INTERVIEW | The club of thinkers defeats us in surveys, but we win on the ground: Amit Shah

Express News Service

Union home minister Amit Shah, in the last leg of a hectic campaign that saw him on the ground in all parts of Karnataka, is confident of the BJP bucking the trend of pendulum swings and returning to power in the state. In an exclusive interview with The New Indian Express, Shah takes questions on a variety of themes with his usual air of assured authority. But the bottom line was the crucial inflection point of the May 10 Assembly polls, and how winning it will ensure the party’s political entrenchment in South India. Excerpts:

What is your assessment of the situation on the ground in Karnataka on the last leg of electioneering?
We will win a minimum of 15 seats more than the half-way mark (113). The reason for this is that, during the four years of our government, we have been implementing Modiji’s programmes on the ground successfully. That has created a whole class of beneficiaries of all Central government programmes. They are not being counted by those doing traditional political analysis based on castes, individuals and their clout. But I can see it very clearly in the meetings and public rallies across Karnataka.

Let me give you some numbers. The Jal Jeevan Mission, which provides tap water free of fluoride, has linked 43 lakh households. They will get water in their houses and women no longer have to walk with pots on their heads to fetch water. Similarly, toilets were built in around 48 lakh houses, which is a big source of succour for women. Four crore people got foodgrains free of cost, around 1.38 crore people got relief on healthcare expenditure with insurance, 37 lakh people got gas cylinders under Ujjwala and around four lakh people got houses. Even if you remove overlapping, the beneficiaries will by all means number around 70 lakh families. That is a big number. All traditional calculations that look at the movement of Vokkaligas or Lingayats or Kurubas will be proved wrong.

You are saying it will be social development, not economic or infrastructure development…
It is both social as well as economic development. If they had not got free foodgrains, a portion of their income would have been spent on purchasing food and the Rs 3-4 lakh saved on health insurance would have been spent on medicines and treatment. That saving is invested in doing something new. They got toilets, water and gas at home, and their health improved, which resulted in their empowerment and increased their self-confidence. Many major projects were also taken up. Take the New Mangaluru Port Authority, at Rs 3,800 crore; the 10-lane Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway, Rs 8,000 crore; Bengaluru-Chennai Expressway, Rs 17,000 crore; Bengaluru-Hyderabad Expressway, Rs 31,000 crore; Bidar-Kalaburgi-Bellari road, Rs 7,650 crore; South India’s first Vande Bharat train; and the Shivamogga and Kalaburagi airports.

So, you think welfare policies plus development will bring you back to power with a substantial majority? But why are the surveys not reflecting it?
I have been involved in all elections in the last nine years and all the surveys have first defeated us: because the club of thinkers and those who work on the ground are different classes. The club of thinkers defeats us, but the team that works on the ground ensures our victory.

You speak about welfare, social upliftment and Direct Benefit Transfers. You and the Prime Minister have also spoken very strongly against what he calls the revdi culture or system of bribing the voters to get support…
There is a fundamental difference between the two. We don’t give cash every month. We have given them a gas (connection) and they will purchase gas. We have provided the electricity connection; they pay the bill. We have built toilets and they will maintain them. We provided tap water; they pay tax to the panchayat. We provided health insurance, not cash. We have empowered them, not bribed them. Giving facilities free of cost is revdi. We don’t do that.

Many seniors were denied tickets this time and new faces were fielded. Was it not to beat anti-incumbency at the ground level?
Take a look at the last 10 elections. We have always changed around 30% of our candidates. There is nothing new in it.

Many senior leaders, including Jagadish Shettar and Laxman Savadi, left the party…
Shettar and Savadi left as the BJP is a party that takes a stand. Would they have left the party if we had given them tickets? That is not how the party operates. Savadi is an MLC till 2028. This Assembly will be up to 2028. Why should he contest polls? Why should another worker not contest, why should we do injustice to another worker? If you wanted to contest for the Assembly, you should not have taken the MLC ticket. And Shettar had himself decided he will not be part of Basavaraj Bommai’s ministry as he is a senior. What will he do being just an MLA? He has contested elections six times. Let other workers come up.

Shettar and Savadi say prominent Lingayat leaders were suppressed and BS Yediyurappa was sidelined…
No one sidelined Yediyurappa. He himself had told me that there is a system in the party. He had crossed the age and needed to be replaced (as CM). Eight months after that, the party replaced him. Even now, Yediyurappa is addressing six rallies a day.

Do you see any threat of the Lingayats moving away from the BJP?
No. Savadi and Shettar will lose by a big margin. Take it from me. Shettar’s margin of defeat will be double the margin of his victory (in the last election) as Hubli has always voted for the BJP and not any individual. Hubli is our fortress.

