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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Shashi Tharoor: BJP using media as weapon of mass distraction, shifting eyeballs from Covid, China, economy

Writer, diplomat and MP, Tharoor was among the 23 leaders who recently sought changes within the Congress. Earlier this month, as head of the Standing Committee on IT, he summoned Facebook, which resulted in a clash with a BJP member on the panel.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Updated: September 21, 2020 6:56:05 pm
Shashi Tharoor: BJP using media as weapon of mass distraction, shifting eyeballs from Covid, China, economyShashi Tharoor. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

The Congress leader says abolition of Question Hour is a “serious irritation”, calls “politicisation” of workings of House panels “unfortunate”, says social media requires self-regulation but via “consultative process”, and asserts Cong is the only viable alternative to BJP. The session was moderated by Deputy Associate Editor Manoj C G.

MANOJ C G: Parliament is in session in the middle of a pandemic. What has the experience been like?

All the MPs are facing a tremendous number of challenges. First, we have the very artificial atmosphere created by the fact that we are meeting for a limited number of hours for a limited agenda, and with distances amongst us which we are simply not used to. That creates a certain artificiality of atmosphere. Secondly, the abolition of Question Hour, with which the day would normally begin, has been a serious irritation and setback because that was the only real occasion where you could illicit unscripted responses from ministers. Essentially, the written replies, which they give us even now, are largely written by bureaucrats and are usually drafted in a language that gives as minimal information as possible… In Question Hour, you could ask targeted follow-ups, especially if the initial answer is evasive, and very often it was a very good way of putting the government on the spot, highlighting the whole question of Parliamentary accountability, which is the hallmark of the system that we have… So that has been a setback.

A third constraint, which is a little more surprising, is the unwillingness of the government so far to discuss very serious issues. The obvious example being the China conflict. As you know, in the Lok Sabha, the Defence Minister came and made a statement. The Prime Minister has not opened his mouth. In fact, he has hardly been visible the entire week in the Lok Sabha. The Defence Minister took no questions. The Speaker did not permit MPs to even seek clarifications. In the Rajya Sabha, the rules explicitly provide for clarifications but beyond a handful of those, no further discussions are permitted there either… Back in 1962, while the China war was raging, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had asked for a Parliament session and got it, and the government was hauled over the coals while the war was actually going on. Extraordinary phenomenon with lot of credit to Indian democracy. But, sadly, in today’s situation we are finding that Indian democracy has actually become a step-child of the government’s unwillingness to confront matters. The unwillingness to take questions and the disinclination to discuss certain policy issues have been the major constraints.

Now, it has only been one week, and I really hope by the time we are done we would have had a serious discussion on the management or mismanagement of Covid-19, which has not happened in the Lok Sabha. I hope we will have a serious discussion on the economy, in particular on the aspect of unemployment, which to my mind are amongst the biggest issues that we are facing in the country. It is to my mind unconscionable that a democratic Parliament would not discuss that. I have not said that the government has said that they would not discuss it, all I have said is that we have not really had a serious conversation about any of this so far, and it is very much my hope that we will be able to before the 18-day session is over.

LIZ MATHEW: We have seen a lot of conflict in Parliamentary committees recently. How do you view these developments?

It is a disturbing evolution in our practice. From my own experience, it started with the BJP’s unprecedented and extraordinary decision to take the External Affairs Committee chairmanship for itself. Quite apart from my own disappointment at being defenestrated from that Committee after five years, there is a larger message that India has sought to send to the world, through which we were essentially saying that as far as India was concerned our political differences stopped when it came to national security and national interest. That, beyond the water’s edge, we were all one country, and we stood together, and that kind of message was very healthy when one met, for example, with officials of other countries…The fact that an Opposition MP chaired it (the Committee) reflected well on Indian democracy. I am sorry to say that the government has put more importance on controlling and limiting the discussion. And you know the obvious issues… When Doklam was going on, as chair I convened and conducted a number of very serious and constructive discussions on Doklam, and we submitted a report on India-China relations, including Doklam, at the end of that year. With the China crisis going on right now, the present chairman has told the External Affairs Committee that it cannot be discussed because it pertains to national security. Well you may as well wind up the External Affairs Committee if you can’t discuss national security, and the same would apply to the Defence Committee. So, I find this attitude rather perplexing.

