I’m sure not many know that Sudhanshu Mittal (SM throughout the interview here), the absolutely charming spokesperson for BJP is also a hearty foodie, loves to play badminton, and was the one to provide logistics for the Oscar winning movie ‘Gandhi’. He makes accurate psephology predictions and uses Google mapping to map out the constituencies and in his own words, says that ‘the activist in me has been there for 35 years and aspires to be there for as long as one is alive.’
When I went to meet him, the first thing I noticed is his disarming smile that remained there throughout our two-hour long discussion as sincerely as his wish to do something positive for the image of RSS. What many may not know is that he is unafraid to voice his opinion and even blogs about his opinion on the Delhi elections to talking about innovative technology solutions… and is adept at expressing his thoughts clearly in both English as well as Hindi. After all, he is a product of St Xavier’s School and then from SRCC in Delhi University.
More than this short introduction to this man, what he has to say about all that is happening around us these days is what will give us a better insight to the man and his action-packed ideas.
Quite unexpectedly, Sudhanshu Mittal began our discussion by first brewing me a mug of coffee himself… and though I did not say this but I then knew that I’d love to call him the political barista with a flawless smile. Not so unexpectedly, he began with poetry:
Tujhko dariyadili ki kasam sakia
Mustaqil daur pe daur chalta rahe
Raunake maikada yuhin sajti rahe
Ek girta rahe, ek sambhalta rahe
So when I asked if this fascination with poetry was an effect of Xavier’s or SRCC, he said, ‘I guess I was always a romantic, you know.’ Let me admit that I had gone with a few questions but this kind of a start put my sequence in disarray and so I realigned my questioning and recited the concluding lines of a poem by Harivanshrai Bachchan to ask if politics or political realignment was all about
‘pukar kar dular lo,
dular kar sambhal lo,
iss liye khada raha,
ki tum mujhe pukar lo’?
SM: We are living in times of media against polity… in the media today there is very little appreciation of ground reality. Show me one political party that wants to get into an alliance, post elections… nobody. The compulsion of an alliance arises out of a fractured mandate. A fractured mandate can obviously not be attributed to the political parties. At best, it is people’s mandate which is fractured. In such a case what are the alternatives… you go back to the people and everybody then says: no, no, no… you can’t do that. You can’t have elections all over again. It means so much money… so much this and so much that… so in case of a fractured mandate, what are the alternatives? You are bound to negotiate, talk and discuss with someone you fought an election against.
AP: So why can’t political parties realign or restructure their own manifestoes and aims before they go to the people asking for votes?
SM: Dekhiye, a manifesto is what you believe that people should have. Every party has a thought process. Political parties are born to serve the people and we have come for ‘jan-sewa’… now similar to what Bachchan says in Madhushala:
Alag alag path batlate sab
Lekin main batlata hoon
Rah pakad toh ek chala chal
Pa jayega madhushala
Similar to this, even in politics there are different ways one can serve (rajniti mein sewa ki alag alag soch hai)…for instance, there is one who may want electricity to be given away free but another party may want the companies producing and distributing electricity to get strengthened and become economically viable for a long term solution to the problems of the country. So these are all issues related to a thoughtful interpretation and you go to people with your interpretation. And a political party says: This is what I think and seek a mandate on. Everybody seeks a mandate to what and how they interpret the social system and its problems. What is the fault of a political party when there is a fractured mandate? Has the political party asked the public to give a fractured mandate?
AP: You are echoing the political perspective… I am talking about the people perspective.
SM: I have no way to read your mind. What I do is what I believe you think. This is fundamentally different. When you are leading, you are leading with conviction. This is what I stand for… take it or leave it. So a fractured mandate is not the fault of a political party. This is my manifesto and this is what I stand for… this is my leadership. Some people take it and some leave it.
I then decided to ask him if the actions of BJP and its political realignments would cause any significant perception changes in the electorate? Sudhanshu Mittal thought for a while, smiled, and replied, ‘BJP does have a problem of perceptions. Nine months have gone by and at the people’s level, there is much to be desired. This is a critical juncture for BJP. In the war of perceptions we are losing out when we were pioneers in the war of communication.
I then asked him about the tremors that the land acquisition bill was creating in the media and even away from it. When I asked him the reason for this, he said it was all because the political dialogue was incomplete. He said, ‘Let me give an example. Let us look at land holdings… the perception created is that BJP is anti-farmer. Now, there is no effective communication from BJP to explain that this act in its entirety is a windfall in the hands of the farmer. The farmer is simply reacting to the forced acquisition of land in context to his earlier experience of land acquisition. The government then was profiteering… the political establishment was profiteering… because land worth 100 was acquired for 60 and sold to developers for 60 and with 20 thrown in as the kickback to politicians. Crony capitalism was profiteering. This is what needs to be communicated well.’
