Shashi Tharoor, a three-time Member of Parliament and a familiar face across Indian middle-class homes, was an unlikely candidate for the post of Congress president. He contested against the unofficial “official” candidate, Mallikarjun Kharge, and lost (with 1,072 votes to Kharge’s 7,897), though he did far better than challengers in the past, including Jitendra Prasada, Sharad Pawar, and Rajesh Pilot. In his first post-election interview, Tharoor tells Frontline what he thinks are the important issues in the party and the way forward.
There has been a lot of analysis in the media and elsewhere about the 1,072 votes you polled (which is over 10 per cent of the total votes polled). There is a view that this is because of dissent within the Congress. Is that how you see this?
I don’t see myself as a candidate of dissent. I pitched myself as a candidate of change, and there are a lot of people who, while they are loyal to the party, were convinced that the need had come for us to abandon the idea of business as usual. …Because even the so-called G-23 letter pointed to a number of very good proposals, most of which even [Congress president] Sonia Gandhi had no objection to. I think that one could argue that these ideas, which were reflected in my manifesto, were ideas that have largely come from experienced party workers.
In fact, the whole thing [the idea to contest] started when I wrote an article that came out in English, Hindi, and Malayalam, at the time that the dates of the election were announced. I did not write about my being a candidate; I just wrote that elections would be a good thing for the party and said why. I was a bit astonished by the large number of people, including many people that I did not personally know, who reached out to me from across the country, saying: “We want you to contest.” Their argument was twofold: one, because you had consistently spoken for reform, and we would like some of the reforms that you shared with us taken forward. Secondly, we believe that you can attract new voters to the party that the existing establishment, for whatever reason, has not been able to attract in 2014 and 2019. That was seen as my strength and that was something that I decided was worth taking forward.
I came in in that spirit. It was with the spirit of strengthening the party. The feeling was that we want the party to be stronger; we want to bring back voters: remember, we hit the ceiling of 19 per cent in two successive Lok Sabha elections. We knew we couldn’t go on like that. We absolutely needed to add a few percentage points [of votes]. Where do we get that from?
So my USP, if you want, was to try and bring in a constituency [of voters] that, so far, in these two elections, had stayed away from us. I believe that we had them in 2009 when [former Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh attracted a lot of this educated, middle-class, professional background people to vote for us. But in 2014 and 2019, they swung to the BJP.
Many of them are disillusioned with the BJP but are not sure about us, and the feeling that many people have is that Shashi Tharoor is the guy to bring these people back. That is essentially my calling card as it were.
So the support for me comes from people who want to strengthen the party and not from people who in any way consider themselves to be dissenters. Even amongst the nominations, the bulk of my supporters are youngsters. There are people who... have spent 10-15 years in the party, and there are a handful who have spent lifetimes in the party: Mohsina Kidwai, Saifuddin Soz. Mohsina turned 90 this year. Saifuddin Soz is in his 80s. These are people who felt, after all their experience in the party, that I represent what the party needs.
The Congress has not had an internal election since 2000, and in the history of the party there have only been six elections. Does this add more elements to it than articulated, such as that the election will throw out the Gandhis?
That is one of the reasons why I went to see the Gandhis before I decided to throw my hat into the ring. Elections have been so rare that when I asked to see Sonia Gandhi to explore how she saw the election, I was half-prepared for her to say: “Listen, why do want to contest? We have always done things by consensus. It’s better that way for the party, etc.”
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She said the opposite. She said elections will be good for the party. “I have been saying now that we should open up the party and let other voices be heard. Please contest. I will say the same to any other colleague….” I then met Priyanka [Gandhi Vadra], who underscored the same message. I travelled to Palakkad [in Kerala] and walked with Rahul Gandhi and talked to him. He said that in the last 10 years he had been calling for elections. The Gandhis did not see the elections as anyway directed against them or as undermining the party or as a vehicle of dissent.
Change vs continuity
I too went forward in that spirit…. For me it became a question of change versus continuity. I am very, very fond of Mr Kharge; we work closely together in the Lok Sabha. I have a lot of respect for him. But he represents someone who has been part of the leadership for quite a few years already, and therefore it is difficult to imagine that he could be a vehicle of change, whereas I represent someone who has been associated with a demand for change for some time.
In terms of my approach to all of this, I have been fairly consistent. I want the Congress and the Congress ideology to prevail. I believe that the BJP represents a grave danger to our country: in terms of its ideological orientation, it is potentially representing some divisive forces. Our approach of an inclusive India is my formulation for summarising an overall policy for both social and economic and political inclusion.
