The Congress leader and Lok Sabha member on why the Prime Minister should speak up on lynchings, his own recent controversial statements, and the 2019 polls
Congress leader and Lok Sabha member Shashi Tharoor has been making headlines a lot lately — for comments that have sparked controversies and for a case against him that he says is a “politically motivated witch-hunt”. In a wide-ranging conversation, he spells out the Congress ’s idea of secularism, explains how Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s hug in Parliament “shifted the media narrative”, and speaks of the abetment to suicide case against him. Excerpts:
The Congress is in power only in Punjab, Puducherry, Mizoram, and in Karnataka thanks to an alliance. Will the 2019 general election be the toughest it has faced in many years?
Yes and no. In many ways it is a national election and we don’t expect in every case that the State realities of today will be reflected in the outcome of the national election. There is also the fact that the number of States you have mentioned is certainly going to go up by the end of this year when the Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh elections take place. All the polls suggest that we are way ahead [in these States].
What is the 2019 election all about? It will be about the government that people want to live under. And it seems to me that a government that has failed to keep every single promise that its leaders so eloquently made in the last campaign is going to face a challenge [when it asks] the same voters again for their votes. A young person who, for example, was promised a job and never saw one is unlikely to be fooled twice.
You recently hit the headlines twice – for the ‘Hindu Pakistan’ remark and the ‘Taliban in Hinduism’ remark. Aren’t these at odds with your party which is asserting its own Hindu identity?
So am I! In fact, I am proud of the fact that I have initiated this discussion through my book, Why I Am a Hindu. There are many proud Hindus in the Congress who see a very inclusive kind of Hinduism, the Hinduism that Swami Vivekananda preached, which was a Hinduism that went beyond tolerance and to acceptance. To my mind, that is the key to the kind of Hindu ethos that has made Muslims, Christians, Sikh, Jews and Jains safe in our country.
The two statements… number one, in a speech, I was asked to address the challenges to Indian democracy and secularism. The biggest challenge is the rejection by the BJP/Sangh Parivar ideologues of the entire constitutional basis for Indian democracy. They have taken the view that this country needs a Hindu Rashtra. In fact, Deen Dayal Upadhyay, who is the ideologue Prime Minister Narendra Modi refers to most, is an interesting intellectual figure. He said that the Constitution should be torn up on two grounds: first, that it is based on Western ideas written by Anglophile lawyers and is in the wrong language. That happens to be true, we can do nothing about it. The second and more far-reaching objection was that the Constitution rests on a false premise. He says it has the wrong idea of what a nation is. The Constitution assumes [that a] nation called India is a territory called India and all the people living in it. Wrong, he says, a nation is not territory but its people. The people of India are the Hindu people and the Constitution should have been written for the Hindu people and the Hindu Rashtra. That idea is fundamentally troubling. Because it means that anybody who is not a Hindu or is not willing to identify himself as a Hindu is either a guest or an interloper.
When our nationalistic movement was fighting the British, it divided into two groups. One said that religion should be the determinant of nationhood. That was the idea behind Pakistan. The other said that we are fighting for the rights of everybody and that was the idea of India. Now, India still reflects this idea. Pakistan reflects their idea in the worst form. Why would these people advocate an idea which is a mirror image of Pakistan? That was my point. My point was not that Hindus are in any way like Pakistan; it was a rejection of Pakistan and an assertion of the idea that a majority of Indian Hindus will not be in that Pakistan. That is why I said, ‘Will the BJP remove this challenge to Indian democracy by giving up the idea of Hindu Rashtra?’ No BJP spokesperson has said we give up Hindu Rashtra and stick to the Constitution. The Prime Minister says the Constitution is his holy book and Deen Dayal Upadhyay is his ideologue. The two ideas are incompatible.
Isn’t the Congress diluting the secularism it stands for through the ‘good Hindu’ versus ‘bad Hindu’ debate? And wouldn’t you be competing for the same vote bank with the BJP and end up being a poor second?
The BJP is competing for the Hindutva votes. Hinduism is not Hindutva. Hinduism is a religious identity of 80% of our population and Hindutva is a political ideology of, I dare say, 20% of our population. I think the 31% votes that Mr. Modi got included a certain percentage of people who said he is the CEO of Gujarat Inc. and he is going to be the general manager of the Indian economy if we make him Prime Minister. They were not Hindutva inclined. It may be that those 20% are part of the 80% who are calling themselves Hindus. There are another 60% of Hindus who haven’t either thought about it very much or have been deceived to believe that as good Hindus we need to support Hindutva. We need to fight that. And the only way we can fight it is by not ceding space to the BJP to assert that this entire struggle is between good Hindus and godless secularists. Because once you are on that wicket, the godless secularist will never prevail over the good Hindu in seeking the votes of other Hindus. So I would say we are secular in the sense that we want the state to be distant from religion, we don’t want a Hindu Rashtra. But that does not mean we have no personal religion ourselves. There are very many Hindus in the Congress. Their Hinduism is a Hinduism of acceptance, coexistence. Such Hindus will be ashamed of people lynching an innocent man on the grounds of his religion, of a cap on his head, of the meat he is carrying, or that he is herding cows.
