Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP, Thiruvananthapuram. (File photo)
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor speaks to Manoj C G on organisational challenges before the party.
The Indian Express: The Congress has suffered yet another election defeat (in Delhi). Many leaders are dismayed at the state of affairs in the party. What, in your view, is the road ahead for the party? What is ailing it?
Shashi Tharoor: My starting point is that that the Congress is indispensable for India, to give the country an alternative unifying vision to the divisive policies of the BJP government. But to get there, we have to deal with a certain perception in the eyes of the public that we are adrift, which is hurting us since such an image will naturally drive voters towards other political alternatives, as the results from the Delhi elections reflect. At the same time, there are also clearly certain organisational and structural challenges that we are working to overcome and our recent electoral performances have made it clear that we need to do more to aggressively get our message across to the voters. Of course, there are certainly some positives as well, particularly the fact that we have managed to form successful alliances in both Maharashtra and Jharkhand and offered a strong challenge to the BJP in Haryana. We have effective governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Chhattisgarh, all of which have a proven record of credible performance.
And yet, even though we are far from finished, we certainly need to address our own internal leadership questions, starting with the long-term future of the position of the Congress President, as well as membership of the Working Committee. I have personally been an outspoken advocate for free and transparent elections within the party for these positions because such a process would significantly add to their credibility and legitimacy which, in turn, would be vital assets as they set about the significant organisational challenges associated with re-energising the rank and file of the party.
Read here in Malayalam here.
The Indian Express: The party lost two Lok Sabha elections but there has been no honest introspection and fixing of accountability. Why?
Shashi Tharoor: I do think we have had some degree of introspection and accountability, right from the level of the Congress President himself, who offered his resignation as a way to publicly shoulder responsibility for our electoral fortunes, even though the defeat reflected the collective shortcomings of the party. But while introspection and accountability are certainly important, we can't live in the past forever. It's time we worked together to move forward and finding a new President is a crucial first step towards this goal.
The Indian Express: Rahul Gandhi had stepped down taking moral responsibility for the defeat. Why is the party not been able to elect/select a new leader even after so many months?
Shashi Tharoor: The delay to a certain extent is understandable, given the special place that Rahul Gandhi enjoys in the hearts of the Congress workers. Given that it was less than two years since he had taken over, it was always going to be a tough challenge to find an individual capable of stepping in and filling his shoes. That's why the Working Committee turned back to Soniaji, but she herself had just given up the Presidency and it is unfair to expect her to serve indefinitely. But at the end of the day, a revived Congress is indispensable for India. We are the only national party that can challenge the ideology and the policies of the BJP government. But in order for us to effectively fulfil this responsibility, we do need to find ourselves a new President to fill the vacuum created in the wake of Rahul Gandhi's resignation and, we need to do so without any further delay. I wish he hadn't resigned, and was one of those who tried to talk him out of it. But if he persists in his determination, we need to find an active and full-time leadership so the Party can move forward as the nation expects.
The Indian Express: Why this insistence that he should return. Many leaders feel he will return as Congress president in April.
Shashi Tharoor: It is a completely understandable sentiment and most of us were keen for him to continue and stay on in this role after the elections, because while we respect his desire to be accountable for our defeat, we feel there is no one better able to ensure the revival. Congress workers across the country are united in the belief that he has the capacity and vision to rally the Congress together and take the party forward. But at the end of the day, this is a personal decision and it really is for Rahul Gandhi to make a call on whether he wishes to return to this post. If he does, then the sooner he does so the better.
The Indian Express: As a senior leader, what in your view the Congress should do, both organizationally and otherwise.
I think this is a call for the incoming President to take because they will obviously be tasked with overseeing a revival. But as I mentioned, I would certainly welcome an internal process for elections, where members of the AICC plus PCC delegates; some 10,000 workers in all -- could collectively vote for the post of President and the elected members of the CWC. This process of inner-party democracy will strengthen the party and usher in a dynamic leadership team that will work together to address the organisational challenges within the party.
Shashi Tharoor: As for the rest, my prescription is simple. First, we must decide what we stand for and communicate it effectively and repeatedly. We must articulate a vision for the future that embraces the aspirations of India's majority - the young. We need to devote most of the party's attention to the grassroots. We have to return to the ethos of politics as social work for those who cannot help themselves. And strategically, we must explore pragmatic coalitions with regional parties so as not to let the government take advantage of the division of anti-government votes. If we do all of this we will prevail over the BJP in 2024.
The Indian Express: What do you think is wrong, or is anything wrong, with the Congress's messaging, especially on ideological and polarising issues like say CAA or Article 370. The BJP has been somewhat successful in projecting the Congress as pro-Muslim/ anti-Hindu party.
