Manish Tewari, a senior Congress leader and former Union Minister, is among the ‘group of 23’ leaders who wrote to Congress president Sonia Gandhi last year seeking organisational overhaul and restructuring.
As the ruling Congress in Punjab remains in turmoil, the Lok Sabha MP from Anandpur Sahib speaks to The Indian Express about the political happenings in his home state and the crisis in his party. Excerpts:
Why is the Congress facing a crisis in Punjab?
The Congress came to power in Punjab in 2017 winning 77 out of 117 seats in the Assembly, which was the highest number since Punjab was formed in 1966. People essentially voted for the party for three reasons — the security of the state given that Punjab is a sensitive border state; safety of the citizens as the previous 10 years was an unabashed orgy of hooliganism; and political stability. For the last four and a half years, Punjab was politically stable and progressing in the right direction. Which is why people reiterated their faith in the Congress in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as well even when the Congress faced setbacks in other parts of the country.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get appreciated by those in the AICC leadership. From May of 2021, Punjab entered into a spectre of instability which was completely unnecessary and people who are in charge of the state government never perhaps appreciated the sensitivity of handling of a border state, which has an overhang of extremism and terrorism. Therefore, we have landed up in the current situation.
Given what has happened in Afghanistan, the kind of hubris which the Pakistani deep state belabors under, any political instability in Punjab plays directly into the hands of the evil designs of Pakistani deep state. There have been compounding of the problem, primarily because the farm agitation has completely stretched the social fabric in Punjab.
But the chief minister was in charge?
I am sorry the former chief minister never created any instability in Punjab. I don’t think it requires rocket science to figure out who (all) were responsible for creating the instability. It is certainly not the ministers in Punjab or much less the former chief minister, for that matter it is not even the MLAs.
How do you think the crisis, which was created after the appointment of the new chief minister, can be resolved now?
You need to separate or uncoil two strands – the electoral strand and the national security strand. Unfortunately, whenever Punjab has faced a spectre of political instability, it is the people who have paid the price for it. The state lost 35,000 people between 1980 and 1995 in order to win back peace. Under those circumstances in a border state, electoral consideration becomes secondary to the larger national security equations. Therefore, this volatility which unfortunately has been created by people who were handpicked to succeed their predecessors could end up having fairly long-term implications, which may not augur well for either Punjab or the nation.
What’s your reading of Captain Amarinder Singh’s latest moves including his meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah?
I am not going to second guess Captain Amarinder Singh because he is more than competent to answer for himself. What he told me was that he was trying to find some modus vivendi on farm bills to the satisfaction of both the agitating farmers as well as the government.
There were rumours that Captain Amarinder would meet the members of the so-called G 23. Now that he has ruled out joining the BJP and that he does not want to remain in the Congress, what is the significance of his meeting with them?
After all, Captain Amarinder has spent close to a lifetime in the Congress party. Some of the people you referred to are also those who have spent 40-50 years, dedicated their whole lives to the Congress party. If somebody indeed wants to meet another colleague, I would ask myself can that be classified as blasphemy?
There have been a lot of developments in the last 24 hours. After Kapil Sibal came out reiterating his demand for an election to the top post, a group of Congressmen staged a protest outside his residence. How do you see this? Is the ground getting prepared for some major political moves?
What happened at Sibal’s residence last night is extremely unfortunate and needs to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. I recall way back in 1987, when a similar protest was organised against V P Singh — some people were skylarking against him – who had left the Congress party. The people who were part of that protest were expelled by late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi from the party, notwithstanding the fact that V P Singh had caused unnecessary embarrassment for the late PM. He still did not countenance that such kind of activities should at all be permitted. That was the culture of the Congress party that we would not let anybody take the law into their hands even against your political advisory. Therefore, I think the Congress president should take what happened at Sibal’s residence extremely seriously. After all, he fights for the party. What has happened is extremely despicable.
The endeavour of every right- thinking Congress member is to strengthen the Congress party. As 2021 draws to a close, we are only 33 months to another general election, what the party requires is a leadership, a narrative, a robust organisation and appropriate amount of access to resources in order to ensure that the NDA-BJP juggernaut is neutered. That has exactly been the endeavour since we lost the 2019 election, these are the four moving parts and they have to align themselves if the Indian National Congress again has to be in the vanguard of saving the idea of India. Therefore, to misconstrue it as dissent or giving it any other name, will be the greatest disservice to the bonafide and genuine intention of Congressmen who are concerned about the party. There are certain vested interests who for their own purely partisan purposes would like the leadership to believe that this is some kind of insurrection or mutiny against them. As I have cited ad nauseam over the past one year, it has neither been the intent, the only interest is how do you boost the Congress party so that it can save the idea of India which has been under an unstinted attack over the past seven years .
Do you still have hope?
As someone who spent 40 years in the party, dedicated my entire adult life in the service of the party, I do believe that this is the instrument which can possibly perform this function, become the fulcrum around which the larger opposition can coalesce and we would be feeling a historic responsibility if we do not measure up to the challenge.
Is there a divide in the Congress between the Congress loyalists and the family loyalists?
I think it’s an artificial divide. That’s an hairsplitting which has been done by the people purely in order to satiate their own personal agenda. After all, the Congress party has been an instrument of nationalism and progressivism going back to 1885. How can those people who are committed to the core ideology of the Congress party be perceived as antithetical or inimical to the leadership of the Congress party. It’s an oxymoron, but certain people do advance this because it serves their vested interests.
Your remark when Kanhaiya Kumar was getting inducted to the party was interpreted in different ways. What do you think about the induction of such leaders into the Congress?
In fact, it was I who suggested to Kanhaiya Kumar at the Thiruvananthapuram airport when we met during campaigning that he should join the Congress party. I welcome his induction into the party. I think he is an extremely energetic young person and his induction would definitely strengthen the Congress in Bihar. However, there are certain issues, which is why I referred to the Kumarmangalam thesis – which is an interesting book written in 1973 by a veteran journalist Satyendra Singh . The reason I referred to was this. The Congress has traveled a long way between the Garibi Hatao of 1971 and the neo liberal economy that it embraced in 1991. Therefore, are these people who are brought into the Congress party comfortable or willing to accept the expansive liberal and global ideological orientation of the Congress party towards the economy? I had put out the tweet in this context.
Charanjit Singh Channi has taken over in Punjab. How do you see his leadership?
Mr Channi is a very hardworking person. He represents the assembly which falls within my parliamentary constituency. We worked very closely as MPs and MLAs together. I always found him to be extremely reasonable and grounded. Unfortunately, he is put to grief not by people whom he has ostensibly replaced, but by people who have replaced them. It poses a question: are they comfortable with the change of leadership in Punjab? I think Channi deserves a fair chance and given that, he would do well.
When Navjot Singh Sidhu resigned, Captain Amarinder Singh recalled what he had said about him, linking it to the national security factor.
I do not want to go into personalities. But given the manner in which things have panned out, perhaps it would be appropriate to put it on record that 10 of the 11 MPs had actually written to the Congress president on the day he was announced as the president of PPCC that we had reservations with the appointment and therefore it should be reconsidered. If 10 MPs petitioned the Congress president in writing, they must have done so because they had some genuine and valid concerns about how it would play out in future.