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Tharoor: 'I am not a villain'

By George Joseph, for
February 12, 2015 10:32 IST
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'Unfortunately, my silence, which is a matter of procedural exactness and propriety, is being maliciously construed by some as an admission of guilt.'

'I do not require validation from a hostile media. My conscience is clear.'

Image: Congress MP Shashi Tharoor during an election campaign in his Thiruvanathapuram constituency in Kerala. Photograph: Facebook

Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor speaks exclusively with George Joseph for

On the media trial over his wife Sunanda Pushkar's death.

I confess it has not been easy. There are times when it becomes extremely frustrating to see the media spew pure slander in the name of investigative journalism.

It becomes all the more difficult because the sad demise of my wife is a matter of an ongoing investigation and it would be irresponsible of me to make casual statements or engage in debate in the media, leaving aside the fact that it is also an intensely personal matter for myself and our bereaved family.

Unfortunately, my silence, which is a matter of procedural exactness and propriety, is being maliciously construed by some as an admission of guilt, and I am being cast as a villain simply because I refuse to allow myself to be drawn into the media's demand for onscreen trials and speculation in the midst of an ongoing police investigation.

Some have gone so far as to call for my resignation -- but for what, it is not clear, since I have not been charged with anything.

As far as I am concerned, if we are going to become a country in which charges in the media, however unfounded and false, should oblige a politician to give up the trust of his voters, which he has won the hard way through dedicated work and by winning challenging elections, then what kind of a democracy has ours become?

We have rules in this country and we have laws in our society. I have always respected the law, and I shall continue to do so, and I retain the hope that my silence will be vindicated by the law of the land.

In matters of conscience, I do not require validation from a hostile media. My conscience is clear and I have faith that the truth --- the real truth, and not theories daily dished out for TRPs (Television Rating Points) -- will triumph.

On rumours that he may join the BJP

For decades I have written firmly against the political tendencies incarnated by the BJP.

I have a 30-year paper trail, through my 15 books and literally hundreds of essays, firmly expressing and confirming my ideal of a pluralistic, free, liberal India.

This is not the India envisioned by the BJP and its ideological founders.

Therefore, it is inconceivable that I will ever consider joining a party which, no matter how well it camouflages its core agenda in this age of 24/7 media hype and PR, enshrines the bigotry, the divisiveness, and the politics of hatred, which sadly the BJP has allowed itself to become a vehicle for, and which is completely antithetical to the idea of India I cherish and repose my faith in.

These rumours of my 'imminent' defection to the BJP are all concocted by sections of the media that have, for some perverse reasons, enjoyed twisting my words and drawing conclusions that suit their own sensationalist agendas for years now.

I can categorically state that I am not joining the BJP; that it is in the Congress party that I have found a congenial home, and that I have no intention of defecting, no matter how hard media houses, pressed to 'invent' breaking news and stories, wish me to.

Image: A man who bears some resemblance to AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal holds a broom in his hand and celebrates the party's Delhi victory in Mumbai. Photograph: Sahil Salvi/

On the current political situation in the country

One of the most talked about, and I dare say overrated, characteristics of national politics in India today is the glorification of Prime Minister Modi and the cultivation of an aura of invincibility around him.

The victory of the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 spun this out of control. But the unprecedented success of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi has finally confirmed what we in the Opposition have been, for some time now, quietly pointing out -- that this picture of an infallible Modi is more myth than substance.

In the recent past, the national narrative has been dominated by the BJP and Modi, who have commanded the airwaves and shown a talent for sound-bites and photo-ops. But the gap between rhetoric and results is finally catching up with them.

The reality check they have received in Delhi should now alter this, and unless the prime minister, who seems to have become a victim of his own PR, shakes off the attendant complacency and begins to deliver, the 'Modi wave' will be reduced before long to a ripple.

The process has already begun.

On Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP government

Eloquent speeches and liberal announcements are made without any tangible action plans, adequate budgetary funding, or execution capacity.

To take an example, I was invited to participate in the prime minister's Swachch Bharat campaign. It was a gracious gesture and I agreed to participate due to the importance of the cause and its non-political nature, though only after expressing a reservation that this should not merely become an exercise for photo-ops and hollow publicity.

My team and I cleaned up an area in my constituency in Thiruvananthapuram, and to demonstrate the need for long-term solutions, we donated a biogas plant to the neighbourhood.

We followed it up by sending to the PMO a detailed proposal to revive and rejuvenate a canal and waterway, which would have had a tremendous lasting impact.

To this, however, I have had no response after all these months. So the impression I get is that once the cameras and mikes are off, the Modi government's drive to actually accomplish their promised development goals becomes seriously subdued, and there is a degree of indifference.

Similarly, the model village scheme was announced, but not one additional paisa has been allocated to make any village a model one.

So we have ambitious announcements followed by glaring gaps in terms of implementation, and liberal pronouncements seemingly unconnected to actual policy.

Meanwhile, greater attention is being devoted by this government and its adherents to the rewriting of textbooks extolling the virtues of ancient science over modern technology, while organisations like the khaki-shorts-wearing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose views on every subject, be it economics, politics, history, culture, morality, gender, reality, and practically everything else is illiberal, have been running rampant.

The tensions between the two tendencies -- the economic reformism preached at the top and the cultural nativism that animates the majority beneath -- have begun to affect the government's agenda.

What makes it worse is that the political majority needed by the prime minister to pursue his economic policies relies entirely on the political campaigns and organisational capacity of the very people whose chauvinism is undermining him.

Modi has built his appeal by putting the focus on what the Indian people manifestly need -- more development, better governance, wider socio-economic opportunities. But having won an election by attracting voters to these themes, he has given free rein to the most retrograde elements in Indian society, who are busy dividing the country.

Modi cannot be oblivious to this fundamental contradiction, but he can only resolve it by jettisoning the very forces that have helped ensure his electoral victory.

His real test, I think, lies in how he will navigate this situation.

Image: US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi.

Modi's silence on growing religious intolerance

Much has been made of President (Barack) Obama's recent visit to India, but on this question one needs only to quote his speech just before his departure from Delhi. 'India will succeed so long as it is not split along the lines of religious faith,' he had said, of course couching all this in warm, courteous language.

Obama's message was pointed: If India does not resolve the problems that are dividing the country, Modi's proclaimed ambitious development plans will be thwarted.

When you need foreign trade and foreign investment, you don't go around making foreigners, Christians and Muslims, feel unwelcome, but the rhetoric of majoritarian intolerance and bigotry that Modi seems unable or unwilling to stop has precisely that effect.

It is a message many of us in the Opposition have also been giving Modi. But coming from the US president, whose visit is being hailed by the government as a diplomatic triumph and whose 'bromance' with Modi has seen first names and much friendly banter, it is a pointed reminder of the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the latter's regime.

Our prime minister has had a long track record of advocating Hindu supremacy, and he depends for his political success on the support of people who have variously wanted all non-Hindus to convert 'back' to the mother faith or be driven out of the country.

Modi has to realise, even on a basic economic level, that his ministers simply don't understand that they are pushing away foreign investment by campaigns like 'ghar wapasi.'

Or when they competitively decide that Hindu women must produce 4 or 10 or more children, with no consultation, of course, with the women actually concerned.

Religious intolerance is not an isolated issue and unless Modi confronts his own colleagues and their divisive agendas, the economic promises he has made to the voters cannot be fulfilled. And if they cannot be fulfilled, well, we in the Congress will be waiting for the next elections.

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George Joseph, for in New York