The Congress MP thinks the BJP has scored a self-goal in the process of hounding Rahul Gandhi.
In an interview to Frontline, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor spoke on the public reaction to the BJP’s hounding of Rahul Gandhi, and on matters such as opposition unity and the need for a substantive Congress campaign that talks about issues facing the people. Excerpts:
Why is the BJP rushing to frame Rahul Gandhi’s remarks on the Modi surname as an affront to the backward classes? Is this a way to distract the electorate from the questions the Congress is raising about Adani and BJP’s crony capitalism? Or does this come from fear that the campaign for a caste census, now endorsed by the Congress, might lead to an OBC consolidation against the BJP?
The BJP is a master at exploiting every situation to the extent it possibly can, therefore, this OBC connection is to try and turn the Modi name—which in Gujarat is a backward caste name—and apply it as a backward caste everywhere in the country, since that is a constituency that it is desperately trying to cultivate.
It is even using this argument in Kerala, where the Ezhavas are an OBC community. It is preposterous because both Lalit Modi and Nirav Modi are anything but backward: Lalit Modi is a Marwari and Nirav Modi is a Jain. They are both extremely affluent people who managed to live in the lap of luxury, and then pushed off to live as affluent fugitives in London, with their ill-gotten wealth taken away from this country. These are hardly symbols of backwardness in any shape or form. The entire charge is such a stretch.
But there is very little doubt that the strategy has both a positive and a negative side. The positive is for them to try and win votes from the OBCs. The negative is precisely that they might see the opposite happening, because the Congress, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, Lalu Prasad and Tejashwi Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) are pressing for a caste census.
If the caste census, which has been resisted by the BJP, produces results that it does not like, it could lead to a consolidation of OBC votes against the BJP. So, there is both a push factor and a pull factor in the stand they have taken.
Until Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification as Member of Parliament, some opposition parties were openly harbouring the idea of a third front with little or no role for the Congress. Do you see this shifting now? How does the Congress leadership view such a front?
The question of a third front has always struck many of us as unfortunate. When you are talking of the BJP winning 303 seats with 37 per cent of the vote, and the remaining 63 per cent going to 35 parties in Parliament, it makes sense that many of these 35 parties may agree on a common candidate against the BJP candidates in their areas to ensure that the BJP is defeated.
That is never going to be a unanimous kind of a situation because there will always be some parties who would disagree and put up their own candidates. But the assumption was certainly that the movement towards opposition unity was in the collective interest of the opposition.
Now that we have seen that parties who have historically, and until recently, seen the Congress as a major adversary in their States, such as the AAP in Delhi, the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, KCR [K. Chandrashekar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi] in Telangana, and Akhilesh Yadav [Samajwadi Party] in Uttar Pradesh, have all come out defending the Congress and Rahul Gandhi in the disqualification matter, it certainly suggests that this is a very good moment to try and get them together on the same platform.
Also, the fact that 18 parties sat with the Congress and went to dinner with the Congress this week [last week of March] in New Delhi is also a suggestion that many parties are beginning to realise the truth of the adage that united we stand, divided we fall, and that the BJP would be much happier being able to pick off each individual party.
This is a very interesting development in opposition politics; we should see how it evolves.
First, the Bharat Jodo Yatra, and now, the Rahul Gandhi issue. Do you see these as helping the Congress in the battle ahead? Critics say that the BJP can use Rahul Gandhi’s remarks to undo the advantages gained by your party. Do you agree?
I think it is very clear that the BJP has scored a self-goal in the process of hounding Rahul Gandhi in this manner, because public sympathies that I have seen give a sense of the public pulse. It does seem as if the public thinks that the BJP has gone too far.
Even if you don’t like Rahul Gandhi or the Congress party, would you, as someone committed to Indian democracy, agree that it is a good thing for our country that a prominent opposition leader’s voice be silenced? Is it a good thing for our democracy for an opposition leader to be put in jail for a couple of years over one sentence in a campaign speech and prevented from raising his voice in Parliament?
