Congress MP Shashi Tharoor says Modi isn’t your run-off-the-mill RSS pracharak as he has attempted to build a personality cult that the Sangh shuns.
Having initially shared cordial relations with the Prime Minister, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor has gone on the offensive, comparing Modi to a scorpion on a Shivling. Here, in conversation with ThePrint’s Jyoti Malhotra, he talks of his latest book, The Paradoxical Prime Minister, which he says lists at least 18 paradoxes of the Prime Minister.
ThePrint: Mr Tharoor, what does the title of your book, The Paradoxical Prime Minister mean?
Shashi Tharoor: Our Prime Minister is a man of multiple paradoxes. There are 18 that I have come up with. Perhaps we should come up with a competition for readers where they can pick the best. But there is a central paradox with which I begin the book. I diagnosed this in the first six months of the Prime Minister’s tenure. This man says the most liberal things – ‘Sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas,’ and ‘I will be a prime minister for all Indians’. However, he relies for support on some of the most illiberal elements in Indian society.
TP: Like what?
ST: Like cow vigilantism, ghar wapsi, love jihad, etc. The noises that have come up in the first six months of Narendra Modi’s victory seem to have emboldened people. They seem to have become atrocious. Within weeks of his victory, we witnessed the horrific murder of a techie. Mushtaq was attacked by a bunch of guys who called themselves the ‘Hindu Sena’. Their only motive was to bash him up with hockey sticks and truncheons. They felt fearless, and perhaps wanted to say, “ab hamaara raj hai aur hum kisi bhi Musalman ko maar sakte hain (This is our government and we can kill any Muslim).” This man, coming out of a mosque, was sporting a beard and a cap. Even though he was a techie, working in an IT firm in Pune, they did not think for a second before pouncing on him.
TP: Within months there was the case of Akhlaq in Dadri. He was killed for allegedly keeping beef in his refrigerator.
ST: The Prime Minister was silent that day. I was the Congress spokesperson at the time and I publicly called upon the Prime Minister. I said, ‘Please reassure the nation. Tell everyone that this is not what your victory is about. Condemn the act. Convey the message that your victory does not ensure the liberty to kill’.
TP: Why do you think he was silent?
ST: This is a part of the paradox. It leads one to the conclusion. The empowerment of the worst, retrograde and communal elements was perhaps his real agenda. Economic development, Gujarat Inc, sab ka saath/sab ka vikas, all of this was just window-dressing. If you don’t have sab ka saath, how can you have sab ka vikas?
TP: And yet in the first few weeks, you were taken in by this PM. You were one of the nine people he called upon to launch the Swachh Bharat campaign. You guys exchanged wonderful tweets about each other. What was that about?
ST: As I said at that time, I felt that I owed respect to the electorate for the choice they had made. They rejected our party and chose someone else. One has to respect that. Secondly, I said that we have to accept the man at his word, judge him by the yardstick he is setting. One can only judge him if he doesn’t live up to the expectation. I said it on TV, in my articles and on social media. You are right. Perhaps I wasn’t understood by many.
TP: Are you trying to absolve yourself?
ST: No. I think it was a case of giving the benefit of the doubt to a newly-elected Prime Minister. And sadly, he hasn’t earned that benefit of the doubt in the last four and a half years.
TP: But you do wish that current-day politics was a bit like the older days. For instance, there was a time when Nehru and Vajpayee could openly respect each other. Similarly, do you have respect for Modi?
ST: I have respect for the post and institution of a prime minister. I believe that anyone who climbs to that position commands respect. However, I also believe that one must judge a prime minister by his conduct in office.
TP: You start your book by talking about the man himself, from the time when he was a boy and learned the value of hard work from his father. Then he grows up and joins the RSS, eventually becoming a pracharak. So what is the meaning of ‘Moditva’, and how is it different from ‘Hindutva’?
ST: My basic assumption is that Modi is from the RSS. But he is not purely RSS. There is an extra element. So, ‘Moditva’ is ‘Hindutva’ plus Modi and that ‘plus Modi’, involves a personality cult. It involves the creation of a larger than life figure, who is portrayed to the nation as somebody with a 56-inch chest. Though, the actual measurement turned out to be only 50.
TP: What is this 50-inch story about?
