The Congress party seems to have finally up caught with Shashi Tharoor, whether it is social media (Rahul Gandhi’s current obsession) or taking on the Narendra Modi government cogently. This is as Shashi complained “so many questions, you could have done three interviews” unplugged on inner party democracy in the Congress, how he plans never to exit it, Chinese aggression, Donald Trump, the US elections in November and what he is doing in the lockdown. This is Shashi Tharoor talking exclusively to Gulf News.
Shashi Tharoor and the Congress
Gulf News: You have often spoken on the need for inner party democracy in the Congress, is the party leadership listening?
Shashi Tharoor: I can’t honestly answer that since I am not a member of the CWC, which is the body that at least in principle discusses such matters. I believe I have made my position on the issue sufficiently clear. Now it is up to the leadership and the CWC to consider some of the arguments I have highlighted.
You have also spoken of the need for elections for party posts, will you contest for the post of Congress president if elections are held?
This is not about me or any individual. It’s a principle -- one that, at one time, was strongly advocated by Rahul Gandhi himself. I think it’s clear that if he volunteers to return as President, the majority of party workers would welcome that and the Working Committee would probably rally unanimously behind him. He was, after all, elected unopposed in 2017. It was only if, as he had repeatedly stated, he insisted on maintaining his resignation and wanted the party to find a non-family member to lead it, that the question arises. In those circumstances, I am advocating a process and a need to find solutions, not advancing the proposition with any ulterior motive of self-promotion.
Have you ever thought about leaving the Congress party?
No. That has never been the case, contrary to some misguided opinions that have been reported by sections of our media. I am not a lifetime politician; I do not think like a careerist, leaping to wherever I can gain the best position or the greatest advantage. I am in politics because I hold a set of convictions that I believe are necessary for India to advance, and I support the Congress because its history, its experience, and the talent available to it make it the best vehicle to advance the inclusive values and pluralist principles I hold dear.
The Congress has lost two general elections under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi? Is it time for the five generation dynasty to retire?
I don’t think that is a fair assessment. Obviously the Nehru-Gandhi family holds a special place in the hearts of Congress Party members -- and with good reason too. Aside from the great legacy they have inherited from their illustrious forebears, they have consistently brought together the various groups, ideologies, geographies and communities that collectively make up the fabric of the Congress Party. They also have a clear record of success and experience in leading the party, both when in government and during tough times in the wilderness, when they have still managed to rally the men and women of the Congress together. Let us not forget the magnitude of what they have achieved for the party — or the ultimate sacrifice paid by two former Presidents from the family.
At the same time, through their leadership, the party, over successive generations, has also managed to cultivate a strong crop of dynamic leaders, both at the centre and in the states. These are men and women who offer strong leadership and have worked tirelessly and effectively to take the party forward. Strengthening mechanisms in the party that enable such leaders to flourish would be the best way forward.
The Congress is seen as a weak opposition to the Narendra Modi government, what does the party need to do?
I do not think we are a weak opposition. Whether it is in Parliament, or outside on the ground, or even on virtual platforms like social media (which was all we could do during the coronavirus lockdown), I believe the Congress has played an indispensable role in holding our government accountable, in highlighting the flaws of their policies and decisions and constantly reminding the government of the dreams and aspirations of the people of this country.
So I believe we have served as an energetic and dynamic opposition that is capable of holding the government’s feet to the fire, and at the same time is in a position to contribute in terms of ideas on matters of national policy-making. A strong opposition is indispensable to any democratic society – and all the more so in India, given what we are going through with a fundamental challenge to the very foundations of the republic. The Congress is the only party with the experience, credibility and nationwide footprint to challenge and counter the divisive rule of the present government. We will continue to resist the BJP’s incessant attempts to undermine the democratic, pluralistic and inclusive heritage that our forefathers gave their lives for.
How do you think the Modi government has tackled the public health pandemic?
Not very well. The Modi government’s performance during the current pandemic has been characterised by an abject lack of preparedness and a deficit of ideas and policy measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on Indian society.
