Shashi Tharoor interview | ‘Only guarantee we have got from Modi is that his promises will all be broken’

Shashi Tharoor is seeking a fourth term in Lower House from Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala in 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

April 19, 2024 05:09 pm | Updated April 24, 2024 04:02 pm IST

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor (file)

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor (file) | Photo Credit: PTI

Shashi Tharoor, writer, former United Nations diplomat and sitting MP from Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency, is seeking a fourth term in the Lower House from Thiruvananthapuram in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Mr. Tharoor is a Central Working Committee (CWC) member of the Congress party.

He has been locked in a tight electoral fight, bitter war of words and retaliatory legal proceedings with the BJP candidate, Rajeev Chandrasekhar. The Left’s Pannian Raveendran is the third major candidate in the fray in the Thiruvananthapuram constituency.

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor during an interview with ‘The Hindu’ in Thiruvananthapuram | Video Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

The Hindu hopped on Mr. Tharoor’s campaign vehicle at Olathanni near Neyyattinkara in the constituency for a chat on his hopes, promises and assessment of the Lok Sabha elections in his constituency, in Kerala and across India. He says the BJP-led alliance (NDA) is “in panic mode and will struggle to touch even 272, leave alone 300 or 400.”

Edited excerpts from the interview.

With hardly a week to go for the polling in Kerala, how high are your hopes of making it to the Lok Sabha for a fourth term?

Extremely high because wherever I’ve gone in the course of the last 45 days or so of campaigning since my name was announced as a candidate, I’ve seen nothing but affection, warmth, hand-waving, smiles, and of course, when I’ve got into conversations with people, the assurances they give me. I’m very confident that the faith they have placed in me three times will again be placed in me a fourth time.

Have you been able to convince the coastal folk that the misunderstanding about your point of view on Vizhinjam port was misplaced?

The stand I took openly that the port cannot be closed after its construction is actually the stand of every other party. The only difference is I spoke the truth openly. On all their other demands, I had stood very strongly with them. And it was I who worked out with (former Kerala Chief Minister) Oommen Chandy in the last year of his government for a very strong compensation.

So, their concerns have been addressed?

Absolutely. And in fact, the coastal belt is one where I’ve frequently been present. For example, during Cyclone Ockhi, they know that I was at the Poonthura parish hall as the cyclone erupted. I stayed with them through the rescue process and argued for better compensation in Parliament and outside.

Does it bother you that you have been censured by the Election Commission of India for allegedly making defamatory remarks against your rival candidate (Rajeev Chandrasekhar)?

Not at all, because as I said at that time, as I’m saying today, I was really confirming in response to a journalist’s question that I had heard what he had heard about something. And frankly, saying that I had heard it was not considerable enough for me. I didn’t want to get into a protracted argument.

But there is even a videotape of a former BJP State executive member from the coastal belt called Francis Albert openly saying this. But as I said, I’m not interested in prolonging this argument because it just saves us a distraction from the more important, genuinely basic discussion, which is two-fold: who has worked for the constituency and how effectively.

And secondly, what’s the stance I have taken on national issues that matter to the people of Kerala. On both those areas, I have a strong track record to point to. And I am happy to focus on that side of the issue rather than argue with the Election Commission. The election is just a few days away and we are focussed on winning it.

You have been in the past accused of toeing a soft Hindutva line, especially after your book Why I’m a Hindu came out.

Obviously, it wasn’t read by those people because the book did have an elaborate explanation of why Hinduism is not Hindutva and vice versa, and why Hindutva in many ways is a betrayal of the essence of Hinduism. My critique of Hindutva from within Hinduism is probably more potent than giving them the opportunity to dismiss our earlier critiques as those of godless secularists. I am a very, very devout Hindu, somebody who profoundly has studied the Hindu faith and therefore, from my understanding of everything from the sacred texts, the lessons in Upanishads, of the teachings of Adi Shankara and most recently of Swami Vivekananda, I have a very clear idea of what Hinduism enjoins upon us.

