'People will slowly be afraid to invest in Karnataka. Govt has failed to protect state's interests' – The Indian Express

At a recent meeting with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in Karnataka, senior state leaders of the party such as Mallikarjun Kharge and Siddaramaiah stressed that the party be more vocal on issues concerning its long-term supporters like minorities, backward classes and Scheduled Castes. And that the Congress faced the prospect of losing existing as well as new supporters if it failed to do so. At the meeting, Gandhi called for unity among the leaders to ensure the party fared well in the 2023 state polls. Excerpts from an interview with SALEEM AHMED, one of the five working presidents of the Congress in Karnataka:
* Is there concern that the Congress is not speaking out on issues dear to its supporters, like the minorities, OBCs and SCs?
It is not right to say that the Congress is not addressing the concerns of some sections of supporters. The Congress is a party of all sections of society, not only Muslims, Dalits, backward classes, but all sections. The Congress has been doing it in the past and will be doing this in the future as well.
* Right-wing groups and the BJP have been raising the heat, especially on issues concerning minorities. Is the Congress worried about a rise in emotive issues?
The BJP has come to the conclusion that it is going to lose the next elections given its record on governance. In the by-election in Hanagal (in December 2021), in Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai’s district (Haveri), where I was one of the leaders in-charge of the Congress campaign, the BJP had deployed the party and the government’s full might but we had still defeated the BJP candidate. In the MLC elections (for 25 seats in December 2021) we got a higher percentage of votes than the BJP (the Congress and BJP won 11 seats each in the MLC polls). In the urban local body polls, the Congress won more seats than the BJP. So now they have come to the conclusion that issues like price rise and corruption are going to cost them. The only choice left before them is to make the situation communal before the elections. They started with hijab, they raised Bhagwad Gita in schools, they raised Tipu Sultan and now they have raised business issues, that Muslims should not do business near temples. Why has this happened in the last four months? It is because elections are coming. They want to create a communal divide – that is the intention of this government.
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* The BJP seems to be confident that emotive issues will tilt the electorate in its favour.
It is not going to work out. The people of Karnataka know about these things. We have been living in harmony for hundreds of years and this kind of politics is not going to help the BJP come to power. We are attacking this government on corruption, price rise and its failures.
* Rahul Gandhi recently said that unity among Congress leaders is key to winning elections in the state. Will this be a concern when polls are held?
He said there is unity already but everybody must join together to bring the Congress back to power. He said the Congress must look to win 150 seats. People are unhappy with the present situation due to the failure of the Central and state governments. It has been more than eight years since Narendra Modi came to power but there has been no action on the promises to create jobs, bring back black money, and deposit Rs 15 lakh in the accounts of all citizens. People are also very unhappy with the handling of the coronavirus by this government. In the history of Karnataka there has never been a situation where the state contractors’ association has written to the PM that ministers and officials are asking for 40% commission to clear projects. And the PM never responded… This has created the impression that the government is corrupt and the BJP high command has no means of controlling the government.
Some of the issues raised by the BJP, like halal meat, directly affect the core base of the Congress such as OBCs, minorities and SCs who are meat eaters. Can this eat into the traditional vote base of the party?
It is not going to have any impact. Food habits have been established over a long period of time. In the case of halal, it is only a process in Islam to purify meat. It is good for health, that is why they say it is halal. These things are no issues at all. It is in fact causing problems for people in rural areas who have poultry and livestock businesses… It will not affect the Congress party.
* Will the Congress continue to focus on its core base of OBCs, minorities and Dalits for the next polls, or will there be focus on young, emerging voters?
Its traditional vote base is already there with the Congress. The focus now is on young voters because there are a lot of new voters. We are trying to convince them through our membership drive. We are focusing on the lack of delivery by the BJP on its promises on employment. Youth and women are going to be a key focus of the Congress for the next polls.
* Other claimants for the support of minority Muslim votes have emerged in the state, like the JD(S), SDPI, AIMIM, AAP. Does it suggest erosion of the traditional Muslim support for the Congress?
The Muslims have supported the Congress in the past and will continue to do so in the future. They know that the Congress is the only party that can control communal forces and the BJP. The Congress has always stood up for minorities and the ideological commitment is to not just them but all sections of society.

We feel that this time the whole concept in elections will be the failure of this government — the state government and the Central government. Over the last four to five months fringe elements are trying to disrupt the peace and this government has not acted like a responsible government. People will slowly be afraid to invest in Karnataka. The government has failed to protect the interests of the state. We have been asking the government to control these fringe elements who are creating communal tension. Investors will see these signs and will consider shifting to other states. The state has the responsibility to protect peace and tranquillity.
* Do you feel the state government is supporting many of these divisive issues?
There are certainly some unseen hands playing their part in these kinds of things. The State machinery has the capacity to anticipate these developments and prevent them from occurring. It is the responsibility of the state government to uphold the Constitution and protect the constitutional rights of all citizens. There are some elements trying to create confusion because elections are coming up soon.
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