Job creation, national security and farm distress have edged out Ram Mandir as the main election issues this year, with the SP-BSP alliance and the entry of Priyanka Gandhi in politics adding huge twists to the political thriller. The BJP stumped pundits in 2014 when it won a whopping 282 seats in the Lok Sabha. Despite the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an encore seems a tough ask now, especially after the party lost the heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
In conversation with Network18 Group Editor-in-Chief Rahul Joshi, Union minister and BJP’s star campaigner Rajnath Singh weighs in on the issues, expressing confidence that Indians want to see Modi return to power.
The first thing we will begin with is the discussion centred around JeM chief Masood Azhar, whose official designation as a global terrorist has been vetoed four times in the last 10 years. After the Pulwama terror attack, we thought something would change in this regard, but that didn't happen. Do you think this is somewhere due to diplomatic failure on our part?
Viewing it as diplomatic failure won't be correct because India has had several diplomatic successes in the past five years. Going into details would take a lot of time. So far as the blacklisting of Masood Azhar is concerned, the technical hold has come from China. Because of that, he cannot be blacklisted. But we will try one more time and I think that we will get this done. The global audience can see that members of the UN Security Council are in agreement on the blacklisting of Masood Azhar. That’s also a result of our work. It’s incorrect to say that we are not being able to complete this quest because of one country. We will try to make sure it happens.
What is India's plan to push this forward? What is the plan for China? How will we get them to work with us on this?
We've spoken with the Chinese.
And will we tell them that we are disappointed with the situation?
India never gets disappointed. Now, they must have some reason for this. We will need to understand what their reasons are for doing this. But we will also be trying to convince China. On the subject of Masood Azhar, the fact that we haven't been getting cooperation… it's not that we are very bothered, it's not like that. But we have faith that if we don't get it done today, we will get it done tomorrow.
There is a certain environment being created in the country because of this…
I want to say one more thing about diplomatic success. It is the first time that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has called an Indian minister as the guest of honour. This has never happened before. If it weren’t for the BJP government, nobody would have even thought about it. What other work could be more significant that this?
Seeing all of this, it feels even more strange that China is leaning towards Pakistan…
There must be some reason. Every country has its own reason… there must be something. There's no need to go into that. But I think it would be unintelligent to break off ties with China.
An environment is being created that because of China's stance, all Chinese products should be banned in India. Questions are being raised over Chinese investments coming into the country. Do you think that this is something we should do?
Look, the question of growth comes into this as well. Wouldn’t you say it is unintelligent to break any relationship over something small? Sometimes there are compulsions because of which our expectations are not fulfilled, there must be some reason. But the rational and intelligent ones, they all take time to make decisions. They don't break relationships over one, two or three issues. We will try to keep the relationships that we've made.
From what you're saying, it seems like you have quite a bit of faith that China will…
I am hopeful. It may take time, but China will come onto the right path.
And it will happen quickly? The issue has been postponed by six months…
Beyond the six months, there may be technical hold of another 2-3 months. I am certain that we will be successful.
You’ve talked about two strikes conducted by India in Pakistan. Can you shed some light on the third?
I didn't say that India has carried out three surgical strikes against Pakistan. I didn't say it happened to Pakistan. I said that in the past five years, we have carried out three strikes. Everybody knows about two strikes.
So where was the third one conducted?
I can't say anything which is incorrect. But I cannot go into the details of it here. I don't want to bring the details out into the open. Lots of people know about it.
Two strikes were conducted in Pakistan, but the third wasn’t in Pakistan. Is that what you're trying to say?
I don't have any issue with saying that the third one did not happen in Pakistan. Only two happened in Pakistan.
The third one didn't happen in Pakistan, it happened elsewhere…
Yes, that's the truth.
One thing that's coming up again and again is the result of the airstrikes in Balakot. Different things are being said about it. Amit Shah says casualty count was 250, others say 300, 350 etc. There's also talk about how the National Technical Research Organisation said that at the time of the airstrikes, around 300 mobile phone connections were active there. So everyone is giving out a number which is around 300. Why isn't the government saying anything about this in an open manner?
I don't want to go into the numbers and there is no point of going into the details of it anyway. And to be truthful, it's unfortunate that anyone is even questioning this. 'Did the airstrike happen, how many people died in the airstrike' shouldn't even be asked. If the Indian people are asking questions about the Indian Army, it means they are questioning the valour of the forces. It is obvious that the airstrikes happened. There are no two ways about it. It is also true that Pakistan has been shocked, but I am surprised that despite knowing this fact people are raising questions like ‘how many people were killed’. Why are some Indian people and political parties shocked? Pakistan's shock over the strikes is understandable, but what is the reason behind Indian politicians being shocked or ruffled?
