Shashi Tharoor: 'Narendra Modi wants to turn this election into a khaki referendum'

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor spoke with Rohit E David on hot-button political issues, including his controversial Sabarimala stand, Rahul Gandhi standing from Wayanad, Congress-Left friction, BJP's record, and his own relatives joining the BJP.

 |  15-minute read |   08-04-2019
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Q. Your position on Sabarimala let down many. Do you regret it?

I do understand that some liberal friends may have felt that way, primarily because they expected a straightforward liberal response on my part, given my long record of passionate advocacy of women’s rights.

Indeed, my first instinct was to respond to the Supreme Court judgement in that spirit — but, as I saw the genuine feelings of hurt among the believers, especially most of the Hindu women I met in my constituency of precisely the age that is intended to benefit from the Supreme Court’s judgement, I realised that for them, this was not a case of women’s empowerment —  but one of violation of religious sanctity.

As a political representative, I need to be sensitive to the wishes of my constituents and responsive to the people I represent in Parliament. That’s why I took the stand that it was essential to treat long-established religious practices differently from normal principles of civil law.

No, I don’t regret that decision, which still accords with the strong beliefs of a majority of my constituents.

But let me add that unlike the BJP, which has created bedlam in the streets, attacked police, obstructed devotees, and converted a sacred space into a stage for political drama, I believe in constitutional solutions for constitutional problems. That is why my party has filed a petition in the Supreme Court and I asked the government in Parliament on December 19 to offer legislation to remedy the issue.

But the BJP doesn’t want a solution; they want disturbances, in order to keep the issue alive for their political benefit. To ask them to assuage the pain of the Sabarimala faithful is like asking an arsonist to bring a fire extinguisher.

modi-pti-inside_040619063317.jpg'The Modi party is hoping to turn the upcoming election into a khaki referendum', says Shashi Tharoor. (Source: PTI)

Q. Speaking of the govt, don't you think after Pulwama and Balakot, PM Modi has only emerged stronger?

If anything, post-Pulwama, it has been made adequately clear that the BJP will stoop to any level to politicise our armed forces and appropriate the courageous sacrifices of these men and women to score political points.

The BJP knows all too well that given their disastrous record in office, marked by rising unemployment, farmer suicides, communal bigotry and the colossal damage done by demonetisation, their incompetent governance would not win them re-election. In a bid to cover up their acute shortcomings, they are now seeking to capitalize on the recent terrorist attack by portraying themselves as the most effective defenders of India’s national security.

The Modi party is hoping to turn the upcoming election into a khaki referendum, in which cross-border violence and national security supersede the daily terror of poverty, economic distress and communal tension. But in doing so, they are making the callous assumption that the Indian voter will forget that the promised “achhe din” never came —  I have no doubt that the country will resoundingly show the door to the BJP by the 23rd of May.

army-pti-inside_040619063402.jpg'The Congress Party has always stood behind the men and women of the Armed Forces'. (Source: PTI)

Q. It's being said Congress voices questioning the armed forces and AFSPA have strengthened the BJP?

I do not think this is the case. Where is the questioning of the Armed Forces that you are suggesting? We have questioned the BJP’s misappropriation of credit for the courage of the Armed Forces, and their exaggerated bombast while doing so —  never the armed forces themselves. The Congress Party has always stood behind the men and women of the Armed Forces and, at the same time, consistently refrained from using them in our political messaging because we believe that the integrity of the Armed Forces supersedes the reach of parochial politics in the country.

On AFSPA, our commitment is very simple and clear. We are not talking about scrapping it — rather, the Congress is committed to striking a balance between the needs of our security forces and providing them with the capacity to operate effectively, while at the same time, ensuring the human rights of those who reside in these sensitive areas is not compromised. That is what effective and equitable governance look like.

It is not easy —  but a government must be able to work for the welfare of all groups and communities in the country — a lesson that goes beyond the comprehension of the present ruling dispensation.

nyay--pti-inside_040619063450.jpg'NYAY will be rolled out only after a pilot and testing phase'. (Source: PTI)

Q. You speak of the welfare of all sections — what about tax payers fearing NYAY will mean a greater burden on them?

I do not think this will be the case. Rather, as our manifesto makes clear, the Congress is committed to ensuring greater convenience and welfare of the tax payer. That is why, for instance, we have committed ourselves to a GST 2.0, which will be a simpler, single, moderate tax version compared to the gargantuan and inefficient 5 tax slab version that the BJP had passed.

