It began, as so many controversies seem to these days, with a tweet.
When my Congress colleague Jairam Ramesh, whose credentials as a loyalist and an advocate of progressive policies are beyond doubt, was quoted in the media as saying that we should not “demonise” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Indian media, with its relentless ability to make mountains out of molehills, erupted. My friend Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who has defended innumerable Congress leaders in court, agreed with him. When asked my views, I tweeted:
“As you know, I have argued for six years now that @narendramodi should be praised whenever he says or does the right thing, which would add credibility to our criticisms whenever he errs. I welcome others in Oppn coming around to a view for which I was excoriated at the time!”
At that point, the dung really hit the fan, especially in Kerala, where Congress leaders reacted as if they had caught me in the boarding-school tuck-shop with my hand in the cookie jar. Angry denunciations were issued by all and sundry; one dashed off an outraged letter to the interim party President Sonia Gandhi; another invited me to leave the party and join the BJP (the irony that it was barely eight years since he himself had rejoined the Congress after leaving it and attacking it for years, was not lost on many).
What was really said
Now let’s take a deep breath and see what those who are deemed to have committed such sacrilege, really said.
Jairam Ramesh had reportedly affirmed that it is “time we recognise PM Modi’s work and what he did between 2014 and 2019 due to which he was voted back to power by over 30 per cent of the electorate.” He had added that Modi spoke a language that connected him with the people. “Unless we realise that he is doing things which people recognise and which have not been done in the past, we are not going to be able to confront this guy….Also, if you are going to demonise him all the time, you are not going to be able to confront him,” he warned. One report stressed that he mentioned he was not asking anyone to applaud the Prime Minister, but just wanted the political class to “recognise the traits he has brought to governance”.
Not only do I not disagree with any of this, it is pretty much what I said in 2014, for which I was publicly criticised by my own party leadership, reviled in the Kerala party newspaper, and removed as a party spokesman. That’s why, when asked on Twitter, I responded as I did.
My tweet has been twisted and reported (and denounced) as “praise for Modi”. Where, I have asked innocently, is the praise? No answer. My critics seem to feel that since Modi has done nothing worth applauding, I should not have said that our attacks on him should be tempered by the occasional acknowledgement of his right actions – everything he does, in their view, should be seen by a true Congressman as vile.
A realist way to get Congress back
Now, I am the first to say there is not much in the positive ledger, as I have pointed out at length in my 500-page takedown of the Modi government, The Paradoxical Prime Minister. But he has been effective in taking his vote percentage across India from 31 per cent in 2014 to 37 per cent in 2019, and as a party which stayed at around 19 per cent in both elections, we in the Congress need to make an effort to understand why. Clearly enough voters thought Modi was delivering something for them – we need to acknowledge that, but point out its limitations: yes, he built toilets, but 60 per cent of them don’t have running water; yes, he gave poor rural women gas cylinders, but 92 per cent of them can’t afford refills. But if we act as if Modi has done nothing, however flawed, and people still voted for him, then we are saying that people are stupid, which is not a position that wins you votes.
I want Congress, together with progressive, secular and liberal parties, to come back to power. For that, it is not enough to keep attracting the core Congress supporters. We need to win back the trust – and the votes – of those who deserted us for the BJP in the last two Lok Sabha elections. That requires addressing what has attracted them to Modi. Then, our criticism has more credibility. That’s all I have been saying.
Being a constructive opposition
Several loyal Congress members have taken me to task for the phrase “don’t demonise Modi”, when no one has been urging the PM not to continue demonising Congress leaders. “Don’t demonise Modi” is not my phrase – they need to ask the person who used it what he meant. But it’s clear that the BJP, for its part, clearly thinks I have demonised Modi, because they have filed two cases against me for my critical remarks, in one case seeking an arrest warrant, which my Congress critics should hail as a badge of honour, instead of demonising me!
I am proud of my record for several years, in and out of Parliament, in standing up and speaking out in defence of the progressive, secular and inclusive principles and values of the Congress party; and in identifying, analysing and skewering the ruling party’s assaults on the idea of India and the nature of our Constitution. I am more than slightly mystified to be seen by some in my own party as some sort of BJP-inclined Modi sympathiser. Does no one read these days, beyond screaming “breaking news” headlines scrolling past a busy screen?
I had lamented my excoriation by the Congress in 2014, and hoped Jairam’s statement in 2019 was an admission by some of the Congress establishment that I had been right all along. There is a growing recognition of this sentiment in the party today and I urge my well-intentioned but misguided critics to look at the national picture and realise how we have to revamp our strategy to become a winning party again.
Be fierce in our criticisms of the Modi Government, as I have been, but make sure our criticisms are taken seriously by the public because they are occasionally balanced against acknowledgements of genuine examples of right actions. Show the public that we stand up for national interests first, and demonstrate that those interests would be safer in our hands than his – by agreeing when he takes the same stands as we would, and disagreeing strongly when he doesn’t, as well as pointing out the failures in his execution of chosen policies. That’s what a constructive opposition does – and what the Congress should.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.