AP: Why can’t BJP explain to people that the legacy that has made farmers afraid is not the aim of the ruling party now?
SM: The BJP is having a problem with flaws in communication. When the Act came in 2012 we cooperated with the government and now the opposition are opposing for the sake of opposition which is not good for nation-building.
At this point I decided to ask Sudhanshu Mittal if political realignment, political correctness, and guerrilla politics were hallmarks of the BJP. I wanted him to answer with the developments in J&K, Haryana, and Delhi in perspective. Without batting an eyelid, he began by telling me that though J&K has a fractured mandate, there is no realignment there as ‘we only went for exploring an alternative of giving a good government on a pre-determined agenda. So instead of going back to elections can we opted to come together to serve the people of J&K on a pre-agreed agenda where development of the State and providing clean good governance were the only aims.
AP: The PM has indeed made a substantive political communication to make this quite clear to the alliance partners.
SM: Right. But where we are following the dharma of alliance, let us see what they (PDP) are doing. They first mislead us on the number of Cabinet Ministers. It was decided that the ratio would be 7:6 and they turned it into 9:6. They did it unilaterally and then as an ultra-rightest organisation, the appreciation of Pakistan or the Hurriyat is completely unacceptable to us. Mufti ji does it. Now if an alliance partner violates the gathbandhan dharma, I cannot be put in the dock. While it takes time to forge an alliance, you do not immediately give it up and you give it time to mature. Even Jaydrath wasn’t killed after the first abuse hurled or the first ill-conceived move was it? So we are making our position clear and the day it crosses all limits of reasonableness will be the day the alliance will break.
AP: What about your anticipated actions in Haryana that may harm the interest of Delhi. Is the BJP planning to oppose for the sake of opposing?
I was egging him to talk about the tepid response that Arvind Kejriwal’s attempt to draw Khattar into a political dialogue got, but Sudhanshu Mittal expertly took the service lane and said, ‘Delhi… somewhere there was laxity on our end. The results are an indication and an eye opener. The delay in holding an election for eight and a half months must be evaluated. Secondly, the flip-flop during the intervening period on forming the government is inexcusable. So between the yes and no phases, the high moral ground taken by the party was demolished. And thus we got a beating from both sides. Then in the eight and a half month central rule, did the Delhi Government under the direct control of the Centre, deliver anything? It delivered zero.’ I then added that the wipe out of BJP in the Delhi Assembly elections was probably because their State unit was not able to establish a people connect here. However, I did make efforts to ask the real question that I had in mind, and asked, ‘We have digressed. The primary question was if will BJP be an opposition for the sake of opposing in Delhi.’
SM: AAP is going to be its own opposition. We don’t have to do anything. It is its own ‘pratipaksh’.
AP: All I’m trying to ask is if the aim of BJP will be to downgrade and deride a State government or be willing to lend a helping hand to political novices like the AAP?
SM: Helping hand is always the aim but given the polity here, the Delhi unit, I must mention, received a very unfair treatment. The interference of the central leadership has not been very objective and this has been unfair on the Delhi unit of the BJP.
AP: Did this happen because of the laxity of the central unit of the party or did the unit itself suffered because of its non-deliveries?
SM: Delhi unit has been facing whimsical decision-making by the central leadership. Take the case of 2103 where 15 or 20 days before the elections, you remove the party president who has been working for the past nine months. (I did want to remind him here that the past nine months had nothing but non-deliveries…) However, Sudhanshu Mittal went on saying that the ‘BJP Delhi is a victim of the chess-board games of the central leadership.’
I then made my final attempt to ask about the BJP attitude to the newly elected AAP government in Delhi: ‘We are at the threshold of summer… do you think Delhi is going to face a massive water problem this year?
SM: Today as I see the dispute with Haryana, Delhi could face a water shortage.
AP: So why can’t BJP lend a helping hand to the government in Delhi than merely opposing for the sake of opposing?
SM: See, if there is a clash of interest between Haryana and Delhi, I can’t be partisan to Delhi and good politics will be that I rather be partisan to Haryana. Arrey, I have my government in Haryana. It is almost like the Delhi government asking for the chief secretary of Goa to be transferred to Delhi. But then that other state too recognises the good work being done by the man there and would not like to part with him. Let’s not go over-board in our quest for appeasement at the cost of the majority you are catering to the needs of the minority. I should not be taking sides. I mean, if Goa had a Congress government, should I have done it? So every political question has a political answer.
