Dr. Shashi Tharoor on the Future of Indian Democracy

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Dr. Shashi Tharoor on the Future of Indian Democracy

The MP from Kerala reflects on the recent election results, and where the country goes from here.

Dr. Shashi Tharoor on the Future of Indian Democracy
Credit: Flickr/ Chatham House

When India’s general elections concluded in May, the Indian National Congress was faced with a devastating defeat. The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party won 303 seats, marking a comfortable return to government. In sharp contrast, the Congress mustered only 52 seats, nearly one-sixth the BJP’s total.

One of the few bright spots for the Congress was the re-election of Shashi Tharoor, a former international civil servant who has been serving as Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha representing Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, since 2009. While his party as a whole underperformed compared to the last elections, Tharoor beat the trend, winning by nearly 100,000 votes in 2019, versus his winning margin of just 15,000 in 2014.

Dr. Shashi Tharoor talked briefly with journalist Arun Budhathoki for The Diplomat about the election results and the future of Indian politics, especially the fate of the liberal, secular values espoused by the Congress.

The excerpts below have been lightly edited for clarity.

First of all congratulations to you for getting the hat-trick in your Lok Sabha constituency, Thiruvananthapuram. What does this win mean for you given the adversary that your party, the Indian Congress, has faced in the recent elections?

Thank you. I have been overwhelmed by the support of the people of Thiruvananthapuram, which gave me a near one-lakh [100,000] majority I could scarcely have dreamed of. At the same time, the situation with the national picture has certainly made this an equally somber and bittersweet moment. I feel like a batsman who has scored a century while his team has lost.

Where do you feel India is heading under the leadership of the re-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the next five years? Do you feel it will be a difficult time for religious minorities in India?

If the government’s track record in office is to be considered, there is an understandable reason for worry. It is now a well documented fact that religious minorities have been systematically targeted in the last five years. Just last year for instance, according to a report by Hate Crime Watch,  religious hate crimes in the country reached a 10 year high in the country with members of religious minorities being the victim in 75 percent of these cases. Similarly, it is also telling that out of 70 cases of cow-related violence have been reported in the last 70 years, 97 percent (68 out of 70) have occurred during the first four years of BJP rule and a majority of these have occurred in BJP-ruled states. A hundred and thirty six people have been injured in these attacks and 28 killed: 86 percent of the victims were, of course, Muslim. While one cannot place all the blame on the government and hold them directly responsible for such unfortunate instances, one can certainly and rightly criticize the government for not condemning such events vocally enough at the highest levels or clamping down strongly on its perpetuators.

Now on the note of which direction the country is likely to head in, the rising level of instances where minorities have been targeted suggests that we are currently in the throes of a fundamental contestation between two ideas of India. One, of course, is the India that many like me believe in, which is a pluralist and inclusive India, one that celebrates our diversity of differences and believes that all Indians are equal. Then there is the challenge to this idea presented by those (including the perpetrators of such crimes) who believe in a distorted and alienating idea of India, where some Indians come first (as long as they believe in a particular religion, speak a particular language, and adhere to the political doctrine of Hindutva) and others come last. Only time will tell which idea will finally prevail and determine the direction our country heads in.

Let’s talk about the rise of Hindutva in India. Do you consider it as an ideology or a distortion of peaceful Hindu religion?

As I have argued extensively in my book Why I Am a Hindu, Hindutva is a nakedly political doctrine, spawned out of the racial pride ideas of muscular and cultural identity that were popular around the world in the 1920s. Whereas Hinduism, a vast all-encompassing religion, is an inward-directed faith, focusing on self-realization above all and the union of the soul with the Absolute, Hindutva is an outward-directed concept, aimed at creating social and cultural distinctions for a political purpose. Hindutva is, in the chauvinistic and alienating ideas that it espouses, disconnected from the central assumptions and tenets of Hinduism, which, among many things, places a premium on the acceptance of our differences. And yet, Hindutva piggy-backs on the faith, claiming to represent Hinduism, though it does not do so as a set of doctrines or precepts but as a cultural marker. Hindutva adopts the Hindu religion not as a way of seeking the Divine but as a badge of worldly political identity. This has little to do with the Hinduism of its great proponents like Swami Vivekananda or of Adi Shankara—it is instead a 20th century idea, born of 20th century forms of political thinking that were already beginning to be dangerously out of date elsewhere in the world when they were propounded in India. Parties professing to speak of an entire people of “volk” were discredited as well as destroyed in Europe in 1945. Sadly, seven decades later, the idea flourishes in India, in the name of Hindutva.

