New Delhi: Karan Thapar spoke to Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh on Devil's Advocate about the governance of the Congress party, who calls the shots, the equation between Sonia Gandhi and PM Manmohan Singh and the prospect of Rahul Gandhi being nominated as the party's prime ministerial candidate.
Karan Thapar Hello and welcome to Devils's Advocate. I am in an interview with a Congress leader who is not afraid to speak his mind and stands by what he says, Congress party General Secretary Digvijaya Singh. Mr Digvijaya Singh, let's start with the comment that you made about the separation of powers between the Congress President and the Prime Minister, which has attracted great controversy. You said, "Personally I feel that this model hasn't worked very well." Give me a few examples where it hasn't worked well.
Digvijaya Singh: Karan have you seen NewsX, my whole interview? People have reacted without seeing the whole interview. The question was asked in reference to Mr Rahul Gandhi, whether he would be, provided we get the mandate from the people, would he like to be the Prime Minister or not? So I had said that no, he should become the Prime Minister if we have the mandate. And of course it's always better to have one point at which the buck stops. Here of course Mrs Gandhi has never interfered in the functioning of the government of India, whatever the people may say. But the fact remains that this impression that goes around, this perception that goes around, it doesn't really help.
Karan Thapar So a perception is we don't know where the buck stops and that create uncertainty.
Digvijaya Singh: This is what I meant.
Karan Thapar So when you say that this hasn't worked very well, you are saying that the perception is the undermining factor.
Digvijaya Singh: Exactly.
Karan Thapar Now in fact you also said and I'm going to quote, "I personally feel there should not be two power centres, and I think whoever is the PM must have the authority to function". Two questions arise from that, in a two power arrangement, I assume the Prime Minister is the junior and the lesser centre of power?
Digvijaya Singh: See there is no junior and senior in this. The fact remains that Mrs Sonia Gandhi is the president of the Congress party and she is the face of the Congress party. She had the mandate of the people who elected us. So therefore she is the leader. As far as Dr Manmohan Singh ji is concerned, she has given the responsibility to carry on the promises made to the people of this country to deliver, which he has.
Karan Thapar So Mrs Sonia Gandhi is the leader and Manmohan Singh ji is her nominee?
Digvijaya Singh: Not her nominee, you can't say nominee but she has chosen him to lead the UPA government - UPA I and UPA II. And ultimately it was the parliamentary party which elected him as the leader.
Karan Thapar I'll tell you why I asked this question because normally in a parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister is the leader of the ruling party and MPs owe their first allegiance to him. In this situation, the Congress President is more important and MPs look to her. Doesn't that in a sense diminish the office of Prime Minister, vis-à-vis Congress President?
Digvijaya Singh: See the ranking by itself in the Congress hierarchy is always Sonia Gandhi is ahead, there is doubt about it. But the fact remains that Mrs Sonia Gandhi has not really interfered in the functioning of the government of India, except on policy issue like NREGA or Right to Information or Right to Education.
Karan Thapar Those are the areas where, as you say, she has interfered?
Digvijaya Singh: No, not interfered. They are the part of the election manifesto.
Karan Thapar Those are the areas were the last word was hers?
Digvijaya Singh: To a great extent- yes. For example, Food Security Bill. Now it's the commitment made by the Congress President and the Congress party to the people of this country to deliver.
Karan Thapar And that's another area where she would ensure that delivery happens, hers again will be the last word?
Digvijaya Singh: Absolutely yes.
Karan Thapar Now in fact you went further. When you said, "the Prime Minister must have the authority to function", weren't you suggesting that over the last nine years there were many instances where Dr Manmohan Singh did not have the authority to function freely and effectively?
Digvijaya Singh: No. In fact the party has stood behind Dr Manmohan Singh solidly. If you see the Nuclear Bill, there were some reservations within the party about the need for a Nuclear Bill at that stage. But then primarily we saw, the Prime Minister was keen to do that, so the whole party put its weight behind him.
Karan Thapar I accept that around the Nuclear Bill, the whole party eventually put its weight behind the Prime Minister. But there were earlier instances, for instance when petrol prices were first being increased, and when in fact the party protested about the price increase. So there have been times where in fact the Prime Minister has not been able to ensure that MPs and party stood behind him. They stood behind the protest against the price rise, which in a sense was what Mrs Gandhi supported.
Digvijaya Singh: Karan we are a political party and we are responsible and accountable to the people of this country. So therefore we cannot ignore the sentiments of the people of this country, which we have to then take up as a cause.
Karan Thapar Absolutely. And what you are saying in a sense underlies the fact that on sensitive political issues, there can be a difference between the position taken by the Prime Minister who heads the government, and the position taken by the Congress President who heads the party. That has happened several times.
Digvijaya Singh: Now in my opinion in the last nine years, and whether we have completed ten years now, there have hardly been very few instances.