All of this seems to me to require a Congress that is a little more responsive to changing currents. As you know in my own writings, I have tried to articulate a certain vision of India, which is broadly consistent with the Congress vision even though it long predates my joining the Congress. Even when I was critical of the Congress, it was consistently from what you would call the liberal humanist vision of where the country should go. I have, for example, deplored the fact that we have allowed the BJP to don the nationalist cloak when we are the original nationalists. India has history of achieving freedom under the Congress, and we have defended the freedom in successive major conflicts…. This is a country which has proudly defended its nationhood under skilful Congress leaders.
So, my own view is that we should never have surrendered the nationalist plank, especially to a party whose heritage comes from leaders who are conspicuously disassociated from the freedom movement. The second issue for me has been that we need to appeal to the growing middle class and professionals in our country.
I founded the All India Professionals’ Congress in 2017; I had proposed this in 2009. It took a while for the Congress party establishment to embrace the idea that we need to do an outreach to professionals…. My view in the party has always been how to strengthen our outreach to these people. Even my book Why I Am a Hindu was a way of explaining that there is no [need] to [shy]... away from Hinduism. If you understand Hinduism the way it has been taught to most of us growing up as Hindus and the way it has been taught to us by the likes of Swami Vivekananda, it is a very inclusive and accepting faith. It is a good vehicle for coexistence of multiple faiths in our country.
It is in a distortion of Hinduism that there is a problem…. Some of the hesitations that the middle classes feel in looking at us, we can address fairly. I have been a proud vehicle and standard bearer for these ideas.
Gandhi family and loyalty
In your acceptance letter after the election congratulating Kharge, you said that “it is my hope and belief that the family will remain the foundational pillar of the Congress, our moral conscience and the ultimate guiding spirit”. Can you contextualise this given the fact that the Congress is attacked most often because it is beholden to a single family?
There is a love and regard for and loyalty to the Gandhi family that it would be foolish to ignore if you are in the Congress party. My view is it would be shortsighted, and one can even argue foolish in the extreme, to try and distance yourself from the Gandhi family. So, even in my campaign, I said I would very much want to involve [the Gandhi family, if elected]. For example, I have applauded the Bharat Jodo Yatra, and I have said that Rahul Gandhi should be encouraged to continue the yatra…. There should not be the notion of two power centres or a centre around the Gandhis and the president; it is one party and it should function as such.
That’s why I was careful to include the mention of the Gandhis, to say that nothing I am saying, or said during the campaign, was meant to separate the party from the Gandhis. But the president will have specific responsibilities. I am pleased to see that Rahul Gandhi echoed this in a statement. The constitution of the Congress does not require the president to report to anybody. He has certain authority and... must exercise it.
Coming to the theory of internal democracy in political parties and how presidents are elected...
This is the closest that we have come to it in any party.
There is hero-worship in most political parties. So does not an election of this nature bring the fissures to the surface? Does it not give the opportunity for more problems, given the nature of the internal democracies in India?
I tried to do [the campaigning] in a constructive spirit. In my campaign, you will not find one negative word against the party, against the party establishment, or against the establishment candidate, Mr Kharge. What I spoke about was that you can make a good party better. We can basically improve ourselves if we adopt my reforms. And it will actually empower the workers.
So, it is very much an inward-looking campaign within the party workers. For example, I pointed out to PCC [Pradesh Congress Committee] delegates that this is the first job that the PCC delegate has had for 22 years—voting in the election. I said that shouldn’t be the case. PCC delegate should mean something… for example, whenever a senior party worker… visits a district, ... [a PCC delegate] should be sitting on the stage. They should be in the screening committee to pick a candidate. They should be consulted about candidates in their zillas…. This message was heard by them.
A lot of my message was about empowering them: having more consultations, having a janata durbar as Indira Gandhi and [Jawaharlal] Nehru used to have where the karyakartas [worker] from anywhere could come without an appointment…. Even when they were Prime Ministers, they would receive people at random. Only now the security concerns have made that a little difficult…. We should have elections at all levels... [of the party], including to the [Congress] Working Committee.
Early outreach to opposition parties needed
The Congress is the only truly national party apart from the BJP. Now, a few regional parties are trying to become alternatives to the Congress within the opposition space. How do you think this will play out in 2024?
It would be presumptuous of me to tell Mr Kharge what to do. But I would certainly say that outreach to these parties [in the opposition space] early on should be a priority for us for the simple reason that the majority of the electorate voted against the BJP [in 2019] and, yet, voted for 46 different parties. These parties included those who did not win a single seat, or won a seat, etc. But by taking votes away, they denied... the most credible opposition party in that area a chance to win that seat. So it makes perfect sense to explore the possibility of a national gatbandhan [alliance] with a common minimum programme. If that is not possible, a State by State set of arrangements. Now, we [have] had some such arrangements, for example, with the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] in Tamil Nadu, that ...have worked very well.