When it comes to the Standing Committee for Information Technology, we are currently in a hiatus so I don’t know whether I will be chairman tomorrow. I have not been told officially what my fate is… but even the Speaker has concurred that I was fully within my rights in indicating that an agenda relevant to the Facebook issue had already been adopted by the IT committee at the beginning of the Parliamentary year — we were appointed in September and in that very month in 2019, we adopted the agenda unanimously… In that, we had adopted an item about the misuse of social media, cyber security… In fact, the agenda item had actually been carried on from the previous committee, chaired by the BJP’s Anurag Thakur, who had summoned a number of social media firms including Facebook and Twitter under that very agenda. So…since we had such an agenda, I thought the committee would undoubtedly want to hear from Facebook, and then to send an invitation was entirely appropriate. The objection from one particular member, rather obstreperously brandished on social media, that I had exceeded my authority, was completely out of line. (The Committee headed by Tharoor had called representatives of Facebook to hear their views “on the subject of safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms”).

I might add that if I had actually done something out of line, the invitation could not have gone, because while the invitations are issued in the name of the committee, it isn’t by the chairman, but by the secretariat which is answerable to the secretary-general of the Lok Sabha, who is answerable to the Speaker. So, if there had been any doubt that what I was doing was in any way appropriate or out of order, the Speaker could have stopped the invitation from going out. I am a bit disappointed that the media reported it as a tu tu main main, one side versus another… I was doing my job as I had done previously as chairman for six years of two different committees. I was doing it completely within the rules and correctly… I do not leak from committees, I do not speak off the record or beyond my mandate, which restricts me to only talk about what the issues were and who attended. Everything else has been leaked by the very people who are now creating issues for me in the Committee.

The politicisation of the committee’s workings is extremely unfortunate… You would all remember that when the question of televising Parliament came up under Somnath Chatterjee, an explicit decision was made not to televise committee meetings, not only to preserve confidentiality but also to prevent the kind of grandstanding for the cameras that politicians feel obliged to do… They wanted it to be a constructive, focussed exercise of committee deliberations, and that was the reason for keeping cameras out. If the ruling party were to respect that spirit through which the committee system was devised… then there would be no cause for complaint and controversy. A lot of these controversies could have been avoided.

SANTANU CHOWDHURY: What is the Congress’s position on the government’s response in Parliament that it does not have data on deaths of migrant workers caused due to the lockdown?

The Congress party has raised the migrants’ issue since the beginning, when it was massively apparent that one consequence of the lockdown decision would be the fact that the government did not leave people any time to make any sort of alternative arrangements… (It) was an act of great irresponsibility conducted out of the same fondness for shock and awe that gave us the disastrously ill-considered demonetisation decision, and the very botched and hasty roll-out of the GST for which the entire system was unprepared… This is a government that has boasted about digital India, this is a government whose intrusive entry into the lives of Indian citizens has been rightly commented upon by those who fear the onset of a surveillance State. More and more we are being obliged to download apps that give the government all sorts of access to our information, our location, our address and more. With the government having such data at its disposal, what is the problem in being able to account for them (the migrants). I find this puzzling and perhaps more an indication that the government is unwilling to confront reality.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: How did you decide on writing the letter seeking sweeping changes in the Congress? Secondly, after the letter became public, why was there a studied silence on your part?

(On the letter) This is not an issue I want to engage on very much now. I think it is widely known that the letter was written very much in the spirit of strengthening the Indian National Congress, not dividing it. The thrust of the intention of the leaders who signed it — MPs and non-MPs, very distinguished former CMs — had always been to work for the revival of the INC and not to weaken it. The elements we had in common with our critics in the Congress is that we all seek an effective Congress party to challenge what the BJP is doing to the country. Unfortunately, the way in which this entire exercise played out at the Working Committee and beyond, I felt it would not be constructive to have a discussion, because at that point the entire intent and thrust of the effort had been either misunderstood or distorted into a way that was not going to help the objective, namely to create an effective Congress to challenge the BJP. And so, I thought that right now exacerbating the issue through additional comments would serve no purpose, and therefore I decided that the right thing to do was to stay silent. The president of the party has taken it upon herself at the Working Committee to find ways to move forward… There is talk of the AICC session in the first quarter of next year… So, all of us who are concerned about the party just want to see some constructive movement and we will wait for that.