Take the issue of our migrant workers -- I think the government’s short-sightedness and, in some cases, deliberate indifference to the welfare of our migrant workers was appalling. Even the one thing that most people agree that the Centre got right, which was to declare a lockdown at a relatively early stage, was also undermined by the way they did it – shutting down trains, planes and inter-state buses at three hours’ notice, with complete lack of planning. This caused the mismanagement in treating our migrant workers, which resulted in an unprecedented scramble to return to their homes, amid panic, chaos and tragedy. Some 200 migrant workers have died on their way home, run over by trucks or trains, or of sheer exhaustion.
What could they have done to prevent this from taking place? To start with, the government could have offered more notice for a national lockdown, before shutting down the trains and highways, which could have allowed these workers to either return to their respective states or make necessary arrangements in the areas they were at the time residing in. Since they did not, the Centre could have worked with the states to not just issue clear guidelines for inter-district and inter-state transportation of migrants but could have run dedicated transport corridors to bring those who wished to return home. We all know the unnecessary miscommunication and drama that took place when special trains were operationalized for these groups and yet there was no clarity on who would be paying for their tickets.
Finally, there are a number of other concrete measures that the government could have undertaken to ensure that adequate resources and support were provided to these groups. My own party has repeatedly urged the government to take up many of these—from ensuring access to food through the PDS system, to transferring Rs 10,000 to each individual using the existing Jan Dhan bank accounts, reversing the decision to suspend many of our labour laws, and so on. If these steps had been followed and if some of these policy measures been rolled out in advance by the government, I am confident that much of the present crisis could have been averted and we would not have had to see the kind of hardships and loss of lives that have taken place.
The manner in which we have ‘unlocked’ is also seriously questionable. This government has, as Rajiv Bajaj pointed out, succeeded in flattening the wrong curve. As a result of their ineptitude, the economy is in doldrums which has forced the government to life the lockdown at a time when we are witnessing over 15, 000 new cases each day. As a result, we are now confronted with the twin challenges of a stagnating economy and a health crisis that is in many ways exceeding the managing capacity of our existing infrastructure.
You are a multiple term MP from Kerala and how have you tried to help Thiruvanthapuram your constituency?
The lockdown has been an immensely busy period for us as a result of various COVID related interventions we are coordinating at any given point of time. Even prior to the official announcement of the lockdown, on the evening Parliament adjourned, I had requested the Prime Minister, in the presence of the Lok Sabha Speaker, to amend the rules to permit MP funds under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) to be used for essential supplies to combat Covid. On the first day of lockdown, the Speaker called me while I was at lunch: my proposal had been accepted, a revised order would be issued. My team in Thiruvananthapuram and I immediately swung into action, eliciting, from the local chapter of the Indian Medical Association and the District Collector, information about what supplies were in short supply and urgently needed. We then immediately issued purchase orders under MPLADS for these essential items—9,000 kits of Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare workers, 3,000 rapid-testing RT-PCR kits from the only lab in India approved to make them (Mylab in Pune), 250 non-contact thermometers from Hong Kong.
The Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences in Thiruvananthapuram was doing cutting-edge research into a new RT-LAMP testing system for Covid: I allotted them a crore of rupees to the institute for the purchase of test kits, which gave them the confidence to go ahead with theirdevelopment and internal testing. Sadly, their final product has been pending ICMR clearance for over 2-months, which I think is most unfortunate on part of the government given the immense need for cheaper and faster test kits. And finally, with every rupee left in my available funds, I purchased a thermal face-detecting scanner to be installed at the airport to quickly detect passengers arriving with fever. No sooner had that order been placed than the Prime Minister announced the suspension of all MPLADS funds for two years: instead of being allotted by the local MP on the basis of awareness of local conditions and needs, they would now be sequestered by the Central Government, a reinforcement of a pattern of centralisation that has become all too apparent under the Modi regime.
