I recently got a chance to sit down with Dr Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha, from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, since 2009. Dr Tharoor also currently serves as Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. In this interview, we discuss a number of matters, ranging from Dr Tharoor’s new book “Why I Am A Hindu” to his views on majoritarian governments as well as Rahul Gandhi’s leadership style.
Yash Johri (YJ): You have recently written book titled, ‘Why I Am A Hindu’, why did you feel the need to explain why you are a Hindu? Do you believe that a divisive political idea of Hindutva, such as that of the BJP’s, can affect people’s individual faith, or is political Hinduism confined to the domain of politics?
Shashi Tharoor (ST): First of all, the concerns expressed by me in this book are not at all new. If you look at “The Great Indian Novel” by me almost 30 years ago, it talks about Dharma; if you look at “Riot”, it looks at Hindu-Muslim riots that took place in parts of Northern India during the lead up to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement; and if you look at my book “India From Midnight To The Millennium”, 20 years ago, it talked about my own feelings, as a Hindu, about my own faith and what was being done to it just five years after the Babri Masjid was destroyed. So in that sense, I’ve been consistent that these are issues that have mattered to me as the record shows.
But now, I agree with you it has become more morally urgent because with the BJP in power and our ruling establishment trying to put Hindutva in your face as if it is sort of the political expression of Hinduism, I thought it was time for someone like me who doesn’t accept their version of Hinduism to fight back. The best way I can fight back is through my words and ideas, which is why I’ve come out with this book. It is a personal book, I have a chapter, rather presumptuously titled “My Hinduism”, because I accept there is no one way of being Hindu. But I also try to delve into the texts for such authority, as I believe I can claim from that, and then, I also go in the book to an understanding of Hindutva. Hindutva, I believe, doesn’t really have anything to do with religion, it’s more a political ideology – and it needs to be seen, understood and challenged at that level.
YJ: In your book, in numerous interviews, as well as your speech at the 84th AICC (All India Congress Committee) Plenary Session you spoke of Hinduism making Indians a more plural people as opposed to secular. Panth Nirpekshita over Dharma Nirpekshita. However, for all who have grown up in and been raised by elders who’ve grown up in environs influenced by the Nehruvian form of secularism, is this not a new idea?
ST: No, in theory, it would seem like a new idea, but in practice, what were we doing? Secularism would actually mean distancing oneself from religion. French secularism says that you cannot have any overt religious symbolism when you come to a government school, you can’t wear a cross if you’re a Christian, a turban if you’re Sikh, a skullcap if you’re Muslim or Jewish, etc. Whereas in India, the manner in which we practised our secularism is that everyone is free to be and can show whatever they wish. So in our schools and college campuses, you have women wearing the Hijab, girls in mini-skirts, guys in jeans or kurta-pyjamas – all of this has been acceptable. So what we were actually celebrating in the name of secularism is pluralism.
I would like to think that I’ve sufficiently imbibed the values and lessons of Nehruvian belief, because if for nothing else, when I wrote my biography of Nehru in 2003, I pretty much read everything that he’d written – be it his books, letters, correspondence, diaries or speeches. So I have a pretty clear idea of what Nehru believed. Nehru personally was agnostic and would have wanted a secularism that was distant from religion. In practice, what he saw being celebrated around him and never opposed was actually this kind of pluralism. I’ve said before that it’s from Nehru’s time that we’ve performed the ritual of smashing a coconut to launch a ship as opposed to the British smashing a bottle of champagne for the same purpose. There has been an overtly Hindu cultural idea of the coconut being a sanctified way of commemorating an auspicious moment, and that started under Nehruji. So I believe we can’t speak of secularism in the ‘western dictionary sense’ in the Indian context.
YJ: With the BJP majority in the Parliament and their dominating presence across states, an ominous narrative pervades followers of politics in the country about the BJP putting into action their work to build a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, something close to a ‘nation’ as espoused by M.S. Golwalkar in “A Bunch of Thoughts”. What evidence do you have for this, from the BJP-RSS combine’s actions in the past three-four years?