The Prime Minister said recently that people have started calling Congress ‘bail gaadi’, since so many of your leaders are on bail. The list includes you too. Is your party struggling to counter this image?
Well, the cases are all very different. I am not sure there is a particular image. There are many BJP leaders also on bail on political and other cases. I am obviously offended to be included in this category. I am somebody who grew up never expecting to set foot in a court or a police station in my life. And I have had to do it because of a politically motivated witch-hunt against me, which I am contesting vigorously. I have a clear conscience and I am sure the truth will show me out. The truth is that the ‘bail gaadi’ reference also gave me the opportunity to hit back at Mr. Modi to say that he has finally descended from bullet train to ‘bail gaadi’. That may be the beginning of our journey from rhetoric to reality that is long overdue.
The Delhi police recently charged you with abetting the suicide of your wife Sunanda Pushkar. If convicted, you will be disbarred for six years from fighting elections. How does this play on your mind?
The intention of all of this is precisely for it to play on my mind, so I have to find a way to resist all of this. A second case has been filed against me in Kolkata for the ‘Hindu Pakistan’ remark. It is sad. In no other democracy where freedom of expression is accepted would such a case have been admitted. On top of that there are other forms of political harassment that have been unleashed against me. The only strength I have is a clear conscience. I know that I have not and would have never done anything along the lines that have been alleged. I am confident, having seen the charge sheet, that there isn’t a shred of evidence for even the thought that she committed suicide. I and none in her family believe it. Since it is sub judice, I can’t say more, but we will be following the process through to its conclusion.
The jury is still out on whether Rahul Gandhi hugging Mr. Modi was a churlish act or if he actually did manage to draw the binary of love versus hate.
Look, I believe it was spontaneous and it had a tremendous effect on the narrative. The way the media works, the next day’s stories… whatever Rahul Gandhi had said would have been about Mr. Modi, that’s how we have seen in the last four years. However, once Rahul surprised everybody, including Mr. Modi, with that hug, it was inescapable for any journalist with a news sense; it was on the front page of every newspaper. It shifted the narrative. It was a masterstroke, spontaneous, but also very well illustrated — the point that we are not a party of hatred, [but] of love.
What is the difference between the Congress under Rahul Gandhi and the Congress under Sonia Gandhi?
He is youthful and energetic; he says things that his mother would probably never say. You would have never seen his mother giving a hug even to Sushma Swaraj. I think there are some differences of style. Some of the old-timers who have served the party in the last 20 years of Sonia Gandhi’s leadership have gently and respectfully been replaced by younger people who are closer to Rahul Gandhi. But in terms of substance, ideology, policy, and so on, I don’t see much difference. Organisationally, there is one important difference: Rahul has reached out to new constituencies.
You recently wrote that it is safer to be a cow than a Muslim in India. What is your advice to the government to stop mob lynching?
We need a clear signal from the top. Taking refuge behind the idea that law and order is a State subject and therefore is not the Central government’s concern is appalling. It is beyond debate that the forces that have been emboldened by the victory of the BJP, that are loosely described as the Sangh Parivar, are behind all this. The violence is committed in the name of protecting the cow, which itself is an idea that has been unleashed by the leadership that is in power today. [Former U.S. President Barack] Obama, soon after a high school shoot-out, was on national TV to reassure the public, express his anguish and share the pain of the victim. I have never seen our Prime Minister doing anything of this sort, even though there have been incidents after incidents.
The Congress is facing a leadership crisis, which escalated further after the lone Rajya Sabha seat was handed over to the Kerala Congress. Your comments?
There were reasons for that. The Kerala Congress was associated with us in the past. It was only a temporary sacrifice. Equally important is the fact that the Congress has a tremendous hold on the affections of the people of Kerala. Having said that, there are a couple of problems. There is well-known groupism that has been the bane of the party for the last 30 years. There is the fact that for the moment, the high command has not yet announced a permanent official arrangement for the leadership of the party in the lead-up to the elections. Eventually, whoever Rahul Gandhi appoints will have the support of the party.