Congress In Shock After Election Debacle, Says Tharoor
The people of India put economic self-interests aside in voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party again despite many missteps of the Narendra Modi government in the first term, according to senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor.
“The expectations were that the BJP would peak at the 180 range, below 200 and that we would score in 120-150 range,” said, Tharoor, who retained his Thiruvananthapuram seat and among the 52 Congress leaders who managed win in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. “We are still in a bit of a state of shock about what happened.”
According to Tharoor, Modi’s portrayal of his “larger than life image” and the BJP’s national security narrative after the Balakot air strike, coupled with freebies and schemes, that are more on paper than in reality, helped the BJP sway voters.
All of these seem to have given an impression to the public that this is a government that deserves their support.Shashi Tharoor, Senior Congress leader
Watch the entire discussion here:
Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:
You have won by a handsome 1 lakh vote margin but the Congress has not done well in most parts of the country. What is your assessment of this massive victory by the BJP? What do you think went awfully wrong, especially in the Hindi heartland?
I can assure you that no political pundit predicted this until the exit polls came out. We were looking at a whole range of predictions and making our own calculations on the basis of ground reports. The expectation was very much that the BJP would peak at somewhere around the 180 range and certainly under 200 and we would ourselves score in about the 120-150 range. This is broadly consensual. It wasn’t just party over-confidence or anything like that. Even the press during the elections, very few were talking about anything remotely like the kind of wave reflected in the final numbers. We are still in a state of shock about what happened. It is very interesting, for example, one of the classic theories of policy that people vote in their economic self interest went right out of the window. After all you are looking at 45-year high unemployment, farmers so desperate that they are contemplating suicide in record numbers, we have SMEs and micro enterprises being thrown out and dying because of demonetisation. It has been one economic disaster after the other and yet the victims of this seem to have still gone ahead and voted for the BJP.
A young man who five years ago voted for Mr Modi because he expected to get a job, there is no logical reason why he should vote for Modi again five years later when he still doesn’t have a job and yet he does seem to have done so. These are things that require a very detailed study, not a glib answer on a TV camera. We need to find out with detailed studies as to what motivated people, what they saw in the BJP, how we misread the tea leaves on our side and what the BJP did right and that’s why I can only venture speculative guesses. I can’t give a definitive answer but it looks like the Modi leadership image, the larger than life image of this strong man who can keep the country safe, the national security messaging after Balakot, the freebies and welfare schemes which in many ways exist on papers and slogans, then in reality the toilets which don’t have running water, the Ujjwala connections many of which no one can afford to refill, and yet all of these seems to have given an impression to the public that this was a government that deserved their support.
Nearly two-thirds of your MPs come from three states — Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. Is this strong local leadership that worked in these states?
There are interesting factors but one factor I will be blunt about, Hindutva has a limited appeal in these three places. The Hindutva mindset which seems to have seriously taken over a fair amount of mind space in many parts of northern India and certainly in the Hindi heartland, ran into Kerala where there is a 45 percent non-Hindu population, Punjab where there is 50 percent non-Hindu population and Tamil Nadu where there is a complicated tradition of atheism, rationalism which limited the appeal of the Hindu, Hindutva and Hindustan kind of approach that we have seen so effectively being promoted by the BJP. I am sure that is only part of the explanation but it is a factor. Another factor is that we are a strong and efficient party organisation in these places than the BJP. In Tamil Nadu, I concede we certainly benefited from the DMK. In Punjab and Kerala, we are well organised and we are in power in Punjab with a very effective and popular Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
When religious nationalism emerged as the dominant idea propagated by the BJP, why wasn’t the Congress able to offer a compelling alternative idea that resonated with the voters?
Frankly, I don’t understand it because we are the party of nationalism, it is the Congress that was the nationalist movement incarnate that actually won India its independence. When I wrote my book an era of darkness, I was talking about the logical rationale for the Indian National Congress as a nationalist party. That has lost its holds on the imaginations of the people in the face of the kind of very jingoistic, chest thumping, even militaristic sort of messaging that has come out of the ruling party. In a democracy, voters will get what they want and we have to respect their wishes. I would have wanted us to offer a more inclusive nationalism as an alternative to this Hindu nationalism. I would have wanted to speak about nationalism transcending religious considerations or linguistic, regional or caste considerations about our diversity as part of the strength of our nationhood, I did all this in my constituency in Kerala and that message was well received. Would it have been well received in the North? I don’t know, perhaps it wasn’t tried.
Mr Modi made this a presidential campaign and he created the Naamdar-Kaamdar narrative. In hindsight, did the Congress walk into this trap of the BJP setting the agenda and the Congress playing catch up?
