The Rajasthan Chief Minister on his appointment and equation with Sachin Pilot, his government’s agenda, and the Congress party’s strategy for 2019
Ashok Gehlot became Chief Minister of Rajasthan for the third time after the Congress narrowly won the Rajasthan Assembly election in December. In a freewheeling interview, he speaks of Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, says he “really likes” Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot, and promises to take strong action against efforts to foment communal tension. Excerpts:
How do you interpret the mandate received by the Congress in Rajasthan?
The message given by Congress president Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat [during the Assembly elections] has appealed to the people in the country. He spoke about the false promise made by the NDA government at the Centre of giving employment to two crore people and its failure to do anything for farmers’ welfare despite its promise to double their income by 2022. Their mandate was till 2019, but they are talking about 2022! Rahulji kept the focus on issues related to small and medium enterprises and the unorganised sector. He raised the Rafale issue during the election campaign, but the NDA government has not been able to reply to it till today. The themes of price rise and high petrol and diesel prices in the campaign convinced the people that Mr. Gandhi wants to do something for the country. Mr. Gandhi has also been talking about waiving farmers’ loans. Farmers are the biggest sufferers under the present dispensation, and I believe that the government of any party will have to focus on farmers.
Will the same atmosphere hold till the Lok Sabha election?
Yes, of course. Nobody can stop this. The BJP will continue to be on the defensive, because they have no agenda to offer to the people and no achievements to show.
After appointing you as Chief Minister, what mandate did Mr. Gandhi give you?
Good governance is our main mandate. The agenda set by Mr. Gandhi will be taken forward. It includes farmers, youths, maintaining law and order, and eliminating hatred and violence. Politics should be based on non-violence and brotherhood. People are being lynched by mobs. Can you imagine the pain and suffering that the family members of those killed undergo? This is often done on the pretext of cow protection. Innocent people transporting cows for rearing or trade are killed just on the suspicion of smuggling bovine animals. With this atmosphere, it is no wonder if the popular sentiment turns against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A section of people argue that the atmosphere against the BJP has built up only in the States, and that the Union government is still popular. But I believe that Mr. Modi and his cohorts will soon be exposed.
The deliberations ahead of your appointment as Chief Minister went on for long. What was going on?
Nothing! I was appointed and I took over as Chief Minister.
But how? Why were you selected?
See, I think there are three factors that are taken into account for the Chief Minister’s appointment. First, who does the public want? The entire country knew whom the public wanted, but the media, especially the English media, created confusion and presented a picture of tussle, which had no basis. Second, what the party workers think. No media platform paid attention to that. Third, what do the legislators think after getting elected? The high command takes a decision on the basis of these three factors. In such decisions, time does not matter. The BJP took seven days in appointing its Chief Minister in U.P. and nine days in Maharashtra.
Are you and Mr. Pilot on good terms or is there tension?
No, nothing. Mr. Gandhi wants all of us to work unitedly; we obviously follow his wish. Mr. Pilot is a young man. He has miles to go. I really like him. I became a Union Minister at the young age of 29 in the Indira Gandhi government and PCC [Pradesh Congress Committee] president at the age of 34. I was PCC president for three terms and then became the Chief Minister, after 14 years. The young generation should appreciate that its time will come. The high command will take a decision on its own. They should not offer their own candidature. The Congress doesn’t have this culture. I said this to Mr. Pilot when he became the PCC president and conveyed to him my observation that offering one’s candidature will not bring the post to him.
Until recently you were Mr. Gandhi’s right-hand man. What role would you like to play in the Lok Sabha election?
This is not based on my choice. I have been lucky in the Congress. Whatever the high command says will be acceptable to me.
The Bahujan Samaj Party demanded the withdrawal of criminal cases against its workers during the agitation against the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and you acted promptly on it. Are you maintaining good relations with the BSP with an eye on the Lok Sabha polls?
