Set to file his nomination for the Congress presidential election hours from now, Shashi Tharoor talks about his reasons for contesting, his plans for the party, the role of the Gandhi family, the importance of the poll for the future of the Congress, and says he realises both his strengths and his weaknesses. Excerpts:
Ashok Gehlot has bowed out of the Congress president’s race.
I have always, always said that if you are going to be a candidate in a thing like this, you really have to be prepared to face whoever comes in the contest. So, to me, the identity of other candidates is not the issue. It’s a question of whether… I myself have something to put forward before the party voters, but as far as Gehlot and now Digvijaya Singh are concerned, these are both people who are friends, people who I have admired a great deal, people who I have had very, very good relations with.
So as I said on Twitter when Digvijaya Singh came to see me, my position very clearly is that as far as the party is concerned, we don’t see this as a battle between rivals. We see this as a friendly contest between colleagues, and in that spirit the party should be the ultimate winner. Whether one or the other prevails and becomes the (party) president is not the issue. The issue is that the party should gain from this exercise, and that I think is already in the eyes of the public… that we are doing something that no other party in the country has ever done.
What prompted you to throw your hat in the ring despite knowing that it is going to be an uphill election?
I don’t think one should recoil from uphill challenges. Life is full of uphill challenges. To my mind, though the party presidential election is an internal exercise, it also represents an opportunity to ignite widespread public interest in the Congress as well as to galvanise our party workers. The longer the Congress waits to get its act together, the greater the risk of a steady erosion of our traditional vote bank. That’s why I believe it’s important for us to have a leader elected by party workers who will address the internal issues, the rebuilding required, and the extra legitimacy that comes from the election to seek public support.
In any case, business as usual is not going to lead us anywhere. That’s very clear. So for all of these reasons I feel the need is for somebody who can articulate a positive and aspirational vision for the nation as well as have some ideas to fix the organisation and structural deficiencies that have impeded our recent efforts. And that’s where I hope I will have something to offer.
Let me add that I share the view of the Congress president, and of Rahul Gandhi, that a democratic contest will only strengthen the party. Personally, I have always felt that if one believes strongly enough in something, one must be prepared to stick one’s neck out for it. It’s an approach that’s guided me both in my personal life and my political life. So I am not going to run away from that.
You have the courage of your convictions to do the right thing, then you do it regardless of the likely outcome. And I don’t mean to sound terribly philosophical but Gita teaches us that, and that is certainly a philosophy I have lived by.
What are the big ideas you are going to put on the table as part of your campaign?
I can’t get into the details now because I am issuing a manifesto only after I have officially become a candidate. But I will be issuing some ideas in writing and sending messages to the 9,100-odd voters. I will specifically offer ideas to reform and re-energise our party, mainly focusing on decentralising authority within it, increasing the consultative mechanisms within the party and giving our workers more access to the leadership at all levels.
So you are contesting not just to make a statement, as some of your critics say?
I have never contested an election without seeking to win. And a hattrick of victories in Thiruvananthapuram, which was a seat won by the Left in two consecutive elections prior to my arrival and where the BJP has risen (to pose a challenge), will tell you that my results have so far vindicated my approach.
I think the question of making a statement, etc, was an argument that some were making in the context of the assumption that there would be an official candidate of the high command. It has been made amply clear that there is no such thing, and even Digvijaya Singh, when he came to see me yesterday, said he was told exactly the same thing that I was — that he will not enjoy any special support for the Congress presidency and the Gandhi family will stay completely neutral on this.
I have to say this is absolutely the right approach — if we want this election to have credibility and add legitimacy for the victors’ authority in the party, then I think the stand taken by Mrs Gandhi and the family is absolutely the right stand. Since that context, it is no longer a question any more of anyone being able to say that he is just making a statement and he has no chance… Here anyone who enters has a chance because there is no hand on the scale of the part of the high command.
You have had meetings with Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka. Is this what they conveyed to you?
