I have seen Priyanka Gandhi as an effective and charismatic peson and somebody who is at ease with political work, says Shashi Tharoor.
After the rout in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Congress Lok Sabha MP and former Union minister, Shashi Tharoor, who won elections for the third time from Thiruvananthapuram, speaks with Ashhar Khan about the current political situation and the way forward for his party…
Let’s start with the question to which everybody wants an answer: What are the reasons of the Congress’ failure in this election?
Well, obviously, there are multiple factors and it will be unwise to confine oneself to a glib answer of one or two things. One was the larger-than-life personality cult built around Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many voters didn’t have much of a sense of policies which the BJP was following. But they said it is Mr Modi who is the big, strong man who is going to keep the country safe and certainly, Pulwama played into their hands. It became this khaki election where they were essentially able to run this whole argument that the nation has to be protected from enemies outside and inside and that Mr Modi is the man to do it. Somehow the BJP marketed the national security issue very well and could convince people that this is the only issue facing them. A second thing undoubtedly, and I am sorry to say this, is communal polarisation. The BJP has not hesitated to make a pretty blatant display of their majoritarianism. A third factor, which I would say with a little hesitation, is that we misread the economics. We thought that given that unemployment is at a 45-year high, farmers are desperate and committing suicide, exports are down, and MSMEs have shut down in record numbers after demonetisation — so for all of these reasons we gave a strong message that we would handle the economy better than Mr Modi has done. It turned out that somehow none of this scored the kind of impact it should have had. The macro economy failed by the micro economy like Swacchh Bharat, building of toilets, the Ujjwala scheme — those things seem to have made an impact in many places. We have been pointing out that 65 per cent of those toilets don’t have running water and we were saying that most those gas beneficiaries can’t afford a refill.
Now what’s the way forward for the Congress?
My view is very clear. There are a number of things we need to do. One of them is to clearly restate what we stand for and push it hard. There was some confusion in people’s minds: Some people in the north saw us as BJP Lite, which was a big mistake. Rahul Gandhi, in going to temples, was actually trying to convey an inclusive Hinduism and not Hindutva. Hindutva has nothing to do with Hinduism. Instead it is a rabidly political doctrine. However, that distinction could not come across to everybody. I think his coming out and speaking spontaneously was excellent. I think we need to do more of this going forward. Second, I think we will have to swallow a bit of pride and make serious coalitions in Parliament and in the states.
In this Lok Sabha we have 52 seats, but if we can come to an understanding with four or five other parties, we can be a constructive and strong Opposition. Also, we have to do an in-depth analysis by seeking ground reports as to what went wrong. We also need to tackle this at the state level. Now the Jharkhand, Haryana and Maharashtra elections are coming up — these are states we lost badly in the parliamentary polls. People say that in states we won in December last year, people voted for Mr Modi in the Lok Sabha election, but in these upcoming states there is no Mr Modi who is going to be their chief minister. So now let people judge Manohar Lal Khattar, Devendra Fadnavis and Raghubar Das. Their judgment may well be very different if we campaign properly.
Talking about introspection, the Congress had constituted the A.K. Antony committee that was to share the reasons of the 2014 Lok Sabha rout. Have you seen the report?
I believe it exists, I have not seen the report but that doesn’t mean anything as I don’t have a position in the organisation. But I am sure people who have to act on these things have seen it.
How do you view Mr Gandhi’s decision to resign and then your party leaders imploring him not to go, some even holding protests against his resignation?
Right now the preference of the party is very clear — that he stays. The decision is up to him until he says yes. I hope he continues with redoubled vigour. Nobody can say that he did not try enough in this election. He was campaigning really hard and delivering the message.
What is the issue over having a non-Gandhi party chief? You will be saved from the constant battering by the BJP because the Congress can’t see beyond the Gandhis.
I think you are being very generous to the BJP if you say that it will save us the battering — they will find something else to batter us with. When Dr Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister, they claimed that he was a puppet of the dynasty when he is a man of great distinction and qualification. Dr Singh also had a remarkable life story: He came from poverty but by sheer hard work he rose up the ranks. Yet he was attacked by the BJP. So they will attack whoever leads. So we should continue with our strongest leaders.
How do you see Mr Gandhi’s defeat from the family bastion of Amethi?
Surprising. In fact, very surprising. One factor may have been that somebody with national responsibilities in a party could not devote as much attention to the constituency as somebody who was deliberately grooming and cultivating it. Actually, I don’t know why he lost. I was just surprised. Conversely, just look at the record win he has got from Wayanad.
What about Priyanka Gandhi Vadra? Was she brought in too late?
I have seen Ms Gandhi as an effective and charismatic person and somebody who is at ease with political work. To my mind there is nothing that can be said in the negative about her. About whether we could have used this weapon for a slightly longer time and in a more dramatic way, like in Varanasi…? But these decisions are well above my pay grade. Whoever decided must have taken all the pros and cons into account. This is only the beginning of the political career of Ms Gandhi. We will see more of her.
You were saying that the results were unexpected. Many in your party have raised questions over the EVM and want to go back to the ballot paper. Do you think there is an issue with the EVM?
Most people I speak to on our side of the fence have profound misgivings about the EVM. But we are not raising it nationally because there is no proof. So we can’t be acting irresponsibly.
Then why these misgivings?
The misgivings are there because the mismatch between the ground reports of experienced political workers and the actual results have been colossal across many places. I mean where, according to our report, our candidate was winning by a lakh votes and the result would be that we lost by three lakhs. Now how can we be so wrong? These kinds of extraordinary discrepancies between the feel on the ground and the results are relatively unusual. I am of the view that we can’t be raising a song and dance about this without proof because then we look like bad losers.
You think there is no need to go back to ballot paper?
The pressure within the Opposition camp to switch back to ballot paper is growing. I personally regret it as it may take ages to count so many votes as the electorate is growing. I think there is going to be a demand for using the ballot paper in one of the upcoming Assembly elections. But it is also true that the Election Commission (EC) has taken a view that it is a retrograde step if we go back.
Do you think that the Sabarimala issue had an impact on these elections?
It did have an impact but not in the way the BJP expected and we feared. We did fear that the BJP would exploit this shamelessly in order to polarise Hindu votes. But what happened was very interesting — with the BJP exploiting the issue, it led Hindu believers to ask that you say you stood by us but you were in power and what did you do? There was a Supreme Court verdict when the BJP was in power. Did it give a review petition? No. You have a majority in Parliament. Did you bring a law? No. The message that resonated with voters was that while they were in power they could not do anything. On what basis is the BJP asking for votes? But yes, it did affect the votes of the Leftist Party.