AP: Is it then difficult to get over politics and get into good governance?
SM: If the rules of governance are adhered to irrespective of its politics, then you have a straight line. The moment we try to be accommodative, we blur the straight line and there’s a lot of subjectivity that comes in.
AP: Is guerrilla politics the mantra of new politics? In simpler terms, is the BJP behind groups like AVAM?
SM: The post-election conduct of AAP will explain the emergence of AVAM. The disgruntled approach of AVAM is simply the reaction of the have-nots in their establishment. This is more pronounced when the founders go unheard and the ‘johney-come-lateys’ become the establishment. So Ashwini Upadhyaya has a choice to tolerate or to rebel when he is pitted against new members like Ashutosh. It is because of such developments that internal bickering starts… and it is not guerilla politics anywhere.
I then decided to go back in time and ask him if his schooling in St Xavier’s meant any sort of Christian dogma being forced on him.
SM: When we evaluate this question, it is not be evaluated in the context of St.Xavier’s. It has to be evaluated in the endeavour across the country. What is this endeavour across the country? You see, there are two sides to the story. On one side is the Xavier’s which at the pinnacle of its story decided to showcase a very different side by converting itself into a Hindi medium school. The perception that was thus created that if this is what St Xavier’s does, this is what every Christian school does across the country which was not the truth. So what was showcased was not the rule but an exception. So marketing the exception as a rule is not fair at all.
When I prodded him to define conversion, he went on to say that ‘conversion is my fundamental right. The choice of religion is my fundamental right. However, a conversion out of allurement is not acceptable.
AP: So when the Hindu fringe groups do something similar they are also wrong?
SM: Yes, if allurement or threat is used, it is wrong. We need to establish the fundamental and its application has to be universal, irrespective of what the colour or what the religion is. So if a Christian missionary says that there will be free education if you become a Christian, it is wrong. If he says that there will be free treatment in his hospital if the person converts, it is wrong. Conversion out of conviction is a fundamental right, but not a fundamental right if it is out of allurement. Anything, irrespective of who says it, which is contrary to the law of the land cannot be acceptable.
If a John Dayal says that a few Churches have been vandalised and that the Christian community is being targeted, I take serious offence to it. Also, if a law and order problem is converted into a communal issue, it is not acceptable.
AP: Do we understand that the BJP is not in a mood to tolerate anything that is even remotely communal or non-secular?
SM: BJP is wedded to only one thing… the primacy of the law of land.
AP: Well, the BJP is also permanently and fundamentally wedded to RSS.
SM: So? Does the law of the land not permit this? Please tell me. I am a proud swayam-sewak. People do not understand the essence of RSS and so let me tell you that it is ‘charitra-nirman’ or sewa. Does the world understand that RSS is the biggest NGO worldwide? There is no NGO that can match the wide-spread sewa of the RSS and so it is time that it is recognised as the world’s biggest NGO. There are more than sixty-six thousand points of presence only in the field of education. Show me even one organisation that can show as many. The same is true for medical as well as public health.
AP: If Muslim or Christain organisations do similar kind of sewa…
SM: They should… nothing wrong in it. Service to mankind is a blessing.
AP: In which form then is conversion acceptable?
SM: Worldwide, it is minorities that demand anti-conversion laws and it is resisted by the majority. Why? Because they say that under the onslaught of the majority force we lose our ethnicity, we lose our identity so we want an anti-conversion law. The majority says: No, no, no, no, no… we are a democratic nation, we have majority. Look at the dichotomy.
In India it is the other way round as it is the majority which is saying it wants an anti-conversion law and the minority is opposing it. The fear should have been in the minority…
AP: Does this happen because of a lack of effective political communication?
SM: It is in the quest for appeasement politics that we have compromised with the fundamentals of the law of land. As I said earlier, conversion is not an issue. Choice of religion is my fundamental right but if my choice is to be exercised under force or under pressure or under an allurement then it is criminal. This is all that BJP or the Sangh is asking for.
AP: What stops the BJP from holding discussions with the minorities and clarify the issue?
SM: It is prejudiced minds filled with fear that are not open to a rational discussion. There needs to be clarity between theft and desecration of a place of worship. So the moment you create a distinction between an event which otherwise is common to everybody but because it happened to a minority you call it a communal issue… you are vitiating the environment of this country. This is unfair. You are bringing a bad name to this country. You are doing a disservice to this country. Till such time we don’t look at issues from the legality of the issue and look at only the communality of the issue, we will always have these conflicts.
