With the fourth phase of UP polls getting over today, what is your estimate of BJP’s prospects?
BJP is in a very comfortable position and will again form the government with an overwhelming majority.
Last time, BJP had got a big lead right from the first two phases which covered western UP. This time you seem to have suffered a setback in the region due to the farm protests. The alliance between Jayant Chaudhary’s party and Samajwadi Party dented you. How can you be so confident?
I do not agree with you at all. We have performed well in the two phases and will have a big lead from the western region. A big lead, mark my words. We will have a thumping win. And I will call TOI on result day like on earlier occasions.
You were the architect of the 2017 landslide. But there has been a big change. You led the last battle on the theme of change and you could hold the SP government to account. This time it is you who has to do the explaining.
I can proudly say that I am comfortable doing the explaining. In fact, I am better off doing this than when I was putting questions to others. Look at this: It is almost after 20 years that UP villages are getting electricity for 20-24 hours. This is no mean achievement if you consider that demand has gone up manifold.We have provided power to 1.8 crore households and today there is none without power. LPG connections have been provided to 1.9 crore homes, while we have built 2.6 crore houses for the poor. Five kg of free foodgrain have been provided every month to 15 crore people since the outbreak of the pandemic two years ago and Yogiji has added edible oil, dal and salt to the relief package. Rs 37,000 crore has been transferred directly into accounts of 2.5 crore farmers under PM’s Kisan Samman. Did any government of any persuasion ever do so much for the poor? They were bothered only about their votes. PM Narendra Modi conceived and designed these welfare schemes and CM Yogi Adityanath has implemented them on the ground efficiently and with complete transparency. The conception and implementation of these schemes have been our big achievement.
This election is different also in that that in 2017 you did not contest with a face. Many were surprised when you brought in Yogi Adityanath. Having him as your declared candidate is a help or a hindrance?
It is undoubtedly a help. A big help, indeed. The two biggest challenges UP had faced over decades was criminalisation of politics and politicisation of the bureaucracy. These were the single biggest hurdles. Yogiji in his five years has managed to overcome both problems. The last five years have seen the restoration of the rule of the Constitution in the real sense of the term.
But many in the party seem to be having grievances with him. MLAs are dissatisfied and it is said he doesn’t have a rapport with the party organisation.
BJP has several grievance resolution mechanisms. We are a cadre-based party and the organisation makes certain demands on workers. But we work as a family. Secondly, these things are natural in any party that is vibrant and democratic. You don’t see such dissatisfaction in family-controlled outfits, which are driven by just one objective. But when elections come, all BJP workers rally around the the cry of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” to work for victory.
You talked about welfare schemes and how they have benefited people, and also why this would translate into votes. But such handouts also breed dependency and there could be a backlash when they are discontinued. Also, in the age of escalating expectations, what may be working today may in future fail to satisfy people who will have moved on to the next level of aspiration.
The free foodgrain scheme was launched to meet a humanitarian challenge. The pandemic forced the closure of the economy and so, under Modi’s leadership, we had to ensure that there was no starvation. This was a big achievement. The beneficiaries also understand that this was a response to an extraordinary situation. But, as far as the issue of ever-rising expectations is concerned, they should… That is our challenge and we welcome it with open arms. When the expectations of the poor rise, India as a whole can grow. The hopefulness of the poor is a positive for politics, and we are happy to try to fulfil their hopes.
You spoke about the transparent implementation of welfare schemes. Even your critics acknowledge that these have been executed without any discrimination. Then why is it that some communities and castes still remain estranged from you?
UP’s history of the past four decades is one of degeneration of socialism into casteism; of conversion of casteism into nepotism. The harmful consequences still linger. However, I am confident that barring a few sections, people recognise the sincerity of our “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” promise of inclusive growth. They have begun to believe that the caste background of a public representative should not matter so long as he is doing a good job. Our success has much to do with this very growing belief and I also feel that those still hold-ing out will come around after we repeat our success.
You still had to tie up with two smaller parties (Apna Dal and Nishad Party) which represent specific castes.
(Interrupts) It was not because of compulsion… it was not a case of “had to”. It is actually what we wanted to do. And this is not the first time. We had similar tie-ups earlier also.
Two important ministers, Swami Prasad Maurya and Dara Singh Chauhan, quit the party alleging neglect of OBCs. How much damage have they caused?
In this age of heightened awareness, nobody has a hold over votes. Democracy has become stronger and people exercise their franchise independently. Those who claim that they can shift votes of their communities and castes whichever way they wish are mistaken. People are aware of their rights, can differentiate between right and wrong and appreciate their gains in the last five years. Commentators who feel that entire communities will turn away because of defections of an individual will have egg on their face on March 10.
You and your party have been accused of communal polarisation, of dividing people by using dog whistles such as ‘mafia raj’ and ‘bulldozer’?
