New Delhi — Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who will be ending his Rajya Sabha stint on Monday after a four-decade-long career in Parliament, spoke to Sunetra Choudhury and Saubhadra Chatterji about his farewell by the Prime Minister, speculation that he may join the BJP, about being a ‘Hindustani Muslim’, and the thinking behind the letter written by the ‘Group of 23’, among other issues.
Your farewell grabbed the headlines. Can you tell us about your relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
We know each other since the ’90s. We were both general secretaries, and we used to come on TV debates representing different views; we used to fight also in the debates. But, if we reached early, we used to share a cup of tea also and chit-chat. Later we knew each other as chief ministers, meeting at the Prime Minister’s meetings, home minister’s meetings. Then he was CM and I was health minister, and we would speak every 10-15 days on different issues.
Why we were both crying was not because we knew each other, but the reason was that, in 2006, a Gujarati tourist bus was attacked [in Kashmir], and I broke down while speaking to him. The PM was saying that here is a person who’s retiring who is also a good human being. He couldn’t complete the story because he broke down, and when I wanted to complete the story, I couldn’t because I felt I was back in that moment 14 years ago when the attack took place.
Do you think this gesture of the Prime Minister will resonate with a wider audience of Jammu & Kashmir?
I think this will not affect the issues of Jammu & Kashmir. The entire population is so concerned, not just about Article 370. Downgrading the state to a Union territory, which was not a BJP agenda, and the division of the state, have hurt everybody; we’ve been reduced to ashes. I’ve only seen upgradation of UTs into states, and my own state, which is among the largest and oldest states in the country, has been made a UT. Nobody can digest that.
Shashi Tharoor described the PM’s crying that as an ‘artfully crafted performance’.
I don’t know in which sense, and most of the people didn’t know the background. A lot of people thought the PM was doing it artificially, because why should he bother that a Congressman is going. As I said, the words he used were for me, but our emotion was in a different context.
What do you make of the speculation that you may now join the BJP?
I will join the BJP when we have black snow in Kashmir. Why BJP — that’s the day I’ll join any other party. Those who say this or spread these rumours, they don’t know me. When Rajmata Scindia was the deputy leader of the Opposition, she stood up and said some allegation about me. I got up and I said that I take the allegation very seriously, and on behalf of the government, I would like to suggest a committee which would be chaired by [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee, and would have her and [LK] Advani as members. I said that they should complete the report in 15 days, and whatever punishment they suggest, I’ll accept it. Vajpayeeji came in as I mentioned him, and asked why. When I told him, he stood up and said — I offer my apologies to the House, and also to Ghulam Nabi Azad. Maybe Rajmata Scindia doesn’t know him, but I do.
What did your own party people say about the term ending?
The party president had written a long letter appreciating my work all through, as general secretary, as LoP. She also said that we have to work together to strengthen the organisation, and after that I met her. She said we have to prepare for elections.
Did you also meet Rahul?
We met, we met. Once, twice.
In the speech, you talked about being a ‘Hindustani Muslim’. Why did you bring this up — recently you said that the number of invites that you get to campaign have reduced.
I had said in AMU that the atmosphere in the country is so vitiated that contrary to the past where 99% of Hindu candidates would invite me to campaign for them to get the Muslim vote, the number of invitations has gone down to 40%. My message was also to the alumni who had gathered there, that it’s their job to be ambassadors, and to bring that India back — the India where I contested in 1979 in the Lok Sabha from Maharashtra, where 95% where Hindus. There was a Janata Party Hindu candidate against me, but I still won.
Do you think this is the same India? Could a young Muslim leader aspire to be PM?
It’s very difficult. I don’t foresee it in near future, maybe a few decades.
The PM referred to the conflicting strategies in the Congress — joined the debate in Rajya Sabha but not in Lok Sabha. How do you look at it?
I think the honourable Prime Minister was not fair by taking the Congress’s name. It was all political parties; they were all unanimous in having the discussion in RS. He should have used the word ‘Opposition’ and not Congress. There has to be a difference between LS and RS. The bills, if not referred to Standing Committee, can always be referred to Select Committee. Lok Sabha members have their constituency on their mind and may take hasty decisions; that’s why the House of Elders will coolly apply its mind, and do what’s good for their country.
Can you share with us now how the ‘Group of 23’ started and came to write the letter to Sonia Gandhi?
We have lost eections earlier — we got only 153 seats in 1977; we lost again in Rajiv Gandhi’s time, getting only 197 seats, in Narasimha Rao’s time we got 140 seats. But losing twice and getting 44 or 52 seats and not even having a Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha was unacceptable to us. Some people feel very bad that we’ve fallen from the sky to even below the ground.
We have come from the organisation, so our accessibility to people is much more than anybody. If people can’t meet someone, they come to us. They gave us a list of things that were going wrong, and needed to be corrected. Then we put it all together, and this is what we wanted the leadership to see. It was unfortunate that someone leaked it. That was not our purpose — and I wouldn’t call it a leak as it’s not a state secret; it was how to strengthen the organisation.
There’s a big para on Nehru, big para on Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi. We didn’t have really a president at the time because the elected president had resigned. And the other president had said only one year and that year was going to end that month itself. That was the reason that we wanted a full-time president, we wanted elected bodies at each level, so that we could rise from the ashes. We wanted to strengthen the organisation and not challenge it.
But critics point out that in Talkatora session you empowered the Congress president to nominate members to CWC and not elect?
I supported Rahul Gandhi, but he resigned. We spent one hour convincing him, but he said no. So once he’s out, who’s there? We requested Mrs Gandhi, she said no. Then there was a break for one hour. Then we all got together and told her that you have to be there. Some said six months, some said four months — we all decided one year. We had no president, the elected one had resigned. And so when we wrote the letter, there was no president and we were talking of a third person.
Four months later, the process for AICC to choose candidate will start. Who is your preferred candidate?
Let the bridge come.