From the days of the concept of the Nirguna Brahman through the Saguna Brahman to the stage today where there are, in Vivekananda’s description, four kinds of yoga. I have understood all this, explained all the great things in the book. I’ve presented Hinduism as a faith of acceptance and Hindutva as a political doctrine of intolerance and of identity politics and, therefore, my Hinduism has nothing to do with Hindutva, either hard or soft. It’s just the opposite of it.

The BJP and the RSS have never accused me of that because they know perfectly well where I come from. My attitude to them is quite belligerent because it’s from within the Hindu faith that I am arguing against them. And this by the way is something I have done going back to the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, when I spoke at the Indian consulate about it.

And a whole bunch of local RSS guys came intending to heckle me and once they heard my speech, they quietly slunk away without a word because they couldn’t disagree with 99% of what I had said.

Therefore, the point is that my stand has been consistent throughout; it has reflected in my writing, but it only became necessary after the BJP came to power and started distorting what Hinduism was all about, to go public at such length. You will see the same argument distilled in three pages in my 27-year-old book, India: From Midnight to Millennium. But I needed to write the full length to lay this out in great detail in 2018.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been campaigning extensively in Kerala this time. Is it out of fear that they will be losing their existing seats or is it because they are aiming at 400 seats?

400 is complete hype. They are certainly not going to keep their present majority. That’s obvious to anyone with some sense of knowledge. But before we get to that, the Prime Minister came to Kerala as much last time. In fact, in 2019, he made two visits to my own constituency, but this time he hasn’t come to Thiruvananthapuram constituency. He has been to Thiruvananthapuram district but to the other constituency, Attingal. (Home Minister) Amit Shah came three times last time and (Finance Minister) Nirmala Sitharaman spent 10 days campaigning here in Thiruvananthapuram last time. There were others too. So, they brought out their full guns in support of their candidate. What happened? They lost. So, I don’t think they are investing that much credibility this time.

Having said that, on your larger question on the BJP, we are seeing signs of their panic everywhere; they realised that they maxed out their support bases in all States where they were strong in 2019. In six States, they’ve won every seat. Three States, they have won all but one seat. Two States, they have won all but two seats. In those 11 States, with the possible exception of Gujarat, there is only one way they can go and that’s down. Whereas, in every case, surveys indicate the Congress is going up.

Even if you take 50% of the 2019 seats, that’s nine seats more than we had won last time because the BJP is losing. In Telangana, we won two seats last time. So, we are winning 10-12 seats by all accounts. Haryana, we won zero last time. This time, we are winning 5-7 by all accounts. So, the result is, wherever you look, the BJP is only going down. But if you ask them (BJP), where they are going up? All they can point to is Uttar Pradesh, where they are only contesting 74 seats because six seats have been given to allies.

So, how much headroom do they have? Where are they going to get that 272 from, forget 300, forget 400? That’s why Priyanka Gandhi makes a speech saying 180 is going to be a challenge for them.

So, 400 is a pipedream…

That’s purely part of their propaganda. In fact, if you look at some of the recent State elections, they were not able to realise their slogan which was almost like Ab Ki Baar Something Paar [this time, beyond some number], and in every case, they have fallen well below the number quoted. So, I don’t think there is going to be any expectation of 400. I think the miracle for them is going to be if they come to even 270.

Do you think that there is anti-incumbency against the Kerala government? And if so, will it get reflected in the Lok Sabha polls?

I believe it will. The Kerala government is deeply unpopular and for good reason. And in these circumstances, people are seeing an early opportunity to express their displeasure because State elections are still two years away. Even where they have put far stronger candidates than they did last time, I suspect they are going to lose very badly. And I think there is no survey showing them getting more than two or three seats. And even in those seats, I am very confident we are going to overtake them in the next days (during electioneering).

Is electoral bond a poll issue here in Thiruvananthapuram? Because the scheme has been struck down by the Supreme Court and the Congress also had taken donations.