The concerns of the tax payer are very much a strong consideration for the Congress and the NYAY programme will not affect them negatively. But there are a few things one should recognise —  for one, if you look at our commitment in detail, there will first be a design phase (for 3 months) which will be followed by a pilot and testing phase (for 6-9 months) before there is a national launch.

The reason for this is to give the government time to incorporate learnings from the limited roll-out on the ground and help us design the most effective, efficient and inclusive version of NYAY before there is a national launch.

It is also likely that NYAY will bring together and club a few existing welfare programmes and subsidies, so that there is no undue duplication of the process, which will also boost the funding available for the overall programme. Finally, we must also recognise that the NYAY is designed to help jumpstart an economy that has been relegated to the doldrums under the watch of the BJP. As I have often said before, the magic of the market will not appeal to those who cannot enter the marketplace. By augmenting the income of those who face great economic hardship in the country, the programme will help them to participate in the market as consumers —  which in turn will boost business and manufacturing and help our economy grow again.

priyanka-pti_040619063531.jpg'Priyanka Gandhi has always been a charismatic face of the Congress — she will become a more pivotal force soon.' (Source: PTI)

Q. Let's talk of specific political moves before all that happens. Priyanka Gandhi has been sidelined for years for her brother. Is it too late now?

I don’t think it is fair to suggest that Priyanka Gandhi has been ‘sidelined’ by her brother. For one, as an independent and strong woman, she is entitled to her own choices and convictions and the fact that she has been helping the party from behind the scenes is a reality known by all members of the Party. That she has been a valuable contributor to the progress of the Congress Party cannot be disregarded.

Her closeness to her brother is a source of strength — not overshadowing.

Yes, it is true that with her appointment as General Secretary, she has now accepted a more front-facing role and I am sure that in the months to come, her influence will grow —  she will become a pivotal force behind the Congress. And finally, Priyanka Gandhi has always been a charismatic face of the Congress even if she preferred to work behind the scenes and today, in her new role, it is indisputable that she has amassed a serious popular following wherever she goes —  with comparisons being made with Indira Gandhi.

rahul-pti-inside.jpe_040619063616.jpg'Does Narendra Modi have the courage to stand for elections like Rahul Gandhi from both north and south?' (Source: PTI)

Q. And how do you see Rahul Gandhi filing his nomination from Wayanad?

It has had a positive galvanising effect in Kerala. I believe it is important to recognise that his decision comes at a time of unprecedented strain on the spirit of cooperative federalism that has held the country together right since independence in 1947. Under the leadership of the BJP-led Central government, with its Hindi-Hindutva-Hindustan mentality, relations between the southern states and the federal government have steadily deteriorated, partly because of cultural factors such as its drive to impose Hindi or the ban on the slaughter of beef, which is widely consumed in the South.

But there have also been larger issues that threaten the economic security of the South and its political representation, driven by the BJP government’s decision to change the terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission and use the 2011 census figures as the benchmark for revenue sharing among the states (as opposed to the 1971 figures used in the previous Finance Commissions). There is genuine fear across the South that political disempowerment will follow. 

It is in this context that Rahul Gandhi has made a bold statement of intent to suggest that he can be the bridge that repairs this growing North-South divide within the country.

It also signals that he has the confidence to win elections in both the north and south —  can Narendra Modi make such a claim? Would he have the courage to fight for a seat in Kerala or Tamil Nadu?

If Rahul Gandhi wins from both Amethi and Wayanad, he will be one of the rare leaders in the country who enjoys a clear and demonstrated popularity in both the South and North. And, most important, the South will be galvanised by the fact that its concerns are unlikely to be ignored by such a leader, one who will walk into Parliament on the back of their support.

left-pti-inside_040619063713.jpg'I think It's a bit rich of the Left to complain about Rahul Gandhi standing in Wayanad'. (Source: PTI)

Q. The Left is clearly upset though — they are asking, why did Congress select a fight against the Left in Kerala and not, say, any other state for Rahul Gandhi?

