Congress was an alternative in the states, but won’t be in Delhi: P Muralidhar Rao, BJP national general secretary

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17 December, 2018

On 12 December, the Congress party found its way back into the Hindi heartland by winning assembly elections in three states that were previously ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party—Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The results are a major setback for the BJP ahead of the 2019 general elections. They also dent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP national president Amit Shah’s stated goal of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”—an India free of the Congress party.

While the Congress gears up to form governments in these states, the BJP will be introspecting on its defeat. P Muralidhar Rao is a national general secretary of the BJP and the party’s poll in-charge for the Rajasthan elections. On 13 December, Tushar Dhara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, spoke to Rao about what the election results mean for his party and its prospects for the 2019 general elections, and whether the Modi-Shah duo should be assigned responsibility for the defeat. “The kind of communication which should have been there between the people and the government [in Rajasthan], it was lacking,” Rao said. “A sense of alienation was there.”

Tushar Dhara: Were the results in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh along expected lines?
Muralidhar Rao: All states are different. You cannot put them into one category. In MP, you were having government for the last three terms under Shivraj Singh Chouhan and before that [the BJP leader and former chief minister] Uma Bharti, and in Chhattisgarh under Raman Singh. Sometimes people would like to have change for the sake of change also, and when you continue to rule for 15 years, you certain times take decisions that affect certain persons or groups, so all these things get accumulated over a period of time. So that kind of problem was there in Chhattisgarh and MP.

TD: What were those decisions and who were the groups affected?
MR: Government employees, sometimes they get affected. For example, I give a ticket to somebody, I don’t give a ticket to somebody, after a period of time it gets accumulated. These things are normal not just for my party, [but] for any party. Despite all these things, under Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s leadership, the party in MP has given a very good fight and our cadres have worked very hard. In Rajasthan, the state government has functioned very effectively. [There are] beneficiaries in huge numbers in Rajasthan, development has also taken place very rapidly. I feel the kind of communication which should have been there between the people and the government, it was lacking. Leaders in the government, they felt we are doing a good job—somehow the same spirit was not carried to the people. A sense of alienation was there—even polling management people were thinking there will be a rout in Rajasthan. We also got these kinds of reports. In the last six–seven months, the organisation geared up everything. I give credit to the entire organisation in MP and Rajasthan, and the leadership of [former Rajasthan Chief Minister] Vasundharaji and Shivrajji, and Modiji and Amit Shah. All political analysts were thinking there will be a rout in MP and Rajasthan. But the situation today is completely different. In Rajasthan, it is only 0.5 percent difference between Congress and BJP. In MP, though there was a decline in vote share, compared to the Congress even today we are having more.

TD: Why did the BJP lose in Rajasthan and MP?
MR: There are plenty of reasons. But how can I say now, within 24 hours? I am a party general secretary and unless I get a detailed feedback point-by-point, constituency-by-constituency, how can I tell you?

TD: Are the state units responsible for the defeats or Modi and Shah?
MR: BJP does not function like this. My party is not a family party. My party is not a one-leader party. So how can I say this man is responsible for the defeat and success? [The former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister] Raman Singh is responsible for the successes of 15 years, and today if there is any fault he’s also responsible, and he has taken it. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, as the leader of the party has taken responsibility. And our party, we function in a very collective way. We know it is collective leadership and collective thinking. Definitely, as leader of the party, Narendra Modi has responsibility, but how can you judge Narendra Modi in the context of Madhya Pradesh, and tell him he is the responsible man? It will not be fair.

TD: What about Adityanath’s impact? He addressed over 70 public meetings for the elections.
MR: Do you think public meetings give results? They are one of the factors. We have hundreds—house-to-house contact programme also we have done.

TD: What do the results mean for the 2019 general elections?
MR: Nothing. Maybe a fraction. Ultimately, out of 543 seats, MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan constitute something. How can I say they do not have an impact? But you cannot say this will be the thing through which you can predict the parliament elections. It is not possible. When Atal [Bihari Vajpayee] ji was PM, we won all three states and lost [the 2004 general elections].

TD: These threestates send 65 elected representativesto parliament. When you say fraction, how many do you mean?
MR: Don’t get into the numbers when I say fraction. It is a logic. In Telangana, these people had a mahagathbandhan. [In Telangana, the Congress, the Telugu Desam Party, the Communist Party of India and the Telangana Jana Samithi formed the Prajakutami alliance for the state polls]. What happened? People have not given the same result. Here, people wanted some change. In Rajasthan, Congress was an alternative. In MP, Congress was an alternative. So they have preferred Congress. When you come to Delhi, what is the alternative? Rahul Gandhi is not an alternative. You have a hundred alternatives.

