A Jaswant-Tharoor comparison shows the Congress to be far more accommodating of internal criticism.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s justification for expelling Jaswant Singh is that his appreciation of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and alleged denigration of Sardar Patel constituted an attack on the party’s core beliefs, which it could not condone. Said Arun Jaitley: “No political party can allow any member, let alone a frontline leader, to write or express views against the core ideology of the party ?Sardar Patel’s contribution to unifying India can be undermined by none.”

Mr. Jaitley and others in the BJP might want to read Shashi Tharoor’s 1997 book, India : From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond. The book, which Mr. Tharoor updated in 2007, is sprinkled with critical references to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty. Yet the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress offered Mr. Tharoor a Lok Sabha ticket in the 2009 general election. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government went a further step and invited him to join the External Affairs Ministry as a Minister of State.

The “party with a difference” has always prided itself on its inner-party democracy, never missing an opportunity to attack the “authoritarian and dynastic” Congress. Yet a Jaswant Singh-Shashi Tharoor comparison would show the Congress to be far more accommodating of internal criticism. If anything, Mr. Tharoor took greater liberties than Mr. Singh, venturing with gusto into areas that the BJP would surely regard as taboo.

Consider what Mr. Tharoor had to say about one of the Congress’ greatest icons — Indira Gandhi. “Had Indira’s Parsi husband been a toddywalla (liquor trader) rather than so conveniently a Gandhi, I sometime wonder, might India’s political history have been different?”

Further, “Mrs. Gandhi was skilled at the acquisition and maintenance of power, but hopeless at the wielding of it for larger purposes. She had no real vision or program beyond the expedient campaign slogans; “remove poverty” was a mantra without a method ?. Declaring a state of Emergency, Indira arrested opponents, censored the press, and postponed elections. As a compliant Supreme Court overturned her conviction, she proclaimed a ‘20-point programme’ for the uplift of the common man (No one found it humorous enough to remark, as Clemenceau had done of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, that “even the good Lord only had ten.”) Its provisions ? remained largely unimplemented. Meanwhile her thuggish younger son, Sanjay (1946-1980) emphasizing two of the 20 points, ordered brutally insensitive campaigns of slum demolitions and forced sterilizations.”

Mr. Tharoor did not spare Rajiv Gandhi either, though he acknowledged that the former Prime Minister’s first year was exhilarating for people like him “who were swept up in the unfamiliar excitement of having one of our own as Prime Minister”: Instead of the “visionless expediency that had been his mother’s only credo, Rajiv offered transparent sincerity and conviction.” But then, said Mr. Tharoor, “the rot set in ?Compromise followed sellout as New Delhi returned to business as usual. Charges of corruption in a major howitzer contract with the Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors tarnished the mystique of the dynasty; little children sang, Galli-galli mein shor hai/Rajiv Gandhi chor hai: ‘Hear it said in every nook/Rajiv Gandhi is a crook.’?”

The current Minister of State also took gentle digs at Sonia Gandhi, pointing out that she went to Cambridge to study English, not political philosophy. Referring to Ms Gandhi’s “renunciation” and her nomination of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, he said, “A builder’s daughter from Turino, without a college degree, with no experience of Indian life beyond the rarefied realms of the Prime Minister’s residence, fiercely protective of her privacy, so reserved and unsmiling in public that she has been unkindly dubbed ‘the Turin Shroud’ leading a billion Indians at the head of the world’s most complex, rambunctious and violent democracy? This situation, improbable if weren’t true, is proof again of the enduring appeal of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.”

Mr. Tharoor had a reference to Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra too. Speculating on the reasons for Ms Sonia Gandhi taking charge of the Congress, he said: “And then there is, after all, in true dynastic tradition, the need to think of the aspirations of the next generation ... Their [Rahul and Priyanka] father’s seat must, observers suggest, be kept warm for one of them — and who better to nurse the Amethi constituency he so successfully nurtured than Sonia herself?”

The BJP had the Tharoor example before it. It could have taken Mr. Jaswant Singh’s book in its stride, and appeared large-hearted, as the Congress did with Mr. Tharoor. Instead, it chose to show its illiberal side.

Correction

Due to an editing error, the name Toddywalla, in the fourth paragraph of an article “Two books, two consequences: Shashi Tharoor on Congress icons” (Op- Ed, August 22, 2009), was spelt in the lower case as “toddywalla”. This may lead to unnecessary confusion. Toddywalla is a Parsi surname used by people whose families have traditionally been in the liquor trade. But spelling it in lower case gives the impression that Indira Gandhi could have been married to a liquor trader. This quote from the original text will clarify the matter: “... there are Parsis called Engineer, Driver, Cooper and Merchant, as well as Mistry (carpenter), Daruwalla and Toddywalla (liquor traders both). Had Indira’s Parsi husband been a Toddywalla rather than so conveniently a Gandhi, I sometimes wonder, might India’s political history have been different?”

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