Rahul Gandhi said several strikes were conducted during the UPA governments too, but that the Congress didn’t ‘market’ them this way…
There must have been. Our government is not marketing. We appreciated the valour of our air force personnel; shouldn't it be done? We feel a sense of pride.
Pakistan PM Imran Khan says he is ready for dialogue. Do you think that the time for dialogue has come? How do you look at the India-Pakistan relations going forward?
There should be an initiative by the Pakistan government to destroy all terror camps on their land. They must ensure that no patronage is given to terror on Pakistani soil. We can talk if they do so, but terrorism and dialogue cannot go hand-in-hand. There must be some visible honesty that Pakistan wants to counter terrorism.
What should Pakistan do after which we can have dialogue with them?
They must wipe out terrorist camps and say it clearly that they won't allow their soil to be used by terrorists. Take action against them… Then we can have a dialogue with Pakistan. We also want to have good relations with a neighbouring country, but terrorism and dialogue cannot go hand-in-hand.
There is a view that we must not play cricket with Pakistan, that their actors should not come and work in India. Do you agree with this view?
The conditions became such that any patriot would not feel like doing this, but things change with time.
Should India play Pakistan in the World Cup?
This should be decided by the authorities and the BCCI. I would not like to give any suggestion on this. I will give a suggestion if they ask for it.
Some big cricketers have said that we have always defeated Pakistan in the World Cup and that instead of forgoing the match, we must defeat them and win two points.
I don't want to get into this debate. Every institution has autonomy. I give this autonomy to the BCCI to decide. But think hard before taking any decision and bear in mind that it must not affect our national pride.
You are saying that such emotions can be there among Indians, that it’s understandable and you respect it.
About Pulwama, such a big attack was executed on the CRPF. A lot of explosives were taken there. So isn't it an intelligence failure?
There are times when we get intelligence inputs that ‘such and such incident can happen somewhere’, but sometimes we don't have the specific information about the location. We might know the district and the sub-division. The entire matter is being investigated. I would be able to comment on that only after the investigation is completed.
What is the solution to the Kashmir problem? How can we bring normalcy there? When can we expect elections there?
Elections will be held soon. We just conducted the local body, rural panchayat and municipal body polls there. The Election Commission has to decide and I believe they will decide on it soon. We also want an elected government in Jammu and Kashmir.
There is a view that we have bowed down to Pakistan by not conducting Assembly elections in J&K…
The Lok Sabha polls are being held anyway. The EC had to take a call on whether Assembly elections will be held along with the Lok Sabha polls or not. No political party can be held responsible for that.
There have been several attacks on Kashmiris in the country…
Look, I don't agree that there have been a lot of attacks. I have myself taken precaution in this regard. When the first such attack happened, I appointed a special secretary. His job was to coordinate with all state secretaries and police chiefs to ensure that no Kashmiri faces any harassment. You must have seen that I said in all my public meetings that Kashmiri children are our children. It is our responsibility to give them love and protection. I made the same appeal to BJP workers as well.
I know that 90% of Kashmiri people want to live in peace and want the development of Kashmir. They also don't like the current situation in Kashmir but there are some forces. And then there is our neighbouring country because of which something or the other keeps happening. Rest assured, it will stop. It has been enough.
Let us talk about general elections. Latest opinion polls suggest that the BJP's position is much stronger than before. Do you think that the national security issue that has picked up after the Balakot strikes has strengthened the prospects of the BJP in the upcoming elections?
I would request to not link the Balakot airstrikes to politics. I am totally against it. Matters of national pride should not be politicised. I don't look at it that way or assume that the party will benefit from the strikes.
Do you think that people trust the strong leadership of PM Narendra Modi that he will be able to combat such things strongly in the future?
People believe that this is a decisive leadership. People also believe that our PM is 'dead honest'. He can never compromise with corruption. He's a visionary.
What are your core issues for the upcoming elections?
Good governance and development. We will take forward whatever we have done. Whatever we would like to do in the future will be outlined in our election manifesto, which we have called 'Sankalp Patra'. We are trying to understand the aspirations of the masses. We have started a program, Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat, to understand from people from they expect from the next five years. We have made websites for that, people can also do it by leaving a missed call. We are trying to create a manifesto which is in sync with the aspirations of the people.
Can you highlight 3-4 major issues that will be there in the manifesto?
