In a recent podcast interview, Congress leader Salman Khurshid spoke to Sidharth Bhatia about the Congress’s win in Karnataka, what that could mean for 2024, the chances of opposition unity and what needs to be done, and more.
The full transcript of the podcast is below.
Sidharth Bhatia: Hello and welcome to the The Wire Talks. I’m Sidharth Bhatia. The emphatic victory of the Congress party and the defeat of the BJP in the Karnataka elections has surprised observers. For the Congress, it comes as a morale booster, and the BJP loses its only outpost in the southern states. What does this mean, with a year left before the general elections of 2024? Are state elections different from national elections? Will this bring opposition parties together as a cohesive unit to fight the BJP?
My guest today is an astute and experienced observer and participant of the national scene. He’s a veteran and third generation Congressman. His father, Khurshid Alam Khan, was a minister, and his grandfather, Dr Zakir Hussain, was the third President of India. But he retains the ability to look at the big picture dispassionately.
Salman Khurshid has been the Union minister for external affairs, is a well-known lawyer, and has written several books examining the state of the nation, including Sunrise Over Ayodhya, Nationhood in Our Times, and Visible Muslim, Invisible Muslim, as well as Triple Talaq. He also wrote a very well received play, Sons of Babur: A Play in Search of India.
Welcome to The Wire Talks, Salman Khurshid.
Salman Khurshid: Thank you. Thank you.
SB: You wrote on social media recently that the Congress victory comes as a whiff of fresh air in an ambiance of toxic fumes. But you also say one swallow does not a summer make. Are you trying to say that the party should not be complacent?
SK: Well, I think the least that we could do is not to be complacent. Certainly, as I said, it is a whiff of fresh air. It is, I think, a shot in the arm. You can use all the colourful language that tells you of something wonderful that has happened. I’m sure that this victory has been predicted for a long, long time, but I’m sure to the last minute, people who were involved and engaged internally were concerned that nothing should go wrong and nothing should upset the apple cart, etc. We’ve made it and made it for good. And I think there’s some elements that can be isolated as very meaningful elements in this victory.
But a lot of people say – certainly I added the ‘one swallow’ bit myself – that this is not a semi-final. Don’t take this as a stepping stone to 2024. And I think that’s sensible. That’s sensible to be careful. There are streams of attitudes that have helped us win this election, and some of those streams would flow into other states as well. But there are some very regional factors. They include the leadership control and the leadership outreach that we saw in Karnataka. So there are some that may be more specific to Karnataka and may not matter elsewhere. There’s some common themes that I believe could be influential in other states as well, which will go to elections a few months down the road.
So in all, I think good thing to have got started with, but still a long way to go. I mean, we have a first hurdle to cross, which I think we are working on, and that’s the opposition unity. Beyond opposition unity, at least on the surface, the actual tactical moves and the detailed discussions that happen at the state level is the second big hurdle. And the third is to carry conviction in the election itself, where how well we manage our unity perception and unity projection will be important. Those are the steps that we must take over the next few months. Not a long time, not a great deal of time, yet enough for us to be well prepared.
SB: So anyway, 2024 is still some time away. Before that, there are some crucial elections, especially in states where the Congress still has some presence. And in fact, one government and one government it did have in Madhya Pradesh, but it was broken. What do you mean when you said this? What do you mean that certain factors will be local? For example, in Rajasthan, some factors will be extremely local and some factors in Madhya Pradesh. So, is there a magic formula, silver bullet, or does each time, every election, you have to work on?
SK: I think every election has its very special attributes that we need to work on. I think this is true even for the BJP. You may have – and a lot of people have an impression that there is a set, one size fits all as far as BJP is concerned, because that size that BJP projects is a very large size, etc. We would take our measurements carefully to fit everybody that then comes into play as we move from state to state.