Yes, unambiguously. ‘We will not take sides; you’re welcome to contest’. And that is very, very clearly the issue. In fact, they all said it at some length and some detail, and I must say in a very friendly manner. There was no sense of them resenting the situation or even discouraging there to be an election.
I half-expected that the Congress president could have said to me, ‘Why do you want to contest… let’s have a consensus. We always work that way.’ Not a hint of that. She said exactly the opposite from the start.
Were you apprehensive, at least initially, that you will be projected as a leader challenging the system or as a dissident?
I have a 14-year track record in the party now. People know that I have been outspoken and spoken my mind, but my loyalties to the party have been unquestioned. I have been staunchly with the party on every single issue that has mattered. I have taken on the BJP in my writings and speeches, written books as well. I have been consistent in the vision… that is, my ideology is fundamentally the same as that which animates the Congress party.
So within those parameters, I think as long as within that whole vision of what the Congress stands for, we are free to express our own personal point of view, and I think that’s a healthy thing for a party in a democracy… A democratic party should encourage this kind of thing. I think it’s far more relevant to have people speak like this than people to be staunchly defending the party and the next week to suddenly find themselves in the BJP, as has happened unfortunately with very many of our colleagues.
How do you see the role of the Gandhis after the election?
It’s a question that’s premature for me or anyone else to answer. All I can say is I hope very much that the Gandhis will continue to be very significant leading lights of the Congress… Whoever wins, their place in the party’s DNA and in the affections of party workers is unquestionable.
I asked this question because in an article you had said that no party should put itself in a position believing that only one family can lead it.
That’s about the leadership of the party organisation. They themselves have said, and in fact in the article you are quoting, I began by saying that now that they have said they don’t want to do it, the party can’t just say we are helpless without one of them… If they don’t want to do it, then we have to find someone else.
Following the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Rahul Gandhi offered his resignation as party president to take accountability for our defeat. I was one of many who tried to talk him out of it. I remember saying who will take accountability for our revival, but he stuck to his decision and we must respect that. Therefore, because we are respecting their own wish to stay out of it, we are looking beyond the family.
What do you consider as your strength?
That is for others to judge. I believe I would certainly be able to appeal to voters beyond the traditional constituency of the Congress. I have long felt that the 19 per cent ceiling on which we have been stuck for two successive elections has to be breached. We cannot remain at that level and expect to be able to (be)… the natural party of governance. For that, we need to appeal to bring back people who didn’t vote for us in the last two elections but might have voted for us previously and who might be willing to vote for us again.
I don’t think that everyone who voted for the BJP in 2014 or 2019 is necessarily a diehard Hindutvawadi, or is permanently lost to us. I think a lot of people voted for other reasons than the ideological question. It may have been national security after Pulwama and Balakot. It may have been the economy in 2014; with the whole message of ‘Mr Modi being the effective CEO of Gujarat Inc’.
All of that kind of messaging may have taken away voters who otherwise were Congress voters, or at least had voted for the Congress. So we need to bring them back, and I believe that’s something which is a significant part of my appeal, at least among the large number of Congressmen and women who called me, urging me to contest.
The second thing is that as far as my organisational skills are concerned, I have not worked within the party organisation a great deal other than that I was the founder-chairman of the All India Professionals’ Congress, which I had to create from scratch and which in just five years has been established credibly in across 20 states with over 1,000 fellows. So I have known how you can create an alternative model within the Congress.
But I also have ideas for organisational reforms and one of those would mean to take away some of the over-centralisation of authority and to empower state-level leaders, in which case say you don’t have to be the one making all the decisions. The era of the one-line resolution authorising the party president to do everything may be over, if I have my way.
As far as the present model of governance is concerned, people who spend a lot of time in that model of administration of the party… in recent years we’ve seen that it has not been able to give us the results that you all want. Therefore it might be an advantage not to be completely anchored or entrenched in the current way of doing things and (be) much more ready and open to doing things differently.
You mentioned organisational experience. What is your weakness? Is lack of organisational experience coming in the way of your Congress presidential bid?
I know exactly what is going to be said against me. One is that I have not spent much time in the organisation — yeh sangathan ka aadmi nahin hai (he is not a man of the party organisation). I have already anticipated and answered (that).