I think it’s a bit rich for the Left to complain about the Congress President’s decision when at the same time, it is actively taking on the men and women of the Congress Party in Kerala.

The fact is —  the Congress and the Left have been sworn adversaries in the state and have fought bitter elections against each other for decades.

Therefore, to now suggest that it is unfair for the Congress President to do so or that it is going against the opposition unity that the Congress has often spoken about is rather absurd.

In any case, Rahul Gandhi himself pointed out tha he will not attack the Left during the course of the campaign. I think the Left should not take this personally but see it within the context of a larger appeal that the Congress President is making towards the Southern states, who have been systematically sidelined in the five years of the Modi government.

rahul-pti-inside_040619063800.jpgThe hand that covers all? Does Rahul Gandhi’s going to Wayanad represent the Congress' idea of India? (Source: PTI)

Q. Rahul Gandhi will have to vacate one seat if he wins both —  if he vacates Wayanad, won't it be breaching the trust of the Southern people?

I think such unfounded speculation misses the larger point that the Congress President is trying to make — by reaching out to the South and seeking to demonstrate his electability among the voters of the Southern states, Rahul Gandhi is showing the Congress’ age-old commitment to being a party that stands for an inclusive India. The Congress’ idea of India is that of an India where all Indians matter.

By choosing to fight from a constituency that shares a border with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Rahul Gandhi’s Wayanad move is also a strategic decision to energise the Congress in the south and help it build serious momentum in this part of the country in the run-up to the General Elections, scheduled to start in just days now.

congress-left-pti-in_040619063836.jpgThey haven't shaken Hands. Not yet: There is no pre-poll alliance between the Congress and the Left. (Source: PTI)

Q. So, can we say that the Congress and Left alliance has ended?

Let me clarify again — there was never an alliance. While the Congress and the Left are sworn adversaries in the state, this hasn’t prevented the Left from participating in post-poll support to the UPA — in 2004, for instance, after it routed the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections in the state. There is no good reason why contesting against each other should prove an impediment now.

After all, post-poll calculations are always different from pre-poll ones.

At the national level, the Left has fewer differences with the Congress than it has with the BJP, and it makes sense for the Left, with its modest numbers, to support a secular party committed to social justice if it is in a position to stop the BJP.


'BJP is in a desperate bid to woo the voters of Kerala', says Shashi Tharoor. (Source: PTI)

Q. Narendra Modi will address two election rallies in Kerala — is this an onslaught by the BJP?

Well, it’s no secret that the BJP is desperate to open their account in Kerala, particularly in Thiruvananthapuram, and Narendra Modi’s visit is no doubt part of this desperate bid to woo the voters of the state.

But as their own previous experiences will tell you, these visits have seldom borne results and the people of the state have repeatedly and strongly rejected their advances. That is unlikely to change, irrespective of how many times the BJP leadership decides to campaign in the state.

bjp-flag-pti-inside_040619064002.jpgWill the lotus bloom down south this time? (Source: PTI)

Q. Your own relatives have joined BJP, they say we have always supported the party — what's your take?

Frankly speaking, I am a bit bemused by the levels of absurdity and petty politics that the BJP are willing to stoop to in a bid to make themselves relevant in Thiruvananthapuram — my uncle and aunt have long been supporters of the BJP and even they pointed out on camera that they couldn’t understand why Sreedharan Pillai had suddenly decided to make a song and dance about this fact and held a function to ‘welcome them into the party’.

All in all, the entire episode ended up being a severe public embarrassment for everyone involved.

The fact is that I have many aunts and uncles in Kerala who have their own political leanings and loyalties, including one uncle who was even the CPM Panchayat President in my ancestral village in Palakkad. The son of the couple in question is a Congressman who is actively campaigning for me in Thiruvananthapuram! But to suggest that the individual choices of my extended family have any forbearing on my own affiliations and position with the Congress Party is rather absurd.

The episode clearly illustrates that all the BJP can do is to resort to cheap personal and petty politics since they can say nothing about the work I have done in my two terms as an MP for Thiruvananthapuram, the strong development agenda I have established here and the effective way I have been a voice for the concerns and aspirations of the people of the city at the national stage.

Also read: Why the 2019 elections are too close to call



Rohit David Rohit David @rohitedavid

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