On the other hand, in Bengal, it turned out to be disastrous. In Bihar, it worked sometimes, and it did not work sometimes. Now, the Bihar configuration has changed because [Chief Minister] Nitish Kumar, [Deputy Chief Minister] Tejashwi Yadav, and we are on the same platform. So, a lot of things have to be discussed on a State by State basis, in addition to looking at the national picture, but these... arrangements should come somehow onto a national platform.
Most of these parties are like-minded. We don’t have major ideological differences, and those parties which split away from the Congress anyway believe in the core Congress ideology—whether it is Mamata Banerjee [Trinamool Congress], Sharad Pawar [Nationalist Congress Party], or Jagan Mohan Reddy [YSR Congress Party], or even KCR [K. Chandrashekar Rao, the Bharat Rashtra Samithi]—it is essentially the same ideology as the Congress. We should be able to agree on a common minimum programme. I hope the president makes an early outreach to these parties.
Does it worry you that more than 400-plus votes of delegates of one of the highest bodies of the Congress were invalid?
When you hear the story of why they were invalidated, you can see that it was overenthusiasm rather than stupidity. For example, apparently one chap cancelled Mr Kharge’s name three times and ticked my name three times. That was declared invalid. Somebody else ticked my name but drew a heart around it. So that was declared invalid. This kind of thing is just overenthusiasm. I must say that I am touched by it, but sometimes youthful exuberance can cost you the effectiveness of your vote.
I heard these anecdotes from those at the counting centre. They tried to protest, stating that the preference is clear. After all, the constitution only requires voters’ preference to be recorded. One chap, for example, wrote “NO” against Kharge’s name and wrote “YES” against my name, and ticked. So the tick [mark] was there, but by writing NO and YES, his vote was invalid. It is disappointing that... [there] were such a large number [of invalid votes], but it is also disappointing perhaps that we did not put out a training video to all voters, on voting correctly.
Bharat Jodo Yatra
In the recent past, I see a lot of pushback on the part of the Congress against unfair criticism or fake news in the media or on social media, such as the threat to file a case against the journalist Tavleen Singh. At another level is the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Has the transformation of the Congress already begun, and is it focussed on 2024 or on the organisation itself?
I think both. I don’t know about the fake news cases since I have been busy campaigning…. But on the general question you are asking I would say that the revival of the Congress has begun. I said it in my statement because both the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the Congress Jodo election contributed to a tremendous awakening of interest in the party.
I don’t think you have ever seen as much positive coverage of the Congress in the last eight years as you saw in the last three weeks. To my mind, that is the beginning of this revival story…. It will, I hope, revamp itself internally, though Mr Kharge will not revamp [the party] in the same way I would have done. But he has said that he will implement the Udaipur declaration, for example. At the same time, there would be this question of moving forward with the election strategies, and so on.
There is a general view that the majority of people in India, Hindus, have accepted the soft Hindutva approach of the BJP.
Is the BJP soft? I find it pretty hard. I mean, bulldozer governance against a minority, that is not soft.
Let me put it as, the middle class loves some agendas of the BJP. There is a lot of support. Are the other political parties, barring the Muslim political parties, forced to follow the same?
I have been arguing for some time in my writing… that we should not be ashamed of embracing religion. It so happens that a majority of us are Hindus. But whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian, there is no harm in being proud of your faith. Your faith is a personal matter between you and your idea of your maker. It is not the business of the state.
But you don’t need to shy away from it. I wrote a sentence in [the book] India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond, in 1997, saying that one of the concerns that many in the middle class have is that we have created a political culture where a Muslim can say that he is proud to be a Muslim, a Christian can say that he is proud to be a Christian, and the Hindu has to say, I am proud to be secular.
Tolerance versus acceptance
Now, the difficulty with this is that there are Hindus who are proud to be a Hindu in a way that is not invasive of other faiths at all. And this is where, when I wrote Why I Am A Hindu, I used to make a lot about Swami Vivekananda’s message in Chicago: that I speak of a faith that has taught the world not just tolerance but acceptance.
For me, it strikes me as such a profound insight. You know, we all go to history classes and learn that a tolerant king is a good king and tolerance is a good idea. But when you think about it, you will understand that tolerance is a very patronising idea. The tolerant king is actually saying: “I have the truth. You are in error. But I will magnanimously indulge you in your right to be wrong.”
