'The Congress will never change its ideology, but to fight this new kind of propaganda politics, we have to prepare ourselves.'
Veteran Congress leader C P Joshi, in charge of the north-eastern states, tells Amit Agnihotri the party is alert to the growing challenges in the region and will turn the tables on the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 national elections.
You have accused the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh/BJP of playing divisive politics in the north-eastern region to gain electorally. Why do you say so?
The RSS/BJP is pursuing a three-pronged strategy to gain ground in the north-eastern region where they had little presence for decades. They are doing this by forging pacts with regional parties, which are mostly Christian groups.
Second, the BJP is reaching out to native communities whose religious practices closely resemble that of Hindu traditions. They are also using various insurgent groups to disrupt the region.
Third, the saffron party is using central funds as bait to win over support of the local politicians.
How do you plan to counter the BJP?
The year 2019, when the next national elections would be held, will be the deciding factor as we will ensure the BJP is out of power. North-eastern players will switch their loyalties to the Congress again.
This is not the first time local players are siding with a BJP-ruled Centre. It happened in 1977 also when the first non-Congress government came to power at the Centre.
The Congress lost Assam to the BJP in 2016, and now Manipur, after ruling both states for 15 years. Does that ring an alarm bell or do you plan to just wait and watch?
No, we can't do that. We have to be politically vigilant and work harder to counter the BJP.
But please keep in mind that in Manipur the BJP manufactured a majority by luring small players and formed the government by violating the Constitution.
The governor also helped the BJP.
However, in Assam the Congress had a problem. The BJP forged poll pacts with the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodos and had a tacit understanding with Badruddin Ajmal's All India United Democratic Front.
We did not forge an alliance with Ajmal despite some in the party favouring it, as the move would have wiped us out in the state and dented our secular credentials.
Also, some of our assembly members led by Himanta Biswa Sarma defected to the BJP.
Biswa Sarma is being credited with the BJP's victories in the north-east. In hindsight, was it a mistake to let him go?
In a way, any old worker going away is a loss. But Biswa Sarma is not such a great strategist as he is being made out to be.
If his claims were true, how could the Congress emerge as the single-largest party in Manipur winning 28 of the 60 assembly seats?
We had 30 per cent vote share in Assam in 2001 and got 32 per cent last year despite losing the polls.
This shows that all is not lost.;
Arunachal Pradesh, too, slipped out of the Congress' grasp. What went wrong there?
Again, the BJP subverted the Constitution and used money power to hijack power.
Can you imagine a regional outfit, the People's Party of Arunachal Pradesh, merging with a national party the way the Pema Khandu government joined the saffron party recently at the instance of Amit Shah?
We have taken the PPAP's merger with the BJP to the high court.
Earlier, the Centre had imposed President's rule in the state to dislodge our government in collusion with the governor.
The Supreme Court gave an order in our favour restoring the Congress government in the state, but the BJP again broke norms, procedures and used money power to gain allies in Arunachal Pradesh.
We have now appointed former MP Sanjay Takam as the new state unit chief; he will work to revive the party.
What are the relevant issues in the north-east?
Barring Manipur and Nagaland, our protests against the note ban drew crowds in the region.
Then there is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which has created ripples in Assam, besides the controversy around national registry, which impacts lakhs of women in the state.
How do you plan to revive the party in Uttar Pradesh? Will you keep the alliance with the Samajwadi Party for the 2019 general elections as well?
You see, in the 2014 general elections, the SP vote share was 23 per cent, the Congress share 7.5 per cent and that of the BJP 43 per cent.
In 2017, the BJP has won more than 300 seats, but their vote share has come down to 39 per cent.
Against this, the SP-Congress alliance has a vote share of 29 per cent. It was because of very strong likes and dislikes between Mayawatiji and Akhileshji (Yadav) that we could not have a Bihar-like Mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh.
Rahul Gandhi was the one who changed the narrative in Bihar where the Congress, JD-U (Janata Dal-United and the RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal) came together to defeat the BJP.
If you add 23 per cent of the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) vote share and 29 per cent vote share of the SP and Congress, it adds up to 53 per cent -- much more than the BJP's 39 per cent.
Wait for 2019 when we hope the BSP will come along with us. There will be no space for the BJP in UP then.
Is the Congress prepared for challenges?
For 10 years, we gave a good government to the country. There are some vacancies where we have to replace some people -- senior people who can be good organisers and younger people who have good experience.
By the end of 2018, you will see that we are heading along with a proper strategy.
We will see to it that in 2019, under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, we pose formidable challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his brand of politics.
Is the Congress facing an ideological crisis to fight the BJP?
No, I don't think so. The Congress will never change its ideology, but to fight this new kind of propaganda politics, we have to prepare ourselves.
We are aware of the challenges. It is the Congress, which is primarily opposing the ideology of the BJP today.
The legitimate central space is with Rahul Gandhi.
In 2019, we will see how to defeat the BJP. We will do everything that is required to challenge and expose the Modi brand of politics and we will be looking at state-specific political challenges.
Strategies, however, can vary from state to state.
IMAGE: Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi on the campaign trail. Photograph: Kind courtesy @INCIndia/Twitter