Delhi Dialogues: Why should I surrender my Ram to BJP, asks Shashi Tharoor

Thiruvananthapuram MP takes a range of questions on ideologies, secularism and erosion of Congress vote bank in the 14th edition of Delhi Dialogues.
Shashi Tharoor.
Shashi Tharoor.(Photo | Parveen Negi, EPS)

Santwana Bhattacharya: Do we even need to introduce Shashi Tharoor? He’s a politician whose popularity and presence far exceeds the domain of politics. The only Congressman outside the Gandhi family who has instant recall and even fan following across states. He is second to none in articulating and defending the Nehru legacy at a time when it is under challenge. And also, brave enough to stand for inner-party democracy. So we are talking about an engaged politician, about a celebrity — not just in India, but across South Asia, Britain and beyond — and also a public intellectual. A rare breed these days.

A three-term MP from Thiruvananthapuram, a former minister, international civil servant, prolific author, a mega social media star and the patent-holder on an enviable vocabulary. Also, one of our best-read columnists.

He has also seen his share of controversies — the latest being the speculation, which pops up every now and then, on whether he’ll join the lengthening queue at the party’s exit door!

Shashi tharoor: My politics is often misunderstood because I don’t parrot a certain line. People who overlook the question of why I am in politics are the ones who talk of the possibility of me going off to the BJP ecosystem.

The BJP was the first party to invite me to join immediately after I quit the race for the top UN post. Since I could not find common ground with the party on certain issues, I joined the Congress as I was comfortable with the party’s policies.

The fundamental question is why I’m in politics. To be very honest, I didn’t need to be in politics. I had a very full career, and a very satisfying one, when I came back to India. I could have found other ways of making myself useful and participating in the national conversation. But I was very convinced that in a democracy, the best way in which you can contribute to actually shaping a better society for your own people is through politics.

That’s what democracy is all about. I had always assumed that because I don’t come from a political family, and had no political background in India, the door would never be open for me. So when I was, to my surprise, invited to contest the elections in 2009, I said yes almost foolishly, because I had actually never participated in an Indian election before I left India when I was 19, to go to graduate school in the States, after which I started my UN career.

So I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. But it was quite an amazing experience. In the end, I can say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve dealt with the Yugoslav civil war and walked through minefields in Bosnia and refugee camps in Africa. But this was really, incredibly tough. Having said that, now I have spent a certain amount of time in politics, during which I have seen both its opportunities and its limitations, its perils and pitfalls, as well as the good you can do through it.

I have been an advocate of Indian civilisation, but I don’t see it in the narrow terms that the BJP-RSS ecosystem sees it, I see it as much more capacious and accommodating of multiple influences over the millennia. Secondly, I was a critic of the Congress economics in the internationalisation days. But after ’91, those objections withered away because I am very comfortable with the idea of an economic policy that, on the one hand, frees the private sector through liberalisation, and on the other hand, makes it a point to expand some of the revenues or most of the revenues emerging from liberalisation, and decrease tax that’s come from that, on helping those who are marginalised and excluded in our society. So that, too, is an area where I’m on the same page as the post-’91 Congress. Third, I am profoundly convinced of the importance of democracy. And by democracy, I just don’t mean voting for elections in five years, but a system in which people have a say in their lives between those elections, where government and elected representatives are accountable to their voters all the time.

On the question of the organisation, I did my part, tried to make a bid for the leadership of the party, in the sense of being in a position to bring about some changes that many people in the party were telling me were needed. And as it happens, you all know, I was thoroughly routed, though I have the dubious distinction of being the most successful loser in the history of Congress elections. So that is that little footnote on the pages of Congress history.

Shahid Faridi: You maintain that a political party is a set of two things — a collection of values, principles, ideas, convictions and ideologies — and an organisational vehicle to take those ideas and ideologies to the people. Congress has been losing elections for some years. Where do you think the problem lies?

I think what has happened with the Congress is that it was playing catch-up at some time. One example was the adoption of social media. When I came on social media in 2009, no government computer in those days was allowed to go on any of these sites, you couldn’t go on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc on a government computer. Every time I tried to persuade the Congress to adopt these tools, there was resistance, partly because it was thought to be undignified.

Some people asked how a serious minister of the government can be on something called Twitter. Narendra Modi quickly adopted this trend, surpassing me as the most followed politician on Twitter by July 2013. The Congress caught up by the onset of the 2014 elections. By 2019, the deficiency had been addressed. In contrast to classic cadre-based parties like those in Kerala, where BJP and RSS have a strong presence, Congress relies on volunteers and party workers, lacking the extensive ground-level campaigning of its counterparts. Reviving Congress organisation is imperative, particularly in the Hindi belt.

Santwana Bhattacharya: The first thing that I noticed is the temple in your official bungalow. You have spoken about it many times. Here we have an election where it’s not just a build-up towards Hindu identity or Hindutva, but it is almost a dominating narrative where it could become an election about Ram versus roti.

Those who read my book, Why I am a Hindu, know perfectly well that I am a sort of believing, active, and convinced Hindu. I understand the philosophies and they appeal to me. I grew up in a devout home. Like most Indians, I pray more inside the house than in the mountains. The temple is actually dismantled from Kerala and brought here. My understanding of Hinduism is profoundly different from Hindutva. My understanding of Hinduism is anchored in actual reading, which I fear many people don’t do. I do pray at home and I’m happy to go to temples.