Karan Thapar But there have been a few?
Digvijaya Singh: The one that you mentioned just now.
Karan Thapar Absolutely. And that is why this two power arrangement often doesn't give the Prime Minister the full freedom, Prime Ministers otherwise would have.
Digvijaya Singh: In fact Dr Manmohan Singh ji has had the full freedom to function, as far as the day to day matters were concerned. Only on policy issues, has really party given...
Karan Thapar Absolutely. On policy issues, the buck stop with Mrs Gandhi?
Digvijaya Singh: Actually yes.
Karan Thapar In implementation and execution, he has freedom?
Digvijaya Singh: Yes, absolutely.
Karan Thapar But policy rests with Mrs Gandhi?
Digvijaya Singh: Because it is a commitment made by the party to the people of this country, which is paramount.
Karan Thapar That I understand. But in a normal parliamentary democracy, both policy issues and implementation, the buck stops with the Prime Minister. But here in India, because of the unique circumstances, there is a division and difference.
Digvijaya Singh: Karan do you remember that 'one man one post' issue during Narashima Rao ji's time? When there was a strong, this thing, to have another AICC president? So this debate has been there for many years in the Congress party.
Karan Thapar Except that the debate first arose, as you know better than me, at the time of Purushottom Das Tandon, when Nehru was Prime Minister and Purushottom Das Tandon in the early 50s - 51 in fact - was attempting to assert authority as Congress president over the Prime Minister, which Panditji did not approve of. He had Purushottom Das Tandon removed and thereafter, all Congress presidents were in fact chosen with the concurrence and acceptance of the Prime Minister of the day. Mrs Gandhi held her job herself for a long time, particularly after 78. Rajiv held it entirely right through his five years, so did Narashima Rao. Lets move on, lets not get caught in history. You made here, you made a very important admission to me, or conformation as someone would call it, that in policy matters, Mrs Gandhi, the Congress President is primary. The buck stops with her. And in implementation, it stops with the Prime Minister. I pointed out that in fact in normal democracies, both policies and implementation rests with the Prime Minister. That is why India is different toady. However your colleague, General Secretary Janardhan Dwivedi, has said that the two power centre relationship, which you don't think works very well, is in fact the model for future. And in the response you said that as a good Congress soldier, you will accept this view. But the truth is you don't agree with the view.
Digvijaya Singh: Well there is a internal political democracy in the party itself, and once the official spokesperson comes out with a clear cut statement of the party's view, then we all fall in line.
Karan Thapar You fall in line, but your opinion is different.
Digvijaya Singh: I have said so already.
Karan Thapar And you stand by that opinion as you said?
Digvijaya Singh: This is absolutely personal.
Karan Thapar This is absolutely personal but your personal opinion is different to the official line of the party?
Digvijaya Singh: I must say that I have the privilege to have my own opinion.
Karan Thapar Absolutely.
Digvijaya Singh: But I will publicly follow the policy of the party.
Karan Thapar So although you are publicly following the policy of the party, the truth is that internally within the Congress, there are differences over this two power centers issue?
Digvijaya Singh: But for example there were difference of opinion on the issue of Nuclear Bill. There were differences of opinion on FDI in retail. But then once the party took a view, we all fell in line.
Karan Thapar Except in this instance, not everyone fell in line. Digvijaya Singh, the gentleman sitting in front of me, has accepted that he will fall in line even though he doesn't agree with the view, but Manish Tewari, the Information and Broadcasting Minister, in an interview to Aajtak has said that in fact the Congress has a trimurti - consisting of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. That suggests that it's not just two power centers, its three power centers.
Digvijaya Singh: No, let me tell you again. Mr Rahul Gandhi and Mrs Sonia Gandhi would be the last persons to interfere in through the day and day functioning of the union government.
Karan Thapar Except that Manish Tewari says something else, and I am quoting him, "We will portray the Congress trimurti, of Rahul, Sonia and Manmohan before the people. We will go to the people with this trimurti." He is suggesting that the Congress is going to...
Digvijaya Singh: It's not for the first time.
Karan Thapar Except that you are now looking at a hydra headed monster, or a Ravna with several heads.
Digvijaya Singh: Well for God's sake, don't give that name to us. There are other people whom I'll tell you. BJP is a master in double speak, but I'm coming to that. But at the same time in 2004, in 2009 we had all three people, Sonia Ji, Manmohan Singh ji, and Rahul Gandhi ji on our posters. This is not the first time
Karan Thapar Al right, this time it's going to be a three headed Congress that will present itself in front of the people.
Digvijaya Singh: It was in 2009, it was in 2004 also. And we got the mandate.
Karan Thapar Al right, let me then ask you a critical question. You may present three faces to the country in 2014, but do you Digvijaya Singh, speaking personally for your self belief, that the party should also announce the prime ministerial candidate before the elections?