Will religious minorities, women, lower caste people, and the LGBT community be able to live peacefully for the next five years?

As a cautious optimist, I would argue that the foundations of India’s democratic ethos remain fundamentally strong and we still have checks and balances in place to ensure that no one community is unduly marginalized or targeted. As in the last five years, there will continue to be challenges that present themselves in the future, but these will be met in equal measure by strong voices from our political class, civil society, judiciary, and the media, and all of those citizens in our country who believe in an inclusive and pluralist idea of India, one that welcomes our diversity and will resist any measures that allow that foundation of our democracy to be undermined.

What about press freedom and the right to dissent?

Admittedly, constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms, such as that of free speech and freedom of the press, have faced a series of reversals in the last five years. Each of these individual instances have been well documented (including the arrests of four journalists just this last week) but to cite one ranking, I think it is certainly worrying that India’s rank on the global Press Freedom Index has fallen from 140th to 190th in the last year, under the Modi government’s watch. This is troubling for all of us since a free and irreverent media and the right to air one’s opinion have been the cornerstone of Indian democracy since its independence.  The realist in me understands that it is likely that these challenges may very well continue in the next five years and therefore it is imperative that those of us who believe in an inclusive and tolerant India must continue to everything in our power to resist these forces of intolerance.

Most importantly, what about the issues of economic growth and unemployment?

I do hope that the new government will finally see the wisdom in seeking and implementing comprehensive solutions to these problems before it gets out of hand. In the last five years, we have already seen our economy grind to a crawl, unemployment reach a 45-year high, widespread agrarian distress, and other worrying illustrations of the government’s shambolic economic management of the country. All of these need to be addressed by the new government on a priority basis and I am sure that so long as their economic thinking is sound and well-intentioned, we in the Opposition will support their endeavors in the country’s interest.

The Indian Congress didn’t fare well in the recent elections. What’s your view on it? Why have Indians decided to vote for Modi?  

I think the results make it clear that there certainly seem to be some fundamental issues that we got wrong. It will undoubtedly take us some very strong introspection and a comprehensive assessment to correctly identify exactly what these issues were.

For example, we were (not unreasonably) convinced that grave economic concerns — such as unemployment levels hitting a 45-year high, or the significant agrarian distress that is forcing our farmers to contemplate suicide in record numbers, or even the disastrous impact of other measures like demonetization on the fate of our small, medium, and micro enterprises — would play a pivotal role in deciding the fate of the election. After all, there is a well-recognized wisdom in believing that voters would cast their votes according to their economic self-interest. But this time the Indian voter did not do that, and we need to understand why.

One reason is perhaps the other side executed the crucial messaging better; they decided early that their “product” was Mr. Modi and they marketed him very well. They built up the most extraordinary personality cult in modern Indian political history, buttressed by larger-than-life imagery, hundreds of thousands of social media warriors, an intimidated “mainstream” media, ubiquitous cameramen, and a slick publicity machinery that was switched on 24/7, all lubricated by 5,600 crore [56 billion] rupees of taxpayer funds relentlessly promoting his every move. They also had great success in marketing and creating hype around many of their flagship schemes. Perhaps we could have done better to make the reality of the flawed delivery of such schemes more apparent.

Another issue, perhaps, is that we may have underestimated the impact of national security as an electoral topic (in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack and Balakot strike) on the psyche of the voter. This is perhaps more true in the north than in south, where I can tell you based on my personal experience that this issue did not gain much traction, whereas in the former, the BJP had great success in trying to convert the election into a “khaki” referendum.

