Shashi Tharoor's 'Hindu Pakistan' analogy is an electoral gift to BJP
The Congress MP's remark, like Mani Shankar Aiyar's chaiwala jibe, may to the party's dismay dent its chances of winning.
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Has the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor, just handed the BJP an electoral game-changer ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha poll? Mani Shankar Aiyar did much the same, mocking Narendra Modi as a chaiwala ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha poll.
There are nine months to go for the next general election and public memory is short. But Tharoor's remark could remain a festering political wound.
Here's what Tharoor said in his speech on democracy and secularism: "If they (BJP) win a repeat in the Lok Sabha, our democratic Constitution as we understand it will not survive as they will have all the elements they need to tear apart the Constitution of India and write a new one. That new one will be the one which will enshrine principles of Hindu Rashtra, that will remove equality for minorities, that'll create a Hindu Pakistan and that isn't what Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and great heroes of freedom struggle fought for."
I've often written here in favour of a Bharat Rashtra as opposed to a Hindu Rashtra which does Hinduism no credit. My admiration for Hinduism has been recorded on these pages as well. A Bharat Rashtra is a Hindu majority project with minorities forming an integral part. They must be empowered, not appeased, as the Congress has done for decades. Minorities must put India first and keep their religion private - as should Hindus.
In a modern society, nation building is a public endeavour, religion a private one. This applies to all non-Hindus as well - Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Jews, Sikhs.
Why is Tharoor's "Hindu-Pak" remark both factually inaccurate and ill-timed?
First, in Pakistan they don't just discriminate against minorities as Tharoor euphemistically claimed in his speech. They kill them. Ahmadiyyas are hunted down - the law allows their persecution. In India, even after 10 years of BJP rule over two decades from 1998 to 2018, minorities receive rights that often exceed those accorded to Hindus.
Second, in Pakistan the army controls the entire country. In India, the army in contrast suffers routine vilification at the hands of sundry politicians, activists and NGOs.
Third, changing the Constitution, as Tharoor fears the BJP will do post-2019, is actually a bad Congress habit. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi didn't just change the Constitution. She suspended it in 1975. The BJP is overtly religious (which is not a good thing) but subverting the Constitution isn't its core competency.
The Hindu-Pak comparison is odious. Tharoor knows it. So why did he make it? In the mistaken belief that it would win favour with his party, which has relentlessly condemned the RSS and Hindutva. But Rahul has belatedly realised that too much Hindutva-bashing can prove electorally damaging. That message lies unread in Tharoor's inbox.
The Congress president has lately also become somewhat schizophrenic. He can't decide whether the Congress is a party that appeases Muslims and Christians (to inveigle 18 per cent of their pan-national vote) or a born-again Hindu-leaning party that requires him to temple-hop. When Tharoor's Hindu-Pak speech went viral, Rahul ordered the party to distance itself from his remark.
It was the sort of thing the bipolar Congress has become accustomed to doing with party members who cross the red line. It goes something like this: "We are an inclusive party with a solid minority vote bank but we must not upset the Hindu majority too much. An anti-Hindu pinprick once in a while to placate the minorities is fine. Just don't overdo it. We need Hindu votes too."
The Congress therefore regularly "distances" itself from incendiary comments by a Mani Shankar Aiyar (suspended indefinitely after his Pakistan bon mots), Sanjay Nirupam and Sandeep Dikshit (both serial offenders against the Indian army) and now Shashi Tharoor who puts a foot in his mouth as a reflex action.
Since I've edited over 120 of Tharoor's columns in my publications over more than a decade, I can say he is mostly well-meaning. He made the leap from being an international civil servant for 29 years to the rough-and-tumble of Indian politics with sangfroid. As a long-time United Nations employee, Tharoor was used to obeying orders. He served then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan with steadfast loyalty during the oil-for-food controversy that roiled Annan's office. He has carried forward that sense of loyalty to his new boss in the Congress which he joined in 2009 after retiring from the UN in 2007.
How will Rahul position the Congress ahead of the slew of Assembly elections later this year and the Lok Sabha poll in 2019? He seemed to veer towards the religious centre when he visited temples across Gujarat and Karnataka, softening the Congress' pro-minority image. Moderate Hindus were his target.
Hindus are divided across caste, region and language. That makes the BJP's task difficult. Rahul has shrewdly used the Dalit card against the BJP. Dalits make up 17 per cent of India's electorate. They don't vote as a bloc like Muslims. Many are electorally tied to regional leaders like Mayawati. Rahul's ploy is to prise open the crevice of distrust between Dalits and the BJP. With Muslims, Dalits and moderate Hindus on its side, the Congress believes it can add significantly to its 2014 vote share of 19 per cent.
From 1998 to 2014 the Congress national vote share has oscillated between 19 per cent and 28 per cent. In 1998 it won 25.82 per cent, in 1999 28.30 per cent, in 2004 (when it seized power) just 26.53 per cent, and in 2009 (when it retained power) 28.55 per cent. Its vote share plunged to 19 per cent in 2014 with the Congress sinking from 206 Lok Sabha seats to 44.
Rahul believes the Congress will at least double its 2014 seat tally in 2019. Tharoor's Hindu-Pak analogy, like Aiyar's chaiwala remark, may to the Congress' dismay arrest that rise.