There may be some negative issues in some places, and I do believe that in Rajasthan, there’s a negative issue that we must quickly put to an end. Elsewhere, there may be positive issues, negative issues that have been turned into positive issues, etc. So we’ll have to be planning for each state, very specifically for that state, borrowing whatever helps from any state that’s done well, borrowing from there. But ultimately, going down to the grassroots and ensuring that we have a plan that is typically fit for that state itself. That’s what we need to do. And I think we are already underway doing that.
SB: Before the victory in Karnataka, did you see changes happening in the Congress? Would you say that these changes have played a crucial role in creating this victory? What were these changes, if you think that there were changes happening?
SK: I think that as far as Karnataka is concerned, the internal changes for Karnataka Congress were already in place, and that’s been there for some time. The dual leadership of Mr Siddaramaiah who is now the CM and the deputy CM was very clearly already in place. Of course, we couldn’t have said, and we didn’t say as to who would finally lead the pack. There were very specific attributes of both leaders. And in this, D.K. Shivakumar becoming deputy chief minister, but remaining president of the party, is an underscoring of the contribution that he made as a party leader, organisational leader. He’s been credited with that in a very, very specific way.
So as far as Karnataka is concerned, the so-called changes that you need in order to go straight for a victory were already there. And I think they were in place and they worked together very well. Maybe periodic fine-tuning was needed visually or otherwise, and that fine-tuning did happen. One important factor that Karnataka had, which every state doesn’t have, but some of the other states that are coming up for elections will have, and that was the Bharat Jodo Yatra
Bharat Jodo Yatra was a very significant moment for the party to say that, look, don’t just see us as a more urban party, see us as an active, see us as a vigorous, see us as a proactive party, and see us with people connected with us. We are not in isolation.
This propaganda against us that we are isolated, that we are tired, that we are retired, etc. is bunkum. We have a lot going for us and you just have to show it on the ground. Then showing it for a rally which lasts for about three hours, four hours, five hours is quite different from showing it day after day after day, 24 hours a day, which is what Mr Rahul Gandhi was able to show, not just in Karnataka, but elsewhere as well. But in Karnataka, I think it just fell right into the spot where we needed it. And I think it gave us that extra impetus. But it was essential. It was important, but it was necessary, but not adequate, not enough. There had to be something more which the party provided. And altogether, we got the winning formula.
SB: Have you been seeing changes at the national level slowly happening? Because the propaganda about the Congress, myths about the Congress are high command, Gandhi family, etc. But have you been seeing changes happening? Some obvious, some not so obvious, some subtle whereby the Congress is reshaping itself?
SK: I think that’s a very, very important and interesting question. But just before I answer that, let’s just be seen that I am not undervaluing an important factor in Karnataka, that was the fact that the Congress president today is son of the soil from Karnataka. And obviously that will inevitably play a major role. I think it has and it looks up front, it looks very obvious.
But when you talk of changes in the Congress party, yes, the changes in the Congress party are apparent from the time that he was picked as Congress president by a very widespread choice of Congress party voters who voted for him. Of course that followed by other decisions that the party took at Raipur in his leadership were all very important, but at no point at no point was our traditional leadership – in a very positive sense our traditional leadership – missing from providing him complete backup. So Srimati Sonia Gandhi and the brother-sister duo Mr Rahul Gandhi and Mrs Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra were there all the time, backing him to the hilt at every point, and I thought there was a fantastic synergy between them working. But the intense propaganda that had been projected by the BJP against the Gandhi family was I believe dented to some extent, was dented by the manner in which we presented the new Congress without compromising in any way on the leadership of the Gandhi family.
People kept saying are they the leader or is Mr Kharge the leader, and that used to be a tough question to answer, and we had to keep saying that they are leaders in themselves, they don’t need a position. Mr Kharge is a leader and also in position, chosen not only by them but by the entire party. but this was a new structure and this new structure now must be followed up with a new committee, a new Congress working committee. We don’t have one, and I hope that we will have one very quickly, but changes at the grassroots level and changes in terms of head of party units have quietly been happening.