There would be things for all sections of the society -- farmers, soldiers, lawyers, other professionals. It will also outline our vision for economic development since there are a lot of expectations from the government on that front. Within five years, the country has become the fastest growing economy in the world, the economy has expanded as we are tipped to overtake UK as the 5th biggest economy. Economists have started accepting that India can be among top three economies of the world within 10-12 years.
When we talk about economic development, we also have to talk about jobs. People believe that you have given a 7-7.5% GDP growth, but job creation is an issue. The government has fallen short of expectations in creating jobs. What do you attribute that to?
The political worker of a party may say incorrect things to promote that particular party, but figures can't be wrong. Under the MUDRA scheme, 4-4.5 crore young people have got loans for the first time. Whoever has taken loan, without mortgage, must have got employment. Along with him/her, one or two more people would have got jobs. Secondly, this is the fastest rate of road construction that has happened in independent India. Infrastructure development can be seen in airports, railway lines, manufacturing. So much work was done; how can job opportunities decrease?
The PM also says so much economic activity took place that jobs must have been created. How do you see the big picture? The entire opposition has formed a Mahagathbandhan to defeat the BJP. So, how do you see your figures in 2019?
For the Congress and other political parties, coalition would be a compulsion. But as far as the BJP is concerned, gathbandhan is not a compulsion but commitment. Atal ji was the first PM who took along 24 parties to run a government for six years. Same is the case with us. I can say that our allies have increased as compared to 2014.
Some have left as well. Chandrababu Naidu left. You are at war of words with Shiv Sena as well.
It’s just little things here and there. Such thinks happen at home too. You can have minor issues with your brother or son, but that doesn’t mean the relationship is snapped. The Shiv Sena is a very old ally of ours. Sena and JD(U) are like our family members.
So you are emphasising on the allies. You will move forward with the allies?
Yes, we will take them along. Even though we will get a clear majority, the government will include everyone. This is called commitment. They keep saying Mahagathbandhan, but the fact is that even that was not able to come together properly.
The Hindi heartland had a major role to play in your victory the last time. You won almost 90% seats there. But it seems a bit unrealistic to repeat that performance. How will you make up for that deficit?
In 2014, I was BJP president and the party had projected Modi ji as the prime ministerial candidate. Even at that time, people used to say that a clear majority won't be possible. BJP will win around 225 seats, people had said. Even during discussions with Modi ji, I used to say that we will win clear majority. Modi ji used to say that ‘people say we will win around 225 seats’, but I said that the Modi wave is such that I don't think so.
Even today you feel that the Modi wave is intact?
In 2014, people had not seen Modi ji work at the national level, they appreciated him for his governance in Gujarat. People had heard a bit about Gujarat, but in the last five years, people have seen Modi ji's style of governance. Hence I can say that the trust of the people in him has increased. There are no two ways about it. Everyone should accept it. I believe that even the opponents should concede this.
After winning in 2014, you won several state elections. You might have lost a couple of states like Delhi or Bihar, but you won in several states. In fact, UP was a historic win for you, but as we come closer to 2019 elections, you had to face defeat in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where you had a stronghold. The Congress came to power in all the three states. Do you feel this would be a jolt for you in the Lok Sabha elections as the three states had given you a big push in 2014?
In MP, our government was in power for 15 years. Sometimes, people want change. That would have been the reason. The BJP's vote share is 0.5% more than the Congress. Chhattisgarh was a question mark, but we did not suffer that bad a loss in Rajasthan either. There was a difference of only 1.25-1.50% vote share. Sometimes these things happen because of anti-incumbency. I saw during campaigning for the Assembly elections that people had enormous respect for our PM. People used to say that ‘we have small issues with the state government, but at the Centre, we will vote for BJP’.
You agree that people vote differently in the state and at the Centre?
Yes. The issues that people vote for are different in the state and the central elections. Most issues are similar, but some are different.
Sharad Pawar ji recently said that the BJP will be the single-largest party, but Modi ji will not be the PM. That means the BJP will form the government with the support of other parties and some other leader will come up. What do you have to say about this?
This is like building castles in the air. PM Modi was the PM and he will remain the PM. There is no debate about it no matter how many seats come. The opposition will try to create some confusion, but PM Modi will be the PM.
There is one minister in your government who is appreciated for his work. You also agree. But what about the statements that he has given in the last 2-3 months?
His statements have been presented in a different light. I have known Nitin Gadkari for a long time, since even before he was the state BJP president. He has a golden heart. He said that his statements have been portrayed wrongly.