We know that the BJP has been thriving on using the media as a weapon of mass distraction. It’s having eyeballs shifting away from unemployment, from economic failure, from the China crisis, mismanagement of Covid-19, towards things like Sushant Singh Rajput and Kangana Ranaut’s office demolition… I didn’t feel as a committed Congress worker and MP that I should contribute to distracting the media further away from the BJP’s astonishing failings of this time by spending all my energy talking about my party. When the time comes, and I judge it appropriate, I will speak. But right now, to speak openly on this issue would be playing into the BJP’s distraction agenda and the BJP will not find me obliging them.

MANOJ C G: If Rahul Gandhi stands for the post of president at the next AICC session, will somebody challenge him?

I don’t want to comment on that… In any case, all our concerns are for the future of the party and whoever is able to make a contribution to be a part of that future has to be embraced. Let’s be honest, this party is the only viable alternative to the misgovernance the country is suffering now.

LIZ MATHEW: The Gandhi family is very well respected in Kerala. While you say that the intention of the letter was to strengthen the Congress party, there were statements made by Kerala Congress leaders criticising the letter. Even on issues such as the Thiruvananthapuram airport your position has been different from your party…

As far as the Gandhis are concerned, I consider I have very good relations with them and at no stage I have said a single word against any of them. The letter is about issues and not about individuals… I agree that the letter has been projected by some maliciously as being directed against individual members of the Gandhi family. I find that absolutely unsustained by the text that I read and signed. So, I don’t know where this comes from. We are concerned very much with the party’s future and certainly this is not a debate over individuals.

On the question of the Kerala Congress Pradesh Committee, some of the remarks that have been made, and it is not just this issue, there have been dozen episodes in the past where my willingness to speak my mind has not been welcomed by those adhering to quote unquote the party line. I have a very simple perception on this. I think within a democracy, an elected representative has first and foremost a duty towards the people who have voted for him, and that has been my strong conviction, and I would argue that it is because I have acted on that conviction consistently that I have been re-elected. Secondly, when I speak my mind, people respect me even when they disagree with me. I have got lots and lots of feedback, not just for the recent round of comments, but also for the earlier controversies that have risen where people have said we respect you for taking a stand, and for these reasons we disagree with you…

And, finally, on the specific issue of an individual leader, saying something negative about me, that leader has apologised and I consider the issue closed. Sometimes people get carried away when they see a camera in front of them and say things they don’t really mean. Others have said things about me or related to me, and then later told me they regretted it and withdrew. So, I don’t want to hold any grudges on that. Yes, in a democratic party some amount of difference of opinion is inevitable. A party position should ideally be formulated by taking the view of all stakeholders into account. I happen to be the MP for Thiruvananthapuram and I deplore the fact that the party adopted a stand on Thiruvananthapuram airport without consulting the MP for Thiruvananthapuram. Had they been of a mind to speak to me, I would have given them the very cogent argument that I had already voiced on record during the election campaign last year in Kerala and on television interviews at that time in Trivandrum, as to why I supported this particular outcome and opposed the then stand taken by the state government. To my surprise today, the Communist government’s stand has been endorsed by the local Congress party. Now they may have their reasons, I have my reasons. I have been very careful not to say one word against the party. Even at the MPs meeting, I placed on record my objections very briefly and said that having seen that the sense of the other attendees is in one direction, I just want to say I subscribe to your conclusion, but I stick to my stand, and I respect your right to have your stand. Nonetheless, some people took it upon themselves on behalf of the state government, to attack me, whereupon the UDF convenor said you can’t do this, the MP has a right to speak for his constituency, and for you in the state government to pretend that you have a better right than him to speak for Trivandrum is unjustified. I think at that point everyone shut up.