No democrat is going to agree that this is good in a democracy. I think the BJP has shot itself in the foot. I believe there is every opportunity for the Congress to feel strengthened and empowered in the battle ahead. Particularly on this issue, the opposition is united to fight together.
The Congress seems to be focussing on business magnate Gautam Adani as it prepares for the 2024 general election. But are accusations of crony capitalism a viable election plank? The Rafale row failed to give you any advantage in 2019.
The issue of crony capitalism may seem somewhat esoteric to the public but certainly for those who are following politics closely, it is an important issue. But I would agree that it cannot be the only issue. In fact, the principal issues affecting the aam aadmi for the last couple of years have centred on the economy: record levels of unemployment, inflation, unsustainable price rise, and stagnant or even reduced incomes for the bulk of the population.
The government boasts of giving 80 crore people free food grains, which in itself is an admission of how badly the economy is doing. It is also a desperate attempt at saying that “we are doing the best we can to shield you from the onerous pressures of the economy”. Is that enough? We will have to see.
I think the Congress and the opposition should raise multiple issues, with the economy being a principal one. Crony capitalism and governance issues, hollowing out of institutions, stifling the freedom of the press, and stifling the voice of the opposition are issues that will also have to be raised in the 2024 election.
While the Congress points out the shortcomings of the Narendra Modi regime, especially with regard to unemployment and price rise, one is not clear what the Congress line is on the economy or jobs, or even secularism. Can the Congress articulate a clear game plan, or will it stick to simply being anti-Modi? The latter can backfire for the party, can it not?
Look, very clearly those who admire Mr Modi will vote for the BJP come what may and those who dislike Mr Modi may still vote for him because they fear there is no alternative. It is indispensable for the Congress and the opposition to constitute a credible alternative, which has a coherent and serious alternative vision for the country.
It should be manifest in our speeches, in our election manifesto and on the campaign trail. On that I have absolutely no doubt: that the Congress campaign must be much more substantive than just being anti-Modi, because that has limitations.
We have to show to the people what are the problems they are enduring that we are conscious of and what specific suggestions we have to remedy those. That is important....I am not part of the party leadership, so my views beyond that are irrelevant, but I do hope we come up with a credible approach.
“Is it a good thing for our country that a prominent opposition leader’s voice be silenced?”Shashi TharoorCongress MP, Thiruvananthapuram
Both Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, in recent speeches, invoked the image of the Congress fighting a battle to save democracy. Will the party find itself on the back foot in 2024 when its own history of misusing the Governors’ agency or the defamation law is quoted?
I believe this habit of whataboutery, of pointing to the Emergency every time some undemocratic action of the government is mentioned, or pointing to the anti-Sikh riots every time Gujarat riots are mentioned and so on, does nobody any good. The important issue is that India has evolved since those days.
What are Indians prepared to tolerate today? If Indians say they are quite happy with an electoral autocracy and they don’t particularly feel any need to have a democratic opposition being heard, then they can vote accordingly.
But if they want the democratic opposition to get space, if they want a free press, genuinely autonomous and vigorous institutions, and all the other things we stand for and defend, particularly preserving the diversity and pluralism of our society and the communal harmony that has been such an important ingredient of what India is all about, then frankly, a time will come when this kind of messaging from us will resonate with them.
As far as I am concerned, the Congress party’s past may involve mistakes; I have been a critic of the Congress, I have written against the excesses of the Emergency and other mistakes. But we are not fighting the election in 1977, we are fighting the election in 2024. And I want to be a politician who looks forward and not someone who is stuck permanently in the past.
What next? If Rahul Gandhi cannot come back to Parliament, will you put your hat in the ring for the top job in 2024?
As you know, the top job in the party is held by Mr [Mallikarjun] Kharge and not by Rahul Gandhi, therefore your question is slightly besides the point. I am one of those raising their voices for Rahul Gandhi to come back as a member of Parliament and as a prominent leader of the party. His Bharat Jodo Yatra brought us a lot of laurels and I do believe we should be looking forward to seeing Rahul Gandhi continue in politics rather than speculating about what any of us would do in the event that he is out of contention for electoral office.