ST: Well in all fairness, the BJP hasn’t yet had an opportunity to implement this. Because they need three things – those three being a majority in the Upper House, a majority in the Lower House and the support of two-third of the states. Now, they have the Lower House from 2014, they’ve recently reached the threshold with the states, but they still don’t have the Upper House. They are not dumb enough to try something that they know will provoke a massive argument and result in their defeat. They will wait until they know they have the numbers to pass their vision. I think, that one can only judge them after they have achieved the requisite numbers, and of course, my party and I, hope they will never achieve the numbers in all three places. But if it were to happen that they obtained a majority in the Rajya Sabha, then in my own view, they are not going to hold back as it is very fundamental to them.
For example, since Mr Modi came to power, Deen Dayal Upadhya’s thought is supposed to have been taught in all the ministries in the country. Many ministries are supposed to have been putting references to him in their letterheads, their official communications, and there are various schemes and yojanas named after Deen Dayal Upadhyay. Then you have to look at what the gentleman actually believed in. In my book, I have gone into about 20 pages of summary of what I’ve read of Deen Dayal Upadhyay. And there are many things in it I have no real problem with – for example, taking the concept of the purusharthas which all Hindus are supposed to live by and applying them to society, his clear compassion for the downtrodden and the poor. These are very interesting ideas, which perhaps people don’t know. But equally, I’ve also brought attention to his rather alarming views on the Constitution of India and minorities, and you can’t accept the one thing without the other. If you’re talking about his vision and his ideology, it’s important to note that via his views on the Constitution of India, he was very much an advocate of Hindu Rashtra among others.
YJ: Do you believe Indian democracy, as vigorously diverse as it is, is suited to majoritarian governments? Fali Nariman, the renowned jurist, often compares the present government’s tyrannical tendencies to those of the second Indira Gandhi government and has stated that India’s not suited to majoritarian governments. Do you agree with him?
ST: I certainly agree that India is not suited to majoritarian governments. In fact, the reason we have been a successful democracy, looking back over 70 years, is precisely that we gave every citizen the feeling that they had an equal stake. That essentially you could be anything in this country no matter your tongue or where you came from. We can proudly say we’ve had Rashtrapatis who’ve been Muslim, Sikh, Dalit as well as a woman – the same can be said about our armed forces as well as the judiciary. And the logic of all this is to say, if you feel you have a stake here then why do you have to have a problem with the system? You have an opportunity – do your best. If your political appeal and luck both come your way, the sky is the limit.
The moment you go majoritarian, suddenly there are 20% of our people saying that irrespective of whatever we do, however good we are, whatever legitimate concerns, aspirations or talents we may have, if we don’t belong to the majority community, we have no chance in this country. That’s the way the minorities have felt in Pakistan – presently it’s a 97% Muslim country; at its inception, it was a 70% Muslim country. That kind of majoritarian rule is not acceptable in India because we are too large and too diverse to drive out 20% of our population, which in any case, in our country where 20% of the population is upwards of 250 million people is no joke.
YJ: Political parties seldom repeat their best and worst performances. So by this logic, in 2019, we shall see gains for the Congress and losses for the BJP relative to their 2014 performances. However, the degree of this gain/loss will depend on the work that’s put in by either side. The Congress recently had an energetic, consultative plenary session with numerous leaders given the opportunity to speak from the dais. Do you believe the Congress would move forward better in this collective fashion with Mr Gandhi as a first among equals?
ST: Well, the fact is that Mr Gandhi is the president of the Indian National Congress, and in our system, the president has a very big say. He nominates the working committee, the general secretaries, he decides pretty much the role and authority of all these leaders who spoke at the plenary. So I think it’s not just a first among equals, he is the leader of the party.
Now, he is the kind of leader who wants to take people along with him, and he’s certainly not the man on the white stallion that Mr Modi tries to be, who claims to have all the answers. Instead, he is someone who says maybe I don’t have all the answers, maybe I don’t know all the questions as well, but I’ll come and listen to you, tell me what your issues are and then I’ll come with my team of experienced qualified people who will help work with you to solve the problem.
That’s Rahul Gandhi’s approach – so it’s not that he’s not the leader, he’s certainly more than a first among equals but he’ll bring with him a whole lot of people to help solve the problems of the country. And I think that style of leadership is going to be different from what’s being offered by the present government.