I can give you reasons why the Trivandrum airport privatisation issue should now proceed on the way in which it has reached so far… In one sentence it is simply that lack of connectivity from Trivandrum airport has been the biggest obstacle that I have encountered in my decade- long efforts to attract more companies to my constituency to bring jobs and ancillary benefits to my people… This has been for me a major reason why I have been agitating for professionalising the airport in order to attract more airlines, more flights, more carriers and develop more prospects for the development of my constituency… That is an objective the voters of Trivandrum have really supported me on and they vote for it. Why would I abandon that position because my party, for whatever reason, has taken a stand that I find unreasonable and not in the interest of Trivandrum. After all, all the prominent leaders of the KPCC are not from Trivandrum, I am, and that gives me a right to speak for it.

VANDITA MISHRA: In the past, some of your statements have been construed as being in praise of Mr Modi. Your response has been that, one, if you don’t praise him when he needs to be praised, your criticism will also not be heard. The second point you made is that the Congress needs to understand why the people voted for Mr Modi. Why do you think people voted for PM Modi, not once now but twice?

There are a number of factors. One is perception. The perception about Mr Modi is that he is a selfless figure with no family to make money for and no agenda other than the nation’s betterment. That image has managed to appeal to a lot of people who are not even ideologically committed to the BJP to think of him as a good person.

Secondly, people have also voted for (Modi), on different occasions, because of circumstances of that time. Certainly, for example, we in the South underestimated the impact of Pulwama and Balakot on the sensibilities of the North Indian voters in 2019. Similarly, we failed to realise the impact of building toilets without running water… What’s interesting is that we assumed that voters would say that this is just for appearances and it has made no practical difference to our lives, but instead, people said at least he has done something for us. This kind of perception management was also brilliantly executed by the BJP on their social media, on televisions debates, on WhatsApp… The Indian voter chose to vote on the basis of their perception of Mr Modi, rather than in their own economic self-interest. That is a very paradoxical issue which no doubt psephologists will study for some time.

VANDITA MISHRA: But if the voters are willing to overlook that they have toilets but no running water, that they have cylinders but they can’t get a refill, surely it is not just about the Congress not being able to understand the Modi phenomenon, it is also the Congress not understanding its own record and the effect of that record on the people. So, is it that you have also erred in not just misunderstanding Modi but also in understanding yourself?

You are asking the wrong person, simply because I am drawing conclusions as an individual MP and as a Congress leader. The national strategy was decided by others and their national perceptions and how to execute those perceptions in different states would undoubtedly vary. I fully accept, for example, the things that I can say to my voters in Trivandrum or in my campaign elsewhere in Kerala. They play well and win us votes but it may not be the same messages that my colleagues in Rajasthan or Bihar say to voters there. I think we have to give credit to those who decide what messaging must be targeted to which voters where… At this stage, the Congress party has had six years to introspect. It has seen what has worked and what has not worked. It has also seen where we have gained. We have gained seats in Kerala, in Punjab, in Tamil Nadu. There are obvious lessons to be drawn from where we have done well and why we should extrapolate these to other states and other opportunities. But to my mind, when we talked about institutional revival, it was about creating more forums within the party for such conversations.

PRANAV MUKUL: In handing over the operation of the Thiruvananthapuram airport to the Adani group, are there concerns that a company without any experience of running an airport could be problematic, especially when the state government is offering to run it?

When you look at the background of this issue, when the Central government announced that they were planning and proposing to tender licensing of these airports, six airports by name, the state government could at that point have decided that they did not want Trivandrum airport included in that exercise and they could have found other means of making this airport work. Tamil Nadu famously took Chennai out of the reckoning, that no we want the Airports Authority of India to continue running it. Kerala chose to participate in the tender. Not the Kerala government per say but as an SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) set up by the Kerala government which the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation was supposed to front. The bizarre thing is that the KSIDC has never run an airport either… Whatever it may be, they negotiated with the Central government that if their bid was within 10 per cent of the winning bid, they will have the right to match the winning bid and take the airport for their SPV. The Central government, in a remarkable show of flexibility, said yes. But they came in with a bid which was something like 19% lower than the winning bid, which happened to be by Mr Adani. Now, the tender terms were publicly known, they did not require you to have prior airport experience… We already know that for the other airports Mr Adani has won he has signed an operating contract with some European airport operator who is going to come in as his partner and do it. We also know, because there is no secret about it, that the Kerala government’s formula was intended to be to hand over a decent chunk of the SPV to a favoured capitalist who they would deal with. So, it was not that the government was going to run the airport. So the ideological objection also seemed, to be putting it bluntly, opaque….