Digvijaya Singh: See this is something which Digvijaya Singh cannot say.
Karan Thapar Well you have a personal opinion.
Digvijaya Singh: Yes, but the fact remains that the Congress party doesn't usually announce its candidate, whether Chief Minister or the Prime Minister, usually. And therefore I think the point is, in a parliamentary democracy, it is left, first of all lets not breach the issue. We have to get the mandate of the people first.
Karan Thapar You know, you believe in transparency and honesty and the honest thing to do is to tell the people before they vote for you that who will be the Prime Minister if you win. If you present them with a surprise, they may be disillusioned. It's less than honest.
Digvijaya Singh: Karan, it's not the presidential form of government. It's the party ideology, as such which goes to people of this country and asks for a mandate. It's the ideology which is voted.
Karan Thapar You know, the great parliamentary democracies of this world, and I'll take Britain as one example, because many of us actually follow what Britain does, presents its candidate to the country and in fact they have prime ministerial debates in advance. The honest thing is for people to know if you vote Congress, who will you end up with? Rather than vote in the hope you are getting Sonia and find that you have got Manmohan instead.
Digvijaya Singh: You see, I'll quote so many examples. I'll quote my own example. When I became the Chief Minister in 93, I was not the Chief Ministerial candidate, there was no Chief Ministerial candidate.
Karan Thapar So what you are suggesting to me is that there is a good tradition of hiding the outcome from the people and you are going to continue it. Rather than be transparent, you are going to continue the tradition of hiding the outcome.
Digvijaya Singh: Karan, the transparency is in the ideology and the party programme and the election manifesto. Not in the leadership.
Karan Thapar Let me put it like this, there are only three choices for Prime Ministers at the end of the day - Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi and someone else. Will you eliminate someone else?
Digvijaya Singh: Well you are putting me a question which is totally hypothetical.
Karan Thapar Absolutely, but remember electioneering is hypothetical. You are asking for the country to vote for you and I'm saying the honest thing when you are doing that hypothetical asking for a vote is to declare who the Prime Minister will be, if you win.
Digvijaya Singh: Well last time in 2009, Sonia Gandhi ji had declared that Dr Manmohan Singh ji is going to be our Prime Ministerial candidate.
Karan Thapar But what about this time in 2013 or 14?
Digvijaya Singh: Then wait.
Karan Thapar But should it be done before the voting, that's what I'm asking?
Digvijaya Singh: This is for the party to decide.
Karan Thapar What's your personal view of the manner in front of me?
Digvijaya Singh: Well I will not give any comment on that.
Karan Thapar Certainly you have decided reticence is better.
Digvijaya Singh: No, on this issue of sensitivity, I will not speak out.
Karan Thapar You mean you blurted out once, you don't want to blurt again?
Digvijaya Singh: It's not the blurting out, it was a considered statement which Digvijaya Singh made and I stand by that.
Karan Thapar But you are not going to make another considered statement on the prime ministership?
Digvijaya Singh: Because it's not my issue.
Karan Thapar Lets take a break at that point Mr Digvijaya Singh ji. When I come back, I want to talk to you about the one man which most people believe will be your party's prime ministerial candidate, if you are on a position to form the government - Rahul Gandhi. That's in a moment's time. See you after the break.
Karan Thapar: Welcome back to Devil's Advocate in an interview with Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh. Mr Digvijaya Singh lets talk about Rahul Gandhi. Ram Guha, perhaps India's highly regarded modern historian, says that Rahul Gandhi is a well intentioned dilatant, that he is completely mediocre with no original ideas, and it would be dangerous to make him Prime Minster of India. What can you say to convince people that view is wrong?
Digvijaya Singh ar Ram is good friend of mine also and don't forget in 1967, Mrs Indira Gandhi was called a 'Gungi Gudiya' by the press, the media and the Opposition. And what happened later on. So therefore don't prejudge the issue, let the man functions as he wants to, give him space and you'll find the result.
Karan Thapar: In other words what you are trying to say is, give him a chance to be PM and you will discover he's not dangerous?
Digvijaya Singh There cannot be any kind of danger involved if Mr Rahul Gandhi ever becomes a Prime Minister.
Karan Thapar: So you reject Ram Guha's view completely?
Digvijaya Singh See I don't reject, but I differ. There is a difference between rejection and difference.
Karan Thapar: Very neatly put. Let me raise a second question about Rahul Gandhi with you. Does he or does he not want to be the Prime Minister of India? When he is asked, he repeatedly says that it is an irrelevant question and won't answer it. So I'm going to ask you bluntly, you know him, people say you are very close to him. Does he or does he not want to be Prime Minister of India?