Then there were the efforts to help Keralites stranded abroad and wanting to come home reached out to me in large numbers, from 27 countries (at last count)—ranging from students in places as far apart as Haiti, Ukraine and the Philippines, to fishermen stranded in Iran by the lockdown, to businessmen unable to return home from what was intended to be a short business trip to a foreign country. Responding to their requests and bringing them to the attention of the authorities dealing with such problems took time. Then there were the people from elsewhere stuck in Kerala, whose MPs reached out to me for assistance to them—social media brought me queries from political leaders in Bihar, Bengal, Maharashtra, and even Nagaland for such temporary migrants, for all of whom my constituency team arranged help.
A lot of overseas Indians faced hardships in coming back home to India. Do you think the Modi government was effective in this?
The performance card of our government has been decidedly mixed. On one hand, we have seen Ministers like Dr. Jaishankar and Mr. Hardeep Singh Puri offer truly exceptional responsiveness to our demands on this issue and I have been genuinely very impressed by the manner in which they have worked overtime to ensure that our pravasis were looked after and brought back, despite the challenging conditions and numbers we were dealing with. Similarly, many of our Embassies and our diplomatic corps abroad have also done good work that should be recognised. But these are silver linings on an otherwise dark cloud. The government could have given our pravasis sufficient notice to prepare for their departure ahead of a lockdown. After all, as I have repeatedly stressed, each one of them has a fundamental right to return home and the government should have done better in terms of offering sufficient warning and developing the necessary infrastructure to bring them back.
Similarly, the government can and should have done more to ensure that those without the means to pay for their tickets back home were given support through the Indian Community Welfare Funds rather than being forced to pay from their own pockets. Let us not forget that the bulk of our pravasis in areas like the GCC region are blue collar workers who have been severely impacted by the ongoing pandemic, leaving them with limited resources to arrange for their return on their own.
The Kerala government has been praised for tackling COVID. Do you agree with this assessment?
Of course we must give credit where it is due. But let us accept that the success belongs to the people of Kerala, not to any one party. Even while we praise the state government for their efforts in tackling COVID-19, as I have pointed out, the real strength of the ‘Kerala model’ goes much deeper and has been the result of a historical emphasis, going back many generations, on socio-economic development, a highly literate population, high spending by successive ruling coalitions on healthcare, education and digital literacy and a highly politically active community. All of these factors combined ensured the development of a highly successful and united people’s movement which helped curb the transmission of the virus in the state.
India had the harshest lockdown in the world, yet cases are spiralling. Was lockdown the correct strategy?
As mentioned previously I do think the lockdown in itself was the right decision and action to be taken given the circumstances we were dealing with. But the haphazard manner in which it was implemented, without sufficient planning for the economic and human cost of such a measure, has meant that any gains we received quickly dissipated within the subsequent migrant crisis, the spreading of the virus with people’s haphazard return home, the stagnation of the economy and the immense distress it has caused within our communities. Similarly, the manner in which we are ‘unlocking’ is not just questionable but frankly dangerous, leaving us with the twin disasters of exponentially rising cases and an economy in the doldrums.
We are facing an unprecedented aggression and occupying of our land in the Galwan valley from China. How do you think this should be tacked given your extensive diplomatic expertise?
I do believe that this latest act of Chinese belligerence clearly marks a shift in the longstanding status quo at the border, and signals the end of China’s self-proclaimed “peaceful rise.” Under Xi, China seems much more willing to demonstrate openly that it is the region’s preponderant power. We have already seen this in the South China sea, with Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and so on. By taking a tough stand on the Indian border too, China is showing the world, especially the United States, that it is not intimidated by Donald Trump’s bluster, and that other Asian countries should fall into line.
