Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP and former Union minister, downplays the drubbing the party received in the recent Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls and argues that Rahul Gandhi has an alternative style of working. In an interview with B.H. Kasinath, Mr Tharoor laughs off the call to be nominated as the UPA’s prime ministerial contender in 2019. Excerpts:
Am I interviewing the UPA’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections? A resident from your constituency (Thiruvananthapuram) has petitioned online for this.
(Smiles) First of all, Indian politics doesn’t work that way. When you give a petition, in a country of 1.2 billion people, any politician will say that the petition represents a minority view. Since I am the one referred to, I am neither encouraging nor supporting this. It’s appropriate I ask them to withdraw the petition.
Would it sound as if you are not ambitious?
Who isn’t ambitious? In politics, your best need not necessarily come from the top position; you have an opportunity to make a difference. For me, I want to do things that contribute to the betterment of the nation and the people. In my own way, I try to do things through my work as a politician and also through my writings and speeches. Whenever young people come up to me saying they felt ignited by my writings or what they have read or heard about me, I also feel that I have served the purpose because I am trying to galvanise a broader conscience.
The Opposition is in disarray. Has Rahul Gandhi lost his charm? Do you think it’s time for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to step in?
Ever since he entered politics, Mr Gandhi has won 23 Assembly elections for the party, but people only focus on the defeats. We have not won polls in Uttar Pradesh for over 20 years. Nobody seriously thought we had a chance of winning anything more than coming fourth this time even if we had contested on our own. Is it fair to blame one individual? Second, Mr Gandhi represents an alternative style of leadership. So on the one hand, you have Mr Modi, the man on the white horse with a drawn sword, who has answers to all the questions and who is going to solve all problems.
On the other hand, there is Mr Gandhi who can say: “I don’t have all the answers… I don’t even know answers to all the questions, but I will listen to you with patience and sensitivity”. I don’t know Priyanka Gandhi well enough to speak on her. So far she has not stepped into the national arena. If she decides that she needs a larger role, then people would welcome her with her family background and personal qualities. It’s for her to decide. Let’s leave it to her.
The Congress’ popularity is on the wane. Even Mumbai's Priya Dutt has said Congress destroys Congress. What should be the way ahead?
The way forward is to re-energise the party. We have two years left. There have to be serious decisions. It is widely expected that there will be change at the top. Along with that there must be organisational change even at the grassroots level. Fresh faces must come in. This is not to discourage seniors who have served so ably, but they have been around for 20 or more years. People are in the mood to see something new in the political arena. We have young people, energetic people, people of ability... give them responsibility and let them go and have a crack. There are half a dozen states, including Telangana and Kerala where the Congress has a real chance of coming back to power and winning many Lok Sabha seats.
The BJP is working towards a Congress-mukt Bharat. Do you think the Congress has enough political energy to take on an aggressive BJP?
If the BJP believes in democracy, is it healthy to have a Congress-mukt Bharat? Why not have a healthy Opposition? In a democracy, the Opposition is a guarantee to a government’s accountability. I am not prepared to give up hope for the Congress in 2019. I am certainly available to the party; am running around the country speaking to audiences, universities, professional groups. Sometimes the springboard is my book. Through writing, I also have an opportunity to address several questions. In India, there’s a crying need for a liberal political voice. The Congress is the closest to being a liberal. Yes, it’s more of a social democratic party than a liberal one. On social issues, it is liberal; on economic reforms, it has been the party of liberalisation.
Demonetisation had been highly criticised. Yet, Mr Modi succeeded in selling it as a step against the rich while it was the poor that suffered the most. What is attracting people to him?
If I were to pick two or three qualities, one is his oratory. He is the finest of speakers and that has a compelling effect. Second, he comes across as a man who takes decisive action. People suffered from demonetisation, but they say he DID something. A curious kind of logic! A third perception — that is unique to India — is that people see him as a leader who does not have a wife and children and, therefore, they feel he is there only to serve the country. This is the Indian way of looking at things, as if leading a family life is a disqualification for a politician!
You once said: “Which Indian worthy of his name would not be humbled to be tapped by his PM for a national cause?” And then you retracted... you have taken too many U-turns on Mr Modi.
I am fair-minded. Merely because I am an Opposition MP does not mean I should not praise the Prime Minister. When Mr Modi says something that sounds right, I acknowledge it. When he says something wrong, I criticise it. Like the day I signed up for Swachch Bharat, I had written a piece... my position is the same. Cleaning up India is a national objective. I don’t see this as a political objective. When the PM reaches out and says let’s do this together, it seems to me that it is entirely appropriate for us to do it. When it comes to political convictions, I don’t agree with many of the things Mr Modi stands for. I am a proud Hindu, but am not a Hindutvawadi. I prefer the Nehruvian vision of India in which everyone has an equal stake. I would certainly reject the notion that I have taken U-turns. My policies have been consistent. I have been a strong critic of demonetisation. Even if the electorate has forgiven the PM on this, I haven’t.
What do you think of the global standing of India after Mr Modi took over?
Mr Modi has brought in a lot of energy and dynamism personally to India’s projection on the world stage. But even an effective salesman cannot sell an empty package. He needs to show genuine progress and change in India to have a genuine benefit. Right now, perhaps it’s the visibility that has gone up. For it to actually translate into more investment into India, into more political support for India, into membership in the UN Security Council or in nuclear suppliers group, there has to be genuine evidence that what the Mr Modi says in his speeches is real and seen in practice in India. It’s too early to say. I don’t think there has been any difference in the ease of doing business, for example.
Your book Inglorious Empire... sounds similar to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds...
(Laughs) I think that’s why publishers chose that title. In India, the title of the book is Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India... but the British title reminds them of the film title, maybe.
You appear to be fighting a lonely battle for reparations from the United Kingdom for British atrocities during the Raj. Do you think Britain would agree to reparations?
I don’t ask for reparations in the monetary sense. My demand is for atonement. I am seeking an apology. It would cleanse the original sin from the conscience of both the countries. Recently, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau apologised for the Komagata Maru incident even though Canadians did not directly kill anyone. A shipload of Indian refugees (mostly Sikhs) was pushed away, and these people then came to a grizzly end either on the high seas or at the hands of the British when they returned. Even then, the Canadians apologised for it, a hundred years later. So, why can’t the British apologise to India for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre?
You have introduced the anti-discrimination bill in the Lok Sabha... what will be its fate and impact?
The anti-discrimination bill protects people from all walks of life from being discriminated against. But the problem with many of these private member’s bills is that the best we can hope for is that they would stimulate a discussion in public space. It becomes a lottery as to which bill will be taken up for discussion and voted upon. The advantage of a private member’s bill is to keep the content alive in the minds of the people.
Has India’s present foreign policy changed, specially in its engagements with the US and also with our immediate and hostile neighbours?
Our foreign policy, by and large, shows continuity. I have jokingly said that what some people call as the “Modi doctrine” is actually the “Manmohan doctrine”. They both have the same vision. Where I see a change is in the emphasis. Mr Modi has seen more ups and downs in his attitude towards Pakistan. It is like a child’s yo-yo. One day,
Mr Modi is calling on Nawaz Sharif and gifting saris to his mother and the other day he’s shelling across the Pakistan border. The third day, he is ignoring Mr Sharif in Kathmandu and then he is travelling to Lahore. With the exception of that, globally our orientation is not dependent on the party in power. I would argue that in a country like India, our political differences stop at the water’s edge.