'No one has ever heard of a thulabharam scale collapsing before.'
'I was very fortunate to have escaped with a head injury, which could have been a lot worse if my optic nerve was hit or say if the hook had landed on my neck.'
On Vishu, the Malayalee new year, April 15, at 10:30 am, Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com was supposed to meet Thiruvananthapuram Congress MP Shashi Tharoor at his home for an interview.
When Shobha arrived at Dr Tharoor's home, he was not yet back from visiting temples.
At 10.45 am that Monday morning, at the Gandhari Amman Koil, while performing the thulabharam -- a Hindu ritual in Kerala where a devotee is weighed against offerings ranging from gold to food; sugar in Dr Tharoor's case -- the hook of a weighing scale came off and its iron panel hit the candidate's head, sending him to hospital.
Though he had to compensate for the loss of three precious days of campaigning, the always affable MP agreed to answer Shobha's questions on e-mail.
I am sorry about the freak accident you had at the temple. Now that you have lost a few days of campaigning, are you worried and restless?
Not at all.
On the contrary, the overwhelming love and warm support that I have been privileged to receive in these last few days -- starting from the excellent and attentive staff at the two government hospitals where I was treated, to the indefatigable Congress workers and even large numbers of non-partisan residents of the city -- has not only doubly energised my campaign, but has made me even more determined to see this through and not let them down.
And I am confident that with their infectious encouragement and support we will be victorious at the ballot box.
You asked for an enquiry into the accident. Do you suspect sabotage? If so, by whom?
The district Congress president asked for an inquiry because no one has ever heard of a thulabharam scale collapsing before.
If it was just an accident, then it could have happened to someone else and preventive action should be taken to ensure someone more fragile doesn't get hit in a more dangerous spot.
If there is even a remote possibility of sabotage, then an enquiry is all the more essential since it will help unearth foul play, if any.
However, the larger reasons is that as I have stressed, in my case I was very fortunate to have escaped with a head injury, which could have been a lot worse if my optic nerve was hit or say if the hook had landed on my neck.
Another person, a child for instance, may not have been that fortunate and therefore, an enquiry is a vital step towards finding out the reasons that precipitated the accident and to prevent it from occurring in the future.
From cattle class to interlocutor to squeamish, the words you use land you in trouble.
Have you ever felt people -- mainly the media -- who create such a hue and cry should at least look up the right meaning before criticising you?
Absolutely. The reality is that in each of these instances, the resulting furore and newsroom histrionics has been a joint creation of a certain malicious section of our media houses and the political masters that they answer to.
I have never used words in a manner that is intentionally misleading and have always maintained that I've only used words which to my mind convey the best and most precise possible meaning of what I would like to say.
If anybody looks at each of these instances properly, they'll quickly understand the distinction between what I meant to say and what some of my detractors have deliberately twisted my words into.
According to you, is Sabarimala a major issue in this election?
I think it certainly is playing an important factor in the election because the BJP is brazenly asking for votes in Lord Ayyappa's name, claiming they were the only ones who 'stood with the believers'.
The fact is that they have done no such thing -- they have in fact exploited the believers by making a hue and cry, creating bedlam in the streets and converting a sacred place of worship into a staging ground for unseemly political theatre.
The BJP, which claims to care about the believers, did nothing to ease their pain and distress -- they could easily have got their own central government to issue an ordinance to nullify the Court's verdict or introduced legislation to that effect in either the previous winter or Budget session of Parliament.
This they have not done, though I raised the issue in the Lok Sabha on both December 19 and February 5, saying that Kerala was in flames on the issue and they should bring about a law.
Their inaction does not surprise me, for they did not even get the central government to submit a review petition in the Supreme Court, as 55 others have done.
It is clear that the reason BJP leaders have not sought such a remedy (or introduced a legislative corrective) is that they do not want to solve the crisis in a hurry.
In the words of their own party president Sreedharan Pillai, to them, the Sabarimala issue is a 'golden opportunity' to polarise the community for electoral benefit.
A fever-pitch of emotion on the streets and repeated television images of protesting believers is far more useful to them than actually solving the problem.
That is why I have said that the BJP has not stood with the believers: They have only stood with their own political interests.
Similarly, the Left has tried to create a political drama from this issue.
They could have prevented the crisis if it had chosen to take measured steps to discuss the implementation of the Court order with stakeholders, including respected and representative civil society organisations like the NSS (Nair Service Society) and the SNDP (Sree Dharma Paripalana Yogam).
That is what they did with the issue of the Supreme Court judgment on a dispute between the Jacobite and Orthodox factions of the church, which they have not rushed to implement. But that sensitivity is missing on Sabarimala, for they too have preferred the drama to continue to seize the state since they also hope a polarised society will help them electorally.