Digvijaya Singh: Well Karan, very interesting. Here is one man who is falling overboard to project himself as a Prime Minster of this country after being a Chief Minister in a state and here is another person who is taking his own time to sort of come out with that and also is not very eager, what he is interested in is the delivery.
Karan Thapar: I accept the irony of the point you are making but you are not answering my question. You know him, which is why I'm asking you, does he or does he not want to be the Prime Minister?
Digvijaya Singh: Well as far as I know, he has never said that I don't want to be a Prime Minister.
Karan Thapar: He has never said that he doesn't want to be. In other words, he is consciously and deliberately left open the possibility that he could be?
Digvijaya Singh: Well to him what is more important is to serve the people. Have you not noticed the statement made by Sonia Gandhi ji to him, that power is a poison, don't use it for yourself, use it to empower the people.
Karan Thapar: But does that mean he is ready to become the Prime Minister and swallow the poison or will the poison deter him from taking the job? That's the question.
Digvijaya Singh: The poison will be used to empower the people of the country.
Karan Thapar: He can only do that if he accepts the top job. Will he accept the top job if it's offered, if it's available?
Digvijaya Singh: Well I told you that he has never said no.
Karan Thapar: Al right that's a clear answer. Lets now talk about the speech he made at the Confederation of the India Industry two weeks ago. Many people thought that the speech lacked a clear vision, others thought it was confused, some said that this sounded more like a young student still grapping with his ideas rather than a man who could end up as Prime Minister of India. Even if you don't agree with those responses, can you understand them?
Digvijaya Singh: Of course yes. You know what was his audience. His audiences were the hardcore corporate leaders who had to be told what Mr Rahul Gandhi and Congress party believe in. And this is exactly what he said. He put forth his vision for this country. Put forth how this country can be governed. Put forth how the programs can be delivered.
Karan Thapar: But the point I'm making is that many thought he was confused, others thought he didn't have clarity of vision. Can you understand that response?
Digvijaya Singh: Karan you forget Mr Rahul Bajaj, what he said after coming out. He was a great critic of Mr Rahul Gandhi earlier.
Karan Thapar: So Rahul Gandhi won over Rahul Bajaj?
Digvijaya Singh: Its look like that.
Karan Thapar: That's in your eyes is a measure of Rahul Gandhi's achievement?
Digvijaya Singh: Its looks like it. Because if you can convince a hardheaded Mr Rahul Bajaj in your favour, it is certainly creditable.
Karan Thapar: Now, Rahul Gandhi said that the Indian political system had failed to give a voice to a billion people. He made a lot of that point. But this is a system his mother has presided over for nine years. This is a system his father, his grandmother, his great grandfather had put in place. Did he realise that he was criticizing his family or is he not aware of the implications of what he is saying?
Digvijaya Singh: Why do you forget Karan, it was Mr Rajiv Gandhi, who brought in the system of decentralisation and empowerment of the elected body.
Karan Thapar: Lets not go back to history. The point is, Rahul is criticizing a system his mother presides over, his father, his grandmother, his great grandfather created. Does he realise that he is criticizing them by implication?
Digvijaya Singh: No Karan, you are misunderstanding the whole issue. It was Mahatma Gandhi who first spoke of decentralized governance, which Rajiv Gandhi also believed in, and Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi believe in. But unfortunately, it is the state governments who have to decide on devolution and decentralisation of power. That is a problem with the Indian federal government.
Karan Thapar:In fact it's the state government he is blaming, not his ancestors?
Digvijaya Singh: No, he is not blaming anyone. He is just putting forth his vision that in this country of 1.2 billion, you can't govern from Delhi.
Karan Thapar: You are saying that he criticises the system for not giving voice to a billion but he is not blaming anyone for that? That people do both together?
Digvijaya Singh: Listen to me. The point I'm trying to make is that you cannot, the point he made was, you cannot govern this country. One man cannot govern this country sitting in Delhi. It has to be delivered by the people of this country and that's why empowering of 1.2 billion people is important.
Karan Thapar: Let me put it like this. I have tried to raise some of the issues concerned with the Rahul's speech. What lies beneath it, is a simple question. Congress looks on Rahul Gandhi as the great hope, increasingly a lot of Indians look upon him as a great disappointment. Does it worry you, that there is such a gulf in the two perceptions?
Digvijaya Singh: We will see this country if the opportunity comes, led by Rahul Gandhi, and he will certainly not disappoint. This is what I'm saying.
Karan Thapar: In other words, once again you are saying that if given a chance, he will not disappoint?
Digvijaya Singh: Absolutely correct.
Karan Thapar: In other words, rely on trust rather than the evidence of your eyes.
Digvijaya Singh: No, what I'm trying to say is that just trust this man. Give him a space, give him a chance and he will deliver.
Karan Thapar: All right, I leave you the last word.
Digvijaya Singh: Thank you.