Congress politician Shashi Tharoor speaks on religiosity, the BJP and his own party
He believes he is misunderstood often because he speaks too fast. Author and diplomat-turned-politician Shashi Tharoor has had to bear the brunt of trenchant attacks by his own colleagues in the Congress party for being not-so-trenchant in his criticism of the opposition, particularly of Prime Minister Modi. Yet Tharoor believes the Congress is his best platform for serving the country. BusinessLine caught up with him while he was in Chennai recently. Excerpts from the interview:
At the recent The Hindu’s Lit for Life festival, you answered a question on the rise of atheism. Please amplify that, but first please tell us whether you are a believer?
Yes. I am very proud of being a Hindu. I’m a worshipping Hindu and I have read a fair amount of the Upanishads, though admittedly in English translation. So it is not a religion I practice routinely but have thought about it and valued its philosophical underpinnings.
The question (at the Lit for Life festival) was whether there was an increase in atheism. No, I don’t think so. If anything, there was more atheism, more agnosticism in the middle of the century which had witnessed two World Wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. People were willing to look at secular, non-religious approaches to life.
Whereas today, religion seems to be very much on the rise in people’s consciousness. More and more people, when they search for a sense of who they are, seem to take refuge in religion as the principle identity.
Is that turning into a problem?
Yes, it is a problem. Once these markers of identity have been used as instruments of political mobilisation then political polarisation becomes an option as we are seeing now, with one party seemingly deliberately using it as a tactic in the hope of winning more votes from a particular community as a result. That kind of an approach would have been considered reprehensible in, say, the 1960s India. Even in 1970s India. Today, it is openly discussed as a legitimate political tactic. There is a decline, it seems to me, in the ground gained earlier by the secular forces.
Now that the strategy has failed to deliver in the Bihar elections, do you see a change?
I think political circumstances would be a factor. Vajpayee headed the BJP government which had 23 coalition partners of which only one, Shiv Sena, shared its Hindutva agenda.
If you wanted to keep them together and carry them along you had to be anything but an RSS kind of leader.
Today, Modi feels no such compulsion. In fact, he doesn’t even need the Shiv Sena. I think in five years, it is going to be difficult to see the BJP changing, unless they develop a breadth of vision that they have not yet shown at the top of their party.
Has the perception of India changed globally since this government came?
This government has been good at a certain amount of salesmanship, Modi has brought a lot of personal energy to the pursuit of foreign policy through his travels and speeches. But a salesman is only as good as the product he sells. He cannot indefinitely sell an empty package.
But isn’t the product good?
The economics he is selling has so far been only slogans and speeches. You cannot keep selling an empty package indefinitely. Where have you re-written business regulations in this country? Where have you eliminated the obstacles to opening up business? Where have you eliminated some of the hurdles in the tax system? You have actually not lifted a finger.
Why are you with the Congress?
When I stepped down from the Secretary-General-ship race and I was deciding whether to leave the UN or not, in fact the first party to approach me was a former cabinet minister of the BJP. I said, frankly I have profound differences of principle with the BJP.
The CPI (M) is very strong in Kerala (and was) initially very friendly to me—the problem with them is that they say they are for the poor but they seem to obstruct every progressive reform that help the poor cease to be poor. They have a 19th century ideology and a 19th century mentality and they are simply not right for the 21st century.
The Congress, on the other hand, post-1991, was no longer the party of state-ism, bureaucratic control of the economy and of the Emergency.
It was now a party that had liberalised India, and itself had become a socially liberal as well as economically progressive party that believed in economic growth because it had presided over economic growth, but wanted to re-distribute the fruits of that growth to the weakest of society. And that was an approach I liked.
If you had been with the BJP?
In the BJP, I would have been in a party led by the RSS. And for me, in any case, I do believe in political loyalty. Having come into the Congress party, having been given my opportunities by the Congress party, I’m strongly loyal to the party and its leadership and I don’t want to move away.
And you have been called a ‘chameleon’!
Wrongly. I think there was a profound misunderstanding of the things I said and wrote. For example, on Swachh Bharat, in my book on India Shastra, I wrote in entirety what I wrote that that time. No fair-minded person can say that I was an uncritical endorser of Modi’s approach to Swachh Bharat.
I said, as an Indian citizen it was my duty to honour an appeal, a non-political appeal from the Prime Minister for a national cause and I still stand by that. I know I was attacked from within my own party but people don’t take the trouble to read and had clearly not understood what I had said.