RAVISH TIWARI: Who do you think is responsible for the washout of the Monsoon Session of Parliament?
Our agenda was to raise issues. Not just the Congress party, at least 15 opposition parties had decided on the priorities for the Session to save our fundamental rights, freedom of expression and speech… No one was spared from the Pegasus spyware — the Army, press, Opposition… We had decided to raise four issues: Pegasus, farm laws, Covid-19, and inflation, along with prices of petrol and diesel… We gave many notices on these issues but all of them were rejected. When we were raising the Pegasus issue, and pointing out that it was a violation of basic fundamental rights, it was called disruption. They (the government) said they don’t agree with the charges, but didn’t explain why. Rajnath Singh called me to say that he was going to Tajikistan, after which something needs to be done about it (Pegasus). Then, (Union ministers) Piyush Goyal and Pralhad Joshi came to meet me. I told them that we were having a meeting of opposition parties, after which we would tell them our decision. They left… Then they spoke to some opposition leaders in the Hall, some inside Parliament… It doesn’t work like that. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure the functioning of the House. They didn’t do it.
We had also demanded that both the Prime Minister and the Home Minister be present during the Pegasus discussion because they are responsible for internal and external security. The IT Department is only the facilitator. If they are told to tap Kharge saab’s phone, they will do it. But who gives the instructions? Who is responsible? That is why we wanted a discussion on it, so that the country also gets answers…
… If we are alive, only then can we discuss other things. If we have a voice, then we can speak for others. If we don’t have a voice, then there will be no farmer issue, no inflation, no price-rise, neither Covid. The one speaking up should have the power.
RAVISH TIWARI: Did the government tell you why it didn’t want to discuss the Pegasus issue?
If they discuss Pegasus, their reality will be unmasked. We had sought a Supreme Court-monitored SIT to probe to ensure that there is no pressure. It would not have been possible with the CBI or Enforcement Directorate (probing). That is why they (the government) got scared and stalled the debate. Then they brought up the Covid issue, and since it was of national importance, we participated in the discussion in the Rajya Sabha. But then we raised Pegasus again. Nearly 15-16 days were wasted in this. If we got four-six hours one day, we wouldn’t be here. Parliament would have functioned smoothly for the remaining 15 days. I would say the Israeli company ‘NSO’ stands for ‘Narendra, Shah Overall surveillance’. They were scared of a debate.
LIZ MATHEW: In the Lok Sabha, there didn’t seem to be any coordination between opposition parties. Also, why weren’t issues such as Pegasus and Bills being passed without discussion raised in the Business Advisory Committee?
We were demanding a discussion on the Pegasus issue through Rule 267, which is not a part of the BAC’s agenda. Rule 267 allows the Chairman to suspend all the rules to discuss one issue, in this case the Pegasus issue. It’s not a new thing. When we were in power, on August 4, 2010, we had a discussion on inflation. On December 7, 2012, FDI in retail was discussed. On April 22, 2013, the issue of farmer suicides was discussed. After that, even when the (NDA) government came, on December 18, 2014, the issue of attack on the secular fabric of the country was discussed. On April 23, 2015, the agrarian crisis was discussed. On August 10, 2016, they agreed to discuss the Kashmir issue. On November 16, 2016, we raised demonetisation, they agreed. When they could agree to discuss so many issues, then why not Pegasus?
As far as (Opposition) unity is concerned, we conducted nearly 15-16 meetings in my chamber with all political parties. Whatever suggestions they gave, based on that, we decided together, and raised those issues… But why was the government not willing to discuss the Pegasus issue? It means they want to hide something. That’s why all (Opposition) parties were together. We addressed a press conference on Day 1 (of the Monsoon Session). Rahul Gandhiji also came twice, thrice in these meetings. We held press conferences at Vijay Chowk, Constitution Club. When there is a demand for discussion from all parties, why are the Prime Minister and Home Minister missing from Parliament? They need to explain since it concerns issues of security, snooping, privacy.
RAVISH TIWARI: NSO says it sells its spyware to only vetted governments. The Defence Ministry has said that they have not been part of any dealings with the NSO. Its buyers could also be state governments, some of which are Congress-ruled. Have you asked them?
The ‘government’ NSO refers to is ‘the Central government’. It means the Home Minister, the Prime Minister. The Defence Ministry saying that they were not aware of any such expenditure, that means that they are also not aware of what is going on in their own department. The matter is exclusively under the jurisdiction of the Home Minister and Prime Minister. They have wreaked havoc and it is a danger for the country and democracy.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: Why do you think the Chairman did not allow a discussion on Pegasus? Also, the government says that if Rahul Gandhi thinks his phone has been hacked, why doesn’t he file a police complaint. Have you considered it?
