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Congress won’t leave any stone unturned to ensure opposition unity, says Ahmed Patel

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Party warhorse says Narendra Modi’s talk of ‘simultaneous polls’ is an election gimmick, says PM’s ‘graph has been falling’.

New Delhi: As the Congress prepares to hold its plenary session from March 16-18, a critical question looms: Will party president Rahul Gandhi hold elections to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) — the party’s top policy-making body — or continue the nomination process followed by his mother Sonia?

A big event for the party, the session will see more than 10,000 AICC delegates gather in New Delhi to endorse Rahul’s election as party chief, as well as other decisions taken by the CWC and its political, economic, agricultural and international road maps.

Congress veteran Ahmed Patel, a top party policy-maker for over two decades, is unsure about the prospect of CWC elections. “I can’t say at the moment (whether an election will be held), but it all depends upon the delegates, who are the voters,” he said in an interview to ThePrint, conducted before the results of the assembly elections in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya were announced.

Delegates supreme

“If they (delegates) say elections should be held, the schedule will be worked out. If they say there will be no need for elections, a resolution will be passed and the Congress president authorised to nominate (members),” he added.

Party insiders say the old guard will argue against an election. If they succeed, what signal will it send to voters when Rahul has been talking about the party’s democratisation?

“If they (the delegates) decide for elections, there will be no problem at all,” Patel said, adding, “There have been elections in the past: In 1992, there were election to the CWC during Narasimna Rao’s time, and Sitaram Kesri also held an election in 1997… We will abide by whatever is decided because delegates are supreme.”

The road ahead

The party has not held a brainstorming session since its 2014 defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, and there have been demands for one to chalk out future strategy as well as take corrective measures.

Patel said that, though not formal, internal evaluations had been conducted.

“In between, Soniaji’s health was not alright. Now that Rahul Gandhi has taken over, I think, three to five months after the plenary, there may be something like a brainstorming session,” he said, adding, “Mr Gandhi is bringing in a lot of changes.”

The breakaways

Amid calls within the Congress to team up with former party members like Sharad Pawar (NCP), Mamata Banerjee (TMC) or Jagan Reddy (YSR Congress) who went on to float new outfits, Patel said the decision to return was theirs.

“There is nothing wrong to involve them if they want to come into the Congress or if they want to come together to defeat the BJP. We must come together to fight the BJP. One thing is sure, they want to defeat the BJP. Our goal is the same.”

The Congress, he added, was trying for opposition unity ahead of the 2019 polls.

“We will not leave any stone unturned,” he said.

“Our ultimate goal is to defeat the BJP. They should not come back to power,” he added. “They are not only our rivals, but it is not in the interest of the nation that they come back to power.”

As for the potential opposition candidate for the Prime Minister’s post, Patel said it would depend on the 2019 results.

“It is not a major issue. It all depends on which party gets how many seats,” he added.

When it was pointed out that Rahul had said in the US last year that he was ready to be the prime ministerial candidate, Patel replied, “I don’t know what the exact question was. But if someone asks such a question, what could the reply be other than this?”

No minority bent

Patel vehemently denied the popular perception that the Congress was tilting towards the minorities.

“Whenever injustice is done to any community, the Congress stands by them. Neither have we believed in things like soft Hindutva,” he said.

“The BJP and the RSS are rattled that Rahul Gandhi visits temples. But if you observe carefully, he has been visiting temples and dargahs as well. In Gujarat he went to temples both before and after the elections,” he added.

“That we are against a particular community is a perception created by the BJP and RSS to polarise voters, that’s all,” Patel said.

The Shah Bano Begum episode of the 1980s has long been held up by critics as an example of the Congress’s appeasement politics. The case revolves around the then Rajiv Gandhi government bringing a law that overturned a milestone Supreme Court verdict and restricted a husband’s responsibility to pay alimony to the period of iddat.

Patel dismissed the criticism on this count, saying the decision was taken “keeping in mind the situation at that point of time”.

“Even some Muslims leaders in the BJP supported it at that time. I don’t want to name them,” he added.

Addressing complaints

Many within the Congress and outside feel the party should think of a new narrative beyond Modi-bashing to attract voters. Patel hinted they were working on it, saying, “Our approach and narrative are always around the common man and the persons in need.”

There have been apprehensions with Rahul’s ascent in the party that the old guard might be dumped in favour of young leaders. As he was sworn in as party chief last year, Rahul addressed the fears, clarifying that his team would have a blend of the young and the old. Patel reaffirmed as much.

“This is not an issue at all. He is consulting senior people as well as younger people. The experience of senior leaders and the energy of younger leaders are the need of the hour,” he added.

There have also been complaints that the party brass had not bothered to groom second-rung state-level leaders. Agreeing on the need to do so, Patel said, “Of course, that is what the Congress president is doing. Today, you see youngsters in the organisation and at other levels. When we were in government, a lot of youngsters were given representation. But Rahul Gandhi wants to balance it.”

‘Modi’s graph falling’

Patel has known Prime Minister Narendra Modi for many years, both of them being political veterans with roots in Gujarat. Modi’s graph, Patel noted, “has been falling”.

“Even some of his own party MPs have started worrying whether he will be able to get a second term,” he said.

“Rahul Gandhi was drawing more crowds than Narendrabhai (during the Gujarat assembly poll campaign). In Gujarat, there were empty chairs at Narendrabhai’s meetings, which never happened before,” Patel added.

“Their strategy of fooling people all the time won’t work. People have realised it. The public’s two main concerns are income and expense. And now income is going down and expense, up,” he said.

Asked about the Congress’s stand on the instant triple talaq Bill, Patel said the party had already clarified that it was not against a law against the practice. “The bill has come because of the SC order and was worked out in such a hurry that other political parties were not consulted. If there had been consultations, we could have come out with a better bill,” he added.

“I think they are playing politics in the name of justice to Muslim women. They do everything keeping elections in view,” he said.

Patel said Sangh affiliate VHP’s recent decision to take out a ‘Ram Rajya yatra’ from Ayodhya to Rameswaram was a sign of BJP’s “insecurity” about 2019. “They want to divert attention because of their poor performance,” he said. “It has already been said that the court decision (on the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute) will be acceptable to all. Why this yatra? It is because elections are near and it is an attempt to cover up their failure and exploit the sentiments of the people.”

Simultaneous polls ‘a bid for political mileage’

The Prime Minister has repeatedly touted the idea of simultaneous Lok Sabha and assembly polls to curb stresses on the exchequer, but Patel said such an exercise would be impossible.

“It is just to float the idea and get political mileage. Political in the sense, telling people we are for simultaneous elections but the opposition does not support the idea. It is not possible within the framework of the present Constitution.”

Amid reports that the Lok Sabha polls may be advanced to 2018, Patel said it could happen only if the BJP believed the situation would be worse the next year. “Otherwise, Narendrabhai will not leave power even for a single day,” he added.

Despite recent election reverses, Patel is sure the Congress will manage to retain Karnataka in this year’s polls. “(Chief minister) Siddaramaiah has done good work,” he added.

As for his future role in the party, Patel said, “Whatever work is given by the Congress president or by the Congress parliamentary party chairperson, I will do it. To do work, it is not necessary to have a post always.”

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