At the same time, we must recognise that the India-China relationship is nothing if not complicated. The wounds of the 1962 war never healed, yet annual bilateral trade has grown to $92.5 billion, albeit overwhelmingly in China’s favour. Moreover, China uses its alliance with Pakistan to needle, distract, and confine India within its own subregion. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, one of the crown jewels of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, runs through portions of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that even China acknowledges as disputed territory. China also continues to reiterate its claims to Indian territory directly, particularly our north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it describes as “South Tibet.” Against this backdrop, episodes like the current standoff should be understood as part of a larger strategy of keeping India in check. India cannot afford to take China’s latest aggression lying down not least because we have a strong interest in proving to would-be aggressors – not least Pakistan – that it is no pushover.
Clearly, India and China need to finalize a permanent border agreement. What’s happening now is that China repeatedly undertakes “minor” military incursions, inflicts small-scale military setbacks on India, takes a few square kilometres of territory along the LAC for local tactical purposes, and then declares peace. Mutual disengagements are duly announced, both sides claim the crisis is over, but China establishes and fortifies its new deployment. These mini-crises always end with the Chinese in a better position on the ground than before. Each incident establishes a new “normal” on the LAC. China has long argued that a formal border settlement is best left to future generations, but that is because its geopolitical power – and therefore its negotiating position – grows stronger with each passing year. China is betting that the longer a settlement is deferred, the more likely it is to get the border it wants. In the meantime, it will use limited acts of aggression along the LAC to keep India off balance and to secure tactical gains. Why should India accept such behaviour?
Prime Minister Modi said at an all party meeting that neither India had intruded nor had any other country intruded into India. Do you think he misspoke?
We honestly don’t know, because the Prime Minister has neither taken the nation into confidence regarding the overall situation, nor has he himself offered a clarification on his statements. All we saw was several attempts to rectify the PR fallout through various official broadcasting agencies and a press release that was subsequently issued by the PMO. Even the official recording of his remarks which was put out by the PMO has expunged the part where he makes this statement, which is frankly a national embarrassment. As I said at the time, making such ill-advised statements (which are typical of the bravado and bluster of the PM’s style) are decidedly not in the national interest. They gave a free run to Chinese media outlets to say the Indian PM had confirmed the Chinese narrative on the recent incursion.
Why in your opinion has China started this border face-off at the current time of pandemic crisis? Did India’s handling of the Doklam crisis in Modi’s last term as Prime Minister precipitate Chinese aggression?
While the timing is hard to explain, as mentioned previously, I do think this episode, marks the arrival of China of 2020 which is seeking to show itself as a stronger, more assertive power and eager to throw its weight around in a new era of Sino-American “decoupling.” My worry is that unlike Doklam, which happened in a third country and ultimately ended with both our countries’ forces standing down, China will be less inclined to withdraw unilaterally this time. This seems to be part of a larger pattern of assertiveness that they will not lightly abandon.
India is currently warring with all our neighbours Nepal, Bangladesh, China and Pakistan. Have the Modi government’s actions such as the repeal of Article 370, the planned NRC and CAA created this animus in our neighbourhood?
These actions certainly haven’t helped. You don’t call alleged Bangladeshi migrants “termites”, threaten to throw them back, and expect Bangladesh to be indifferent to the insult. CAA certainly reinforced the Pakistani narrative that India discriminates against its own Muslim citizens, and combined with the revocation of J&K’s autonomy, has strengthened Islamabad’s hand in creating mischief in Kashmir and elsewhere. The Nepal border issue could certainly have been better handled, since it was our over-zealous PR drive about a road we have been using for decades that got Katmandu all riled up. But everywhere we look, this government’s thoughtless self-promotional bluster goes on, seemingly oblivious to the impact it has beyond our borders.
You chair the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, do you think Parliament and your committee should be urgently convened on the border face-off with China?
The government removed me as Chairman – it is now a BJP chair – but absolutely, the government has a duty to take Parliament (including the bipartisan Standing Committees) into confidence. Unfortunately, as we have seen over the tenure of the current ruling dispensation, they have little respect for either the institution or the set of conventions that guide it.
Do you think Rahul Gandhi and the Congress aggression on Galwan and earlier Pulwama (questioning the surgical strike against Pakistan) have backfired on your party?