He did not clarify immediately. There were stories that he is unhappy with the leadership…
Those who have to make stories, make them. We don't have anything to say about that.
UP is the centre point of this election. In the last election as well, you performed well in UP and the state will play a major role in the upcoming elections as well. Here, the coalition is the strongest. Two big parties have come together, SP and BSP. It has been seen here, like in Kairana, Phulpur and Gorakhpur, that you had to face defeat because of the coalition. If you count together the Muslim, Jatav and Yadav votes, it crosses 40%. How do you expect to repeat your performance in UP?
If you add up the vote share of both the SP and the BSP, we were ahead and will be ahead again. Let there be no confusion about it.
But they have come together this time. They have put both their election symbols on one flag. A lot of attempt is being made to show that they are together.
There has not been an instance in Indian politics where 100% votes of one party were transferred to coalition partner.
BSP's vote has a tendency to transfer...
No. No instance has seen complete transfer. It can happen on a bigger scale in some constituencies, but it is rare. If their consolidated vote share was say 30%, I can assure you that it will dip this time as there is no guarantee that votes will get transferred.
What will be the impact of the Congress factor? Will it eat into your 'savarna' votes or will it adversely affect the Mahagathbandhan?
We not only have the votes of a particular section of people, but have the support of all sections of the society. We will get minority votes as well. We are assured. It is not as though we won't get the minority vote and that SP, BSP and Congress are the only parties which will get minority votes. There has been a sense of security within the minorities as well after this government.
So how big an impact Modi ji and Yogi ji will have on the campaign?
Modi ji is our PM and Yogi ji is our CM, so obviously in UP they would be there.
You would be a very big campaigner as well. You have been campaigning for a long time.
I keep trying in my small way.
You must be fighting from Lucknow this time as well.
Yes, certainly. I have received a lot of love from the people of Lucknow.
And Modi ji from Banaras?
Yes, Modi ji will contest from Banaras.
After around two centuries, the BJP is in power both at the Centre and in UP. Can the anti-incumbency factor arise because of this in UP?
It will be pro-incumbency, there's no question of anti-incumbency.
I've heard that many tickets are going to be cut this time, some people are saying that around 30-35 tickets could be cut out.
Ab kya hoga, kaise hoga...
Some 2-4 parliamentarians have also left…
In any political party, whenever any elections come around then…
What will the criteria be? Will ‘winnability’ be the criteria?
There are factors to measure ‘winnability’ and a lot comes under that; how long they've been in the party, what they've contributed to the party, have they ever worked with any social and cultural organisation, how did they perform. There are lots of things which are looked into while deciding candidature.
And the Gathbandhan that you're making in UP, will that work? Do you think that Apna Dal or Om Prakash Rajbhar are tightly tied to you?
Yes, we've worked very hard to achieve our dreams.
If you mix the votes of SP-BSP and RLD together, the BJP would have gotten around 56 seats. If you put together the vote share of the SP-BSP then in the last three elections, 48-50 seats would have gone to the Gathbandhan. Even after this, do you have faith that there won't be a big loss?
Even then, we're 2% ahead.
Priyanka Gandhi has formally entered politics and is campaigning aggressively. We have heard that she is going beyond the two family seats. How do you see this?
What do we have to see? Everybody is working, they are also working.
So according to you, Priyanka Gandhi entering politics won't make much difference? Is there no Priyanka factor in UP?
If she wants to work in politics, let her work. We have no issues. Many people keep coming into politics every year.
I want to ask a question about UP because you've been a teacher. How would you rate Yogi Adityanath’s government in UP? What number would you give him?
I have quit the responsibilities of a teacher, so I can't give numbers. The Yogi government is performing very well. Everybody is working well under the guidance of Yogi ji.
Yogi is the lone leader in UP. There was a time I remember when Akhilesh Yadav was the CM, it was said that UP has four-and-a-half CMs -- Mulayam, his two brothers, Azam Khan, and the half was Akhilesh. Today also, there are four CMs in UP. There are two deputy CMs who are very powerful and there is Sunil Bhansal.
No, no. There is only Yogi. The final decision is taken by the CM. Everyone is with him, everyone is together. In the BJP, nobody is behind anyone, we are all together. In other political parties, the situation of someone being ahead and the rest being behind that person exists. In BJP, we are all together, we stand together.
Opposition parties are trying to take on the government on another issue of Rafale. Reports are coming out that the PMO was negotiating directly, bypassing the Defence Ministry. Do you think this is right? Should this happen?
