Will Narendra Modi be prime minister in 2019? How will history remember Modi? When did Rahul Gandhi change as a politician? And will he be the prime ministerial candidate?
Shashi Tharoor, 62, greets me in his study on the first day of the New Year. His mother is visiting and he wants to spend time with her.
With his phone ringing non-stop, the politician who is also a best-selling author, speaks on a range of issues. This is Shashi Tharoor unplugged – exclusively for Gulf News.
Q: Elections are nearly here – how do you assess the situation?
A: Well, I certainly have no doubt that Mr Modi will not be prime minister beyond 2019. And, one of the reasons is purely mathematical. If you really look at state by state, there were losses across the board, particularly in the Hindi heartland, which they had done exceptionally well earlier. So now you have a situation where, in the absence of a Modi wave, there is an actual level of discontent that is palpable. This government will be reduced to between 145 and 180 seats, which is being generous.
Q: You are not just a politician but also a writer. When we will look at Narendra Modi historically say 50 years down the line will we say that Modi squandered a historic mandate with demonetization and making Yogi the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh?
A: It is difficult to cherry pick individual things. The tragedy is that not only was demonetization a disaster, but every single thing he announced did not happen – even the changed goal posts did not happen. It was a rash, impulsive and ill-advised decision.
Ninety-seven percent of all the cow-related lynchings since Indian independence that is more than 70 years, according to Rajnath Singh’s Ministry of Home Affairs, took place on Mr Modi’s watch.
Q: Rahul Gandhi recently said the Congress party had become arrogant in government in 2014, why had your party become so arrogant?
A: I think that Rahul Gandhi meant the arrogance of power. We had sort of started to behave as if being in government was our birth right – from the reaction of the voters we had not understood that we had become inattentive to their needs. The irony is that in power a set of right things was done – a panoply of rights-based legislation such as the Right to Information. I would say the Congress party has always stood for things such as minority rights. It is only with this government, not even the Vajpayee government that the basic faith of minorities has eroded where they are now fearful.
Q: Yes, what about the cow terrorists?
A: Ninety-seven percent of all the cow-related lynchings since Indian independence that is more than 70 years, according to Rajnath Singh’s Ministry of Home Affairs, took place on Mr Modi’s watch.
Q: Mr Modi, when he was not prime minister was hugely communicative – he used to call Manmohan Singh “Maun” Mohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi was like an accidental politician. Do you think all the roles have reversed now?
A: Yes. Mr Modi for all his eloquence has not spoken where it matters. Think of high school shootings in America and Barack Obama going on television and sharing the pain of the nation, the grief of the families and the loss of a loved one – essentially being a moral leader for the USA. In India, whether it is Rohit Vemula’s suicide or the Dalits being flogged in Una, all these incidents captured the nation’s imagination with horror. If he had immediately seized the moment and addressed the nation and said 'I feel your pain – this is not what I am about. This is not why I was elected'. I am now coming around to the view that this was Modi’s real agenda.
Q: Did Modi’s very personal attacks get Rahul Gandhi to finally commit to politics?
A: I think Rahul Gandhi realised that he was in politics for life. The perception that he was not fully committed came for a number of reasons, some of which were unfair. He was not the president of the party and he felt that he could take a couple of holidays when he needed it, but somehow in India it is not considered appropriate – you are supposed to be a 24/7 politician. But I think Rahul Gandhi has risen to it. I would see a couple of turning points a couple of years ago when he went off on that vipassana on his sabbatical. Initially there was a lot of criticism because he was absent during a parliamentary session. But when Gandhi came back – it was as if he had found his inner politician. Because from then onwards you can see a genuine willingness to leap into the fray.
Q: So let’s talk about you. Why did you give up a successful international career and a degree of privacy to get into Indian politics and do you now ever regret it?
A: You know this is a question I have been forced to ask myself since clearly as you seen I have suffered. You know normally in our political culture when somebody is bereaved, the instinct across political lines is to offer comfort. Instead, when Sunanda died, I seemed to have been the one case where even that has been used to spin a web of lies. So for all of those reasons I have had to question myself, but yes the answer is it is worth it. After I left the UN I was still hedging my bets. I had an apartment in New York, but after 29 years in the UN I realised I was missing a sense of being relevant. I had good money coming in through consultancy. I was earning 50 thousand dollars per speaking assignment. The only improvement in my dollar savings has been the recent drop in the rupee. The lowest point was when I was forced to resign from my ministry, where I think I had made a lot of difference, over utter lies. Even Dr Manmohan Singh said to me there was a lot of jealousy … (pause, smiles).
Q: The Congress party is facing a lot of criticism for being Hindutva lite and Gandhi’s temple run.
A: Listen when you want to identify with the people you represent what is the harm in going to temples, gurudwaras and churches? It is to show respect to the beliefs of the people we represent. For the BJP, typecasting the Congress as only representing minorities was valuable. The Congress has never said it was only a party for Muslims – what we have said is that we are also a party for minorities.
Q: But this entire conversation we have about gotra and Gandhi as a sacred thread wearing Brahmin seems quite ridiculous?
A: I would say that the Janeu dhari comment I personally would never have wanted to make and the gotra was in the context of a particular visit to a temple where Gandhi was required to give his gotra. He was asked and he gave it. The sacred thread is worn hidden behind your shirt and it should have stayed there.
Q: So now the vexed question of Rahul Gandhi for prime minister. When Stalin said it, your putative allies said nothing doing?
A: Look it all depends on the numbers. If we get a majority, obviously, Gandhi is our candidate for PM but again post elections we will assess the numbers. It will be a series of pre and post poll alliances.