Ahead of the upcoming high-stakes elections in Uttar Pradesh, Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra sits down with NDTV to talk about who the Congress will field as its Chief Minister candidate in the state and the party's strategy as it looks to recapture its position as a major political player in the state.
The Congress today promised a new vision for the crucial state, promising employment and development, as it released its vision document for the youth ahead of the assembly elections. The vision document is "not hollow words" but has been drafted after consulting youth whose views are reflected in it, the party said.
The Congress, reduced to a virtual non-player in Uttar Pradesh over the last few years, is jumping into the polls with a focus on the youth and women. The party has announced that it will reserve 40 per cent of its tickets for women in India's most populous state.
Here are the highlights of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's interview:
On initial ground reports suggesting UP is a bipolar fight, Congress remains marginal:
"In the last two and a half years, if you look at the politics of UP, it's really the Congress party that has been fighting for the cause of the people. Whether it was Unnao, whether it was Sonbhadra or whether it was during CAA and NRC, it was really the Congress party that came out on the streets and fought. I think everybody in UP is aware of that. Electorally, what the outcome will be, your guess is as good as mine. We are definitely putting up the best fight we have in us, says Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
On how acute the crisis was when she took over the party in the state:
In UP, we haven't been in power for over 30 years. When I was sent as the in-charge of UP, we had an executive committee of 520 and more people. It was difficult for me to wrap my head around that because I thought ok if this is the executive that is meant to actually be at an operational lot of people, how are we even going to establish responsibility and answerability in this executive. So, I mean that is just one example. I will say that despite not being in power for 31 years, there were people on the ground who had still been our Congress workers, old workers, who had been there carrying the flag, no matter what.
On conceding that overall Congress had no ground presence in Uttar Pradesh:
No. Overall I would concede that our organisation was extremely weak two years ago when I went there. This is why for the last two years, our primary focus was to rebuild our organisation there. You did not hear much about it publicly. But we did a lot of internal work. We rebuilt not just the district level, but the block level, the nyay panchayat level, and the gram panchayat level. We did two-day training programs for over a lakh voters. Today we have an organisation in every village. which was unheard of when I went there. It's not a claim, and it's not on paper. But the fact that we actually have people, we have their contacts, we have their numbers, we can mobilize in every village, is an absolute fact. And proof of it is actually, the rallies you saw in Gorakhpur and Varanasi, were organization-driven. So we employed a completely different method of mobilising for the rallies. We told our gram panchayat workers to bring three people, the nyay Panchayat person to bring one jeep, the district head to bring five jeeps. It was actually a mobilization that took place from the ground. And you know, in a way, it was our test, to see whether our organization was actually what we believed it to be.
On who will take responsibility for allowing things to come to this pass:
Nobody shirks accountability or responsibility for things. And I think my brother has time and again said that. What we have to understand about the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh is that the decline of the Congress party in UP is not something that happened in the last five years or six years. It is something that actually began in the 1990s when they made the first alliance with Kanshiram ji. That is when the decline actually began. So it has been a long time. So I would say that look, despite all that, despite the 30 years of not being in power, despite a weak organization, you are talking about us today. And we are fighting today, and we have managed to build our organization to the village level today, which means that hard work, and complete commitment, to actually rebuilding your organization with honesty, actually helps.
On whether it is now late to revive the party in the state:
There is a time for everything. Things happen when they are meant to happen. So, yes, I guess. You asked me this question I think when I was 20 years old.
On her reaction to the "chehra kaun hain (who is the Chief Minister face)" question at a press conference:
I was being a bit tongue in cheek. Because I am asked this question, every second question is the same question. Now clearly, I am the general secretary of UP and in most ways between me and Ajay Lallu who is the Pradesh Adyaksh and Mona who is the CLP leader, we are leading the effort in UP. So, but, I mean officially we have to say that this is the face or that is the face, I mean it is unlikely that we are going to do that. I am not saying it is safe to assume (that I am the face of the Chief Minister in UP). I am saying that I am the General Secretary of UP, the responsibility for UP is mine, and I am dealing with it.
