‘Opportunists are those who become selectively janeu-dhari when it suits them’ – Shehzad Poonawalla

Indian politics is extremely diverse, and up until recently, it could be said that all parties, national and regional, move in concentric circles around the central party, which was the Congress. Recently, however, they have lost miserably in elections, and, it would appear, that their core ideology has morphed into a potpourri of electoral demands. The Congress party, led by a now-a-janeu-dhari-now-a-topi-dhari President and a now-supporting-tukde-tukde-gang-then-muzzling-dissent politician, has lost its way to say the least. One such incident is the public distancing from the rebel congress member Shehzad Poonawalla who recently spoke against the predominance of Dynastic politics within the grand old party. He spoke about how the Congress’ electoral vision is limited to keeping the Shehzada in power. I spoke to him to get a sense of what he thought the Congress party had morphed into. I tried to understand the ‘insiders opinion’ on whether Congress is pro minority, as it had always been, or pro ‘soft hindutva’, as it was trying to protect itself as during Gujarat elections. I end the interview by asking him if he is an opportunist, as many from his own party have been claiming.

Mr Poonawala, you and your brother have been one of the biggest, loudest supporters of the Congress party and the Gandhi family. What changed that prompted you to speak against the dynastic politics in the party?

We have to behave in the public domain in a certain way when we are working for a particular political party, be it the Congress, BJP or AAP. But that does not mean that we are totally unmindful or unaware of the rights and wrongs happening within. Let us be honest, even hardcore supporters would admit that some things are wrong and some things are right when it comes to their party. I too was aware of shortcomings of my party. The thing is, I tried to use the internal platforms available in my party to highlight certain issues. One of them was, the manner in which we allow our representative leader to be chosen and this was the reason I was taking time to reach out to Rahul Gandhi on my level. Internally I was trying to approach him on this matter from 2011 onwards without much success. Probably it was because I spoke too much about how the dynastic politics is actually hurting us instead of helping.

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But you always knew about the Dynastic nature of the Congress party, didn’t you?

Since Rahul Gandhi became actively involved in politics he has been speaking about presenting a “New Congress”. It was what he said in 2007 when he became general secretary and also when he became vice president in 2013. It was for me to believe my leader and give them a reasonable amount of time trying to change things before I had to take another course. I did my part. But the sad thing is the party has now become a ” kabeela”, a stringent tribal system. There was a time when there were certain people strong enough to take on the kabeela, like for example Dr Pranab Mukherjee. But today as you know, today has his own mini-kabeela where Sharmistha and Abhijit Mukherjee are there. Everyone has either become a beneficiary or a stakeholder in the kabeela to the extent that Dynastic politics has become the rule, the norm in the party and real talent has become an exception. So please tell me if I had not spoken out against it now when Rahul Gandhi is being coroneted as party president for probably the next twenty or twenty-five years, then when?

According to you, what is the core ideology that drives the party now, which is headed by Rahul Gandhi?

It has nothing to do with the ideology of Congress that started with Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Azad or Lokmanya Tilak. In fact it is totally against it. It has nothing to do with the principles with which the Congress was once founded, to fight against a foreign rule and get India’s freedom. It is now a subservient party that can be described in a three-point ideology.

  1. Gandhi family must remain in power, in the party and in the nation.
  2. Be it caste or any other card, irrespective of national interest has to be used if it can help us achieve point no 1
  3. Any sort of questioning or dissent on the leadership is not allowed because it will affect point no 1

Congress is known for minority appeasement. Now they are also fiddling with “soft Hindutva” and at the same time, trying to manipulate caste based divide within the Hindu community. What is your view on it?

There was a time when Maulana Azad became the Congress president. Not even the worst critic of Congress had said then that him becoming president was minority appeasement. Because the spirit of the party then was inherently democratic.  There were differences between leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Bose, Sardar Patel. But there was a prevailing sense to maintain democracy which allowed talent to flourish. In the last two decades that the party has been completely hijacked and monopolised, tokenism has become the agenda. Have you seen a single Muslim CM in any state other than J&K? Are there no talents in the Muslim community that this self-proclaimed secular Gandhi family could find?

So are you saying the Congress only uses the Muslims as vote banks and they not exactly interested in the upliftment of the community?

I am not saying it, The Sachchar committee report is saying it. In Gujarat there is a 10% muslim population. Congress blames BJP for not giving tickets to Muslims. How many tickets did the Congress give? Did they speak a word about Muslims in Gujarat during their election campaign? They suddenly discovered temples and completely forgot about the Muslims. So much so that when somebody asked if Ahmad Patel can become CM, a competent man who has been in the Rajya Sabha for so long and been such an active person in the party, they rejected that too. For Gujarat they became Janeu Dhari, now that Karnataka has a significant Muslim population, they have started opposing the triple talaq bill. They do politics in the name of Dalits, please tell me in the last many decades that the party ruled the nation, have we ever seen a Dalit Prime Minister?