ST: He has been making speeches about his 56-inch chest but when a university, he was he was going to give his convocation address to, asked his office for his measurements so that they could stitch a bandhgala for him, it turned out that the measurement of his chest was 50. But my argument is that it doesn’t matter. So why does he think it matters? The important point is that advertising his masculinity is part of his Moditva.
TP: In Hindi, there is an idiomatic expression, ‘Chhappan inch ki chhaati‘.
ST: Well, it has become one after he has taken it up. The idea for someone to have a big chest is common in most languages. The chhappan inch was in fact meant to be taken literally. In fact, many of his aides told the media (about this). It started off as a speech against (Samajwadi Party leader) Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2013 when Mr.Modi told him that, “To run this country, you need a ‘chhappan inch ki chaati and only I have it”.
TP: Do you think in the last four years the ‘chhappan‘ inch has shrunk?
ST: Well, unfortunately, as far as masculinity is concerned, the marketing of that continues. But in terms of actual robust actions, we have these completely hypocritical and shallow surgical strikes as the example. In every other yardstick, this masculine prime minister has failed.
TP: But isn’t he a sartorially elegant man? During the recent Azad Hind Fauj celebrations, he wore his cap perfectly.
ST: Yes, he likes that. Apparently, he has liked it even from his young days when he was poor. I think that there is nothing wrong in that. As far as his preference for good grooming is concerned, it is perfectly fine. This choice cannot be held against him. But the problem is, there is this odd contradiction of the authentic Indian voice of the hinterland against the Lutyens’ elite. Bulgari, Ray-Ban, Mont Blanc are the brands that he carries.
TP: It is an aspiration to own a Mont Blanc pen. In fact, this is a reform Dr Manmohan Singh launched 25 years ago.
ST: I am in favour of aspirations. In fact, I trace how a lot of his marketing, even before he became Prime Minister, was about marketing himself as a model man in tune with aspirations of India’s youth and its upwardly thrusting middle-class. That was very much a part of his message. Why then was he photographed in western attire, sporting a cowboy hat? These pictures were out there to boost a certain image. This is not your regular khaki-shorts clad ‘shakha pracharak.’ The Prime Minister is, in fact, all of these things and more.
‘Moditva’ combines a lot of individual features that have nothing to do with the RSS. RSS’s economics is ‘Swadeshi Jagran Manch’, whereas Narendra Modi’s economics is pro-globalisation and pro-Silicon Valley. So, you can’t call ‘Moditva’ a pure emanation of the RSS. This has, in fact, troubled some people in the RSS, according to sources. An RSS member speaking to Vinod Jose of the Caravan described him as ‘a scorpion is sitting on a Shivling’. You cannot remove him with your hand and you cannot hit it with a chappal.
This statement evokes a very striking image. It belies that if you try to remove him, he will sting you. But if you attack him, you will disregard your own beliefs. It is an extraordinary dilemma posed by ‘Moditva’. This what I try and explain in the first 60 pages of the book. I try and analyse how ‘Moditva’ is more than just ‘Hindutva’ or the RSS ideology.
TP: The image of the scorpion on the Shivling is incredible.
TP: How does the emergence of Narendra Modi and fall of RSS affect both Modi and RSS?
ST: There is a revealing anecdote. When Modi was a young RSS pracharak, he was rebuked by the then Sarsanghchalak Golwalkar for sporting a beard. RSS members were meant to be clean shaven. Golwalkar didn’t like the fact that this man had developed his own ideas about what he should look like. The RSS tries to efface individual ego. Modi is the exact opposite of that. Here we find another paradox. Modi is the best hope for the RSS to advance its agenda but he is very untypical of what the RSS desires to achieve.
TP: He does promote the pro-globalisation agenda but do you think that he gets dragged down by the Hindutva agenda at home?
ST: One has to figure out what is real and what is not. On the globalisation agenda, he hasn’t done very well, partly because of international factors and party because of his disastrous decisions like demonetisation. Modi has empowered a rethinking of India in the past four and a half years. Therefore, economics, globalisation, and development have taken a backseat. His is a completely retrograde approach, coupled with the appointment of several loyalists.
TP: Is that the RSS agenda?
TP: But you would also argue that Indians have allowed themselves to be hijacked by this man?
ST: Every nation gets the leadership it deserves. One of the reasons for this very detailed analysis is that the people who read books or think about books and ideas should be left under no illusion. Some of them did vote for Modi and for BJP the last time. Today I don’t think a single week goes by without a number of individuals coming up to me and saying, “We voted for the BJP last time. We won’t be making the same mistake again.”
