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We can’t do without Mrs. Gandhi: Sheila Dikshit

NEW DELHI,SMITA GUPTA:Former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit feels that the Congress cannot at this stage do without Sonia Gandhi, even though it is her prerogative to decide the timing of Rahul Gandhi’s elevation. In an exclusive interview to Smita Gupta, she also makes a veiled attack on some of her colleagues who say that they can’t do anything till the changes are made, while expressing her full faith in the resilience of the Congress to stage a comeback.

Former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit during an interview to The Hindu at her residence, in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan

It’s two years since the Congress lost the general elections, but no changes have taken place. What is the reason for the delay?

I can’t say why there is a delay but a lot of thought is going into it. Now, sooner rather than later, whatever changes Mrs Gandhi wants to make will be made. But there is no time restriction: she will do it when she feels (it is time) because ours is a very large party and we have to take everyone with us. …This is not the first time that we have suffered such losses.

Surely this time the losses are greater…

No, no, Indiraji lost and came back, when Rajivji lost, no one thought we would come back. We came back. Then P.V. Narasimha Raoji lost and we thought that was the end. The Congress rejuvenates itself. So don’t write off the Congress. Even in these recent elections, the amount of votes we got are fairly good. …the Modi govt. has won only one State, Assam, one seat in Kerala, four seats in West Bengal. What is he tom-tomming about? We are not that kind of party… the Congress culture, …approach is very sober. We take both our defeats and our wins with equanimity. When we think we need to introspect and correct…, we do that. But when we win, we don’t feel that we have won for ever.

But when you delay making changes it’s demoralising for party members. In the AICC set up, party functionaries aren’t sure whether they are staying or going. Everybody is doing the bare minimum instead of…

Mukul (Wasnik) and I went to Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Kerala and sorted out the problems. We elected our leaders very smoothly. You do the work you are asked to, but you also have to take some initiative. What about people who are holding posts? Whether you are block adhyaksh, district adhyaksh or an AICC functionary, they all have their duties, maybe confined to some area, but you can carry on. Why blame someone else for what you are not doing?

So you are confident the changes will take place soon?

I can’t say I’m confident… that’s the prerogative of the Congress president… everyone in the Congress has left it to her willingly, not out of compulsion. So let her take her decision and whenever it is taken, it is fine.

Will Mrs. Gandhi pass the baton on to Rahul Gandhi or will she continue as president for the moment?

I can’t say: this is purely their family affair: it is Mrs. Gandhi’s judgment on which everyone has the fullest faith.

All of you, leaders and workers alike, have a stake in the Congress: in your collective wisdom you have decided Mrs. Gandhi is your leader and Rahul Gandhi is the successor. But surely you can push the process: in six months or so, you face elections in Punjab and U.P., in three years, general elections…

Frankly, and I say this as much for myself as for others in the party: we have the fullest faith in Mrs. Gandhi. She brought the Congress up and we had a Prime Minister for two terms, thanks to her vision, her way of handling things… Whether she does it now or 20 days later or a month late is her prerogative. And that prerogative has been given by us to her unanimously.

…One thing is certain: we can’t do without Mrs. Gandhi, no question. And Rahul should also be there. All Congressmen agree to that. How they do that, when they do that, what shape it takes, that’s their prerogative.

There is a sense that she is a prisoner not of the party but that she has to hand over to…

No, she is not a prisoner.

Let me put it differently: party leaders tell me that every time they go to see Mrs. Gandhi, she says go talk to Rahul. But he has not been given the full responsibility. And every time there are electoral losses, people say this is not the right time for his elevation.

This is a perception. After all, whether in one’s personal or professional life, one weighs the pros and cons. Please give us this privilege.

Do you feel Rahul Gandhi has the ability to lead the party? No one questions Mrs. Gandhi’s abilities…

He is young, please remember…

He is 45. Rajiv Gandhi had been Prime Minister for five years at 45.

By young, I mean young in experience. You can be 75 and still be young. Most of us feel that given time, he will come out with flying colours. I believe that.

People are confused by Rahul Gandhi: whenever there is an electoral loss, he says I’m not in politics to win elections, but to change society. But unless you win elections, you can’t do very much.

That’s true. At the moment, his priority, probably, is the current system we have been following needs an overhaul… …To suit the (demands of) modern politics that has emerged… I can’t speak about the other chief ministers but I can speak about Kejriwal and Prime Minister Modi: they have changed (politics). In our parlance and in the kind of atmosphere that we grew up in politics, we don’t think they are dignified. Their language, their promises, their announcements to divert attention are becoming well-understood: so you see Rahul Gandhi is trying to overhaul the traditional politics that we have followed. …let’s give him a little time.

You brought up Kejriwal. In December 2013, when the Congress lost Delhi, Rahul Gandhi said publicly that the Congress should try and become more like AAP, something that many in your party felt was the wrong thing to say…

I am not going into the rights and wrongs: but one thing Rahulji told me himself: can we as a party give the kind of freebies that Mr. Kejriwal has promised? Can any government do it? Can you give everyone free power, free water?

And what is odd and even? If the purpose of odd and even was to bring down pollution, nothing happened. The point I am making is that we cannot be like Kejriwal.

Rahul said it…

He may have said it at that time. I told him later, Rahulji, could we have taken on the policies with which Kejriwal came to power? And he said, not at all. I am giving you another side.

There is again talk that Priyanka Gandhi may be brought in to play a larger role. Is that possible?

That’s her decision, and the family’s decision.

Can it be ruled out?

How can anything be ever ruled out or ruled in? The future will tell…

In Rae Bareli, Mrs. Gandhi responded to the charges made against her son-in-law, Robert Vadra. Was that a mistake?

No, she’s right. She said, bring out the facts and if there is something wrong… there is this feeling in the country… that there is a definite strategy to attack the Nehru-Gandhis. Why has Nehru been removed from textbooks in Rajasthan? Can they write off Nehru, the first Prime Minister of this country, a great freedom fighter elected by the people? He’s history. You want to change history. Mrs. Gandhi is right — the Modi government pulled out National Herald, found nothing, pulled out Agusta Westland, found nothing. Why are they trying to malign a family? Because you are afraid of their popularity.

The question is: is Robert Vadra a member of the Congress or not?

I don’t know… But he is Mrs. Gandhi’s son-in-law and he is Priyanka Gandhi’s husband.

The moment Mrs. Gandhi defends him, people start to draw all sorts of conclusions.

She said the right thing: she said have an enquiry and find out. Before you have found out anything, you are accusing someone …I am told that this (arms dealer) Sanjay Bhandari has been saying …that he used to meet me twice a week: I have never seen the man and the Government of Delhi does not deal with arms and ammunition. The police is with the central government. What are you meeting me twice a week for? No one meets me twice a week unless it happens to be a friend or my son or my daughter or daughter-in-law. The point I’m making is that you are just trying to malign the Gandhi-Nehru Family and that message is going out strong and clear…

Some people in your party feel that it’s time that people like Mamata Bannerjee, Sharad Pawar and Jagan Reddy came back to the Congress…

Well it depends on the circumstances — they will also respond to their circumstances. Both hands have to reach out.

Has the Congress anything to offer them?

Nothing at the moment, nothing has been thought of.

What do you feel about the departure of Himanta Biswa Sharma in Assam?

Well it was a setback, certainly.

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