Shashi Tharoor: Look, the BJP has been utterly cynical in its attempts to demonise the Congress. We are the party of nationalism, not them. We are the party that won India's independence while the BJP's forebears sat out the freedom struggle or collaborated with the British. We are the party that was in office when India prevailed in three out of four wars with Pakistan (and we loyally supported the Government in the fourth, over Kargil). The difference between us is that we don't do the unseemly chest-thumping and boasting the BJP specialises in. As for being pro-Muslim, we are pro-Indian. We stand for the interests of India and Indians, whatever faith they belong to. To oppose majoritarian triumphalism is not to be 'anti-Hindu', it is to be anti-bigotry, anti-communalism, and anti-Hindutva.
As I have argued in two books, proud Hindus like myself revere a faith that accepts difference and lives alongside people of other religions in mutual respect. That is true Hinduism; it is not anti-Hindu. To reduce the soaring majesty of an inclusive faith like Hinduism to the petty team-identity of the British football hooligan (which is what Hindutva has done) is truly anti-Hindu.
The Indian Express: Should the party be skirting divisive issues like Arvind Kejriwal had done in Delhi. How do you traverse this minefield. Many believe Kejriwal reaped the benefits by doing that.
Shashi Tharoor: To put it plainly, that is simply not our style. The Congress Party has historically been proud advocates for a certain set of inalienable principles — pluralism, inclusiveness, secularism, social justice, constitutional values and the fundamental rights of our fellow citizens to name a few—and for us to have conducted a campaign bereft of such ideals and values, and in the process try and adopt the 'Kejriwal' model of expediency, would not just be a disservice to our legacy but would force us to become something that we are not. Even though we may have suffered significant reverses in the elections, I am glad that this did not come at the expense of our commitments to these values.
The Indian Express: Should the Congress be now projecting itself as a strictly centrist party.
Shashi Tharoor: It depends on how you define centrism. Many of us would claim that centrist is what we already are, but in India the centre must tilt slightly leftward because of our very large population of poor people, marginalised communities, minorities, tribals and Dalits, who need the government's help. We are proud of being the party that ushered in liberalisation but equally proud that we have distributed the fruits of that liberalisation, in the form of enhanced government revenues, to those who were excluded from its direct benefits. A liberal economy with an emphasis on social justice is centrist. A strong and credible foreign policy with a robust national security capacity is centrist. An emphasis on pluralism and inclusion of all, and a rejection of majoritarianism and communal bigotry, is centrist. In that sense we are very much a centrist party and must remain so.
The Indian Express: India of 2020 is aspirational and young. The youth, many believe, despise entitlement in politics. And the Congress has lot of second generation and third generation leaders. How do you deal with that.
Shashi Tharoor: The fact remains that in politics, just like in many other professions where sons and daughters take up a similar occupation as their parents, success and effectiveness ultimately only comes when one has the necessary aptitude, skillsets, energy and work ethic to handle the tasks one is confronted with. Yes, perhaps it may have been easier for individuals to make a start in politics if they came from a family that has traditionally worked in this space, but this means little if they cannot perform. So, I don't see this as an argument for or against entitlement, but at the end of the day an argument for capability and capacity. The Indian voter is intelligent enough to recognise the latter and for politicians to survive and be successful, they need to demonstrate such credibility to their respective voters.
The Indian Express: And lastly, can the Congress think of a life beyond Gandhis. What is your opinion on the view that Congress should bring a non-Gandhi at helm and make a fresh start.
Shashi Tharoor: There is no denying the clear fact that the Gandhi family has a special place in the hearts of the Congress Party members -- and with good reason too. Aside from the great legacy they have inherited from their illustrious forebears, they have consistently brought together the various groups, ideologies, geographies and communities that collectively make up the fabric of the Congress Party and have a clear record of success and experience in leading the party, both when in government and during tough times in the wilderness, when they have still managed to rally the men and women of the Congress together. Let us not forget the magnitude of what they have achieved for the party or the ultimate sacrifice paid by two former Presidents from the family.
But again, the repeated question of 'Gandhi or non-Gandhi' is missing the wood for the trees. The urgent need is to find a new President and I am confident that if we do so through a participatory, transparent and democratic electoral process internally, the workers will at the end of the day throw their might and energy behind whoever emerges as the winning candidate.
Indian Express: The Congress attacks the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a regular basis but without offering an alternative. Should the party now nuance its strategy and start making constructive criticism and offer a credible, forward looking and modern alternative to the BJP.
Shashi Tharoor: I don't think that is a fair assessment and on the contrary, whether in Parliament or outside its walls, I do believe that we have presented ourselves as a constructive opposition and have advocated a fundamentally different politics, an alternative vision, to that of the BJP. We have rejected their exclusionary, chauvinistic and polarising politics of hatred, and in its place reiterated a call for an inclusive and accepting India. In the states that we are now in power, we got there by offering not only an ideological alternative but by complementing it with strong developmental policies that were extensively deliberated on keeping in mind the welfare of the voters who we sought to represent. You will see how our governments in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Punjab show how governance would be handled were the Congress to be in power nationally.