Yes, it is the Chairman’s prerogative to take a decision (under Rule 267). Nearly 30-40 members gave notices; all rejected. The Chairman should have also told the government that since there are so many requests, have a discussion. That didn’t happen. Many times earlier, the Chairman allowed such things. Why not this time?… I think it is the responsibility of the government… It is the government’s job to keep the people of the country safe. It is not Rahul Gandhi’s job alone. It is everyone’s job. I can ask you too, why have people in the press not filed FIRs?
RAVISH TIWARI: But can the Congress confirm that Pegasus was not used by the intelligence departments of the states where the party is in power?
How can I say that? All states have different intelligence systems. But this is directly linked to them (the Centre). I can’t point a finger at any state. The names of so many ministers have come up, names of heads of so many institutions have come up, including the Army Chief, can the state do this?
RAVISH TIWARI: You have been a part of the Legislature since 1972. What did you make of the scenes witnessed inside Parliament this time?
This has not happened for the first time. What had Sushma Swaraj said? ‘Disruption is also part of democracy.’ Arun Jaitley would often talk about ways of keeping democracy alive and also supported agitations within the democratic framework… They also were part of disruptions. On January 30, 2011, Arun Jaitley said, ‘Parliament’s job is to conduct discussions. But many times Parliament ignores issues, and in such situations, obstruction of Parliament is in favour of democracy…’ That is what we are doing. If the government can’t find solutions to the issues that we are raising, we are sending out a message to the country… In January 2011, Sushma Swaraj said, and I was there, ‘It is the government’s job to run Parliament, not that of the Opposition’. Now tell me, all this knowledge has come from them, what should be done? What is PM Modi doing? This has come from your leaders.
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: Why did it take the party so long to resolve the crisis in the Punjab Congress?
We listen to everyone in our party. It’s not like how things run under Modi-Shah. After listening to everyone, Sonia Gandhi constituted a committee. Harish Rawat, Jai Parkash Agarwal and I were on the panel. We listened to each MLA for 10-15 minutes, we spoke to ministers… We sat down with Chief Minister Amarinder Singh for six hours over two days. Everyone shared their grievances. Then we found the loopholes, after which Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi worked on resolving the matter. Finally, Sonia Gandhi assured both sides.
Today, the Congress is strong in the state. We will return to power.
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: But there still seems to be tension between Navjot Sidhu and Amarinder Singh?
No, there is no tension… Amarinder Singh is a senior leader and he puts a lot of thought into what he says. Sidhu is an enthusiastic leader and is working towards strengthening the party. I will give you an example. During events at Central Hall, whenever L K Advani arrived, we would all move aside to give him space. But Modi saab would not even look at him. He would not look at Murli Manohar Joshi either. There are many such examples. That is why let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to our issues. The people who made him (PM Modi), he doesn’t look them in the eye… The issue (in Punjab) has been resolved.
LEENA MISRA: There has been no Congress representation from Gujarat in the Lok Sabha for two consecutive terms now, and your numbers in the Rajya Sabha are also dwindling. Where do you think the party is going wrong?
We had the strength to elect Rajya Sabha members, but they are luring, purchasing or taking away elected members… They make them ministers. Is this the democratic way?… Our strength lies with the people. We are with them. Tod-phod karne waale BJP ke log hain (It’s the BJP that breaks governments). We got a majority in Uttarakhand, they broke that. We got a majority in Manipur, they broke that. They broke our majority in Madhya Pradesh. In Gujarat, you took away MLAs to gain Rajya Sabha seats. The same was seen in Goa, Karnataka, Arunachal Pradesh. Such people want to give us lessons on democracy?
RAVISH TIWARI: You were not invited to Kapil Sibal’s dinner with opposition leaders. It seems that you have still not been able to resolve issues with G-23 that has sought changes in the party.
It was a dinner for Kapil Sibal’s birthday and they would have discussed what they had to. I was not there, so I can’t give you an account of it. But if we discuss our party’s issues before people who we are fighting with in Punjab, does it strengthen our party? So let’s leave it. I didn’t need to go either. It was a personal event. But people who have got everything from the party must not think of destroying the party… For the past year we have been dealing with Covid. How many of these (G-23) leaders have gone out and helped people in their region? They raised these issues when Madam (Sonia Gandhi) was not well. It is inhuman.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: What will the Congress’s strategy be for the Uttar Pradesh elections next year?
The BJP is in power in UP, and see the state of affairs there. So many people died during the second wave of Covid. Dead bodies were lying on the banks of Ganga. There were no beds in hospitals, no oxygen… What has the government been doing? Dalits are facing atrocities, the Hathras incident happened… Facts and figures related to atrocities against Dalits are being suppressed in UP, just like Covid deaths. We will fight this. Priyanka Gandhi has been meeting people. Just because we have not come to power in the state for 20-25 years, doesn’t mean we don’t exist there. We will always be there.
