Hours after filing his nomination papers for the post of Congress president, senior leader Shashi Tharoor speaks to The Hindu on the reasons for contesting and the odds of his battle. He pitched it as a contest between the senior leadership that believes in status quo and the ordinary workers who want change.
Q / Why are you fighting this election?
A / I believe that the party deserves to move forward in a positive way; we have the answers to what India needs at this time, especially for those who have been suffering in the past eight years of the BJP rule. And I think to do that, one needs to have a vision that both galvanises the workers of the party and at the same time attracts voters. More importantly, more voters than we were able to attract in the last couple of elections.
Q / You have been advocating for internal elections for long, but many feel it is deeply divisive. Within a week of the notification of this election, we saw how the Congress government in Rajasthan was pushed into crisis, your comments?
A / That was a particularly unfortunate situation, but I am not sure it is necessarily typical. I certainly have the highest respect for any of the names that came up, Mr. Ashok Gehlot, Mr. Mallikarjun Kharge, Mr. Digvijaya Singh, they are all people I consider to be friends. I have dealt with them professionally over the years in the party. This is a friendly contest between colleagues and not a battle between rivals.
Q / The last time Congress had election was in 2001, when Jitendra Prasada got 94 votes against Sonia Gandhi, are you going to be Jitendra Prasada of 2022?
A / Who knows, we shall find out on October 19, when votes are counted. But my instinct definitely is to give as good an account of myself as I can to the voters and then leave it to them to exercise their choice.
Q / You have already raised questions about the electoral roll, about its non-availability and how the delegates were picked. So are you going into the election with the belief that it is a fixed match?
A / When you want to play the game of cricket, you cannot chose the pitch you are given. You have to play on the pitch that is available. And the electorate is like the pitch. This is the ground on which, frankly, you have to bat. So I am going ahead, working on the assumption that this is what we have to deal with and we will deal with it.
Q / Though the Gandhis have assured you that they will be neutral...
A / Absolutely! All three Gandhis have specifically told me that as far they are concerned they don’t have an official candidate in the fray. And they have also stressed that they welcome an election as something that will strengthen the party.
Q / No matter what they say, it is a known fact that Mr. Kharge is the establishment candidate and you are not.
A / I don’t see myself as an insurgent, I see myself as a reformist. I see myself as somebody who has always tried to bring everyone along. We really are all in this together. This is not two rival camps, where winner takes it all. It is not a zero-sum game. Ultimately, at the end of all this, whoever votes for me will have to work with Mr. Kharge’s side if he wins and the same will reverse if my side wins.
Q / But are you fighting this election just to make a political point, because, even before the race has begun, many see you as the losing candidate?
A / I recognise that I am seen as the underdog in this race. Frankly, that is fine, because in many ways, there may be a certain amount of complacency on the other side of the equation. But also, if you have the courage of your convictions then you have to stick by them. That is something I have believed ever since I learnt about leaders like Mahatama Gandhi and many other national heroes from our history books. They took the risk to stick their neck out because they believed in doing the right thing. And for me this is the right thing to do. When I stepped into this election, I didn’t do so with naive illusions. Now that we know who the principle opponent is (Mallikarjun Kharge), we recognise that enormous amount of seniority and experience that he has and I value it. When he turned 80 a couple of months ago, I wrote a very generous tribute to him. I am not disparaging my opponent, but I do believe that in many ways he represents the status quo. We saw how the establishment has rallied around him. I am proud to say that I have ordinary party workers for most part and just a handful of senior leaders who filled my nomination form. My signature represent wishes of the ordinary workers and to that degree I think they represent a genuine constituency for change.
Q / Your manifesto says “Congress must have full-time president who is accessible to all and holds regular interactions for karyakartas...” Are you saying the present president was not accessible and did not hear karyakartas?
A / This is not about blaming anyone. This is about projecting ideas for the future. Everyone has their own style of working. Many things that I have suggested would represent a departure from current way of doing things. There was a great tradition within the party. I have seen this happening under Indira Gandhi and I have read about it happening under Jawaharlal Nehru. So it is not unprecedented, it is something that we have done in the past and which perhaps the dictates of security and so on prevented.
Q / One charge against you is that you are a drawing room politician who cannot distinguish between a district Congress president to a block committee chief. And that you been in the party for only 13 years. How are you qualified to lead the party?
A / So that’s again the choice that the workers will need to make. I don’t need to point out that Rahul Gandhi had been in politics as an MP for 13 years when he became the president. So it is not unprecedented. If people feel that this disqualifies me, they are free to vote otherwise. My gut instinct is that I have some ideas to put forth which are worth making. As far as the charge of not being able to distinguish between district president and a block chief, let me remind you I am a Lok Sabha politician and not a Rajya Sabha parachuter. Somebody who had to go out and interact with all these officials, not only to win vote, but to get my own work done in the constituency. All of these require the very quality that my critics claim I don’t have. I have managed to win three elections, so there is something wrong with their criticism.
Q / How will you campaign?
A / We have only 16 days left and on the 17th day is the voting, it is impossible to go to all 28 States and eight Union Territories. But I think the intention would be to go to a dozen States to meet whatever delegates who are available. We have obtained today the delegate list but most to them don’t seem to have phone number or e-mail addresses, so we have to figure out a way to get our message out to them.