The concerns of the people of the state, particularly that of the faithful, have consequently been sandwiched in between the cynical politics of both these two parties.
That needs to stop and beyond the elections, the Congress is committed towards finding an effective solution -- one that balances constitutional principles but at the same time, protects and safeguards the religious autonomy of the believers.
I have myself publicly committed to personally supporting any legislation in Parliament that will provide relief for the anguished believers.
You also first supported the Court decision, but later changed it. Was it because you understood the mood of the people?
My initial response was that of the instinctive liberal that I am, one who is proud to have a long record of passionate advocacy of women's rights.
Indeed, my first instinct was to respond to the Supreme Court judgement in that spirit.
But as I saw the genuine feelings of hurt among the believers, especially most of the Hindu women I met in my constituency of precisely the age that is intended to benefit from the Supreme Court's judgment, I realised that for them this was not a case of women's empowerment but one of violation of religious sanctity.
As a political representative, I need to be sensitive to the wishes of my constituents and responsive to the people I represent in Parliament.
That's why I took the stand that it was essential to treat long-established religious practices differently from normal principles of civil law.
I do not regret that decision, which still accords with the strong beliefs of a majority of my constituents.
But let me add that unlike the BJP, which has created bedlam in the streets, attacked police, obstructed devotees, and converted a sacred space into a stage for political drama, I believe in Constitutional solutions for Constitutional problems.
As I mentioned earlier, that is why my party has filed a petition in the Supreme Court and I asked the government in parliament on December 19 to offer legislation to remedy the issue.
But the BJP doesn't want a solution; they want disturbances, in order to keep the issue alive for their political benefit.
To ask them to assuage the pain of the Sabarimala faithful is like asking an arsonist to bring a fire extinguisher.
Many people I spoke to expressed the feeling that the Congress did not do enough when the issue was raging in Kerala. Do you agree?
I certainly think that is not the case and most people in the state appreciate that the Congress party took a strong decision to find a Constitutional solution to a Constitutional problem.
Rather than creating violence in the streets and desecrate a holy shrine (as the BJP has so wilfully done) or rush to implement a court order without any attempt to reach out to stakeholders and consequently reduce the temple to an unseemly political drama (as the Left did), the Congress party has taken a balanced position, one where the concerns of the aggrieved believers are at the heart of that decision.
We have not tried to mislead them like other political parties but have instead stood by them and have consistently worked to find an effective and sustainable solution to this issue.
Should the state or the court take decisions on religious matters?
I don't think there is a single clear-cut answer to this.
For one, each case is unique and comes with its own set of concerns and cultural practices at stake.
When religious matters or practices clash with constitutional principles (such as is the case with Sabarimala) then a decision can only be arrived through a judicial remedy or a legislative solution, both of which must take adequate measures to incorporate the sensitivities and concerns of all stakeholders involved.
Your party spoke as if you believed Pakistan more than the government after the Balakot attack. Shouldn't all political parties speak in one language in matters concerning national security?
I certainly don't think that was the case.
Rather, what the Congress party did was to question the BJP's wanton misappropriation of credit for the courage of the armed forces, and their exaggerated bombast while doing so -- never the armed forces themselves or for that matter, the issue of national security on which there are no political differences.
The Congress party has always believed and fought to strengthen the future of our national security and has consistently stood behind the men and women of the armed forces who are responsible for maintaining that security.
At the same time, unlike the BJP whose leaders (including Narendra Modi no less) have repeatedly and shamelessly asked people to vote for them on the basis of the sacrifice and valour of our armed forces, we have consistently refrained from using them in our political messaging because we believe that the integrity of the armed forces supersedes the reach of parochial politics in the country -- a lesson that is sadly beyond the limited comprehension of the BJP and the hollow men of straw behind the party.
There is a talk about an understanding between the Left and the Congress in most of the constituencies in Kerala as the BJP is the common enemy for both. Is it true?
I don't think that this is an issue that is limited to the Congress or the Left, but a larger feeling among the overwhelming majority of the people of Kerala who rightly see the BJP as a grave threat to the state's historic legacy of communal harmony and a social fabric typified by a celebration of our diversity.
It is for this reason that the people of the state have repeatedly and systematically voted against the BJP in each election and as a result, the party has failed to muster anything but a blank in previous editions of the Lok Sabha elections from the state.
That tradition is unlikely to change and I am confident that the people of Kerala will vote for any candidate that is most likely to defeat the BJP.
In case you lose the elections, would you continue staying in Thiruvananthapuram or move elsewhere?
I don't think there is any need for such idle speculation -- especially since I am confident that the people of Thiruvananthapuram will once again give me the opportunity to represent them and with an even larger majority than in the previous election.