On whether she will fight the UP state elections:
"You don't know yet whether I am or not. It's an open question for now. Let's save this discussion for another time. I have left this discussion for a little bit later. When we do have the discussion and if at all I decide to fight, I will let you know. I am considering. The discussion is on amongst us internally in the party, in UP, and when we come to some consensus about it, we will let you know.
On whether it can be assumed she is Congress' Chief Ministerial candidate:
No, I don't think you should make assumptions like that. I have clearly said that that is not the case. I have clearly said just now also to you, of course, I made a giant tongue-in-cheek remark at the press conference, but no. I don't think it is fair to assume that.
On the possibility of her contesting against Yogi Adityanath:
No, that's not on the cards. Well, until you mentioned it now, I hadn't considered it.
On BJP saying women feeling safer with goondas locked up:
To that, I would tell them to come and look around them and see what the actual situation is. Every woman I speak to says I am unsafe. She is not feeling safer. And most of them, if you look at all the high profile cases, whether it was Unnao, Shahjahanpur, whatever it was actually find the government and the administration, and the police, taking the side of the perpetrator of the crime. You often find them vilifying the woman who is the victim of the crime. I don't think that can make any woman feel safe. UP at the moment is run by a bunch of mafias. that is the truth. The government knows it as well as anybody else does. Everybody knows it. There is a mafia for everything. For example, there is even a mafia for entrance to government jobs, for the exams. There is a mafia for everything. Everybody in UP knows that. And I don't think anybody in UP actually believes that the security for women has improved in the last five years. I will give you the example of the Unnao rape victim who was allegedly raped by an MLA. the whole country saw what happened to her. She tried to fight her case, and there was an accident in which her lawyer was killed, her uncle is in jail, her father was taken into police custody and beaten to death. Take the case of Arun Valmiki, in Agra, who was accused of petty theft by the police, 18 people from his family were picked up, put into jail, beaten mercilessly. I met his brother who is, they placed the leg of a chair on his hands and sat on it. They broke his bones. they beat up his wife who has a one-month-old child. that was what the police did. And the admin took no action until we made a noise about it. So the police and the admin, even in Lakhimpur Kheri, it was very clear that had there not been so much political noise about it, it would have been brushed under the carpet. The FIRs were not being filed, the post mortems were not given to the families. That to me doesn't sound like a government that is controlling crime. It sounds like a government that is actually encouraging it.
On who came up with the "ladki hoon lad sakti hoon" campaign:
We came up with that slogan between me and the people in my office. About two and a half years ago. We wanted to run a campaign for women. We brainstormed a little bit and came up with this slogan. We used it now.
On the Congress counter to BJP's big 80-20 claim:
Our counter is that he should be talking about the unemployed youth in UP, he should be talking about what he is going to be doing to develop the state. He should be talking about how he is going to improve education in the state, health services in the state. He should be talking about how he is going to help small industries and businesses stand back (up) after the lockdowns, and how they have suffered during Covid, demonetization, etc. We truly believe, in the Congress party in UP, the discourse has to change. And we have to try to force that discourse to change. When you talked about bringing women into the discourse, partly, that is the reason. The reason is that there has to be some change in the debate and discourse. And when we brought women up, once we did, they could not be ignored. Once we did, even the PM had to have a women's rally for the first time in his career. Once we did, even the SP and RLD had to announce something for the women. And the BJP started making announcements for women, which was not restricted to only one gas cylinder. That means we were to some extent successful in bringing women into the centre of the discourse. Similarly, we think we should bring development, jobs, and progress into the centre of the discourse.
