February 20, 2012

New Delhi: Union Law Minister and Congress leader Salman Khurshid has been embroiled in a controversy over his comments on the minority quota. In the midst of hectic campaigning for his wife Louise Khurshid, who is contesting from the Farrukhabad assembly seat, he tells Kavita Chowdhury why he will continue to talk about the minority quota and the reality of Indian politics. Till date, you have come across as a secular leader. But now, you are being labelled as a Muslim one. Why this change of image? No, there has been no change of image. When I speak for Muslims, why is it termed as not secular? When I talk of improving legal services or setting up an Equal Opportunities Commission, no one says I am wrong. I am speaking for backward Muslims.

The Congress manifesto specifically talks about the minority quota. And, I am not doing anything special. It is in the Constitution. For instance, what we are doing on reservation is not even a fraction of what is needed. If you speak to Dalits about the creamy layer, they don't accept this idea of excluding the creamy layer. The Congress manifesto also speaks about reservations for ati pichara (most backward classes), the Nishads and the Rajbhars. Nobody is speaking about that. The electoral fight now seems to have become a Hindu-Muslim one. The talk of the minority quota has somehow divided voters on communal lines. It is not so. Voters' concerns are different --they are not interested in Aristotelian concepts of equality.

They are interested in bread and butter issues such as safety and roads. And, during the elections, I have to tell the voter what I need to. The voter needs to be made to feel psychologically secured through measures such as reservations and the minority quota. But the Congress Party censured you. The Congress' media department chief, Janardhan Dwivedi, cautioned you against making such remarks. Did you read what Priyanka Gandhi said? Is there anybody bigger than her? Priyanka Gandhi is part of the triumvirate of the family, which we (the Congress) consider the most important. She is not in active politics, but we value her contribution to the electoral campaign. And the party has not censured me in any way. For the past three days, I have been campaigning with Rahul Gandhi. Even my Cabinet colleagues Sriprakash Jaiswal, Kapil Sibal, Beni Prasad Verma and Ambika Soni have supported me. There is hardly any development taking place in Farrukhabad. However, major issues like long power cuts and improper roads do not figure on the agenda of political parties. Parties that are fighting us in the Uttar Pradesh polls -- the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party -- have been in power for 22 years.

They are the ones who have done nothing here. Whatever we could do (Khurshid is a member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha from Farrukhabad), the Congress government has done. We have provided schools and a railway line. What was the intention behind the minority quota talk and, in your opinion, has it been attracting Muslim voters? The intention was to implement the Sachar Committee report. It is the Constitution that talks about reservation for backward Muslims. We (the Congress) are promising reservation for all backward minorities. And, this is not a poll sop. The Right to Education Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are not poll sops; these are part of the measures of a welfare state. But you have written a regret letter to the Election Commission. The EC issue is a closed chapter. The EC felt I had breached the model code of conduct, and I have accepted it. Does this mean you will no longer talk about the minority quota? I will continue to talk about a sub-quota for minorities. It is erroneous -- the way it is being projected.

I am only saying what the party manifesto says. I will, however, take care to mention this reservation will be "commensurate with population", as stated in the Congress manifesto for Uttar Pradesh, and not mention any percentages. With the minority quota talk, do you risk alienating a large section of voters in Farrukhabad -- for instance, the Hindu vote? They voted for you in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls in large numbers. It doesn't matter if it costs me my vote bank. I am doing what is right. Political observers feel the Congress has jumped on the minority quota bandwagon with an eye on the Muslim vote, not just in the state assembly polls, but the general elections in 2014. The minority quota issue has not been talked about with an eye on any election. The Congress is looking at the larger picture -- the welfare of the country. The Congress seems to be indulging in double talk.

It says unlike other parties, it does not seek votes on a jati dharm (caste and religion) basis. Yet, you publicly declare a Kayastha or a Kurmi leader is bringing in the support of the Kayastha/Kurmi community with him/her? We are in the midst of 2012 elections and we have to deal with the reality on the ground. When Rahul Gandhi talks of the Vishwakarma caste of Sam Pitroda during an election rally, he is trying to send a message that even a Vishwakarma can transcend caste boundaries. You need to take the community along with you. The reality of Indian politics is not something you can overlook. Dalits, for instance, need to be treated specially. They need a special message to make them feel they are a part of the mainstream.

The caste factor is a reality in Indian villages. Rahul Gandhi is trying to say he will overcome and transform it through modernisation. The Constitution recognises Scheduled Castes, and the Congress alone cannot change the scenario. It's a difficult reality in which we (the Congress) are trying to work and introduce a new society.While Rahul Gandhi has been stressing on the youth factor, even revamping the Youth Congress, the party seems to have neglected the youth, a sizeable vote bank in its ticket distribution. This is not so. Youth Congress members may not have been given as many tickets in Uttar Pradesh, but we have to strategise for elections. Should we just give tickets to young people or to winnable candidates? However, it is not as if there are no young candidates.

I have canvassed for several, including Gaurav Chaudhry from Sarojini Nagar in Lucknow, Ramesh Srivastav and Anil Srivastav. How do you see the Congress faring in the polls in the state? Terrific. I have been travelling through the state and seeing the response. When I was the state Congress president in 2007, I secured the party 22 seats. Now, we will better that many times over. What gives you this confidence? It'is my business to know. Just as a car mechanic knows about cars, I am a mechanic of politics. (Courtsey;REDIFF.COM)