Interview: Teesta Selavad

'If BJP gets 300 seats again, we may have a different country'

Indian civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad was born in a family of legal luminaries of India like MC Setalvad, the first Attorney General, and other architects of modern India. A journalist trained in law, Teesta is known for her investigation and dogged legal fight for the victims of the Gujarat riot (2002). In the process she was arrested by the state authorities and eventually granted regular bail by the Supreme Court last summer. A keen political observer, Teesta spoke to Prothom Alo in Kolkata on the possibilities of Indian politics, the forthcoming national election and its challenges.

Prothom Alo :

The results of five Vidhan Sabha (state assembly) elections were declared in December 2023, of which four (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Telangana) are big states. Congress lost in three. How do you see these results before 2024 national polls?

Teesta Setalvad: We have not witnessed anything close to this during the BJP rule (2014-2024) ever. Of course, we remember the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi (June 1975-March 1977) when fundamental rights were snatched away but it was imposed for a time period and it was self-serving for a particular individual. It was certainly an authoritarian decision. Compared to that, in the post-2014 phase– which is often described as an ‘undeclared emergency’ – there are developments which are way more worrying.

Firstly, the complete collapse of institutions (meant to be a constitutional buffer) is concerning. This institutional take over also has been characterised by the destruction of the checks and balances in parliamentary democracy. For example, the way MPs were expelled, bills passed and made into laws, how the President gives selective assent (and refuses bills from opposition states, like Tamil Nadu, Punjab), the way Rahul Gandhi and then Mahua Moitra were disqualified, the way some judges (recommended by the Collegium) are appointed, (then) many are not even considered and appointments are delayed even when they are qualified… The cherry picking is quite brazen.

 Secondly, the intensity of the subversion is driven by an ideology. The ideology is shaping up the structure of the Indian state and society. This makes it sinister. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) says, they have been involved in Samaj Ka Nirman and Desh Ka Nirman which is building a particular kind of exclusivist, supremacist society and a theocratic, authoritarian state with graded iniquitous citizenship which goes hand-in-hand with the transfer of public resources to private capital. So far economic right and far socio-religious political right have been successfully combined. That is the risk.

Prothom Alo :

For which of course Congress was primarily responsible.

Teesta Setalvad: Yes, to a significant extent, paths were opened and paved to allow majoritarianism to take seed and grow but there was still a cushion within the Congress’ ideological framework. There were optimisms about a structural welfare state too. Look at MGNREGA [Rural Employment Guarantee Act introduced by Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2004], the Right to Information law etc, there were attempts to distribute resources more equitably due to Left’s presence within the UPA-I and the strong involvement of forest workers and forest rights movements. However, post 2014, these voices have been severely crushed at various levels.

On the question of elections, it is true that the opposition is scattered and ideologically weak. Towards that end, the recent state elections are a setback. However, with the INDIA alliance finally coming together there seem to have been a realisation that the opposition needs to get its numbers together by reaching out to various social groups from the Other Backward Classes, to the Dalits, smaller castes, Adivasis to the minorities, the privileged caste and the liberals.

Prothom Alo :

BJP on the other hand, presumably, will try to dismantle the opposition.

Teesta Setalvad: More than anything else, this regime is using government agencies. The manner in which they have attacked the opposition using ED (Enforcement Directorate), the CBI, the Delhi Police or the Income Tax, is shocking. Indira Gandhi never went to this extent.

Prothom Alo :

If BJP wins and Delimitation is done and seats of north India increases where BJP is stronger than the south or the east, then will India be a different country?

Teesta Setalvad: Delimitation (and the fashion in which this exercise is being approached) will completely destroy what semblance of representative democracy we have now. Which is why a cobbled together victory in 2024 is so very important for the opposition. If, instead, BJP crosses 300-mark (like in 2019 polls) and manages to bring in Delimitation, I think we will see a different country altogether. It’s not just about religious or ethnic representation but also proportionate linguistic diversity will be in serious trouble; this whole idea of Hindi-Hindu and Hindu Rashtra may take over.

