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Tharoor: Modi talks of development but condones its opposite

At the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015, Shashi Tharoor accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of maintaining silence on his minister's comments on controversial issues and conversion campaign by groups like VHP. Tharoor decided to let his heart out in an exclusive interview with HT.

books Updated: Jan 24, 2015 12:58 IST
Manjula Narayan
Manjula Narayan
Hindustan Times
shashi tharoor,shahsi tharoor jlf,jaipur literature festival

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor was in the Jaipur Literature Festival to talk about his latest book 'India Shastra', but the media wanted more from him. Tharoor, who was recently questioned by the police investigating his wife Sunanda Pushkar, spoke to Hindustan Times about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, why won't he join the BJP or "utter Subramanian Swamy's name".

When did the idea for India Shastra book emerge?
I wasn't planning to write it so quickly but David Davidar (of Aleph) came to me and said 'This is the time with Modi's election for a book recapping the last few years and I thought yes, I think that does make sense'. So in a sense it was this watershed moment as it was being portrayed that prompted me to agreeing to doing it right away.

At your session you were talking about how the PM needs to reign in all the elements- How can he practically do it though?
He's remaking himself from a hate figure justly demonised by the likes of us into an avatar of modernity and progress; he's talking the language of development. In the same way, he will have to transform the BJP from the party of 'rath yatra' and 'ram janmabhoomi' and so on into a party that embodies his vision.

This is the fundamental contradiction Mr Modi has. He continues to talk the language of economic development but he condones its opposite. He condones hate speech and divisive politics by the kind of people who very frankly have no interest in the larger mission that he's articulating. And by condoning it he actually makes the fulfillment of those aspirations more difficult.

I give the example in the talk today of the whole foreign investment issue. If you want to attract foreign investment and you do, and Modi's aspirations cannot be fulfilled without significant amounts of foreign investment. But if you then simultaneously are reliant upon a party that is burning churches and attacking Muslims and declaring all India is Hindu and reconverting people then these chaps are not going to come.

And I actually have evidence for this in the comments I have received from investors who are absolutely appalled about what they are reading in their news papers of what's going on in India. It's not that an idiot, to put it bluntly, makes an irresponsible speech in a village in UP and it stays there, it never stays there. It's picked up first of all thanks to the electronic media and social media, it's picked up nationally and then the foreign correspondents based here take it international so Modi suddenly loses investors and loses the kind of sheen that he has been so busy cultivating.

I would be shocked if he doesn't realise that but so far he has taken no step to shut these people up partly because our system requires elections every few months. So if there's a constant need to win elections, you mollycoddle the people who can win you those elections and go and knock on doors and hold rallies and inspire or polarise the voters. But in the process your fundamental reason for being in power is being completely lost, if that is indeed truthfully your reflection of why you want to be in power and why you want to change the country, you're not going to be able to do it.

This contradiction is at the heart of the Modi dilemma and I genuinely worry for us as Indians and for the future of our country and our young people whether his aspirations can be fulfilled without his resolving this. His aspirations in the mouth of a Congress leader are a different story because we are against the divisiveness and the hatred and the kinds of activities that have been spawned in the aftermath of the BJP victory.

You have often been pictured doing rituals in temples.
I happen to be a Hindu. I actually have visited places of worship of every faith. In the Hindu faith I go as a believer; in the case of other faiths I go out of respect. And sometimes I go because politics requires it and sometimes a combination of the two. For example, every single year I have spent every Christmas-eve in a number of churches in my constituency. You can call that political because I happen to need the support of people who see me there. But I do it also because I had an upbringing in India, went to Christian schools, I have read the Bible, I know what the faith is about, the message, and I feel it was a very special occasion.

If I were allowed to go to Mecca for the Haj I would. I have been to the Golden Temple twice and I found it incredibly moving. It's a very uplifting place to be. The Hindu faith that I was brought up in was one that always respected other ways of reaching out to God or to the divine and always had the view that anything that is sanctified by the worship of many must be treated with respect. That's why I find that the Hindutva brigades are fundamentally un-Hindu by my definition of Hinduism.

My late wife Sunanda when she went to a Muslim mosque or she went to a Sikh gurudwara, she was like a believer. I have seen her kneel and light candles at so many churches and cathedrals. But if you asked her she says I am a proud passionate believing Hindu Shaivite.