And then, of course, I’m sure that Mr Kharge consults with Mr Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Ji quite often, but it’s not that visible. Those of us who may be involved in the close quarters of the party may know that the consultation continues, continues all the time. So even when we were talking to Mr Kharge who was hosting leaders of other political parties including Mr Nitish Kumar and Mr Tejashwi Yadav, Mr Rahul Gandhi was there, at his residence, at his house. So, if Mr Rahul Gandhi was not there, it would be a different kind of meeting. Mr Rahul Gandhi being there made it a different kind of meeting. So, the change is there, the change is there, and yet it’s the same. So, we have change which helps us gear up for the challenges that are coming. But the core which holds our ideology and which holds the faith of the Congress worker, that remains constant, which is a good thing.
SB: Speaking of the Congress worker, have you noticed any enthusiasm, a different kind of energy or enthusiasm, in the Congress workers? You are from UP. Have you noticed this in your immediate, in the Uttar Pradesh context, elsewhere perhaps? Have you noticed anything after this Karnataka victory?
SK: Well, let me just say that there are things happening on the ground in Uttar Pradesh, not always very clear and very perceptible. I was pleasantly surprised, and I do believe the top leadership of our party were also pleasantly surprised, when Mr Rahul Gandhi spent three days, near about three days, in UP during the yatra. And the kind of response, that’s only the western part of UP, but the kind of response he got and the enthusiasm with which he was greeted in western Uttar Pradesh was absolutely remarkable and it matched anything that happened anywhere else in the country including states where he spent good number of days, 10 days, 15 days, etc. in the south, in Rajasthan and then in various other parts of the country. UP in three days, in three days made its mark.
So, something was beginning to happen in UP. Now elections have happened. I think if you just looked at the figures of what has happened with results in UP, we may not look very impressive, but we don’t look zilch either. We don’t look zero. But then we go into the analysis of the votes that we have got. We had hit the rock bottom in the last assembly elections, an unnatural rock bottom of 2% vote, where there was a united attempt by the minority of Uttar Pradesh to vote for Samajwadi Party, to see if they could push him through once for all against the BJP, but it didn’t happen. And from then the conversation at the ground level has changed considerably. It became apparent in the number of people who turned out to vote for us. We may not have won many seats, at least at the top, mayor level and so on. We may not have won many seats, but certainly the vote tally is much higher, much higher, several times higher than the vote tally in the last assembly elections.
And the enthusiasm of the worker is incredible. I mean, you know, I keep saying to the workers, wait, this is not enough. You are telling me about Karnataka, you’re telling me about the vote percentage in this time and the local body elections, but this is not enough. This is not going to win us. And they all say, just you watch this time, just you watch this time. We’ve never voted for you. And this is people who are standard Samajwadi Party supporters. We’ve never voted for you but this time you watch. You come and ask us, you don’t come and ask us, this time it’s the Congress. We have to get the Congress this time. So, the confidence level and the commitment level seems very high, but yet I say we need to work on it. We will. We need to go back to the drawing board. We need to go back to the grassroots etc. to see that we can be well prepared for 2024.
SB: But Salman, all the old traditional Congress problems of dissent, of infighting, of rebellion going on in Rajasthan so visibly, it’s embarrassing that your senior minister like Sachin Pilot, who had tried to breakaway some years ago and now is just standing up against the chief minister just before the elections. It’s quite, I would say not embarrassing, but it shows that you know, some of the old problems don’t go away. At this time unity is needed and you have a young minister with some following – not spectacular, but some following, last time he had some 12 or 13 MLAs – standing up against and making allegations against Ashok Gehlot. It doesn’t inspire confidence in the coming elections.
SK: I know that this is a factor which is why I hinted earlier and what I said I hinted at some things that will need local management, careful local management. I just hope that whatever I say must be prefaced with one remark about Mr Sachin Pilot. He’s a young man, he has a lot of energy, he’s got a good background, he wants to go places and I hope that he does go places. He is the son of a dearest friend of mine, Rajesh Pilot, who was, I think by any standards, the most remarkable politician that I have known in my generation or generation just ahead of me. And therefore, whatever I say must not be seen simply as being critical of what he has done, but be seen as supportive and an attempt to try and understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.
