In an interview with during his visit to Delhi in July, Former Maharashtra Chief Minister and senior Congress Leader Prithviraj Chavan practically admitted that party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi is no match for Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he does not have the same stature or the oratorical skills as the Bharatiya Janata Party leader. Chavan also agreed that the Congress party organisation has weakened over the years and that leaders had lost touch with the people as they were hankering for posts and positions. He said it was imperative that all Opposition parties come together to challenge the Modi government.

The Congress today is a shadow of its old self. You don’t have a strong leader at the helm…a face. You were in power at the Centre for 10 consecutive years but you neglected strengthening the party organisation. Now, you have been in the Opposition for three years but have still not been able to get your act together.
When you talk of a face, the BJP, particularly Modi has managed to convert politics and elections into a [US-style] presidential form of fight where he scores…he is able to connect with the people in Hindi and he’s a good orator. We have a deficit there of connecting with the people in local languages.

At one point, the Congress had a very strong organisation but over a period of time, it has become shaky, so trying to outfight Modi in his courtyard and by his rules is always going to be difficult. The idea is how not to make it a presidential-style election. In some elections, you can project a face where you have one and in some when you don’t have a face, you fight the election on the basis of your organisational strength. The thing is you should be flexible. Take the case of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh – it did not project a face but contested the election on the strength of its organisation.

What has happened over the last 10-15 years is that rather than looking after the organisation, like the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] or the Left parties, we became a power-centric party. The party organisation was running after power, posts and positions…ministers, MLAs, memberships on boards and corporations, everybody was busy seeking a plum position. It all became a question of going up in life by knowing the right people and getting positions for their family members.

As a result, the party organisation was neglected and it has weakened in many states. At one point, it used to be such an honour to be a member of the organisation, an office bearer. The party’s district president enjoyed a lot of respect. But, over the years, that all fell by the wayside. There is a problem here and it is a big challenge for us.

Rahul Gandhi has not been able to get a grip on party matters and he’s not a good orator either.
Rahul Gandhi did try to reinvent the party organisation. For instance, it is mandated in the party constitution that elections should be held for organisational positions. But in reality, elections were not held and the positions were filled through nominations. Those already occupying positions would invariably nominate their kith and kin. As a result, nepotism crept in.

Rahul Gandhi tried to correct this and hold genuine elections – he wanted to hold direct elections. The intention was good but, I think it was too heavy a dose. Unfortunately, money power played a big role in the conduct of these elections. Can you imagine the wherewithal required by a candidate contesting in a state like Maharashtra or Uttar Pradesh? As I said, it was a good idea but it needs to be fine-tuned.

So you are saying Rahul Gandhi is not an alternative to Modi. In fact, it is said that Rahul Gandhi is Modi’s biggest asset.
That’s not true. The media always likes to poke fun at him. The point is they [the BJP] are failing to govern, none of their schemes are working. Can we encash people’s anger?

The question is whether we should wait for a charismatic leader to emerge or fight on the basis of our party organisation. I think it is possible if we can rebuild our party organisation in the states into a fighting machinery like we used to have. We have two models. The question is: do we use the strong leadership model or the model of a strong organisation? We saw the BJP lost in Delhi and Bihar. It is not the question of who defeated the BJP…the fact is it can be defeated.

You talk of two models but, at present, you have neither. You don’t have a charismatic leader or a strong organisation.
That’s a fact which is why we have faced electoral reverses in the last few years. But we have to choose an appropriate model. For instance, in Punjab we won the election because we had a strong charismatic leader. Each state has its own set of circumstances and, so we have to choose appropriately. But the model of throwing out established leaders did not work as it was too much of a revolutionary idea. Somewhere new political leaders will emerge and where they don’t, we have to go with the established leaders. Both models will work depending on what material we have. I admit it is a challenge.

The big question today is: can Rahul Gandhi lead the party to victory in the 2019 elections?
As I said earlier, Modi has succeeded in converting every election into a presidential battle. His quality is that he has oratorical skills, the ideology he expresses, his development agenda, the points that he makes. It is all about one individual. This is a dangerous trend as we are slowly moving towards a dictatorial setup. That’s why we are worried about fascism coming into the country through the back door.

The question is should we fight our battles by the rules set by him. My view is that we should set our own rules. When we don’t have a strong, charismatic leader in the states or at the national level, we should strengthen our organisation. BJP did precisely that in UP.

Ours is a large, old party and we do have the wherewithal to rebuild the party. It’s a question of putting the right individuals in the right places who can build a cohesive organisation. But if we try to emulate Modi and say we will beat Modi at his own game, we will outspeak him, it may not need people of that stature to match his oratorical skills. Today we don’t have leaders like that in the states.

Or at the national level. Rahul Gandhi compares poorly with Modi...
The nation is a sum total of the states. If we do well in the states, the nation will do well.

What’s the way forward? The BJP built a strong organisation, it is working very hard and it has a charismatic leader.
Yes, it is true, the BJP has built a strong election party machinery. But all the talk about giving the country a different kind of polity is all talk. The BJP has been running after winning elections and building a war chest. In the process, it has neglected governance …whether it is demonetisation, the foreign policy or the implementation of the is paying the price for it.

How is it paying the price? The BJP is winning election after election. There’s no anti-incumbency against the Government. Modi’s popularity ratings are still high. There’s no outrage among the people…
No, that’s not true. There’s outrage. The fact is that they are failing to govern, but can we encash people’s anger? I believe we can if we focus on rebuilding our party organisation, which we once had...But when it comes to Modi...he’s there, he is visible, he is the prime minister, he’s advertising himself heavily and making tall promises. It’s a different matter if he’s able to fulfill them or not. To take on Modi, you need somebody of equal stature who can match his oratorical skills. But that is not happening at the moment.