AP: Let us go on now to another issue that has people discussing in every household. As a student of DU, did you ever feel that our colleges were full of students who had no interest in academics? Such students must have alternatives that would let them discover the potential of the skills that they must be carrying inside them?
SM: I was a vociferous proponent of skill development during my university years.
I then asked him about why with people like him in the party, the government had opposed FYUP? The new system was supposed to give a direction to the vast majority of generally directionless students who mindlessly go for graduation and even post-graduation without know what they are going to achieve with all those degrees. He was reluctant to talk about FYUP initially, as you can see…
SM: This nation has seen transition in its education system and has failed in all its transitions. I was in SRCC and you know that the commerce course had not changed for thirty years. Systems is one thing but content is important. DU caters to mediocrity and excellence is a casualty.
AP: We do have brilliant people like you so DU cannot be accused of mediocrity for sure.
SM: Let me relate an interesting anecdote here. I passed from Xavier’s and around 30 or 35 of us from this school landed in SRCC and I was the last to be admitted with 69.4 percent. I never missed a class for the first fifteen days and never attended the class the rest of the year. So there is no question of any academic input. Then one month before the examination I shaved off my hair… so that the embarrassment of being bald would force me to study and not be out of the house. Now we had books by foreign authors recommended in subjects like Business Administration and we also had one by Y K Bhushan. Reading and understanding these foreign authors needed classroom guidance and discussions and all my friends read them and worked hard.
Then came exam time. During the examination itself there was an agitation that I was leading, so you the amount of study I had done with which I appeared for the examination. Now when the result came, I had 70 percent and all others landed with much less percentages than me… all my friends found this strange and so tried to fathom what could really have happened. What we discovered was that what the student knew was not as important as what the teacher who evaluated our papers knew. These teachers must have read Y K Bhushan and not the foreign authors and so what I wrote seemed relevant and I ended up getting more marks! So the secret of my success was that I was accessed by the mediocre on mediocrity… and the excellence of others was not comprehended by these teachers. This is the reality of Delhi University. This is the reality of higher education in India.
But the next year the situation reversed and I landed with 50% and that too because of 40% in a subject that I knew like the back of my hand… law… in fact the entire litigation of the minorities institution rights had its origin in a litigation which I had myself filed while I was in the first year finals. That was the proficiency of my understanding of law. We even got a stay order from the High Court… and yet in my second year I got just 40 marks in law. So I went to the VC and said, ‘You know my academic record. These marks are preposterous.’ He told me that nothing could be done as there was no re-evaluation. I was offered a re-totalling but then the fault was not of totalling but of a botched up evaluation. I told the VC that even while I was in 12th I had checked papers for M.Com as my uncle was a paper checker and I have actually given marks on impressions created by good handwriting than the content of the answers. So this is the kind of evaluation that takes place in DU and this is what plays havoc with the careers of so many students. So re-evaluate it. The next year, the first institution that introduced re-evaluation in India was DU because that year I was the President of DUSU and my only agenda was to get re-evaluation introduced.
AP: Wonderful changes. But why does the government not have the vision to see merit in FYUP and the way it favours skill development?
SM: The noble intent was there but the implementation was faulty… formulating all courses in just 24 hours is wrong. Whole generations have watched botched up changes destroying the fabric of education and this fear resulted in a non-acceptance of FYUP because of faults in the conception and formulation.
This is another legacy that the BJP has inherited. And the party has to react to it in its own evaluations.
AP: Why react? Why not recommend proactive action?
SM: Because these faults are already in existence and some systems are debatable because of implementation. For all you know, we may come up with a better implementation of the same scheme (FYUP). We do have the freedom to reintroduce a system after a thorough examination and with changes added.
AP: Ah! The joys of freedom! Freedom of speech. Freedom on the social media. Can I now ask you why the BJP is now suddenly a Ban Janta Party? Banning documentaries to beef is becoming second nature to you.
SM: When this documentary was banned, the circumstances were that not many had even seen it. The core issue was a statement by Mukesh as reported by the media… ‘had she not resisted the rape she would not have been killed…’ tell me, should this nauseating statement be aired?
The perspective of a few cannot allow us to give space to a criminal… the insensitive remarks of those two lawyers… should such remarks be aired?
AP: These remarks are a reflection of the truth that surrounds us. It is as real as the remarks that talk about wearing jeans or using mobile phones leading to girls becoming promiscuous. These remarks are as loaded with disruption as ones that talk of ghar wapsi or love jehad or concepts of honour killings so promoted by the khaps.
SM: These are comparative statements… it is the insensitivity of the remarks in the documentary is much more severe and hurts the sensibility of people.
AP: Lets be frank, sir, was the documentary banned because of some ill-placed fear of a political loss?
