Sanjay Jha has been a well-known face on Indian television channels.
As the national spokesperson of India’s oldest political party, the Indian National Congress, Jha took part in many heated political debates, locking horns with his counterparts from other parties and sometimes also with the TV anchors.
A formidable opponent, as his peers would testify, Jha was recently removed as the national spokesperson by the Congress over a couple of newspaper columns he wrote that proffered constructive suggestions on how the Grand Old Party can resurrect its sagging reputation and electoral prospects.
Jha’s views on infusing more transparency, new blood and embracing a more democratic way of functioning, apparently, did not meet the party leadership’s approval, leading to him being eased out of his role.
Yahoo India caught up with Sanjay Jha and, in a no-holds-barred interview, he spoke candidly on a gamut of issues.
Here are the excerpts:
You became the Congress spokesperson in 2013 and defended the party during its worst phase. Does it pinch you that your efforts are not duly rewarded?
I am thankful to the party and the central leadership for placing trust in me and giving me the opportunity to put forth the party's views and stances as a spokesperson on television debates.
I can say with utmost honesty that I put my best foot forward at the time when the party was copping criticism from all quarters on the alleged 2G, CommonWealth Games and coal scams. If the party feels that it doesn't need my services anymore, it is their prerogative to remove me as a spokesperson.
But why doesn't the Congress pay heed to perfectly good advice? Does that not make it intolerant of differing views, something it accuses the BJP of?
There are many people who have told me that I did an excellent job as a spokesperson of the party. In fact, many times I was the only Congress spokesperson who agreed to appear in debates and defend the party.
I genuinely believe in the ideology of the party and would continue to strengthen the party as a committed member.
The Congress lost power in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal... why does it cede the ground so easily and never even tries to regain the power? Worse, it gets into alliances with parties such as Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Samajwadi Party (SP) which marginalised it in those states in the first place. Is it the correct strategy?
You know, the Congress was in power in those states and at the Centre for so long that when it was voted out, it was in a daze. It took it some time to even come to terms that it isn't in the power anymore.
Later, the party in those states retreated into a shell. Our party leaders didn't make adequate efforts to rebuild the party in those states. We simply didn't have the drive, zeal and strategy to resurrect the party in these states.
For example, we saw greenshoots of revival in Uttar Pradesh in the 2009 general elections when we won 21 seats in the state. We did particularly well in the cities and big towns. That was due to the leadership and policies of Dr Manmohan Singh, the then prime minister. But we failed to capitalise on that success and our fortunes dwindled in the subsequent elections.
I won't blame regional parties. Every party fends for itself. Did the RJD stop Congress from expanding its base in Bihar? Did the SP put a lid on our leaders in UP? We have been out of power in these big, crucial states because of our own inertia, complacence, incompetence and follies.
And don't forget, the Congress has been out of power in Gujarat for 25 years. In Tamil Nadu, I don't even remember for how many years now. In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, too, we shot ourselves in the foot.
Does the Congress party find itself in an ideological bind? Unlike the Bharatiya Janata Party, it can't explicitly cater to any particular caste or community because it has a base among all the communities. The AK Antony report, in the aftermath of the 2014 debacle, however, claimed that the Congress took a beating because of 'pro-minority' image. Do you agree with this view?
See, what the Congress needs is a dynamic and credible leader who can convince people across castes, communities and regions that the party would take care of all their interests. No injustice or discrimnation would be meted out to anyone.
During the tenure of the late Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress had the trust of majority of Indians belonging to different religions and castes. They knew that Nehru would be fair, impartial and principled in all his policy decisions. That's why the Congress kept winning election after election.
The need of the hour is to regain the trust of people of people of India. What stops the party leaders from reaching out to people of all strata? Why does no one fly to Mumbai and hold meetings with the top corporate leaders, Bollywood stars and intellectuals?
When I talk to common people, they complain that they don't see Congress leaders on the ground. Whether you win or lose, you must look after your constituency. Our presence at the grassroots has been shrinking. Very little has been done to address these core issues.
How can we take on the well-oiled, cash-rich and hyperactive BJP machinery in our current avatar? I'm afraid the Congress is handing India over to the BJP on a silver platter.
Another major issue is the Congress's inability to retain young leaders such as Himanta Biswa Sarma and Jyotiraditya Scindia who have been lured away by the BJP. Congress, on the other hand, gets veteran leaders such as Shatrughan Sinha and Kirti Azad who are past their prime and can't even win their own seats. Why do young Congress leaders feel isolated and dissatisfied within the Congress?
The answer to this is pretty straightforward. The voices of young leaders in the Congress are not heard at any forum. So they feel marginalised, hurt and unwanted. The party must take stock of this.
As for Mr Sinha and Mr Azad, I think they're valuable assets. They bring immense political experience and sagacity. You can't entirely blame them for losing elections.
When people had made up their mind not to vote for the Congress, what could they have possibly done? When people have antipathy towards a party, even the meritorious candidates bite the dust. Don't forget, even Mr Rahul Gandhi lost the election from Amethi.
What is your assessment of Rahul Gandhi as a leader? Does he have it in him to take on Modi Juggernaut?
I think Mr Gandhi is an inherently decent man. He believes in the ideals of the Congress and wants to usher in a positive change. His track record, after he became the Congress president, is pretty decent. Under his leadership, the Congress gave the BJP a run for its money in Gujarat and performed unexpectedly well.
We won state elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. In MP and Chhattisgarh, we drove back to power after 15 years.
Congress also managed to form governments in Karnataka and Maharashtra. Unfortunately, our governments in MP and Karnataka were toppled. That's a good report card as the Congress president.
After the party's catastrophic show in the 2019 general elections, he took responsibility and resigned from the post. That shows he believes in accountability. I am not aware of his future course of action so can't comment on that.
Recently you said Mr Modi is a hard worker who hates to lose. Which, according to you, are his three biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Mr Modi's biggest strength is that he's a fiercely ambitious man. And there's nothing wrong in being ambitious. One can only be driven if you have a set of goals and fierce ambition. Mr Modi is driven to leave his mark on the history of India.
His second strength, according to me, is his diligence. There's little doubt that he's very hardworking. That shows in the manner in which he campaigns with vigour and does rallies in all parts of India. He likes to be in the thick of things and spearhead all the major decisions taken by the government. He's a hands-on leader who is directly involved in all the aspects of policy making. That takes a lot of stamina and diligence.
And the third strength is he's a powerful political communicator. He knows what people like to listen and communicates in their language. That accounts for his massive mass following.
His biggest weakness is to be enamoured by pomp and show. He goes for the jugular and makes grand announcements without thorough deliberation and preparations, be it demonetisation, GST (Good and Services Tax) or the recent lockdown.
It seems as if he's in a perennially campaign mode. Even his statement on stand-off with China in Eastern Ladakh was avoidable. To make a slapdash remark on an issue concerning national security just to appease his domestic constituency was uncalled for.
His second weakness is his authoritative proclivities. I think, as the prime minister of India, he should reach out to the Opposition more often. There are a lot of seasoned and perceptive politicians in the Congress. Sometimes, on important matters or policy decisions, he should tap into their experience and expertise.
Finally, during his tenure, India has become a more divisive and fractured society. The targeting of minorities, especially the Muslims, has dented India's image on the international stage. He must rein in his party leaders who repeatedly make bigoted and inflammatory statements.
The tone of his party on the sensitive issues must be sober and conciliatory, not incendiary.
It would be a travesty if he continues to push the vision of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and hurtle India towards becoming a majoritarian Hindu Rashtra.