Finally, the tender process is concluded, a result comes out… You play a game according to rules that you had agreed to in the beginning and then you say because I lost the game, I don’t like the rules anymore. No responsible economy can run on this kind of basis. Many in the Congress party and those on the left-hand side of the spectrum don’t like the company that happened to win it. I am completely agnostic on that. I can tell you that I would have taken the same stand on Kerala government if instead of Mr Adani it had been Mr Yusuf Ali or Mr Ravi Pillai or for that matter a GMR or GVK or any of these other companies if they had the winning bid, but they didn’t. It happened to be Mr Adani. Why is Mr Adani willing to spend all this money and come into Trivandrum? Very simple, he was the sole bidder to develop and operate a port in Trivandrum, which is something frankly we in Trivandrum are grateful that he came in to do that. And he probably thinks that he will gain from having connectivity possibilities between running the airport and running the port. That’s his business. He hasn’t told me this, I am just surmising. But it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that he won.

So, the question that now comes up is are you now going to tell a winner, that he cannot take away the trophy that he won fair and square without actually making a mockery of the entire process. In fact, I blamed the Central government that they took so long, more than a year after they had actually announced the results of the tender, to execute it… Every foreign investor will tell you that a predictable environment, a predictable regulatory process, everyone playing by the rules, and finally of course when things go wrong a fair judicial or arbitration process… That’s what investors look for when they come in. And India cannot afford to have the kind of reputation it is getting for processes being overturned after they have been concluded, or for people being asked to move aside because somebody doesn’t like their face and likes someone else’s face better. One can’t proceed that way. I want to see a Kerala that attracts investment, I want to see a Trivandrum that attracts investment, and I want therefore the system to play by the rules that were announced, agreed upon and implemented.

DIPANKAR GHOSE: Given that there is a growing intersection between the digital space and politics, if you were in government today, how would you approach or regulate it?

…The process I would wish to embark upon if I were in Ravi Shankar Prasad’s job, would be to encourage these so called social media intermediaries like Facebook not to shelter purely behind the term intermediary… They are more like a publisher who has to stand by the content of what they have published… Now, how do we strike a balance? I think this is where we can require self-regulation but through a consultative process that takes into account the… stakeholders, who are not only the government. We must create mechanisms where ordinary Internet users, journalists, politicians, government officials and others, including perhaps retired judges, could collectively constitute the stakeholders who would be officially empowered, perhaps by legislation, to work as an independent, neutral, non-government dominated body to engage with these platforms. And, like many of the broadcasting standards authorities around the world, be in a position to issue advisories and even criticisms but without the power to actually enforce laws against them. Because once you give some institution the power to regulate and take enforcement action, you are opening up the space to government control of freedom of expression.

NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: You said that the Congress was the only party that could put up a pan-India opposition to counter the BJP and all that it stands for, yet there has always been a question mark about your loyalty to the Congress. Your book, Why I am a Hindu, was seen at least by one reviewer, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, in The Hindu, as not a work of scholarship or autobiography but the work of a politician who wants to keep a foot in both the Congress and the BJP. How do you view these perceptions of you being a soft-Hindutva person who is constantly trying to prepare for the eventuality that you may have to join the BJP? And what does it do to your own standing within the Congress?

Let me stress that I consider such criticisms to be completely ill-informed. And, in fact, they reflect the fact that people don’t read because I have a nearly four-decade-long paper trail. I have published 21 books, thousands of article, countless interviews, appearances and speeches. And no one will notice any dilution in my fundamental, almost visceral commitment to a certain notion of India, of political conviction, and personal faith, which precedes my joining the Congress. Yes, I was a critic of the Congress at one time. And nonetheless, I was a critic from the perspective of somebody who has remained a steadfast liberal, who has celebrated in both fiction and non-fiction the pluralism of India, who has throughout everything I have done and said, believed totally in a practice of non-discrimination and inclusiveness, who has treated people of other faith in a spirit of acceptance and respect. And therefore, to make something of a closet Hindutvavadi out of me is preposterous to put it very bluntly.