There are national issues as well as local issues. You and I earlier spoke about the local issues. On the national issues, unemployment, price rise, electoral bonds and the BJP’s broken promises have all featured. In fact, the BJP’s record in Kerala is particularly embarrassing because they made three Kerala-specific promises only in these 10 years. All three were broken. They promised Kerala an All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS), no AIMS came. They promised us in a speech here in Thiruvananthapuram a national university of Ayurveda. They gave it to Gujarat. They promised us in their Budget speech of 2015-16 to upgrade the National Institute of Speech and Hearing in Thiruvananthapuram to a national university for disability studies.

After two years of not implementing it, when I kept reminding them and chasing them, they ended up establishing it in an office saying that where to locate the university was their privilege and that their promise was not specific, but their promise was specific. They said they would upgrade this particular national institute to a national university. So, frankly Thiruvananthapuram has no reason to believe any of the promises made by the BJP.

So, when their candidate comes and talks fatuously about Modi ki guarantee, the only guarantee we have got from Modi is that his promises will all be broken.

As a Congress Working Committee (CWC) member, do you think that the INDIA bloc will do well nationally?

I have been anchored here since March but I get to hear from my colleagues who have travelled across the country that we are definitely doing very very well. I don’t know if you saw the images recently of Priyanka’s rally in Saharanpur but we have been seeing the images of Rahul Gandhi’s rally. We are looking at an enormous turnout exceeding all expectations, and in places across the Hindi belt which the BJP had been taking for granted, they are seeing themselves in trouble. Remember, we don’t even need to win a majority of the seats in every one of these Hindi-speaking States.

We just need to win better than we did last time and win a few seats more. As I gave the example of Haryana, we are seeing definite anti-incumbency against the BJP in many of these States and I am very very hopeful that we are going to give them a real shock. I am not going to give numbers because as with cricket scores, I am very leery of predicting an exact number.

All I can say is that we are looking at a situation where the BJP is seriously in trouble and if they drop significantly below the majority threshold, they won’t find allies. This is why they are desperately making almost embarrassing appeals to the BJD (Biju Janata Dal), which had kicked them out in 2009, and to the (Shiromani) Akali Dal, which abandoned them during the farmer’s strike, to come back. They [BJP] made public offers and in the end, they were spurned by both these smaller parties which shows how desperate they are.

The arrest of (AAP leader) Arvind Kejriwal is another sign of desperation. They don’t want him to campaign in Delhi and Punjab. In Delhi, they won every seat. This time, they may lose every seat. If you look at the freezing of the Congress’s bank accounts, if they really think that freezing a few hundred crores of rupees is going to win them the election, they’ve got nothing coming. The obvious truth is that the BJP is desperate, they are trying everything, and they even raided Rahul Gandhi’s helicopter, whereas the plane used by any of their Ministers, there are full of anecdotal references to what comes out of those planes but there has never been a raid. So, all I can say is there is a one-sidedness that reflects also the desperation and panic of the BJP.

Rahul Gandhi is contesting again from Wayanad in Kerala. Is it going to help the Congress nationally?

I think it should help the Congress in Kerala and neighbouring States because I’ve heard people say that if INDIA alliance wins, Kerala will have a Prime Minister. In the north, I leave it to the experts to judge whether it will help. I don’t think it will hurt because he is a sitting MP from where everyone expects a sitting MP to contest but my expectation is that he will also contest a seat in the north. It’s the party’s call.

The Congress has been accused of being in the mute mode when it comes to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Has it been the case?

When the Bill was introduced in Parliament, I leapt up to oppose it, arguing it was unconstitutional. They didn’t have the legislative confidence to discuss it. That can be found on YouTube. When the Bill was debated, I spoke against it. When Amit Shah spoke in defence of the Bill, I was the one who challenged it. All of this happened in Parliament, on record, and available on YouTube.

On top of that, I was the first MP of any party in the country to go to Shaheen Bagh and join the cause. I also spoke in various district rallies in Kerala, convened by the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) to actually protest against the CAA. All this in December and January when the Bill came in. So, the Congress’s stand is clear and unambiguous. Religion has no place in the citizenship law. That’s our stand. And that has not changed. E.T. Mohammad Basheer of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) was almost equally outspoken.

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