Where did this PMO bypassing the Defence Ministry come from? This is just an accusation, which is baseless. Secondly, as far as the Congress-led UPA government is concerned, for the last 30 years, the second generation fighter planes that were supposed to be purchased for India… This work was not done by the UPA.
The UPA government should be condemned because for 30 years, no second-generation plane was bought by a country like India. What could be worse than this? Our government took the quick decision and it should be welcomed. Instead, they are levelling baseless allegations on our government. What kind of justice is this?
They spread a rumour that the file has been stolen, the file has not been stolen. All the files are there with the Defence Ministry, the matter is in the court. The court can check it. The real culprits are the ones who tried to steal the file and got it photocopied.
So you are saying that the photocopied files got leaked?
No matter how they were leaked, the culprit should have been taken to task. They should be punished. The Defence Ministry is investigating the issue, those responsible will be punished.
Till last year, the Ram Mandir issue was a hot topic. People used to say that till the next elections, this should be the main talking point for the BJP and that they will fight the elections on the entire Ram Mandir issue. For the past 2-3 months, nothing more has been discussed. Senior leaders like Modi ji, Amit Shah and you have said that the law will take its course. Does the BJP think that young Indians are not connected with the Ram Mandir issue as much as they are with development issues or job creation? The issues affecting one’s life are more important than Ram Mandir…
Lord Ram is attached to everybody's emotions, I don't think anybody is disconnected with Lord Ram. As far as the Ram Mandir issue is concerned, there is a process going on in the Supreme Court and they made a mediation team. We've given them two months’ time, let's see what the outcome is. I would like to say that everyone will be happy of the temple is constructed quickly. Those who claim that Muslims will be unhappy are wrong. Indian Muslims say they have no issues if a temple is constructed.
The Congress has guaranteed minimum income for the poor. Do you think it's possible?
They have announced, but we have already done it for the unorganised sector. We have made arrangements for Rs 3,000 pension for people older than 60 years. There is income support for farmers for the first time in the history of independent India.
The UPA government forgave the debts of farmers only once, in 2008. We have done it many times and given Rs 75,000 crore worth of income support. This will increase this in the future if needed. We want to achieve the target of doubling the income of farmers by 2022. To achieve that target, we'll give whatever income support is required and we will report the input cost for that.
You have been the agriculture minister also. Do you think the farmer loan waiver announced by every state be successful?
This is not the right solution. The practice should be to double and triple the farmers’ income. We want to create such a situation that a farmer's son will also want to be a farmer.
The BJD has announced 33% seats to women. Will the BJP also take a similar step and reserve 33% tickets for women?
There should be reservation for women in the Vidhan and the Vidhan Praishad, the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council. Our party has always supported this idea. It is just due to elections that other parties have increased the reservation, but the reality is that the BJP was the only single party, when I was the party leader, with 33% reservation for women. Firstly, they should ensure reservation for women within their own parties, then they should talk about it at the national level. It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who first demanded that women should get reservation in Parliament. The opposition parties are not ready for it.
You mentioned Atal Bihari Vajpayee. So I want to ask you one question – How is this BJP different from the party led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee?
Nothing is different, it is the same party as it was when it was established. We are continuously improving. The BJP is the only non-Congress party to have got majority in Parliament.
Is there anything you want to share which Atal ji said and which you would want the people to know? Anything which touched your heart?
Whatever Atal ji said always touched my heart. It won't mean as much if I saw the words. Atal ji is my ideal in Indian politics.
Do you think Amit Shah will participate in the elections and if that happens, who will be the next BJP president?
Nothing can be said. Let us first win the elections and form the government.
You keep talking about the time when you were the party president. So it is right to ask you about the next president…
No, I just talk about the work which was done in that time, nothing else. Just like the 33% women's reservation.
Are you all set for the elections in UP?
We know the people there love us, we are ready.
Your image among the people is good. You like to interact with people and like to get to know them. You even formed the consensus which was required when Modi was the frontrunner for PM candidate in 2014. You kept the party united as its president. Do you think there is a lot of confusion today among opposition parties and they are not able to stand united? It did not happen when you were the party president. The relationship between the opposition and the Centre is ruined for now and the situation was not like this in previous years.
We will communicate to the opposition and will clear all the confusion after we form the government this year.
In the previous years, the opposition used to cooperate with the Centre and work, but in the last five years, the situation has worsened. They are creating obstacles in Parliament sessions, party rallies etc.
Yes, they created chaos in Parliament sessions, but I don't think the opposition is angry with us. We haven't done anything to make them angry and we haven't done anything to them. We have always respected the opposition in this democratic environment.