Hinduism has no problem with pluralism. I am proud to speak of my faith, which has taught the world not just tolerance, but acceptance. Acceptance is, I believe I have the truth, you believe you have the truth; I will respect your truth, please respect my truth. This was the perfect recipe for coexistence. So why should I surrender my Ram to the BJP? I have an idea of Ram and I have been following him since I was old enough to pray. Who gave the copyright to BJP on Ram? I go to a temple to pray and I don’t go there for a political event — where the pran pratishtha is done by the Prime Minister of India, who is the leader of a political party.

Yeshi Seli: How would you rate this government’s foreign policy?

It’s a mixed bag. I will say we are doing well in some respects. Where the government has done well, I have not hesitated to praise them. The outcome of the G20 Summit was exceptionally good. I was very critical of India’s stand over the Ukrainian invasion by Russia and the failures to stand by the principles we have stood by in world affairs for several decades. Despite that, I will admit that today the government has been able to do well because we have been able to maintain trade on favourable terms with Russians without getting any sanctions. But I must say India’s credibility as a democracy has taken a beating. Respected global bodies have downgraded us on this front. Your profession is partly under trouble because the ranking of the World Press Freedom index has been falling for the past five years. I am deeply concerned about the way communal polarisation is encouraged.

Santwana Bhattacharya: There is a yatra going on in Kerala now from your party. And you haven’t been seen in it yet…

I inaugurated the preparatory meeting in my constituency to welcome the conclusion of the yatra in my district. I had already made commitments to a number of events where people had issued invitations, booked halls and called audiences. You can’t suddenly let them down. So I’m very much associated with all this but it was always understood that this was an initiative principally by the state leadership.

Dipak Mondal: What are your views on the white paper on economy?

In my Budget speech, I led the Opposition on the discussion where I gave a number of figures showing an unfavourable contrast to that of the government. Secondly, in the debate that followed, my party colleagues developed most of these arguments fairly effectively. I thought the problem was the cherry-picking of figures. The worry is about what the NDA government has done to the credibility of the figures. We have had serious and humiliating arguments over Covid deaths. We’ve had two of our top three statisticians in the country resigning in protest against attempts to manipulate the statistics. We’ve had no national consumption survey. We’ve had none of the normal interactions with ordinary Indians that will give you accurate figures on the basis of which we can do anything from estimating poverty to calculating growth to estimating your fiscal deficit. Look at us, no one is sure about any of our figures. Half of the government schemes are contested by international economists, including those of Indian origin. So I have to say the white paper actually doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Diksha Sinha: You have lived abroad for long. As an outsider, what’s your view on India’s political culture?

I lived abroad for about 34 years, from the age of 19 to almost 53 years. But I used to come back every year, often more than once a year. Secondly, I’d read insanely. The problem that troubles me is that there’s something about India that’s profoundly different. And as far as politics is concerned, I know one thing that is completely different is the attitude of the government to the Opposition. I remember when the BJP was opportunistically opposing the Indo-US nuclear deal. They had started the negotiations. And as we know from WikiLeaks, the same BJP leaders were telling the American ambassador, ‘Listen, this is just politics, we are very much in favour of the deal. When we come to power, we will support it.’ On an average, it used to be said that Congress ministers of parliamentary affairs spent more time in the Opposition benches to try and see how it wanted to accommodate them. It’s all gone. If I can speak personally, as an MP, I was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which was in keeping with the tradition. After one term, I was kicked out by the government. When I was on the second committee, they didn’t let me serve a full term because there were awkward questions on internet shutdowns and Pegasus surveillance. These are violations of parliamentary norms, very little conviviality, reaching out to the Opposition.

Parvez Sultan: When you see yourself as part of memes on social media, how do you cope?

I take it in good spirits. Some are obviously orchestrated by a particular political party in order to give me a particular image. Just as they tried to make Rahul Gandhi Pappu, they tried to make me some sort of a Casanova. After a while, I just stopped paying attention to those.

Kavita Bajeli-Datt: In Parliament you took up the cause of doctors and how they are beaten up. What is the government response?

I got a response from the minister and I was not happy with it. So in a subsequent opportunity in Parliament, he said, ‘We thought about this issue but we can’t give any special protection to doctors.’ I said that is unreasonable because doctors are dealing with life and death.

Preetha Nair: The Congress was the number one party till 2009. The erosion appears to have started soon after. How will the party move ahead in the Lok Sabha election?

The important thing is that we have to reach out to people who are not traditionally voting for us. One of the most dismaying facts I have seen is that our vote percentage has remained about the same. I have been saying that we have to appeal to people who are not already convinced by our message. That’s, I hope, sort of one of my strengths in my constituency because my constituency is no longer a natural Congress constituency. I have to appeal to voters who may not in other circumstances vote for a standard Congress candidate. The two elections before mine were won by the communists. In the last two elections, the BJP came second. So if I have to differentiate myself from them, it has to be in ways that show that I represent them, and their values.

In the Hindi belt states, we have a genuine challenge because in about 200 seats, I believe it’s a straight fight between us and the BJP. It’s not an INDIA bloc issue. It’s essentially straight between us. And we’ve got to do better there. The issue that I want to keep asking voters is to think of your self-interest: How have you benefited if you voted for Mr Modi 10 years ago? Have you got a job? Has your salary gone up? Is there enough in your pocket for you to go to the bazaar and buy the same items you could afford to buy? Two years ago I asked these questions to my voters. And the answer, I’m afraid, across the board is no. Somehow, the BJP has succeeded in diverting voters, and particularly the media, away from these dal-roti questions into illusory issues of Vishwaguru and Ram Rajya, the G20 and Ram Mandir.

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