Shashi Tharoor: ‘Beginning of an important process, but lot depends on how it unfolds’
One of the G23 leaders, who was present at the Congress’s Chintan Shivir in Udaipur, Tharoor talks about the session, the hopes for a more consultative process, Hardik’s departure, and why the ideologies of most regional parties actually align with the Congress
* Your views on the Chintan Shivir and its outcomes?
I would say that the spirit of camaraderie and of common purpose was very much in evidence amongst those attending. Though we were divided into six groups and the groups did not have any interaction with each other, we did meet each other during meal times, breakfast and dinner, and there were lots of conversations and exchanges of views. I would say that, on the whole, the atmosphere was very constructive. I think that the one thing that some of us missed was that whereas each group had an interaction on each subject, there was no opportunity for the groups to interact and even to hear… For example, if we could have all got together like a Plenary and heard the chairmen of the six groups, reporting on each subject, it would have actually been an interesting way of involving everybody in the total outcome. That briefing only went to the President and the Working Committee, and then the Declaration was issued.
It took a while for everyone to figure out which recommendation had been retained and which had not been, and so on. That was the only slight disappointment. But the ultimate thing about the outcome… I would say that the cliche is true: the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. We have seen the beginning of an important process. But a lot depends on how it unfolds over the next few months… Because I think if people within the party feel there is a change, we will also be able to see it in a renewed burst of energy in the party. But if there is a sense that nothing much has altered and it is all carrying on as before, there could well be a different reaction. A lot depends on how the next few months go.
The AICC elections are also due. They have a couple of plans, including the Bharat Jodo Yatra. All of this could have the effect of energising the party and reviving it, and that is what all of us hope will happen. But a lot depends on our experience or the experience of the ordinary party members in how things unfold in the next few months.
* Were you surprised that none of the demands of the G23 leaders, including revival of the Parliamentary Board mechanism, were accepted?
The logic behind our approach has always been that we need a more consultative process of discussion prior to decision making. We thought the Parliamentary Board would be a good mechanism to provide for more broad-based consultation and decision making and, by the same logic, we also proposed elections to the elected posts in the Working Committee. In the Congress constitution, the Working Committee provides for elected posts and appointed posts. The idea would be that the appointed posts would then compensate for any balance missing in the elected posts. For instance, if you don’t have enough women, Dalits… being elected … the president can take care and appoint the rest. That practice, of course, would also have given us a more broad-based consultative process.
The party president and the Working Committee have decided against these proposals. The party president has said that there will be an advisory committee that would discuss issues, but it would not take decisions. It will serve as an advisory body to the president. Now it is difficult to second guess something till we see how it works in practice. Who is in that body, and how frankly and freely they talk, and how things move forward? Because it doesn’t exist yet. So when it happens, only then can we make a comment.
So I don’t want to prejudge in any way that this may not serve the purpose as we hoped for. The purpose is truly one of consultation. My own view is that, at the end of the day, the president will always have the authority to take the decisions herself. It was just a hope that the decisions would be taken after a broader process of consultations than has been apparent in the last couple of years in the party’s functioning.
* She stressed on the point that this advisory group will not be collective decision making. She said that in her speech.
That is something I think where we have no choice but to accept, because this is the president’s prerogative at the end of the day to take the decision, and be accountable for it. But what many people, I think, had wanted was that sense of participation in the process and reflection that precedes any decision. Many people in the Congress had been feeling… shall we say mystified… by some of the decisions that had been made in the last couple of years… and surprised at how the decisions were made and confused as to whose advice or whose views were taken into account before such decisions were made. So the process that we so-called reformists were asking for — I would say reformists rather than dissidents because it was all about strengthening the party and not in any way undermining it — the process they were asking was about a consultative approach to decision making. I think it would be presumptuous to say that we can dilute the president’s authority to take the decisions. We can’t. We can urge her to take decisions on the basis of greater consultation. And that is what was intended and perhaps what she has decided could serve that purpose, but it remains to be seen in practice.
* The exit of Hardik Patel. Your view on the constant exodus of leaders.
I am very disappointed in Hardik’s departure because I have met him and been impressed by the young man as somebody who has a lot of passion, a lot of intelligence and the ability to make very effective contributions. So it is a loss for us. Actually losing any valuable party member diminishes us. Everyone has made some contribution or could have made some contribution and losing them is not good. So one of the reasons why we wanted these reforms in the party was to give every Congressman and woman a sense of involvement in the party, which clearly Hardik felt he did not have, and that sense of involvement comes from, we believe, institutions within the party in which people can be effectively involved.
That was one of the good things about the Chintan Shivir… to have a room of 60-70 people where everyone had an equal right to express their views on every issue. To my mind, that kind of thing is what gives people a sense of involvement, a sense that they are stakeholders in the process and not merely foot-soldiers to carry out orders. That they are part of the process that leads to decisions being made. That has been our approach within the reformist group.
* Have you spoken to the other G-23 leaders?
To be honest, I had to come immediately to Kerala after Udaipur and I have not had a chance to sit and talk to all of them. I have sensed that by and large it is sort of a wait-and-watch reaction. I don’t want to speak for all the others because honestly I have been totally immersed in Kerala politics for the last two-and-a-half days… To my mind, many of the reformists had all along been interested in only strengthening the party, reviving it, energizing it and trying to make it a more effective instrument of the values and principles we all hold dear. Again, speaking for myself, I didn’t discover my values through politics. I have been in politics for 14 years but I have been publishing for 40 years. My views have been known to my readers well before I became a politician.
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* How do you see Rahul Gandhi’s statement that regional parties have no ideology and cannot take on the BJP? You are an MP from Kerala where the UDF mechanism has been in existence for decades.
Well, I think what he meant, at least what I understood him to say, was that a regional party by definition is wedded to interests of a particular region, state or an interest group whereas the Congress party has a national vision. And I think that is a fair proposition. But within each state we do cooperate with regional parties who we consider to be like-minded. The truth is that there is not much ideological difference with most of the parties that have a regional focus. Where in terms of policy issues are we going to find a major difference of opinion with the RJD, or the NCP, Trinamool Congress, or with most of the parties known to be regional parties, or parties that essentially embody the same values that the Congress has brought to the forefront during the freedom struggle and which have been enshrined in the politics of our country for many decades?
The BJP has always had its different approach, and that is a different matter. And, of course, the Dravidian parties have the Dravidian philosophy. But apart from the Dravidian philosophy, the rest of their policies again are quite congruent with those of the Congress party. So we have respect at the state level for these parties we work and cooperate with, but we believe that none of them can claim to have the national vision that the Congress party does have. And that would be my understanding of Rahul Gandhi’s message. I am sorry that some of the regional parties were offended but I don’t think the Congress party was in any way seeking to offend anybody. Speaking personally, I would say that it is self-evident to me that the challenge of taking on the BJP and the NDA will require a broad-based partnership with a large number of parties across the country, so that we can have a truly effective challenge mounted on the BJP.