Prothom Alo :

What do you think are a few things that Congress may do?

Teesta Setalvad: Immediately focus on the 250-odd seats where it is in direct contest with the BJP and ensure more ingenuous campaigning and selection of candidates. When we look back at the decade before 2014, the significance of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the Congress-led UPA in 2004 is huge. One main feature of UPA I (2004-2009) was the pro-active role of the Left Front. Of course, the situation changed, however, the Left still has a role. I do not understand why the Left does not push strongly for a CMP before the 2024 polls with a programme of action, a vision for India under INDIA.

Prothom Alo :

When the opposition is not going to the polls with a CMP what are they losing?

Teesta Setalvad: Many things. Take the example of the caste census – a very valid programme. The economic and the political hold (and dominance) on the resources of the country need to be fairly apportioned in proportion to the number of the population. The Opposition needs to explain what caste census means. It means many things, for example, all the government jobs which are not filled even under the Modi government must be filled –fairer representation. Hundreds of thousands of vacancies in central universities which are not filled…why cannot the opposition outline these and explain how they are going to implement the census?


Through CMP the parties should be talking about these things…they need to talk about jobless growth and what crony capitalism does to our people, when manufacturing stagnates and MSMEs die. The Opposition must mobilise itself around a campaign –‘India against unemployment’ – and get youth from across the country to protest, in Delhi. They still can do this in January-February and eventually mobilise farmers, Dalits, women and then the campaign will have an impact. Of course, they have to deal with internal seat sharing sensibly so that they reduce the risk – as much as possible – of combatting each other in each seat.

Prothom Alo :

What does BJP do right to keep them going? Of course, BJP has the advantage of having a player like Narendra Modi.

Teesta Setalvad: Unfortunately, yes. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power, journalists [then] wrote that the rise of BJP was significant – from a mere two seats (1984) to 85 (1989). That was a dramatic number jump when Vajpayee and Advani were in charge and the climax was when Babri Masjid was demolished (1992), there was a huge consolidation of votes for the BJP. At the time, about 24% (1999) of the votes consolidated in favour of the BJP. From that jump start, they have gone to 37% in 2019. So effectively there is a 13% jump from the 1990s.

I have been endlessly asking what constitutes that support. Is it a hardcore Hindutva support in terms of how they understand the RSS’ and Vinayak Savarkar’s (Hindutva ideologue) ideology or is it a mix of everything – like the rise of economic rights and resisting secular tokenism of the past ruling dispensations? We really don't know for sure and with a player like Modi in the driving seat, the picture gets further obfuscated. However, we need to remember that it has also been a worldwide phenomenon.

Prothom Alo :

There has been some success for Congress in Karnataka in May and Telangana in December. It is said, civil society mobilization played a part in Congress’ victory.

Teesta Setalvad: Karnataka and Telangana have a long tradition of political, cultural and social movements which are not so conspicuous in other states. Congress’ victory came to a substantial degree because of the role of citizens but also because of the local Congress itself, choice of candidates etc.

Prothom Alo :

Congress announced a second march by Rahul Gandhi from 14 January to continue for 66 days covering 110 districts. What do you think its impact will be?

Teesta Setalvad: The proposed Yatra may generate some enthusiasm among cadres. However, the party needs to have its organization at the booth level, in touch with its voter base, in 250 seats; that must be the focus. It is crucial for the Congress and the regional parties to ensure robust work at the constituency level.


However strong the BJP may look, the war for democracy is not over. The reason is the massive discontent and simmering anger among the people, which cannot be simply silenced by money or propaganda. People in non-BJP, non-Congress states with strong leaders like in the South or East India – Tamil Nadu or Bengal – still pose a huge problem for BJP. That is no less than about 300 of 543 seats.


Secondly, let’s not forget even in the recent state polls, Congress got around 40% votes, despite being defeated. If they can retain this support, and get at least around 30%, this could be a game changer. Maybe a few battles are lost but hopefully not the war.

Prothom Alo :

Thank you.

Teesta Setalvad: Thank you too.