You have to give Rahul Gandhi and the Congress more credit than that. He has done a tremendous job in raising the consciousness of the nation by posing strong questions regarding the government’s conduct and its failure to take the people of this nation into confidence. There are strong concerns regarding the manner in which the government has operated during both incidents, potential obfuscations that have not been sufficiently discussed, and I believe what Rahul Gandhi has successfully managed to do is to unveil the bluff and bluster surrounding many of the government’s actions. This is not to say that we have not been a cooperative opposition or that our criticism has been driven by purely partisan politics—on the contrary, on matters associated with national security, and in times of distress such as the pandemic, the Congress Party and Rahul Gandhi have repeatedly reiterated our support for the government. We are animated above all by the national interest -- which means we must raise and question any faulty moves and decisions by them that undermine the national interest. To not do so would be a dereliction of duty and abdication of our responsibility to the people of this country,
Trump versus Biden
US President Donald Trump made a visit to India and earlier Modi seemed to be endorsing him. With the US elections in November do you think India should have done this?
Most Indian Prime Ministers have tried to establish a strong and dignified rapport with their counterpart in the United States. However, our leaders have historically done this with a certain awareness, tact and diplomatic understanding, all of which seem to have been bypassed in the “personalised diplomacy” of Prime Minister Modi, who advertises his “special relations” with individual world leaders. In that sense, the Namaste Modi event and the Howdy Trump follow-up was a brazen and overt attempt to bolster the personality cults of two strongmen and quite unbecoming. The Modi sound-bite “ab ki baar Trump Sarkar” will haunt New Delhi if, as the polls suggest, Trump loses.
How will India repair the relationship if Joe Biden becomes president?
I think Mr. Biden will recognise that the United States of America has a natural partner in this country. The world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy have much in common and there is a mutual appreciation and respect among our people, which has historically ensured strong and civil ties between our two countries. This is a heritage that I am confident Mr. Biden will build on if he assumes office as President of the United States of America. Fortunately his eight years as Vice-President mean that he is no stranger to India’s role and potential. I only hope our Prime Minister has the grace to undo some of the over-enthusiastic praise he has lavished on Mr Trump.
Do you think that there is a deficit of democracy across the world with the rise of strong leaders and liberal ideas weakening?
I think this is certainly the case -- and in the Post-COVID world, I fear that the increasing move towards populism, isolationism and the economic and cultural backlash against globalisation is only going to get accelerated. In fact, I have suggested that we may well see a process of ‘deglobalisation’ characterised by trade restrictions, the repatriation of production and supply chains, and the hollowing out of international and multilateral institutions. This is a trend that preceded, but has been intensified by, the current pandemic. In a widely discussed paper Harvard scholars Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa have argued argue that the health of liberal democracies across the world is failing (the term of art being ‘democratic deconsolidation’). They find a considerable dilution of support for democracy and a growing impatience with the democratic process, especially among the so-called ‘millennial’ generation, even in former ‘consolidated democracies’ around the globe.
Finally, how have you spent the lockdown?
It’s been busy as ever, but in a different way from the era of travel and meetings. Under lockdown each day has been different -- but to generalise and summarise, 6-8 hours are spent on various COVID-related interventions such as helping our citizens stranded abroad or engaging with Ministries to highlight issues and cases requiring attention and response; 2-3 hours is spent on a webinar or two each day, where I have addressed audiences on a variety of issues; and the volume of emails, letters and messages has stayed high and unabated! But I have also managed a daily couple of hours in the gym at home; and as much time as I could find writing. I should have two books out in the last quarter of the year – Tharoorosaurus (Penguin), a light-hearted collection of quirky essays about unusual words, and The Battle of Belonging (Aleph), a more substantial work that is my magnum opus on Nationalism, both global and specifically Indian. A bonus is the time I’ve been able to spend with my mother and my London-based sister, who were here when the pandemic erupted and who have been locked down with me.