New Delhi: The Congress cannot afford to become BJP-lite, party leader Shashi Tharoor said, addressing allegations that the outfit was adopting ‘soft-Hindutva’.
Speaking to ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta during a virtual Off The Cuff interaction Wednesday, Tharoor said the Congress party isn’t like the BJP “in any shape or form”.
“I know this is a real and tangible concern among many liberals. But we cannot afford to become BJP-lite,” Tharoor said. “I have long argued that any attempt to emulate Pepsi-lite like BJP-lite will end with us becoming like Coke Zero or Congress Zero.”
“The Congress is not the BJP in any shape or form. We should not attempt to be a lighter version of what we are not. And I would argue we are not really trying to,” he added. “The Congress makes the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. Hinduism we respect as an inclusive and non-judgmental religion, Hindutva, on the other hand, is a political doctrine based on exclusion.”
The Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram has recently released his latest book, The Battle of Belonging, exploring ideas of nationalism and patriotism.
Tharoor also defended Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
“Rather than offering a watered down version of BJP’s political messaging, what the Congress is saying is that as a personal religion u can have your Hinduism, there is no harm in going to temples,” Tharoor said. “When Rahul Gandhi goes to temples… He has also said he doesn’t believe in Hindutva, either soft or hard.”
The leader added that he too goes to temples, as well as mosques and churches in his constituency.
“As a politician you have an obligation to show respect to those things that are precious to your voters. Unless you fundamentally disagree, why wouldn’t you go,” Tharoor said.
‘Letter signatories are dyed-in-the-wool Congress people’
Tharoor also spoke of the letter signed by 23 Congress leaders, including himself, earlier in August, in which the signatories demanded a “full time and effective leadership”. They had also sought a leadership that is both “visible” and “active” in the field, and called for elections to be conducted for Congress Working Committee membership.
Tharoor said all the leaders who signed the letter spoke in the interest of the Congress, and not as an act of disloyalty.
“We are all dyed-in-the-wool Congress people, look at the names who have signed the letter,” Tharoor said. “There’s nobody with a BJP-type thinking. On the contrary, these are people who want Congress to be a stronger instrument against the BJP.”
Other prominent signatories of the letter included Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal and Manish Tewari.
“Our concerns are in the interest of the party; they aren’t in any way meant to be disloyal to the party,” Tharoor said. “And I would reiterate that we want the party to succeed and thrive.”
In a CWC meeting following the letter, the signatories were snubbed by the top leadership for the timing of the letter. “There was some pushback at the time,” Tharoor said, adding that he wouldn’t like to delve deeper into it.
“As you know the issue was discussed in one working committee meeting and we have understood there is a movement happening to implement some of the things we asked for including elections in the near future but we have not been officially informed…I hope there would be a clear message to us,” Tharoor said.
‘CAA is victory of Jinnah’s idea of subcontinent’
Tharoor also said that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) combined with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a “victory for Jinnah’s idea of the subcontinent”.
“The home minister’s linking of the CAA with the nationwide NRC was a fundamental assault on the Constitution,” Tharoor said. “It’s a victory for Jinnah’s idea of subcontinent, it is a violation of everything the Constitution stands for.”
Tharoor also made a food analogy to differentiate his idea of nationalism, with that of the RSS.
“RSS’ idea of diversity in unity is that we are all Hindus, and essentially we are a khichdi. Mine is a thali concept of nationalism, all the dishes are in different bowls and they don’t necessarily flow into each other,” he said.
“Disagreeing when the government goes wrong is not anti-national, it is the highest form of patriotism,” Tharoor further said.
“Patriotism is essentially about loving your country because it’s yours. Whereas a patriot is willing to die for his country, a nationalist is willing to kill for his state,” Tharoor said.
The Congress leader also added that acceptance has been an important aspect of Hinduism.
“For those in Hindutva who tell me that secularism is in denial of India’s Hindu history, I tell them that Hindutva is in denial of this essential aspect of Hinduism, which is acceptance,” he said.
‘Post-liberalisation Congress is not left of Centre’
Addressing questions about Congress being a “left of centre” party, Tharoor said that it is a mischaracterisation.
“The post liberalisation Congress party is not against conventional right of centre ideas guided by the spirit of distributing the profits and revenues that come from growth,” Tharoor said. “So let the private sector grow the country but make sure the benefits of this actually go to the weak and marginalised.”
Tharoor cited ideas proposed by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia and former finance minister P. Chidambaram as not fitting the left of centre categorisation.
“Manmohan Singh says yes, we must free the economy, but he also says whatever we are able to get out of this, I will give MNREGA. I will protect the marginalised. This is not classic left of centre thought,” Tharoor said.
Tharoor, however, added that there are some principal differences that must be kept in mind and adhered to.
“You cannot be an avowed secularist and be in the BJP, and similarly you cannot have sympathy for Hindutva and be in the Congress,” he said.
Speaking about the Narendra Modi government’s decision to bring all digital media platforms, including news media and online curated content providers, under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Tharoor said it is an administrative decision.
“We know that this is an administrative decision, it is neither a regulatory decision nor a legislative action. The obvious implication is that I&B’s policies with regard to films will be extended to OTT platforms,” Tharoor, who is the chairperson of the parliamentary standing committee on Information Technology, said.