GOPAL KATESHIYA: Are you satisfied with your Monsoon Session strategy against the government? How do you plan to take on the Modi government in the future?
As far as election strategy is concerned, it is made over time. There are different parties involved, and you have to agree on a few issues. We are working on uniting on a few issues and raising them. Pegasus, Covid, farm laws, inflation have been some of the issues that we raised together recently. These can be election issues too. The BJP has nothing but muscle power. They have been using the CBI, ED, CVC to throttle democracy. We will take these issues to the people. Unemployment has been increasing. They promised 2 crore jobs every year to the youth. Where are they? They have been lying since coming to power. They said they will give Rs 15 lakh to everyone, demonetisation will be good etc… You have made everyone a prisoner, from the press to leaders… But you cannot survive long with this… Our president Sonia Gandhi is also talking to everyone. We are working on a strategy. We will take everyone together and move forward.
LIZ MATHEW: What role would the Congress like to play? Would you want to lead the Opposition against the BJP?
The Congress always plays a positive role, proactive role. In Parliament we took everybody with us. All parties cooperated. That is why we succeeded in explaining issues like Covid and Pegasus to the people. There is no doubt our party will come forward… The Congress will give all constructive support to build this (Opposition) unity. Rahul Gandhi is coming forward and talking to leaders personally. There is no doubt we will have unity and fight future elections together with the other parties.
RAVISH TIWARI: We keep hearing about election strategist Prashant Kishor’s revival plan for the Congress. What is this plan?
I don’t know what his strategy is and what his conversation with the high command has been so far. If someone wants to help the party, and if their service is useful, the party high command will decide on what to do about it.
RAVISH TIWARI: Karnataka has a new Chief Minister. What does it say about the BJP’s situation in the state and what does this mean for the 2023 Assembly polls in Karnataka?
The situation on the ground will not change by changing the CM. The previous government ruined things and the present (CM) was also part of that Cabinet. They are all part of the same gang. The present Chief Minister will be dependent on the previous leader. The BJP secretaries sitting here (in Delhi) will tell them what to do. They did the same with Yediyurappa. So I have no sympathy for either side. What I am concerned about is that my Karnataka was a progressive state, it had a good environment… Earlier, leaders in the state across party lines spoke to one another, now they are all being watched… No one wants to even share a cup of tea with leaders from other parties.
RAVISH TIWARI: What does the poor handling of the second wave in April-May tell us about the state of the Indian administration?
We should have learnt our lessons during the first wave. But this government does not hold consultations. They were busy taking credit for Covaxin and Covishield. During the second wave, they exported vaccines when people were dying in the country. There was shortage of oxygen… You didn’t pay any heed to the report by the Standing Committee on Health. India has the best doctors, but they were not used. Rahul Gandhi spoke to the WHO (World Health Organization), and other experts, but even his suggestions were ignored. Then Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and I wrote letters and gave them to the government. It is a failure of the leadership, of the government. They intentionally did not act on good suggestions. They ignored suggestions from eminent economists. They just continued with their publicity drive. Now, he is trying to be Rabindranath Tagore… Earlier, he would change jackets every day… I don’t want to make personal comments. But he is not willing to accept the truth. That is why I call it (handling of the second wave) complete failure of the administration, of the Prime Minister, and they made the then Health Minister (Harsh Vardhan) a scapegoat… You gave more Covaxin, more oxygen to BJP-ruled states… People living in other states are citizens too. Don’t think the Congress got less votes… The Opposition got 60 per cent of the votes…. There is zero sashan (governance), maximum bhashan (lecture).
RAVISH TIWARI: Does the Congress support a caste census?
We have said that we should identify the poor, who is educated, who owns how much land, house, what business they do, their profession… To get this information, we need a caste census… The OBC Bill was passed unanimously, but they (the government) are taking credit for it… Bante, bante desh banta hai (The country develops slowly). If we made a two-lane road, then this government made it four-lane. Is there any point in taking credit for the entire thing!… Even before leaders of the present BJP were born, the country had a lot. The IITs, AIIMS, national highways, dams, irrigation projects were all there. So this attitude to take credit for these things is juvenile.
Jawaharlal Nehru was the most democratic man. He respected his opponents. He listened to leaders and responded. Now, the government has no time to sit and listen. He just walks away. The roots of democracy exist because of Nehru and we have been taking it forward. Today, everyone criticises the Congress and Nehru, but before pointing fingers, look at the ones pointed towards yourself.