I think that he is much, much more than what an ordinary politician seeking high office and being ambitious is. Sachin has time on his side. He’s got many things to go with him and therefore doing what he’s doing may in fact cost not just the Congress but cost him a very valuable career this is my sense deep in my heart and I wish I could speak to him. I wish I could make him understand. But unfortunately, you know, it seems the dice has been rolled. There are people that he feels he can’t let down. There are people who are encouraging him to do what they are encouraging him to do. I just hope that some sense prevails.
We don’t have many people left in our party today who could speak in such situations on the quiet to people and get them to calm down. Mr Ahmed Patel was one such person. He’s not there today. Mr Ahmed Patel who had lines open to anybody and everybody particularly late at night that he could speak to anyone, he’s not there today. So who can do this job? But I, from what I know and I understand, Mr Kharge will attend to Rajasthan as a first priority when he gets back from Karnataka having settled the government in. That will be his first priority and I hope that he can work some magic.
SB: But you mentioned that it will not only cost him [Pilot] but it will cost the Congress and that would be a shame after what you have done in Karnataka.
SK: Well, I know and I think we’ve done well in Rajasthan. You know, if we had performed badly in Rajasthan, [but] we’ve performed well in Rajasthan. Mr Ashok Gehlot has done a wonderful job. On any standard, on any standard, he should be back with a thumping majority. But you know, a divided house is a problem. And if it remains a divided house for too long, then you lose the momentum and then it’s very difficult to regain the momentum. I think Mr Ashok Gehlot is not just twiddling his thumbs, he is working around to see what he can do to overcome any disadvantages that may be caused by this disagreement. But I think he needs help, he needs help as far as our party is concerned. He needs help to put things right as quickly as possible. As I said, I am confident Mr Kharge is going to attend to this before he does anything else.
SB: Coming to the national level, do you think the Karnataka victory will boost the chances of opposition unity?
SK: Yes, you know, this opposition unity is a very fragile thing unfortunately. Anything that you might say favouring the situation vis-a-vis opposition unity might be seen as arrogance, might be seen as ‘oh it’s gone to the head again’ etc etc. If we hadn’t won Karnataka then if there would have been a write off for the Congress – it has got it has nothing left in it. But this special win that Karnataka gives to us should be recognised and I’m sure it will be recognised.
I can’t imagine that opposition leaders are not sensitive to these things. I think there’s some who have already taken remarkable steps forward and I put on record what I know, what Mr Nitish Kumar has done, what Tejashwi Yadav has done and then others are following suit. Some are a little more careful, a little more reluctant, careful but willing to come on board. It’s still a very amorphous idea. It’s still all about feeling good about each other, but then you have to get down to the drawing boards and then you have to sit down with figures and seats and number of people here and number of people there. So I think the less we speak of unity, except just brave and hope for it, the less we speak of analytical terms of the unity, the better we are all off.
SB: Yeah, but the common refrain, whatever the Congress does, is that the Congress is arrogant.
SK: I don’t want to take a chance at all. I don’t want to stand offish, I don’t want to stand to sound tough, harsh, overconfident, etc. Forget arrogance. We need to and then we’ve done some reaching out and I think nobody can complain. We’ve done some reaching out. Some more reaching out was done in the invitations that were given for the for the event this morning. So let us just say that we remain on a kind of an even balance scale so that we are not too short of showing enthusiasm and not too far showing excessive confidence, etc., that will put off someone.
But I think it’s the good of everybody. We may be the biggest losers in this game, if it doesn’t happen. But you know that we will not be the only ones to lose. And the country loses most of all. So I think we all know our responsibility and what we need to do with our demeanour, with our conduct, with our enthusiasm, with our outreach, with our sacrifice. I think the sacrifice is also an important element in unity. I think all that we should work on.
SB: It’s really a strange thing what you’re saying because I mean it’s not surprising but it’s strange because the Congress finds itself in a bind about taking steps forward.