SM: The offensiveness of the utterances deserved to be banned. The kind of anger it evoked in me when I read that comment and the government was right in its decision. Freedom of speech is not absolute and subject to restrictions.
AP: Banning is addictive. The government then starts enjoying banning and hops from one ban to another… from beef to bars to jeans to mobile phones…
SM: A few decisions which are offensive to the sensibility of the national consciousness need to be protected. We are not a constitution which says: You are free to do anything and everything that you want to do. It places restrictions because we are a responsible society. Like you have your right to freedom of speech, I have my right to my sensibilities. Your speech cannot be an offence to public order. This is not a blind exercise… and these decisions are taken case to case. Perspective must not be narrowed down.
AP: Is BJP on one side and the entire intellectual fraternity on the other side on such issues of freedom of speech and other freedoms?
SM: This is such a sweeping statement. This nation has 125 crore people and intellectual responsibility is not the exclusive domain of a mere 50 or a 100 of them. Public opinion is not the reflection of what one or a few English Dailies express. I do not know if you realise that 60 kms outside Delhi an English newspaper is toilet paper.
Let’s look at the country in its entirety. The vernacular press is reflective of public opinion and not the national English dailies.
We were almost at the end of this engrossing exchange and I decided to fire a few direct questions.
AP: My first question. Congress wants competent leadership. How will you define competent leadership for them?
SM: They have to get over the Gandhi-Nehru parivar legacy for the simple reason that the legacy does not have leadership any more. For leadership there are two ingredients… fire in your belly and dream in your eyes. Rahul has none. When the obvious is not there, you need to experiment with something new.
AP: My second question. Will Delhi, dependent on neighbouring States, get its water and electricity without hiccups?
SM: Delhi will get its electricity provided the electricity boards are solvent enough to pay for it. And so is the case with water. With free water and free electricity, I don’t think the economic health will permit them to buy these essentials.
AP: My third question. Voices of dissent… how strongly do they need to be suppressed?
SM: There is a saying in Hindi: Mat-bhed aur man-bhed mein bahut difference hota hai. Mat-bhed is critical for the health of democracy. Till the time you have divergent voices you’ll never have a healthy democracy. So the concept of suppressing dissent is alien to my thinking.
AP: So people can tweet and express themselves on facebook fearlessly. They wouldn’t be jailed?
SM: Show me any BJP ruled state that has done this. All incidents are a part of the history of Congress regime, not ours.
AP: My fourth question. It is spokespersons who build or destroy a party. Please answer in a Yes or No with your reason.
SM: While what is said is important, what is more important is who says it. It is the credibility of the spokesperson or the stature of the spokesperson that gives weight to a dissent. I think the political parties are committing a mistake and political communication is becoming increasingly ineffective primarily because established political leadership is shying away from establishing public dialogue. That is the undoing of political communication.
When SM says… jhoot bolna paap hai, it may affect 5 people but when Mahatama Gandhi says the same thing it affects the consciousness of an entire nation because his life was a reflection of the truth he was talking about. So it is the persona behind what is said that lends weight to what is said. What is critical is that a spokesperson must be very carefully chosen and they should be people of eminence with political stature and credibility to effectively effect the minds and thinking of people.
AP: I fully agree and therefore I believe that Mr Modi is the best spokesperson for BJP and Man ki baat is a great platform for establishing this political dialogue with the people or nation.
AP: My fifth question. It is not ‘politics for public’ but ‘politics for publicity’… is this the universal political truth today?
SM: There are two kinds of people in politics. One are the activists and the other are the careerists. Activists are those who plunge in to politics because of their beliefs and the careerists take politics to be an alternate career. After getting fame and name in their chosen field such people look at politics as another alternate career for excitement. The distinction between the two is reflected in the mind-sets. The activist came with a mission and politics was a purpose. Some of us who were student activists thought we have to create a new nation. The careerists are always looking at the prospects of their career and promotions. We look at how we could be instruments of change. The careerist looks at how he could go up in the hierarchy. So the orientation of politics depends on the mission and the purpose of the individual… whether it is politics for public or politics for publicity. The activist in me has been there for 35 years and aspires to be there for as long as one is alive.
The interview had its moments of the ecstasy of revelations of thoughts that were indeed unique and reflective of not just an individual or a party but also of the times that we live in. It is vital to understand that what we get on reading such interactions is what makes an interpretation of life possible.
We have the right to agree or disagree with any of the things expressed in the interview without any fear and this is what indicates that India is indeed a vibrant democracy.
Interview published in ‘The Education Post’ dated 17 March 2015:
17 March 2015