The Congress is fighting elections as it used to, on the basis of its organisation ….state by state, constituency by constituency, which is fine, but our party organisation is weak and we don’t have a leader of Modi’s stature.

You spoke of the BJP’s poor track record in governance, but people are not looking at governance. It’s issues like nationalism, patriotism and Hindutva that are dominating the political narrative today.
That’s precisely the point. The fact is the BJP government has failed to deliver on their promises, whether it is Swachch Bharat, smart cities, Ganga cleaning [or] black money. So naturally, they are trying to polarise the country on religious lines.

We have mob lynchings, attacks on Dalits, churches are being destroyed. Look at the situation in Kashmir. I believe there’s one view that let the Kashmir Valley go…how does it matter, because it helps in consolidation of Hindus in the rest of the country. If that’s the policy, it is most unfortunate and sad. Polarisation can work to an extent but eventually people see through it.

Here, it is the task of the Opposition to mobilise people and tell them that the government has failed to deliver on its electoral promises and that it is using these issues as diversionary tactics. But again you need a strong party organisation to do so.

There is a view that secularism is dead and that this issue has outlived its utility.
There was a time when people said “don’t talk about secularism, only development”. Any reference to minorities was seen as appeasement and vote-bank politics. But looking at what is happening today, secularism has to come to the centre-stage. Secularism has acquired fresh urgency today. It is more relevant because we promised to provide a secular state when we became independent but that is being destroyed. Ambedkar’s dream is unravelling, being undone. It used to be popular to say that secularism doesn’t get you votes but today, it is the need of the hour. We have to protect the Constitution and democratic values because they are under threat.

What is your view on the efforts being made to bring together all Opposition parties? There is a section in your party which believes that you should not piggyback on regional forces and instead strengthen your own organisation.
I think it is the need of the hour. Today the polity is too fractured for us to say that one party can rule the country. The BJP is still trying to do that but don’t forget that it only got 31% of the vote in the last Lok Sabha election. So you don’t have a choice. We need to work together as the threat posed by the BJP is real.

To say that we will wait to take on the BJP till we strengthen our may be too late. The BJP will not allow any political process to survive, they will finish all the Opposition parties. We are slowly moving towards a dictatorial setup. So we must fight all attempts being made to polarise the country and divide people on religious lines. Of course, when you come together, there is always an apprehension among the people that it will be a khichadi sarkar [a mish-mash of parties] but we have to work on a common agenda.

But we need all parties together, whether it is the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party], the SP [Samajwadi Party] or Nitish Kumar [of the Janata Dal (United)] and [Rashtriya Janata Dal’s] Lalu Prasad Yadav. All leaders will have to engage with people on issues. If we are opposing the GST or any other policy, we have to explain why we are opposing it...we have to present our own vision and, at the same time, expose the government.

The Opposition wants to build a campaign against the BJP on the ongoing agrarian crisis, but the government has launched many CBI cases against the Congress and other Opposition leaders to keep the corruption issue alive. How do you fight this?
It is true the agrarian crisis has brought all the Opposition parties together. It has been poorly handled and we need to expose the government’s incompetence and it is best done by all parties coming together. As for the corruption cases against the Congress and Other opposition leaders...these are old cases. The BJP has been in power for three years but not a single person has been convicted. The BJP gameplan is clear: don’t allow any of these cases to come to a conclusion, keep the sword hanging, damage the Congress party and create an impression that all Opposition parties are corrupt.

But it is for us to expose the government, to point out that Modi said “na khaonga, na khane doonga [I will neither engage in corruption nor let anyone else do so]? It is absolutely incorrect when the BJP says it is running a clean administration. Look at the Vyaypam case or the PDS scandal in Chhattisgarh, Lalitgate in Rajasthan and there have been scams from Maharashtra as well. It is for us in the Opposition to expose the government with hard evidence and facts. It is not a question of the credibility of a leader or a party here but the papers and the records that will speak for themselves.

Opposition unity is the way forward, says Prithviraj Chavan.

What is the status of the Opposition parties in your home state Maharashtra? From all accounts, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis seems to be in control.
Just look at the empirical evidence. If the NCP [Nationalist Congress Party] had not ditched us on the eve of the last assembly election, the results would have been quite different. The Opposition parties in Maharashtra have a 38% vote share while the BJP-Shiv Sena has 28%. I am not saying we would have won, but certainly the BJP would not have been able to form the government because of the arithmetic. Today, the Congress and the NCP are coming together. There is a lot of talk that after the Presidential and vice-president’s election, some of our MLAs are going to resign and contest in a bye-election but the NCP and the Congress have decided that they will field a single candidate against the deserters.

And, finally, whenever there is an election coming up, the BJP deals a body blow to you. It happened in Assam, when Himanta Biswa Sarma jumped ship in 2016 and now in Gujarat. Congress strongman Shankersinh Vaghela left the party just ahead of elections.
I don’t think I can speak at length on the developments in Gujarat. Somebody else is looking after Gujarat affairs. But it is true Vaghela was uneasy with the Congress for some time but I am sure we could have discussed it and tried to make sure he was made comfortable in the party. I am not sure what stand he’s taking.

He says he’s not joining the BJP...he’s forming his own party. But we will have to take things as they come. My feedback is that because of GST, there’s groundswell of opposition against the BJP government. The traders in Surat and Ahmedabad are very upset with this government. Whether we can take advantage of it – that’s the real challenge. I agree it is not easy but I realise we have a very experienced leader like [Ashok] Gehlot is in charge of Gujarat. He’s a grassroots person and he will make sure the party fights the election cohesively.

Some errors have been committed but I am sure it will be looked into. I agree whenever a senior leader or former minister leaves, it’s not a happy situation. But we have to take it from there.