SK: Well let’s not call it a bind, let’s call it a genuine feeling from the heart that there is something that needs to happen and that something that needs to happen will happen only if we’re all together. We’re all together. Now in being all together there is a huge amount of give and take. They can’t just be for Congress or for any other party, let’s take and run, let’s take and go. It has to be give and take. Now how much can any one of us afford to give and how much of everyone should be able to get in order to make the glue stick together? These are questions that over the next few weeks will become obvious and perhaps we will find answers to that.
SB: Let us assume that good solid opposition unity takes place. Quite a few parties come on board. Who leads it, who is where, doesn’t matter. Let’s have an imaginary kind of opposition unity for the time being. Do you think that this united front, to call it that, now I think all the names have been taken all these years, so I just have to go with United Front. Can it shake the BJP, perhaps defeat it?
SK: One shouldn’t sound overconfident, but I think the mathematics is very clear that if we come together, not just holding hands on stage, but actually come together in terms of impact at the ground level. If we come together, I think mathematically we are we are going to win. Mathematically we are going to win. It’s next to impossible for the BJP to come back in a majority. This is my feeling and therefore I think this is a historical opportunity that we can’t miss. It may not come again, not in a hurry, it may not come again. But too much might have changed if it comes again by the time it comes again and then to reverse that process might become very very difficult.
So I think mathematically it’s certainly possible but alliances are not about mathematics alone, I know that. Last time we had an alliance in UP, it didn’t work and you know nobody ever analysed it as to why it didn’t work. We have some sense of why it didn’t work between Akhilesh Yadav and Congress assembly elections but as I was going to say mathematics and chemistry are both important for an alliance and you have to keep that in mind. Somebody might throw in physics as well but chemistry and mathematics are…
SB: Yes it is all that because already it’s too early, but already some parties are saying, but if the Congress behaves in this fashion if it withdraws attacks on me – I’m referring to Ms Mamata Banerjee – if it withdraws on me then we can consider which I think is a step forward from what she’s been saying and some like DMK are quite ready to join. Some like Aam Aadmi Party or even Mr Sharad Pawar have not yet revealed what they have in mind. So it’s going to be a long this, but a year can go either way. And you know, Salman, the opposition does not have the media, the money on its side. So it’s not going to be as easy as some people make it out to be.
SK: No, it’s not easy at all. It’s not easy at all. I mean, we get the alliance. We still have to work very hard. All of us will have to work very hard. But, you know, I’m quite confident the media in this country is not blind. When things begin to happen, when things begin to happen, the media will change. The media will change. The media changed the day the exit polls that come on Karnataka. Media change considerably and media will continue to change. I can’t see a massive barrage of attacks on the new government Karnataka simply because the media still hasn’t decided that I’m willing to favour the Congress, etc. I think the media will also change. Media may have some difficulty, maybe under certain pressures, may have certain compulsions, certain commitments. But I think there’s enough in the media that indicates that you get on with your job, do a good job, and we’ll be there. We won’t look away. We will be there.
But obviously, each one will have to take steps carefully. You take your steps carefully. We will take our steps carefully. It doesn’t help to run down the media constantly. I believe some of our friends do run down the media constantly. I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think we should give up on the media. It’s like having a family. If you’re born in a particular family, you have to live with that family. It’s not like having neighbours that you could choose not to have by shifting to some other place. So, the media is part of Indian democracy and we should treat it as part of Indian democracy. Both the good sides and the not so good sides.
SB: So this is where the external affairs minister comes in full of diplomacy.
SK: Of course, if you like. I believe diplomacy in life goes far beyond diplomacy between nations. I mean, since you’ve touched on diplomacy, I think we are making a very poor presentation of ourselves as a diplomatically sensitive country. We have some points that we need to make around the world which we do and people may celebrate that we speak so clearly and we speak a tough language but that’s not diplomacy. What you have to do is to achieve something that you want done, not come home by saying, I said the words that I had to say to that person. That’s not diplomacy. Diplomacy is come back with all the things that you want to bring back home. I don’t think we are doing that.