So I know there has been a change of heart among some. But there are many others who see through BJP’s self-promotional marketing and yet do not see an alternative in Indian Politics. As if, it is a presidential system. However, we live in a parliamentary system. The alternative is a set of parties and values that do not reflect the RSS ideology.
TP: But six months before the elections, your party, the Congress hasn’t been able to put together a set of alliances.
ST: It is far too early to draw that conclusion. Right now the focus is on five state elections, where the calculations are different. Look at Mayawati’s performance in Madhya Pradesh. Compare this with UP, where in the last Lok Sabha elections Mayawati won 20 per cent of the vote and didn’t win a single seat. So even from Mayawati’s point of view, the logic of actually seeking allies is compelling because her support is what they would call in America ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’. This means that it is everywhere and that is how you get 20 per cent but you still lose every election. That is what had happened to her the last time. She needs allies too. So the calculations in the Lok Sabha are very different from that of the Assembly elections.
TP: You sound as if the Congress is looking for an alliance with Mayawati?
ST: It is above my pay grade. I am actually not involved in these negotiations.
TP: But do you think it should?
ST: I think it is very clear. It signals to all of us in the party that there will be some states with pre-poll alliances. UP is clearly one state where this is desirable. There will be other states where there won’t be pre-poll alliances and where after the Parliamentary seats are added up, new seats will emerge. The classic example is my own state, Kerala. There is no way the CPM and the Congress will ever be allied in the state elections or even in a national election. But in 2004, the CPM routed us in Lok Sabha and then supported the UPA 1 when it was formed. They desperately wanted to keep the BJP out. So the same logic will work for the other regional parties. I don’t think it is a question of one person versus another person.
TP: The name of your book is very interesting. The Paradoxical Prime Minister reminds me of another book, The Accidental Prime Minister (about Manmohan Singh). It was released a few months before the 2014 elections. So is this a marketing gimmick?
ST: I came up with the title and I am rather proud of it. But it was nice to have the ‘accidental’ Prime Minister release The Paradoxical Prime Minister at the Nehru Memorial. If you look at all the prime ministers we have had, these are the two individuals who have left a major mark on our society. In case of Manmohan Singh, he did particularly well in the economic front. He spent five years as the finance minister and ten years as the prime minister. As for Narendra Modi, if we don’t stop him now, he could transform India into something that has never been in the last 70 years. I really hope that people wake up now.
TP: One of the things that Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks about a lot is the ‘family’. He refers to Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul and the Nehru-Gandhi clan. What does that do to people when they listen to his speeches and his constant iteration about the ‘family’?
ST: I think it is petty politics. We really have to take the high road and focus on the values and the principles that separate us from the BJP. He took the personal route, last time as well. He called Rahul Gandhi, Shahzada although he could have used the Hindi word Rajkumar. Clearly, somebody wants to tarnish Rahul Gandhi with the pro-Muslim brush.
TP: Do you think that the use of Shahzada instead of Rajkumar was deliberate?
ST: It was a dog whistle to his core Hindutva base.
TP: We don’t understand the term dog whistle, what does it mean?
ST: It is a quiet signal to affirm that he is genuinely committed to Hindutva, like a code word. When Giriraj Singh wants the critics of Modi to go to Pakistan, I would suggest that they are sent to Canada. Pakistan is close by, so why Pakistan? Modi is clearly invoking the anti-Muslim sentiment here.
TP: But you are also saying that he has shed the RSS.
ST: Moditva is Hindutva plus Modi. It is not Hindutva minus Modi. That’s why the RSS tolerates him.
TP: He promotes the RSS agenda.
TP: And since he promotes the RSS agenda, they don’t know what to do without him
ST: But he is larger than them, larger than life.
TP: So is it that they can’t shed them either?
ST: He maintains a very interesting stance. He sends his Cabinet regularly to Nagpur to give an account of their work to the RSS bosses. Now, this is very interesting because it never happened in Vajpayee’s tenure. It has happened under Modi because he wants to reassure the RSS.
TP: So each of his cabinet ministers, from Sushma Swaraj to Nirmala Sitharaman, go to Nagpur?