TD: Are you saying that in 2019, the image that Modi has built up as the person who will deliver on the national front, will be—
MR: There are two things. The positive is Narendra Modi and the negative is the alternatives. Both will work. People will see. The question and the context are going to be different in Delhi. It’s not Rajasthan, it’s not Madhya Pradesh. You cannot bring the MP result and discuss the national election.

TD: Will the BJP’s performance in 2019 dip below 282 seats in the LokSabha?
MR: It is too early to say that.

TD: Will you rethink your strategy?
MR: Parliamentary strategy is different from the state strategy. How do you know we have to rethink?

TD: Do you think the Modi charisma is fading?
MR: When the Bihar [defeat] happened, what were people saying? So why do you bring Modi charisma fading in MP?

TD: Data shows there was a 6.5 percent swing away from BJP in Rajasthan.
MR: Compared to 2013, there is a decline, but compared to Congress, we are not down.

TD: Which was the biggest surprise of the three?
MR: Definitely Chhattisgarh.We have not expected this kind of [result].

TD: What went wrong there?
MR: We have to see, how can I say now, its only two days afterward.

TD: Why was Chhattisgarh a surprise?
MR: The government was functioning well and the leadership was very sensitive and pro-development, and in a new state like Chhattisgarh, a Naxalite-affected state, taking development to the remote areas was the biggest responsibility of the BJP. And today, the Maoist menace came down. It’s very unfortunate that the Congress aligned with Maoist forces both in Telangana and Chhattisgarh.

TD: Is that true?
MR: 100 percent.

TD: Formally, where was the alliance?
MR: Where is the formal alliance? When Congress was in government they arrested [the poet and activist] Varavara Rao many times in Hyderabad. They never said democracy was in danger. This time when Varavara Rao was arrested [in August 2018], they equated with health of democracy. This shows the alignment, how they have changed their tactics for power.

TD: But the Telugu Desam PartyCongress didn’t align with Maoists?
MR: I am talking about a different thing. The people who worked 30–40 years for Maoism, they aligned with Congress.

TD: But in Telangana, the Congress and TDP alliance got routed, and in Chhattisgarh, the Congress won, so how can you say Congress and Maoists were aligned?
MR: You cannot equate both those states. Telangana is a new state, here Chhattisgarh is different. I am not equating, I am not saying only because of this we got defeated. I am only saying it is not an electoral factor, I am saying its unfortunate they have aligned. I appreciate the way the Raman Singh government worked for 15 years to bring development and where terrorism has got below normal.

TD: Was reforming the public distribution system the most important achievement of the Raman Singh government?
MR: Yes, but it was good governance on all fronts. It was a new state when he came and it was badly affected by terrorism, and poverty was very high. In such a state, he governed for 15 years and he delivered.

TD: Was the same kind of delivery visible in MP and Rajasthan?
MR:In Madhya Pradesh—any state working on agriculture, expanding it, and winning awards year after year from the president—when you have a high growth in agriculture, it creates prosperity for many people. And that is shared prosperity. Agriculture growth is the credit only of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.

TD: Both Rajasthan and MP saw high agricultural growth from 2003 to 2014–15. After that, there were two drought years and growth started dipping. Analysts point to farmer anger for the BJP’s losses and the Congress’ gains. Do you agree with this theory?
MR: If agricultural distress is the problem, then BJP would not have fared like this. Agriculture is not a sector specific to one or five constituencies. When you have agricultural distress, two-thirds of the population will have a problem, and if that was the case, the reflection would not be this kind. The BJP would have completely lost deposits, both in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

TD: The Congress won more rural constituencies in both Rajasthan and MP whereas the BJP has fared better in urban constituencies.
MR: Don’t take one angle and do the interpretation. Don’t just raise one question and generalise the answer. Then what is our decline in urban areas, in Jaipur we have lost more, out of nine seats we have gained only three seats, though Jaipur is seen as a BJP fortress. If we had lost because of agriculture, then why should we lose like this? Why we should not lose more? Agriculture is not a small sector. It affects two-thirds of the population. Then why we are not routed? Don’t pick up only convenient things. To bring out something you want is a selective analysis.

This interview has been edited and condensed.