SB: You’ve seen the inner workings of the ministry, though that was some time ago. You know how diplomacy works. It’s subtle. It’s nuanced. Under Dr Manmohan Singh, things had changed with China. So, do you follow it and does it pain you to see where we have reached?
SK: I feel deep regret. I feel deep regret that we are exchanging blows and we are exchanging harsh words with China. They are our neighbour and they never, never, never cease to be our neighbour. And I think we decided long ago when Mr Rajiv Gandhi went to China after a major break of relations with China and he went and shook hands – the famous handshake with the Chinese president. That was a thought out, it was not just off the cuff remark or just an impromptu action. That was a thought-out, far-reaching, well-thought-out point of view that we have to learn to live with China.
It doesn’t mean that you surrender to China, that you become a doormat to China. But when we have to learn to live with China, when you want to learn to live with China, you have to understand how the Chinese function, how they behave, what is at the foremost of their mind, just as we expect China to be doing to us. But that’s not what’s happening today. That’s not what’s happening today. We are telling China to get off somewhere and we are telling China that, you know, we walk as tall as them, etc. We should walk as tall as them, but we don’t have to say we walk as tall as you and then have them tell us, we’ll tell you what your height is, etc. That’s not diplomacy.
What have we achieved? We’ve achieved nothing, we’ve achieved absolutely nothing with China in the last five years or six years. Snd swinging on a swing in some way in Gujarat is not diplomacy. It can be part of diplomacy but it’s not entirely diplomacy. It’s maybe necessary but it’s certainly not sufficient.
SB: And then losing a thousand square kilometres.
SK: Absolutely, and then pretending that you haven’t lost. Right? Who are you serving by saying, no, Chinese never came on to our territory? I mean, are you saying that we went to their territory and got slaughtered? But if we are saying that Chinese have martyred our soldiers, and our soldiers have served this country, and that we owe, if nothing, we owe gratitude to them by saying that look we will not allow this to happen again. But we will not allow this to happen again. It’s not only by getting greater number of divisions on the line of control, but it’s also by using diplomacy. I mean, diplomacy is not a supplement to physical force. Physical force comes in where diplomacy fails. You have to avoid physical force as far as possible by being successful in diplomacy. If we don’t know this, then I’m sorry we don’t know anything at all.
SB: So my last question is, coming back to domestic politics, are you hopeful about 2024?
SK: I’m very hopeful. I’m very hopeful about 2024. And I tell you sincerely, the hope that I have for 2024 and the vision that I can see of India, of 2024. I just have a little wish. My wish is that somewhere, somewhere in that vision of 2024, I could tuck UP in somewhere. That UP will also have a role. And when I say UP will have a role, the Congress and UP will also have a role in that larger picture of 2024. We don’t want the entire canvas, because we never will get the entire canvas, but just a few square inches of that large canvas, if we can tuck ourselves in, I would think that, at least for the present, we are in a play that’s meaningful, and that we have a role to fulfil, a meaningful role.
SB: Well as you said 2024 is not that far away, it is a year away, but it’s not that far away because things start moving very very fast and we’ve got four elections coming up now. We’ll know soon enough – till then, let’s keep watching, Salman.
SK: Thank you very much. I’ll be happy to be back on your podcast.
SB: Yes, yes, welcome, welcome. That was Salman Khurshid, the well-known politician and lawyer and author and playwright. Hoping to bring your play to Bombay.
SK: We’ll certainly do so. Certainly, well now that winds are beginning to flow differently, we’ll certainly bring it to Bombay.
SB: And talking about the Congress victory in Karnataka and the hopes he has for the coming months and the next year’s election. Thank you, Salman. And we’ll be back once again next week with another guest on The Wire Talks. Till then, from me, Siddharth Bhatia and the rest of The Wire Talks team. Goodbye.
SK: Thank you. Bye bye.
Transcribed by Romita Handa.