Anyone who has read Why I Am A Hindu, and I read Mr Ilaiah’s review with disbelief because he very clearly had not read it very carefully… The book was a very sustained argument against Hindutva. Not pretending to be a scholar at all. First page says, I am not a scholar. It says that I am talking of the Hinduism I know, experienced growing up in India, and believed and practiced. And that Hinduism –, of course buttressed by the words of far greater authorities like Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and other prominent Hindus who are quoted extensively explaining these principles of Hinduism — I said is an answer to the argument that the Hindutva movement has made that it’s time to stand up for Hindu values and beliefs. I said they are the ones who are betraying Hindu values and belief, because the Hindu values and beliefs, the vast majority of Indians know, are actually the values and beliefs I describe in my book.

On the question of soft Hindutva as political positioning, I am the one who has said that if you go for Hindutva lite, like Coke lite or Pepsi zero, you will end up with Congress zero. And my entire argument goes back to my study of American politics when Harry Truman famously told the Democrats, “If you offer voters the choice between the Republican Party and a pale imitation of the Republican party, they will go for the real thing every time.” It’s exactly the same logic I have consistently argued in India. I have been a sustained voice against soft Hindutva inside the Congress party… I have said that when Rahul Gandhi goes to a temple, he is actually advertising his respect for his own faith and his own belief. He is not making a statement against anyone else. And in Thiruvananthapuram, I go with equal respect to mosques and churches as I do to temples.

Anybody who has read with any serious amount of effort my writing, and I can even make it easier for them by pointing to a volume called The Paradoxical Prime Minister that came out three months before the elections began in 2019, which has essentially rehashed all of these debates and arguments… It actually lays out very clearly what I think about Mr Modi, why I praised the things that I praised about him, and why I criticise the things that I criticise about him across the board in excruciating detail. I think it would be rather preposterous of me to even think of going to a party that I have criticised in such lavish detail and taken apart so comprehensively in so many recorded writings that can’t be taken back.

AAKASH JOSHI: Has foreign policy becoming a part of domestic political rhetoric affected our ties with our neighbours?

What has sadly happened with this present government is that a pandering to domestic constituencies has unfortunately taken precedence over the sensitivities of our neighbours. We saw this with Nepal on the entire business of the Madheshis… The BJP’s policies have successfully alienated much of the Nepali political establishment. On Bangladesh, we have seen this business of the Home Minister talking about Bangladeshi migrants as termites and threatening to throw them all back… On Pakistan, the less said the better. Undoubtedly, there is blame to go on the Pakistani side. And then, we had the Prime Minister saying, again for domestic consumption, that China has essentially not transgressed, whereas all the evidence and the statements of the Defence Minister and the Army suggested otherwise. So the question of domestic politics above all is rather frustrating for those whose principal concern is India’s international relations, its international cooperation and diplomacy. Out of control rhetoric, targeting domestic audiences has made the job of our diplomats so much harder than it should be.

KRISHN KAUSHIK: How do you see the current standoff with China? Did we fail to read China’s intention over the years or in the recent past?

If I were to look at the specific actions of the last few months, my impression seems to be that they have advanced their position along the areas of the LAC that they covet. They seem to be eyeing constructions on our side. They want to be in a position to threaten when they want to… All of these things worry me very greatly, particularly in the context of the long-term strategy of China. You all know that Beijing keeps saying that the border should be left to future generations to settle… They will consolidate the LAC where they want and when they are ready for an eventual border settlement, may be 20 years from now, it has to take these new realities into account. Border incidents occur to keep the Indians off balance. Beijing is demonstrating to the world that India is not capable of challenging China, let alone offering security to other nations. What they have done is absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt an extremely clever and hostile strategy, which is designed to cut India down to size and put us in our place.

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