These allegations have been made since the launch of our party. When you oppose politics of appeasement, you will certainly be opposed by those who have benefited from it. But I feel that the people at large know what the reality is. We have been in government in over two-thirds of the nation at different points. We have thrice formed governments at the Centre, on two occasions with a full majority. People know us, our beliefs, and have faith in Modiji’s leadership. I don’t think such accusations have popular resonance.
BJP may not be benefiting from a polarisation, but SP is surely benefiting from a consoldiation of minorities in its favour.
Those who thrive on the consolidation of minorities tend to forget the very meaning of the term “minority”. Else, they would not have engaged in such politics. They should realise that consolidation never works only one way. Consolidation is not a one-way street, consolidation of minorities leads to a consolidation of the majority as well.Those who do such politics will persist with it at their peril.
Recently in Pilibhit, you also spoke of two lenses, of religion and caste, through which politics of UP is seen?
That is not what I said. I said that Akhileshji can see politics only through the prism of caste and religion and I said that people should not do that as people in UP have suffered because of this obsession with caste and religion.
This election is quite different from the past few in another respect: BSP is not looking a viable contender this time. Who will benefit from its widely perceived diminution?
You people tend to forget that in the 2019 LS election, SP-BSP-Congress-RLD had fought together. We won 65 Lok Sabha seats and if you wish to extrapolate that to assembly segments that comes to a tally of 287. Today they are fighting their separate battles. The fact is that more than the the nature of opposition, people favour a party on the basis of its beliefs and the quality of its leadership.
Our question was that who stands to gain most if BSP has actually declined?
I understood that. You are suggesting that anti-BJP votes will not be split this time, right? I said it is not material. There was none in 2019 and we still prevailed.
It is the first election in UP after the court verdict favouring construction of the Ram temple. In the last few polls, BJP would be taunted for not fulfilling its “Mandir wahi banayenge” pledge. How do you think this and the fulfilment of another promise — of the nullification of Article 370 — will play?
Any government that takes pro-people decisions stands to gain. We will, too… But Ram mandir is is not our campaign issue. We are not asking people to vote for us because it is finally being constructed. Our plank consists of an improved law and order situation, administrative efficiency, dismantling of terror network, poverty reduction and development of infrastructure. But it is obvious that people are happy about the construction of Ram mandir and, to that extent, they will support us. After all, we launched the movement for it and persevered for it over generations despite all obstacles. Workers like me have been a part of the movement since the time we joined the party. It marks the fulfilment of aspirations of crores. That also goes for Article 370. Whenever I refer to the issue in meetings, you can see the excitement of the audience… They see that something good for the country has been done.
Our feedback from eastern UP and central UP suggests that a lot of party candidates are facing anti-incumbency. Their performance has not lived up to expectations. In Gujarat, the party changed many candidates to overcome a similar challenge. This has not happened in UP.
This is not correct. There was no large-scale change of candidates in Gujarat… Secondly, 20% of the incumbents have been dropped in UP. This is not a small number. Anti-incumbency is seen as an essential feature of all elections but the discourse makes no mention of pro-incumbency; of voters who are satisfied with the performance of their representatives as well as that of governments, whether in the state or at the Centre. But please bear in mind that there are voters who are satisfied… Those who are unhappy get noticed because they are vocal. Those who are content exercise their votes silently, but they also have a vote. We are hopeful of getting their support because of what we have achieved. Take the issue of law and order. There is palpable satisfaction and that is because of a reason. Compared to 2016, there is a 72% decline in dacoities, while burglaries have dropped by 62%. Rape cases have halved, while there is a decline of 31% and 29% in murders and kidnappings. Properties worth Rs 1,866 crore have been seized from the mafia, the goons who used to force people to flee the state are fleeing themselves. The police commissionerate system has been introduced in Lucknow, Noida, Kanpur and Varanasi. I can say with conviction that there is pro-incumbency in favour of the BJP government in UP.
But you will agree that with a tally of 312, BJP peaked five years ago, and the number of seats will clearly come down.
A 2-5% drop or increase in the number of seats doesn’t matter. Five seats less or 10 seats more is small change. Modiji got 272 seats, and crossed 300 five years later. It was a source of satisfaction, a reward for his labour. But this has not led to a super government. It is not going to be less powerful if we get 280. These small fluctuations keep happening.
Your party does not seem to be similarly confident about Uttarakhand, where Congress is already celebrating.
Every party is entitled to its style. We think there is a sanctity to a mandate. And also that such premature celebrations are a denigration of the constitutional process. That said, I am confident that we will come back with an absolute majority in Uttarakhand. The team under chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami performed well in a short time. More importantly, the work on the Prime Minister’s schemes for Uttarkhand — Char Dham, railway projects, attempts to solve border issues, improved power availa-bility — never slackened despite the change of CMs.
Were you late in bringing in Dhami?
