is not here.

I know he is very concerned because he writes to me. I just got his letter a few days back. He sent it through speed post.

I have to still write back and update him about what is happening.

He just knows what he reads in the newspapers. Or a havaldar will come and say kal TV pe yeh aaya tha, aap ki behen ke bare mein yeh bola (this came on TV yesterday, this was said about your sister) he just gets that kind of news.

I haven't met him for more than a month now. I can meet him only after the election is over.

Do you feel, after representing your constituency for nearly a decade, that you have walked successfully in your father's shoes?

I think so.

I have never strayed. I have always had my head on my shoulders. I have never ever compromised on my principles. Those were the things my father taught me.

I have never had that hunger for power and money, so it is difficult for someone to blackmail me into doing the wrong thing.

I have been given a responsibility and I have to fulfill it.

If this responsibility is taken away from me, it's fine. But I will not compromise on what I believe in and what I stand for to retain my seat. I just won't.


Image: Sanjay Dutt embraces his sister, Priya.
Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters
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