On people leaving and the problem over retaining talent:
I think there are two aspects to it. I think the first aspect is that at least I can speak for Jitin ji and Lalitesh ji since I am in charge of UP. Their opinions, their recommendations, how they want it to function were fully valued. They were in touch with me all the time. They all had a line to me. And they met me. In fact, I think I met Lalitesh, maybe a week or maybe 10 days before he left. And I met Jitin ji as well. Had many chats with him. I can't speak for them. I can't speak for why they would want to leave. I can say that as you say about talent, I can say that there are two ways to see it. And now that I have been working in UP, and I work right from the ground level, I see a lot of talent. And I see that some of that talent was also being stifled by people who had much more access than others. I think that primarily in UP, in the Congress, one of the big changes is, that that access has opened up. And the opportunity has opened up. And in many cases, there were people in the party, who had enjoyed positions and opportunities who had much better access, much better opportunity, and in many ways, prevented others from rising. To be very truthful, I did not make an attempt to hold them back because I realised that they had made up their minds.
On the wider perception that there is a bigger crisis of leadership in Congress
As my mother said, she is a full-time working president of the Congress Party and she is. My mother has been the interim president. She has also been the president of the Congress party for 20 years before that. So obviously she is a capable president who has run the party these two years, with her full capability. I am living in UP 24x7. Eating, sleeping, breathing UP. And that is what I am doing. I am not running any other show. I am running Uttar Pradesh, the show of the Congress in UP.
On Rahul Gandhi:
Rahul is the ex-president of the Congress party. He has very clearly said, when he resigned, he stated whatever he felt. He expressed it very publicly. he took responsibility. If people in the party want to consult him for certain things, there is no reason why he should be open for that consultation. If he were to close his doors and say I am sorry, I am not available for your consultation and I have no opinion, that would also not be fair. I am saying he is the ex-president of the Congress party. And in that capacity, there are many people who might want to reach out to him, to talk to him about issues. the party itself would and I don't think there is anything wrong with that. After all, I am the general secretary of UP. There have been general secretaries before me. Every now and then I ring them up and ask for their opinion. I consult them on things. There have been PCC presidents before the one there. They are asked to come, sit, and discuss and we ask for their opinion, even on small things like tickets. So it is a party that functions in that manner. I don't see any anomaly in it.
On Gandhi-factor in Congress leadership:
Perhaps that is one of the reasons. I don't see a lack of leadership in the party. We have such capable leaders. They are not from the Gandhi family. All over the country, in every state, we have capable leaders who are at the forefront. Even at the top. There are so many leaders. I don't think that anybody, For eg, I said there will be free and fair elections, I am sure other people will stand, and they should. People have stood against my mother. They have in the past. Why not? That possibility is very much there. But please don't discount, that there is another reality to this than the reality that is sort of, the one that we see here in the urban centres. And the reality on the ground of many many workers of Congress is also that there are certain leaders that they believe in. And there are certain leaders that they trust.
On the traction of Gandhis on ordinary party workers:
I would put it in a slightly different way. I would say that a lot of the workers I speak to and I am talking about block-level workers, district-level workers. I am not talking about the big and fancies. I am talking about the ordinary Congress worker, a lot of them do have this feeling that they say that look, we trust you, we have faith that you will do what is right for our party. We can't necessarily say that for other people. And perhaps that is also a shortcoming on our part. Perhaps they need to develop that trust in other people as well. I don't think on our part, if you, my mother or my brother, or me, we have any idea or any entitlement to being leaders of the Congress Party. I don't think so. I mean I certainly don't. I know that my brother doesn't. I know my mother doesn't. We would only be too happy if somebody else rose from the ranks and everybody had faith in them and wanted them to lead.
On Prashant Kishor:
I think it did not work out for multiple reasons. Some on his part, some on our part. I wouldn't want to get into the details of that. Broadly there was an inability to agree on certain issues which sort of impeded the discussion from moving forward.
On lesson learnt from 2017:
There were many operational difficulties with that alliance (Congress-SP alliance). So that was the operational part of it. But the biggest lesson actually was to go it alone. Because as long as we were running a campaign on our own steam, We had reached a certain point in UP, which would have actually benefitted our party, and perhaps in hindsight, it was a mistake to go into that alliance.