This is a question that is asked each time. Every time, we say that maybe it was a little too late or a little too early. But the party takes a call when it has to take a call.
You accepted rather quickly Punjab chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi’s demand for a probe into Aam Aadmi Party’s alleged links with pro-Khalistan outfits.
Channi sahab is an elected chief minister. I will show the same promptness and purposefulness if TOI also sends me a letter about terrorism, which has been an area of concern. It is a priority and requires a swift response. We believe in a zero-tolerance approach to terrorism.
Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal has alleged a BJP-Congress nexus to thwart AAP.
Kejriwalji has said all sorts of things except declaring that he won’t take the support from Khalistanis. He has been silent on it.
What is your assessment of Punjab?
I think only fortune-tellers can tell what will happen in Punjab. It is a multi-cornered contest, with five contenders. We don’t have a strong cadre in the state based on whose feedback I can form an estimate. In UP, I have reviewed 60-70 seats since yesterday and I know details of each of them. I don’t have that advantage in Punjab.
Can a BJP-Akali Dal alliance be revived in Punjab?
It is difficult to say anything before results are declared. Our priority right now is to strengthen our cadre in each seat.
The opposition is expecting BJP to fare poorly in this round of elections and the assessment has fuelled fresh unity efforts.
They should definitely form a front. But they should first de-cide on their leader. Who will lead the alliance? Will it be Sharad Pawarji or Mamataji or Chandrashekhar Raoji or Stalinji? Let it be decided first.
They reckon that with improved numbers after this round of polls, they will have a decisive say in elections of President and Vice-President.
I think you will find the answer on March 10 (when the results are due). I am certain that BJP will have its dominance in the electoral college for both constitutional positions this time as well.
So you are confident about the outcome?
We will win four of the five states and form governments.
Absolutely. We had won 13 seats last time and we will get more this time.
Moving away from polls, in Karnataka, where BJP is in office, a big conflict over the hijab has roiled the state. It has now spread to other states. People are saying that this is part of your design.
My individual opinion is that students must follow the rules of educational institutions and dress codes. It wouldn’t be right to mix these institutions with religion. A bench of the Karnataka HC led by its Chief Justice is hearing the issue. Let the judgment come and we shall all heed the court’s words.
Uttarakhand BJP has announced that it will promulgate a ‘uniform civil code’ in the state. Will other BJP states follow suit?
This is the decision of the Uttarakhand unit and pertains only to that state. They have made the promise because the issue is part of the concurrent list and the state is empowered to take a call. They should implement it after the government is formed. But so far there has not been a comprehensive discussion on the issue in the party at the national level. This has not been discussed for any other state yet.
Your government banned triple talaq. Do you think it can get you the support of a section of Muslim women ?
All decisions are not taken to gather votes. Every woman in the country, whether of the majority community or the minority community, especially Muslim women, must avail of rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution. This is our objective. If we get votes too, then I welcome that with open arms. But that is not our guiding consideration. Our concern is the country’s growth and improved living standards for the poor. This year’s Budget will radically transform the economy and enable the country to become self-reliant and join the company of developed countries. This has provisions which will help all people, especially the poor, belonging to all communities.
CAA, which was seen as a big polarising move, was passed amid controversy and tumult but has not been implemented yet. Is there a rethink?
CAA’s implementation will involve a massive mass-level exercise. It will have implications for lakhs and crores of people in the states of West Bengal, Assam and the northeast. It could not be implemented because of the outbreak of the pandemic only three months after the enactment of the law. Battling the crisis be-came our priority and it was not possible to to roll out such a massive exercise at such a time. The question of retracing steps does not arise. We are not going to move back even an inch.
Talking of the northeast, the demand for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has again gathered momentum.
In the northeast, continuous headway is being made since 2014. We have signed an agreement with the Bodos, also with outfits in Tripura. More than 9,000 militants have surrendered. Issues with the Bru-Reang have also been resolved. We have covered considerable ground in a gradual way. In the near future, border issues between states will also be resolved. Coming to your specific question, the Centre is considering a review of the area where it needs to be enforced. We are not considering a change in the law itself but are open to reducing the areas where it is in operation after consulting state governments. It will be kept only where it is necessary.
Efforts for a settlement of the Nagaland issue have not succeeded yet.
It’s a very old problem. And there are many groups. It’s not easy to generate consensus. But we are making a sincere effort, and will have a breakthrough soon.
The draft of the Delimination Commmssion for J&K has been attacked by parties from Kashmir alleging a conspiracy to undermine the region. What do you say?
Delimitation guidelines have not been tailored for Jammu & Kashmir. They apply to the entire country. Software and provisions being used by Jammu & Kashmir are not different. Objections have been invited, and public hearings have been held. The commission under a retired Supreme Court judge has been reading out its reasoning on microphone. We wecome merit-based objections, but the call to continue the status quo is not a welcome idea.