The six BSP MLAs elected in Rajasthan met me the other day. I took no exception to the comments made by Mayawatiji [BSP chief Mayawati]. She has to convey her message to her cadre. Our duty is to ensure that there is rule of law and there is no injustice to anyone. We will ensure that no innocent person is implicated in false cases.
Will those who left the Congress, contested the polls and won come back to the party fold?
All of them have come back. Technically, they cannot become Congress members in the Assembly, but they are supporting the party. There are 11 such members; two are rebels who quit the BJP. Besides, there are six BSP MLAs, who are supporting the ruling party. There is no threat to the stability of the government.
What are the decisions of the previous BJP regime that you are reviewing?
There is a tradition in Rajasthan, whether the Congress or the BJP is elected to power, that the decisions of the last six months are reviewed. We have appointed a committee for the purpose after a Cabinet decision. There is no vendetta or prejudice involved in it. After a change of government, individuals who took decisions against public interest or worked with vested interests are punished. This is necessary for good governance.
You’re in charge of some major portfolios, including Finance and Home.
These portfolios are always with the Chief Minister. Other departments which are with me are minor ones, such as General Administration and Personnel. There may be a reshuffle in the State Cabinet after the Lok Sabha elections, in which some departments may be redistributed to others.
What will be your strategy for selecting candidates for the Lok Sabha election?
The work for this has begun. The PCC and we will select the candidates together. Mr. Gandhi will be visiting Jaipur for a farmers’ rally on January 9, when this will be taken forward. Farmers who are beneficiaries of the loan waiver decision will be coming in large numbers to show their solidarity with the government.
Will you try to form alliances with parties such as the BSP in Rajasthan for the Lok Sabha polls?
This will be decided by the Alliance Committee in the AICC. This work is in progress.
Do you think Mr. Gandhi will become the Prime Minister after the Lok Sabha polls?
Why not? Nobody from the Gandhi family has occupied the post in the last three decades, but Soniaji [UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi] and Rahulji continued their work for the welfare of the people. Mr. Gandhi has emerged as a personality who is challenging a man like Mr. Modi.
The BJP’s rule is not like what it was during the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Only Mr. Modi and Amit Shah are ruling the country. The country, democracy and the Constitution are under threat. The people should realise how the government has been run over the last five years: falsehood promoted, marketing done with Rs. 5,000 crore, an atmosphere of fear created, no achievement made, and industrialists, media persons, politicians and bureaucrats frightened. The country will not forgive Mr. Modi for laying down new traditions, such as criticising the country on foreign soil and flaying an important party of the country in public meetings organised through Indian embassies. Mr. Modi has used Indian embassies as tools for his own politics. People owing allegiance to the RSS have been posted not only in the Union government’s departments, but also in Indian embassies. They take crucial decisions. Secretaries and Ministers called to the PMO are insulted. There is great frustration within the BJP. Nitin Gadkari has sounded the bugle and others may join him in the near future. In fact, they should. How long will they prevent their voice of conscience from coming out?
You are close to both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, what should the Congress workers expect Ms. Gandhi to do?
Let me clarify a fact. Instead of saying that I am very close to Ms. Gandhi or Mr. Gandhi, I would say that like me, all honest, reliable, committed and dedicated soldiers of the Congress are close to both of them. This perception about my proximity to the Gandhi family is not correct. It is up to us how true we prove ourselves to the trust they repose in us. I am lucky that they have so much faith in me.
But the question was about Ms. Gandhi’s role in the Lok Sabha polls.
That you should ask Ms. Gandhi. Mr. Gandhi has exposed the politics of the BJP. About 40 years ago, cow protection was raised in the manner that the Ram temple issue is being raised these days. There was a march to Parliament, and several persons were killed in police firing. They forgot the cow, caught hold of the temple issue, and captured power through it. If they had been elected to power by offering a vision better than that of the Congress, I would have respected them. It is easy to set something on fire, but difficult to extinguish a raging fire.
Can we expect your government to take strong action against any attempts to foment communal or social tension in the State?
Obviously, yes. We will deal with such attempts without compromise. We will take strict administrative action.