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In UP, Elections are Fought on Religious, Caste Issues... This has to Change: Priyanka Gandhi

Elections must be fought on issues of development -- employment, job creation, health services, education -- these should be central to our discussion and debate, says the Congress leader.
Priyanka Gandhi

New Delhi:  In an exclusive interview to PTI, Congress general secretary in-charge Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, on Tuesday talked about Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls including the polarising rhetoric, her party's resolve to keep the focus on development issues, women as a separate political entity, and impact of farm laws and the Lakhimpur Kheri incident on the polls.

Here is the full transcription of the interview:

What are the key issues on which Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls will be fought? Will the farm laws movement and the Lakhimpur Kheri incident be key factors?

Different political parties are highlighting different issues, some of these are divisive and intended to polarise the debate along religious or caste lines. It is a reality of politics in UP that elections are fought and often won in this manner but I firmly believe that this has to change. Elections must be fought on issues of development -- employment, job creation, health services, education -- these should be central to our discussion and debate. The Congress party in UP is working on a positive and progressive agenda. We have refused to engage in a negative discourse.

As far as the farm Bills and the Lakhimpur Kheri incident are concerned, they have been a source of immense pain to farmers across the state but especially in Western UP. I do believe that the government's indifference, its hostile and autocratic approach toward the farmers who were protesting and those who lost their lives, will play an important part in determining the outcome of the elections in the Western belt.

UP has seen politics where caste and religious equations have played a role, but Congress is opting for a ‘new’ kind of politics, it has also even given a ticket to the mother of the Unnao rape victim. Do you think women will vote as a separate political entity and support Congress?

I believe that women should vote as a separate political entity and this is a beginning in that direction. They are 50% of the population, yet they are hugely under-represented in the political space. If they consolidate into a political and electoral force by recognising their own value and strength in political terms -- they can change the politics of our nation. It is about time they asserted their rights and demanded to be given their fair space in the political arena.

The purpose of giving the Unnao rape victim's mother a ticket to fight the election is to convey a very direct message: The person who destroyed her family could do so and get away with it because he was an MLA, he had political power; we are enabling her to take that very same power, become an MLA and use her power to rebuild her life and help others.

The same goes for others like her who have genuinely struggled for the rights of their community whether it is Poonam Pandey, the 'ASHA bahu' who was thrashed by the Yogi government just for demanding to be heard, or Ramraj Gond who led the struggle of the people of Umbha after the heinous massacre that took place with the collusion of the government and police in their village. Political power rightfully belongs to them, not to the mafias and criminals whom the government protects. We are offering them the opportunity to claim it and use it to do good.

The third wave of COVID is on. How big an issue will be the handling of COVID by the Yogi Adityanath government in the last two years?

The Yogi government's handling, especially of the second wave of COVID, was disastrous. It failed on every count -- it failed to protect people, it failed to provide them with health facilities, it failed to provide oxygen, medication and hospital beds. Even worse was the fact that while failing to do all of this it acted as an aggressor toward the public and those providing health services. Whether it was the ‘ASHA bahus’ who risked their lives to help others or doctors, nurses and health care professionals; instead of incentivising and supporting them the government created an atmosphere of fear.

The government's efforts were focused on covering up the truth rather than saving lives. This compounded the problem because people could not even appeal for help while enduring the most terrifying and tragic circumstances. Having said that, I cannot say how deeply this will affect the upcoming elections -- people tend to put tragedies behind them and move forward.

However, I feel that a government must be held accountable for its actions. When so many lives are lost and people go through so much suffering, it should not be brushed under the carpet. It is up to us as a people to demand accountability from those in power. This is a fundamental aspect of democracy.

How big an issue would be polarisation?  We have already seen divisive rhetoric in the polls, How do you plan to counter that?

I feel that at some level, whether it is the polarising force of the BJP or the Samajwadi Party, it serves the same purpose -- it suits both these parties as it consolidates their vote bases. Ultimately, I feel the largest beneficiary of this polarisation may end up being BJP. In order to stop BJP actually, you need a party that changes the discourse rather than positing another pole for polarising it further. The answer to this kind of politics lies in refocusing the agenda on development.

People are suffering -- they have to be made to connect this suffering to the lack of governance. Event management is not the same as effective governance. People have to be made to understand that, and demand good governance. Despite the crores it spends on advertising itself as one of the leading state governments in India, the truth is that the BJP government in UP does not know how to govern.

Fundamentally, it has allowed the structures that sustain governance and development to be taken over by mafias and destroyed. It has done virtually nothing to build infrastructure, to improve education and healthcare, to provide jobs and reduce the massive hit that small industries and businesses have taken post corona.

People have to be shown that there is a choice. Another kind of politics is possible, and it is more beneficial to them than the politics of division which only benefits certain political parties.

You have announced that Congress will contest all 403 seats. Will Congress be open to a post-poll alliance to keep out the BJP?

We will take a call on this once the election results are out and if and when such a situation should arise. I feel it would be premature to comment on it at this point.

With big rallies banned, the elections would largely be fought through social media and in the digital space. Does this give BJP an advantage?

Yes it certainly does give BJP a certain advantage; we are all aware that they have the most resource rich and elaborate social media machinery. I believe the SP has made an appeal to the EC in this regard already. But why should we be daunted by this? If we use it intelligently, we can meet the challenge too.

On our part, we have already switched focus to our door-to-door campaign and amplified it. We have also converted all our women's townhalls and other events into online events. On the ground, we are doing small chaupals, using videos and other tools to spread our message. Our organisation is enthused and has been working relentlessly while adhering to all the COVID protocols. 

UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has been fielded from Gorakhpur by the BJP. Your comments.

Looks to me like his leadership is attempting to cut him to size. It's an open secret that they have been wanting to do so for some time. Their internal pushes and pulls are beginning to reveal themselves in public now. I suppose in an autocratic system like theirs, there can only be one supreme leader.

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