It is believed that Congress is now seeking an alliance with PFI to consolidate Muslim votes. As someone who practices the faith and is associated with the party, do you think it is the right way to consolidate Muslim votes, to seek an alliance with a radical organisation like PFI?

When my party approached Maulana Bukhari during the 2014 elections I was strongly critical of it. I always tried to get my leaders to seek support from Muslims of talent and education who can be an inspiration to others. PFI is now being investigated by NIA for alleged links to terrorist activities. The very idea of an alliance with them is wrong. Ethically and morally.  Extremism of any religion is condemnable. Congress is quick to call out extremism associated with any other religion, then why to shake hand with Fanatic Muslims? Cant we reach out to the mainstream Muslims, Christian or Sikh to know their views about our country and its policies? It all fits into their policy of divide and rule, tokenism and photo-ops with controversial elements help them to set their narrative of fear-mongering among the masses against BJP. Gandhi family is very good at the divide and rule game.

Congress has a very bad history when it comes to personal laws. Overturning the Shah Bano verdict had started a whole string of bad judgements and atrocities that women faced. Now they are opposing the triple talaq bill. What are your views on it?

I think Congress has not realised that we have moved on from the era of Shah Bano to the Era of Shayara Bano. Today a Muslim woman is as much a stakeholder in the community as any cleric. Congress can appease a few clerics but that is not going to win them any support over the entire community. The bill is a reform that was long overdue. It would have been understandable if congress had said they have problems with certain clauses of the bill, but in the Lok Sabha where BJP holds a majority, they allowed the same bill to pass. How can they have a completely different stand on the bill when it came to Rajya Sabha? They can not preach gender equality here and then run to appeasement in the other house. They cannot step on two boats at the same time.

So you are saying that Congress as of now is neither loyal to Hindus, Muslims or Dalits?

Yes.

How did the Congress react to you after your rebellion? Were doors shut?

You will be surprised to know the number of people who had called me and congratulated me for bringing the issues out in the open. They all told me they wish they had my courage and conviction. But they are also certain that at the right time and right place they are going to make themselves heard. The sentiments I am expressing are echoed by a large number of people. I also want to clarify that I am still a member of Congress party. There had been statements that I don’t belong to Congress but I have provided ample proof and let me assert again that I have not been expelled, neither have been served any show cause notice.

You recently had a spat with Rajdeep. He said that nobody had called and asked him not to invite you to debates and you contradict it, saying there have been communications from Mr Surjewala and his media cell

It’s common knowledge that when there is a TV debate, it is not the anchor who invites the participants. In case of political parties, they have a media coordinator who decides who will attend a debate. The guest co-ordinators from the channel contacts the media cell of a party. There are two people, Dinesh and Girish, who work under Mr Surjewala. They get instructions on which guest to send to which news channel and to speak on what topic. Those two have been telling the guest co-ordinators from each channel that if Shehzad Poonawala is in the panel, we will boycott the channel for the next three days, My point is, this is blatant blackmailing. I have proof of such communication happening. I want my freedom of expression to be upheld too. There are channels who have very good dynastic connections and they have boycotted me.

Can you give me three names of journalists who can qualify as unofficial spokespersons of Congress and three names who are still practising respectable journalism

I won’t give you specific names of persons but I can give you names of media outlets who selectively do not report faults of Congress and do not practice unbiased journalism. First is ‘The Quint’, you saw how they have reported about Kulbhushan Jadhav to propagate their narrow interests, they also promoted Rahul Gandhi and Jignesh Mewani. Second is ‘The Wire’ and third, there are some specific individuals in NDTV and India Today who have a direct connection with congress leadership and allow their personal relationship to influence their professional sphere.

And the channels or anchors that have not changed their stance towards you depending on whether you are talking in support of Congress or against its leadership?

I can not comment on that.

I’m asking if there is still any media house that has not fallen into the blackmail of the Congress media cell?

Then, in that case, it would be Times Now. They have made it clear that they will not deny me a platform.

You are already being depicted as an opportunist who wants to change sides now that Congress is losing elections. Are you worried about the kind of image that Congress is going to project you as

Congress gave its worst ever performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. They have been losing consistently after that. If I wanted to escape and jump ship the doors were open. Opportunists are those who become selectively “Janeu Dhari” when it suits them.

Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017

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