Why have you fielded ministers R Ashoka and V Somanna from two constituencies each? Don’t you think fielding them from one segment each to take on senior Congress leaders would have sent a stronger message?
What is good for our party is an internal issue of our party and we have to make those decisions.

The trend in Karnataka is that it has not voted back a ruling party with a majority. Will the BJP be able to buck the trend?
That was also there in UP, Assam and Manipur, and we broke those records. That is our record and that is why we are confident.

Are you banking more on Modi’s charisma for bucking the trend or on development and performance?
How can you separate Modiji and BJP? The Congress started the tradition that the PM should not go to state elections as Manmohan Singh was not addressing rallies. They did it as people were not coming for their election rallies. Was Indiraji not going? Was Atalji not going? For 10 years, the Congress had a leader who was not addressing rallies. So they started saying the PM should not go to state elections. Why not? Isn’t Karnataka part of India? It is the responsibility of the PM to interact with people during elections and explain his views, his party’s views, and the development agenda. That is the duty of the PM. Not going is arrogance. That is why the PM goes and puts in more hard work than us.

ALSO READ| Karnataka elections: In a setback to BJP, Veerashaiva Lingayat forum extends support to Congress

But the opposition says Amit Shah and the PM had to come to Karnataka as the state government has failed…
No, that is not true. We go to all states, even where we lost elections. We went to Odisha and we will go to Andhra Pradesh. For Congress, elections are just a means to gain power, but for us, it is a medium to present our ideology and programmes before the people. We explain our thinking, and our achievements.

Why shouldn’t we go?

Do you think controversies on communal issues, such as those around hijab and halal, distracted from your development narrative?

Hijab and halal are not at all issues in this election. I am hearing it for the first time from you. Why are you bringing it up?

Your views on the Bajrang Dal ban proposal? Do you think it has helped you?
For us, it is not an issue to get votes. We have always opposed appeasement. No party should seek votes based on such policies. We think this is appeasement, so we are opposing it.

The Congress says the BJP government in Goa had banned the Sri Rama Sene in 2014 and asks what moral right do you have to oppose the Bajrang Dal ban now.
You need to have proof to ban any organisation. We banned PFI, so you say you will ban another organisation. That is not fair. We have been in power since 2014 and banned PFI only after adequate proof came of its involvement in anti-national activities. We stopped it when it had reached the first stage of terrorist activities. The court also upheld it.

The BJP often speak about the benefits of a ‘double-engine government’ to seek votes. In a federal system, shouldn’t the Centre and the state governments always be working for citizens as a double engine irrespective of which political parties are ruling at the Centre and the state?
I will give you a small example from Karnataka. When the Siddaramaiah government was here, the Centre had asked for a list of farmers for giving benefits under the PM Kisan Samman Yojana. They sent a list of 17 farmers! They were scared that if the benefits reach farmers, they will be happy with the BJP and Modiji. When Yediyurappa became the CM, they sent a list of 54 lakh farmers. That is the difference a ‘double- engine government’ makes, and we are explaining that to the people.

The imposition of Hindi is one of the complaints against the BJP made by regional parties in Karnataka and other southern states. How do you respond to it?
This is propaganda against the BJP. I want to humbly ask you, as well as those behind such propaganda, one question: could all students take IAS/IPS exams in the regional language before the Modi government came in 2014? No. Now they can do it. For 70 years, you forced students from Karnataka to take exams in Hindi or English. We ensured that they can take exams in their mother tongue. That is the case with medical examinations as well. Even constable’s examinations can be taken in all scheduled languages. Where is the question of Hindi imposition? In fact, we have made arrangements that they need not depend on Hindi. You tell me, if a child who studied in Kannada medium writes exams in Hindi or English, how can he or she get a job? (The Congress) made such an arrangement that Kannada-medium students did not get jobs. We changed it. Now students can take exams in Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu and other languages.

ALSO READ| Public mood is in favour of BJP, no doubt over winning: Karnataka CM Bommai

Linguists do believe that a child’s cognitive skills develop best if it learns in the mother tongue. But in a multilingual country like ours, what will be the link language?
People themselves will decide on the link language. There is no need to impose it on them. They will do whatever they feel is simple.

How important is this election, looking from the perspective of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls?
Winning or losing is part of elections. But for the BJP, it is a very important election as winning Karnataka means our Southern entry is assured. I strongly feel BJP governments will be formed in Karnataka and Telangana.

Do Tamil Nadu and Kerala remain challenging areas?
For us, the entire country was a challenging area. We did not have a single government in the Northeast. Now we have NDA governments in eight states. We were not in Uttar Pradesh, we won twice there. We won twice in Uttarakhand. We have performed well in Odisha. Eighteen Parliament members won from West Bengal. We also have 77 MLAs there, as well as the leader of the Opposition. It used to be just two MLAs. We are entering (all parts) and I hope it will happen soon in South India.