Whereas what Swami Vivekananda says is that Hinduism is not about tolerance. Hinduism is about acceptance. The accepting Hindu says: “I believe I have the truth. You believe you have the truth. I will respect your truth. Please respect my truth.” That is the Hinduism in which I grew up. My father was incredibly respectful of other faiths, but he was among the most devout of Hindus I know…. I am proud of my own ecumenism, which comes from my Hinduism. So, I am very secure in my Hinduism because I am not either hostile to ... or threatened by other faiths.
The problem with the Hindutva version of Hinduism… is that it... has a chip on the shoulder. It remembers real and imagined injustices of the past and somehow wants to take revenge on them today, which makes no sense at all. Whatever happened in the past, can stay in the past. As a student of history, I love history, I always say, forgive but don’t forget.
Yes, Aurangzeb did terrible things. But undoing them today might create new fissures and wounds in my society that might hurt India inside and outside. Why would I want to pierce open those wounds….? To my mind, the Hindutva philosophy of the BJP has earned the mistrust of the minorities.
When I published Why I Am A Hindu, I was astonished by the number of BJP and even RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] sympathisers who told me how much they liked everything in the book except the sections on Hindutva. But what they liked about my descriptions of Hinduism resonated with them because this was their actual experience of growing up a Hindu in India. The second anecdote is about people who bring me books to sign. The number of non-Hindus who bring me this book to sign… is quite startling. A large number of Christians and Muslims are happy to understand Hinduism from my perspective because they don’t see this as either a threatening view of Hinduism or one that diminishes them in any way.
I have this theory that Nehru was such a towering personality when India gained its independence that this discussion between secular and Hindutva elements did not take place. And that conversation is taking place now when the Congress is pretty weak and does not have a Nehru in place to counter the arguments being advanced in favour of Hindutva. Is that a fair assessment?
I think that is a fair criticism except I think there are many of us in the party, people like Dr Karan Singh and myself, who have spoken with some passion and conviction about Hinduism in ways that others should not find threatening. Not the same way as Nehruji, who really had no interest in or patience for religion. He was as dismissive of mandirs as he was of masjids. He said this to Muslim friends too. “I have no patience for mullahs, I have no patience for sadhus. They are not going to make policy as long as I am Prime Minister.”
Nehru had that view…. His was a very progressive view. It also included his assumption that caste would disappear from the Indian consciousness…. Frankly, our subsequent experience has belied [that view]. India has become more conscious of caste and more entrenched in religion than in his lifetime. How can we now deny this reality?
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.... I made a speech about the Babri Masjid demolition at the Indian consulate in New York, which made some waves at that time. I actually spoke as a believing Hindu. I didn’t take the secular position. Actually, I argued politically. Trying to debate secular in the old-fashioned, literal sense of secular, godless secularism, if you like, versus believing Hindus, you will always lose the debate in a country where 80 per cent of the population are believing Hindus. But if you take a position between two kinds of believing Hindus, between the Hindu who says that my Hinduism does not permit me to destroy somebody else’s place of worship and a Hinduism that says we are taking revenge for what happened 600 years ago, you see the choice. Many people who had come for the talk—there was an entire row of strong VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] and overseas RSS types—sat and listened in silence. An older gentleman came up to me afterwards and said: “I came here expecting something very different. What you have said, as a Hindu, I am ashamed, you are right.”
I really got this feeling that this could have been a valid response. Whereas we have, I am afraid, either gone from one swing of the pendulum to the other. That is, we have disavowed Hinduism and other religions altogether in our quest for secularism, and that has not resonated with the electorate. Or we have pandered to the BJP interpretation…. In my mind I have clarity. I would say people like Karan Singh had absolute clarity. But can we translate that to policy? That remains to be seen.
- Congress MP Shashi Tharoor talks to Frontline soon after the party’s presidential election in which he lost to Mallikarjun Kharge (with 1,072 votes to Kharge’s 7,897).
- He entered the contest not as a dissenter but in the spirit of strengthening the party.
- He wants the Congress party and its ideology to prevail because, he believes, the BJP represents a grave danger to India.
- He feels that it would be good for the Congress to reach out to other non-BJP parties and explore the possibility of a gatbandhan with a common minimum programme either on the national level or through State by State arrangements.
- He feels that it is possible to agree on a common minimum programme as many of these parties essentially have the same ideology as the Congress.
- On the issue of religion, he says, there is no need for people to shy away from their faith, but everyone should practise acceptance when it comes to other people’s belief systems.