For most Hindus who are serious about the values of their faith, it seems to me that respect for other religions and faiths are fundamental. It's ironic that some of these Hindutva types cite Vivekananada as their icon - they haven't read or heard or understood him at all since the last thing he would condone is intolerance. Their history stops in the 1920s, their politics stops with very limited and bigoted views of the founders of the RSS and the sad thing is that the genuine things we are cherishing in the Hindu legacy are being lost.

I cherish the accomplishments of Vivekananda, I cherish the genuine accomplishments of the ancient Indian scientists not the fake ones that these people are foolishly beating their chests about. You could not have had planes before the invention of the internal combustion engine, you could have had gliders maybe, nothing that could carry people. This is happening because these are unfortunately for the most part not educated minds.

Exclusive: Shashi Tharoor on life after Sunanda Pushkar's death

There's no way you would ever join the BJP?
First of all, I am not interested in joining the BJP. The BJP of today, which is the party resting on the bedrock of the 'Rathyatra' and 'Hindutva' and the campaigns of hatred and polarisation is the BJP I have criticised for three decades. Nothing's going to change that. I will speak openly against such tendencies. Unless the BJP changes more in the direction to the kind of 'sabka saath sabka vikas' message that Mr Modi has been given it will be a party that cannot retain the hold of the Indian electorate.

Last election, they got 31%. How many of that 31% believes in that Hindutva message? I believe significant chunks voted for other aspects and if they see Mr Modi fulfilling those aspects they will vote for him but if they see him leading a government that's spending all its time in promoting majoritarinism, I don't see them coming back to vote for them in 2019.

You are optimistic about that?
Well, it keeps us going (laughs).

Do you ever regret coming back?
There are moments when I have had my profound doubts. I came with a lot of starry eyed idealism and was rapidly disabused of a few notions in my first year in politics. It's been a series of 'agniparikshas' including with some within my own party and the trial by media I am being subjected to now. There are moments when I think 'why did I come back' and would I be enduring all this if I had simply stayed where I was and led the comfortable life that I was leading. But the thing is, I have always wanted to find meaning in my life.

When I came back to Indian politics I wanted to be involved in the great transformation of our country. But I am going to spend a lot of my time doing things either of sheer political management or of warding off unjustified attacks on myself. Where am I going to find the energy and time to make a difference? I do have moments of doubt but I am not a quitter.

Why do you think Subramanian Swamy is going for you like this?
I don't want to dignify that individual by uttering his name in my mouth. There's a certain element of evil in some of his pronouncements; the lies, the mendacity; there is malice that goes beyond explanation. Our politics throws up strange people and our media is willing to give them a platform even though much of what they have said over their long careers have been completely unsupported by fact or reality.

Nonetheless, the media seems to be far more interested in TRPs and breaking news than in the kind of painstaking verification and factual research that western media organisations do. I think we are ill served in our democracy by many of our politicians and many of our media. But that's obviously a bit of special pleading in my own case and I shouldn't repeat it. But the truth is many others are beginning to feel the same way.

How are you holding up?
I am alright. On this particularly issue', I am not saying anything because there is a police process and investigations on that I am fully co-operating with as I always have until its played out. Ask me again in a few months time.

You are the guy who got people on Twitter.
I am beginning to regret that. It has become a monster. I still remember my first year or two on Twitter as being extremely stimulating and positive where you got real people asking you genuine questions. Sometimes I got carried away by repartee that came back and bit me in the behind but apart from that it was genuine exchanges. If I went back to my first couple of years of tweeting, there's practically no trolling.

Then, of course, it went downhill. Certain political tendencies in this country and abroad discovered the advantage of social media as a means of bypassing the filters of mainstream media and they not only invaded the space in large numbers and dominated the space with unpleasant language but they also infected the mainstream media which felt obliged to catch up. I would definitely see that as a cause of where we are today, of the verbal violence of the social media, especially twitter.

Do you feel your party is supporting you?
There are obviously different voices within the party but for the most part and certainly institutionally the party is behind me.

Do you think your life might have been different if you had been uglier?
(Embarrassed) Well, it's not helping. People seem to hate me more.

First Published: Jan 23, 2015 20:21 IST