If the BJP comes back to power, will Basavaraj Bommai continue as CM or will it be decided after the elections?
Bommaiji is the CM now. You cannot decide on the CM when you have a CM. Also, we are facing the elections with Bommai as the CM.

In an election rally, you said there will be communal riots in Karnataka if the Congress comes to power. Why did you say so?
Look at the statistics. There were more communal riots during Congress rule. That is in the record, and I only spoke about the record. I said it is the Congress’s history. Whenever the Congress came to power, there were communal riots.

The Congress is accusing the BJP of 40% corruption and also for allegedly misusing agencies to target political opponents. How do you respond to their allegations?
Both are contradictory. We have courts, police stations and agencies. Who filed a complaint about allegations of 40% bribe, and what is the outcome? It won’t stick just by talking about it. As far as agencies are concerned, you can go to court. Why don’t you go? Because there is a prima facie case. If you want a system in which no corruption cases should be registered against those in politics, you should include it in your election manifesto.

Opposition says the agencies mostly target them…
Look at the record from the Congress’s time. A murder case was registered against me. I did not come out (to protest) wearing black clothes. I went to court. The court gave the verdict that it was a case of political vendetta and dismissed it. We have to fight in court. Cases were booked against Modiji too. They could not prove it. The question is, why don’t they seek quashing of the ED (Enforcement Directorate) chargesheets? The ED makes a concrete case. If they say it is wrong, they should file an application seeking its quashing. Why go to trial? There is a provision to quash false cases. When a case was booked against me, I did not go to trial but sought its quashing. It was quashed. It went up to the Supreme Court.

The BJP manifesto promises the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and a Uniform Civil Code (UCC). Is it possible to do this in the state?
UCC can be done. UCC is on the concurrent list. NRC is a survey and the state has the right to survey its citizens.

ALSO READ| Karnataka polls: Battle royale in Varuna as Siddaramaiah locked in fierce fight with BJP’s Somanna

Ahead of the 2024 polls, the Congress is trying to form an alliance of non-BJP parties. How do you look at it?
It’s just propaganda. Tell me, how many people will come if Mamataji addresses a rally in UP? How will she help Akhilesh Yadav? What will happen if Chandrashekar Rao comes and supports Congress in Gujarat? What will happen if Stalinji campaigns for Congress in Karnataka? They are all leaders in their respective states (West Bengal, Telangana, Tamil Nadu) and we are fighting them in those states. Just coming on one platform will not make any difference in electoral possibilities. It will make a good photograph in newspapers, and they feel happy about it.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto has made undiplomatic remarks on Kashmir. Even internally, issues have been raised about J&K statehood and elections. What do you have to say?
Both issues are very clear. Elections will be conducted by the Election Commission and not the government. The commission is preparing electoral rolls. They are doing registration of people who left J&K because of the law and order situation and are living in different parts of the country. It is a laborious process. As far as the statehood question is concerned, I have said from day one in Parliament that after the elections, we agree to give statehood.

How is the situation in Manipur?
It is under control. The administration there is holding dialogues to build confidence on both sides. I am confident that it will be done.

The drug menace is proving to be a challenge for the ministry and the country…
We have taken the fight against drugs very seriously. We have a zero-tolerance policy against narcotics. We have adopted a ‘Whole of Government Approach’. All states and all agencies, including revenue, customs, Navy, Coast Guard and other agencies are working together in this fight. The Union Home Ministry has also given a new standard operating procedure for investigation. If a drug is seized in any part of the country, it will not just be treated as a (single) case. The full network will be investigated. Once we started it, the policy gave good results. From 2006 to 2013, the value of drugs seized was 1768 crore, and from 2014 to 2022, it is `22,000 crore. It doesn’t mean that more drugs are coming in, only that more is being seized, more cases are being registered, and more arrests are being made. It is being monitored strictly from the district level to my office.

Maoist insurgency still makes news too.
As far as left-wing extremism is concerned, violence has been reduced by 70%. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are free of left-wing extremism. Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand are also free of it. The Tirupati-to-Kathmandu corridor that used to be spoken about has been reduced and it is confined to four districts in Chhattisgarh. We have started 181 new camps in the affected states and sent (security forces) inside zones where there was no entry earlier. Once camps gave protection, light, telephone towers, shops that provide food grains at affordable prices and schools were provided. Due to that, the number of people associated with them (extremist organisations) reduced, and the number of surrendered Naxals increased. We have seen success. In a short time, we will totally free the country of Naxalism.


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