The other thing that would be said is that I am not from the Hindi belt, and how can the party in this era accept a leader who is from somewhere else? The truth of the matter is that I give sound bytes every day when I come out of the Lok Sabha. So people should know that I can manage the language. I certainly don’t claim to be as effective in expressing my ideas in Hindi as I might be in English, or even Malayalam, but the truth is that it’s certainly adequate to be able to understand people’s problems and find solutions, and to be able to address people and talk to them.
I will be giving interviews and statements to whoever wants it in Hindi as well. So it’s not that I am completely disqualified as it were. I am not one of those people who have refused to speak Hindi in public… as some of the senior politicians from the South and elsewhere. I have been willing to deal with that and I think we are not looking for a Hindi vidwan (intellectual), but somebody who has enough (knowledge) of the language to be able to cope professionally with its demands. That I can do.
Is your association with the G-23 a baggage?
I am sure it is in some people’s minds, but I have repeatedly said that the G-23 is not an organisation. The term is a creation of the media and a distraction from the larger cause of reviving and strengthening the Congress, which was the priority shared by many Congress workers across the country. The G-23 happens to be a particular group of 23 people, who happened to be in Delhi during the Covid lockdown to sign a letter. It could have been a much larger number if we didn’t have a lockdown and people were able to travel more freely.
The organisers who were putting the letter together said that they had received over a hundred phone calls from people who supported the objectives of what they were proposing. So it is not that 23 is a magic number. I am not contesting on the G-23’s behalf, nor am I seeking an endorsement from them. My candidacy aims to revive the party, not to disrupt it.
I am approaching these elections from the perspective of someone who has been advocating for a certain set of reforms (from) as far back as 2014. I have been outspoken on this matter simply because I care… I am going to sink my life and my ideals in a party I want to thrive. So I am very willing to express my views and my ideas and I have been doing so much before there was any G-23. I am seeking the support of all Congress workers in this endeavour. We are collecting signatures from all over the country and I can tell you that so far I don’t think we have anyone — maybe at most one person — who was amongst the signatories of the G-23.
We must have at least 50-55 signatures already on different nomination forms. So the truth is that we are, I hope, doing something that reflects the wishes of all Congress workers and goes well beyond the G-23.
How many from G-23 have signed your nomination? How many sets of nominations are you going to file?
We currently have five forms completely full and we are hopeful that we might be able to even get a sixth one done by tomorrow (Friday) morning. But certainly 50 seemed a good number. So either 50 signatures or 60. But the idea was never to impress with the weight of numbers alone; it was to show the breadth of support.
We have got signatures from Kashmir, Nagaland, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. The idea is to show that this is a candidacy by popular demand of people from all over the country, and to reveal that is the spirit in which we are approaching it. That’s the purpose of the nomination forms.
So the G-23 has finally disintegrated?
I can’t be a spokesperson for a body that doesn’t exist.
How many have signed from Kerala?
We will have at least one form (from) Kerala and possibly some signatures spilling over into other forms also.
You had written to Madhusudan Mistry, who heads the Congress’s central election authority. As you file the nomination, are you confident that it is a fair process and the electoral college is fair and balanced?
I personally, frankly, have never doubted Mr Mistry’s good faith. I have known him since my first day as an MP, because he was the general secretary for Kerala, and we have worked together professionally. I think he is an honorable man and I don’t expect anything other than honourable treatment… There should be a level-playing field in the selection, as it should be.
Undoubtedly there will be various sorts of things being said by people implying otherwise, but as far as I am concerned, I have absolutely no doubt about Mr Mistry’s integrity or the integrity of the process.
Questions raised by some colleagues about the constitution of the elected college… that is a different issue. But I believe if you are going to play a game of cricket you have to bat on the pitch you are given, and the pitch that has been given means the electoral college that has been constituted.
Ultimately we are all one party, so rather than complaining about who gets to vote, the hope is one will be able to get the votes of those who are eligible to vote, and not worry about how they are allowed to vote.