ST: Absolutely, it is all over media. They go and meet the RSS leadership, providing a detailed account of their ministerial work.
TP: What about Amit Shah?
ST: I am sure he goes as well. He obviously has a larger national agenda at stake.
TP: In today’s India, it seems that Modi and Amit Shah are the two most powerful men. What does that do to Indian politics?
ST: I think it is quite worrying because this is not the way that a system is supposed to work. We have a defence minister who doesn’t know in advance about the surgical strikes. We also have a finance minister who did not know in advance about demonetisation. Now we have a home minister who doesn’t know about the CBI controversy.
TP: That’s just speculation. I’m sure they all knew.
ST: I’m sure they didn’t. There are multiple sources. According to a reliable media source, during demonetisation, they were summoned in literally half an hour before Modi’s announcement. They were kept in a locked room when he made the announcement.
TP: They still knew, at least some of them knew at any rate.
ST: It is widely known that the chief economic advisor did not know, the RBI governor did not know and the finance minister did not know the full story behind demonetisation. Take for example, the issues the Congress has been raising about the Rafale deal? Did they follow the existing procurement norms? How did Modi agree to have 128 aircraft parts manufactured in France? What about the cost?
TP: So what is Rahul Gandhi trying to do by courting arrest on the Rafale deal?
ST: He considers this to be one of the worst scams in the history of independent India, more so because it threatens our security.
TP: But has Rahul Gandhi emerged as an alternative that people of India are looking for?
ST: Ours is not a presidential system.
TP: So maybe Narendra Modi has shaped it into a presidential system.
ST: He can’t. In a situation where the BJP doesn’t get an absolute majority but gets enough to form a government, Modi might have to ask someone else to be the Prime Minister. What happens to his Presidential system then? The point is that the Parliamentary system doesn’t guarantee the post of a prime minister.
TP: So, there is no need for one alternative. There could be several.
ST: Exactly, we have a number of parties. Look, if the Congress gets 250 seats, I’m sure Rahul Gandhi will be the prime minister. We have to wait and see what the numbers are.
TP: So, what are your last words on The Paradoxical Prime Minister?
ST: The disappointment is that even those who were prepared to give the benefit of doubt have been let down. There hasn’t been sab ka saath or sab ka vikas. It has been the most centralised government since Indira Gandhi’s tenure.
TP: Perhaps, he is modelling himself on Indira Gandhi.
ST: Not exactly. You have seen things like the overreach in Aadhaar, haste and thoughtlessness on demonetisation and the absolutely insane botched implementation of what would have been a good measure, the GST. Now he is gradually fixing it after the chaos.
TP: The Arab government that wanted to run a port in India. Did you talk about it in your book?
ST: My lawyers oblige me to censor the details of that story but it is very clear that he had a particular point of view about people of a certain background. I have left enough hints in there about what the stand of the prime minister was in this. Unfortunately, this conversation took place only between him and me and it will be my word against his.
What happened was that he was the chief minister of Gujarat and I was in the external affairs ministry. He took a strong negative stand against an Arab company that wanted to run a port in India. As Prime Minister, he has somehow developed a very good relationship with the UAE. He didn’t go there early on but eventually realised that it was important to cultivate good relations with the Arabs.
TP: Do you think that a government can run a port?
ST: It is not a government but a company that was already running five ports in India. When it was bought by Dubai PortsWorld, all the other states in India immediately signed new contracts with this new company.
TP: So Mr Modi as chief minister of Gujarat did not want this particular port to be run by Dubai Ports?
ST: He was very blunt in his choice of words.
TP: Do you think that he didn’t allow the company based in Dubai to take over the port because it was run by a Muslim?
ST: I can’t confirm that. The arguments made about Modi will stand without these anecdotes. I have quoted him faithfully on those occasions where he has said things to me. I haven’t quoted every conversation because there were casual conversations, as well. The experience has not been all negative. I was quite impressed when he said he gives away his salary to charity, which is something he has been doing since he became chief minister in 2002. I have no reason to disbelieve him on if he does that.
TP: Why do I hear a ‘but’ in that sentence?
ST: The ‘but’ is that you can be a good human being at one level and be a terrible human being for the majority of countrymen at another level.
TP: Mr Shashi Tharoor, thank you so much for speaking to ThePrint.
(This interview was transcribed by Anagha Deshpande and Rupanwita Bhattacharjee)
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