The BJP was very good at setting the agenda generally on every issue, not just this one. Their organised flanks of social media warriors, Facebook posts, WhatsApp messaging groups in lakhs—somebody said 9 lakh messaging groups were run by the BJP. With their extraordinarily impressive ground organisation, the panna pramukhs who had one page each of voting lists went to every house, the RSS shakhas throwing up volunteers to campaign for them which I saw in my own constituency, members from all over the state were campaigning in Kerala in Trivandrum. They had very well financed, well-muscled organisation as well. That, too, cannot be underestimated. The leadership was in exercise in image-making where they managed to excel and convince a large number of people that there was something uniquely special about their leader and his ability to keep the nation safe and strong and guide it in a certain direction and so on. That relentless message over the years seems to have sunk into people’s minds otherwise its difficult to explain this transformation of the BJP from what was essentially a 15-19 percent party in the preceding elections to 31 percent last time and 37 percent this time. It an extraordinary phenomena.
A few days ago, we saw Rahul Gandhi’s offer to resign as the president of the party rejected by the CWC. Can the Congress re-imagine a future with a brand new leadership without the Nehru-Gandhi family at the helm?
I don’t know and frankly I am not a member of the CWC so, I wasn’t present when all this happened and I haven’t met him since. He is not exactly entertaining a lot of visitors, so he is very serious it would seem about his desire to step aside and take the blame or the responsibility, or this I think I will leave that to those who are dealing with this matter to come up to a solution. All I can say is I believe very passionately that what the Congress party stands for is very indispensable for this country, that we represent an alternative vision to the idea of India which in fact is the vision that reflects truly the heart and soul and spirit of this country. I genuinely believe that what the other side is offering is a distorted narrow-minded, bigoted version of what India should be all about and therefore I feel very strongly that the idea of the Congress must be preserved and must be taken forward.
The Gandhi-Nehru as a family has made an immense contribution to getting the Congress party where it is, going back to our first Prime Minister, many have made great sacrifices, two of them have lost their lives for the nation. These are not things one could take lightly. I want to stress that it is, however, a larger issue of what the country needs, and the country certainly needs the Congress as a credible alternative. We will revive and we are going to start reviving already with the upcoming state elections this year. I think it is absolutely indispensable that we do so. To my mind, we will not let down the many millions who gave us 19.6 percent of the electorate but the people who voted for us and for the like-minded parties that would like to a see a different kind of India than the one being presented by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine and we will continue working for that and I believe we will be successful in reviving this message.
There is also a perception — particularly Hindus — that the Congress party does not work in the interests of the Hindus. Being inclusive is fine but why alienate the majority. How do you propose to change that perception?
Well I am only to point out on track record, we have initiated a number of governance measures that are completely community or religion neutral. If RTI has made a difference as it has to the governance of this country, is anyone saying only the Muslims or the Christians can use it. If the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has brought hope to the millions of poor people in the rural areas and increased their purchasing power, has that got something only confined with the minorities? This is nonsense. Most governance measures benefit everybody equally. Its no question of that saying that we are neglecting Hindus when Hindus are the major beneficiaries of all the good thing we have done.
As we speak there are serious challenges to the economy — slowing growth, a farm crisis and a job crisis. As a senior leader of the opposition, what do you think the government needs to be focusing? What should its priorities be?
I think all of those, I think it definitely needs to address the agricultural system in a structural way, everything from the way in which it is marketed, produced and sold to cold storage and other facilities that practically don’t exist. There is a fundamental job to be done in that area and I hope it will be done with some modern thinking and imagination. There has to be serious attention paid to unemployment, five years have been wasted in empty sloganeering of skill development, even 1 percent of their targets of skilling people and employing skilled people have not been met, that has to be fixed. We have been hearing of a new education policy for five years as long as it is not religious indoctrination but serious reforms in education we will be inclined to support, provided it proposes a clear, effective policy and finally you look objectively at this country.
There is an overall economic crisis which is really to do with our regulatory environment, we need to take away that burden of regulation of particularly the medium, small and micro enterprises. The little shops that used to look after 3,4,5,7, 10 employees many of them went under because of demonetisation. They have to be revived because unfortunately, given the realities of our country large-scale manufacturing a la China is never going to come up as the answer for all our problems. We need to also permit, encourage and support the very small-scale sectors to thrive. So, there is a lot to be done and I wish the government luck in doing it in interest of all Indians. When they do the right thing we would be constructive, where they seem to be dividing India, we would stand up and fight for a better idea of India than the one they have.
Would you consider being the leader of opposition, the leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha?
I absolutely have no idea. That is a decision that the Congress party has to make, the party president will have to make, the leadership will have to make. I am very happy to serve the party in Parliament in whatever capacity I am useful and certainly I have been making a number of speeches on a number of issues and I look forward to doing more of that in whatever capacity.