Another area where we could have done better is perhaps if we had released our party manifesto earlier and consequently given ourselves more time to market ideas like NYAY, which by design and in terms of impact was nothing short of revolutionary. It appears that the core messaging around NYAY may have only reached around half the electorate and perhaps even the wrong half—mainly centered in urban areas and among professional classes, who would be paying for the scheme, rather than the bottom 20 percent, mainly in rural India, who would become beneficiaries of it. Had the NYAY idea been unrolled even six months earlier, it might have won over many voters.

Now all of this is based on 20-20 hindsight. But we really do need a comprehensive and systematic assessment of where and what we got wrong.

What will be the next strategy for your party and yourself to preserve the democratic values of India?

With regard to the way forward I do think there are a number of key areas that the party must keep in mind while developing its revival strategy. For one, I do think that the Congress is rightly accused of having lost touch with the grassroots in many states and it is important for us to pay even more attention to the work at the booth level to ensure that the fundamentals of the party remain strong. We must also decide what we stand for and do better to communicate it effectively and repeatedly. The Congress has historically been the political embodiment of India’s pluralism and has been a strong and committed voice for the preservation of secularism as its fundamental reflection. We need to reaffirm our belief in these values and keep reiterating them at every opportunity.

At the same time, there are other areas that we must focus on, such as being a strong and constructive opposition both inside and outside Parliament. We need to also explore pragmatic coalitions so as to strengthen the anti- government space, while also doing our best to wield leverage on the central government through the issue of center-state relations.

And moving forward, we must not make the mistake of allowing the BJP to monopolize the nationalist narrative. As the party that brought freedom to India and valiantly preserved it for decades, and therefore has critical experience in safeguarding India’s national interests, the Congress must proudly articulate its own nationalism and remain vigilant on security and foreign policy issues that could be mishandled by the BJP government.

And finally, we must articulate a vision for the future that embraces the aspirations of India’s majority – the young. A startling 40 percent of voters this year were under 35. They need to hear what we can do for them, especially in areas where the Modi government has so far failed them, like education, skill development, and job creation. We need to implement policies in these areas in the states we rule and then advocate them at the center. Young Indians must believe we understand their aspirations and can be trusted to promote them in government.

Do you feel India has celebrated a populist leader who prefers Hindu religion and disregards the rights of religious minorities, especially Muslims?

Perhaps its too early to tell. We do know, for instance, that Narendra Modi has already made a series of well documented conciliatory messages following his victory including some directed specifically at religious minorities. Whether this represents genuine outreach or whether it is part of a recurring paradox that I have noted previously, where such statements are accompanied by other attempts by the same individual to “soft-signal” his bigotry to his base, remains to be seen.

Is India’s democracy dying?

I wouldn’t go to that extent. After all, we just recently and successful managed to conduct the largest democratic exercise in the world, where 900 million voters came together to decide who they would like to represent them, in a manner that was largely free and transparent. Exercising our franchise is the basic building-block of our democracy and the fact that we have managed to keep doing so, suggests that Indian democracy is very much alive. That being said, it is understandable to suggest that given the nature and track record of the country’s new political masters, there will be times when the stability and foundations of our democratic ethos might come under threat in the future. But if and when we get to that point, I am sure that there will be formidable voices, including that of my party, that will do everything in our power to resist any such attempt.

India’s immediate neighbors like Nepal feel uneasy with PM Modi due to the economic blockade he imposed on 2015 and also because of his stance on the Hindu religion. What can we expect to happen between India and its close neighbors in coming years?

I think it would be unwise on the part of the government to antagonize its close neighbors, including Nepal, with whom we have historically shared a very warm and fraternal relationship. I do believe that the recent blip in our relations was very unfortunate and the government of India could have addressed its grievances with Nepal using far more subtle and pro-diplomacy measures. Only time will tell if the government will be more thoughtful in its second term, but I hope that, with an experienced hand at the helm of its foreign affairs in the form of S. Jaishankar, our country will be responsible and accommodative in its relations with its close neighbors.