Shashi Tharoor talks about disruptions in Parliament, the Hinduism vs Hindutva discussion, on whether the Congress can be a nucleus of a joint Opposition and why he advocates a presidential style of governance. This session was moderated by Deputy Associate Editor Manoj CG
Manoj CG: Are the frequent disruptions in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha serving the purpose of the Opposition?
In the second term of the Narendra Modi government, Parliament has ceased to be a deliberative forum and legislative businesses have atrophied. Of course, in 2020 due to the pandemic, the government didn’t even convene the Winter Session. The 2021 Budget Session was abbreviated to the elections in five states. And then, the Monsoon Session was disfigured by multiple disruptions, amid which the government Bills were rammed through with minimal debate. In the Winter Session, we have seen the same story; a pattern of lack of discussions, disruption, avoidance of debates, and hasty unilateral passage of laws. That’s not what Parliament is supposed to be like. The government has no interest in being accountable and the Opposition feels that it is determined to show the intensity of their feelings on certain issues and through disruptions. The result is that Parliament is not functioning as it is supposed to. I fear it has been reduced to a combination of a notice board for unilateral government announcements and actions, a rubber stamp for the government’s legislative agenda, and a performance stage for Opposition protest.
Manoj CG: The TMC did not attend most of the meetings called by Mallikarjun Kharge. Developments outside Parliament are casting a shadow on the unity inside Parliament. How do you see Opposition unity in this light?
What happened, to some degree, in the recent months reflects the acrimony that goes back to the (West) Bengal elections. My hope is that this will fade with time. If the Opposition parties can bury their differences and come together in the future, I am confident that we will be able to mount an effective fight against the government.
Manoj CG: How prudent is for the Congress to enter the territory of this discussion of Hindutva vs Hinduism?
I published my book (Why I Am a Hindu) in January 2016 when the BJP had spent a couple of years in power trying to promote its notion of Hinduism as a political identity, not really as a spiritual quest. I felt it was important to give a counter view, which was not new because, what I said in the length of the book, I had already mentioned 20 years earlier in a few pages in my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium. This precedes my involvement in party politics. The Congress has been wrongly accused of pedalling ‘soft Hindutva’ and Rahul Gandhi has seized the opportunity to draw a clear distinction between the Hinduism he professes and the Hindutva of any kind — soft, hard or otherwise.
Aashish Aryan: You say Parliament has been reduced to a notice board of sorts. Do you think it is the same for the Standing Committee and Joint Committee of Parliament?
I see little more constructive work with the Standing Committee, especially because they take place behind closed doors and no one is grandstanding for any camera. There are a couple of things in the committee system that mark a significant departure from seven decades of previous practice. One example I was a victim of, was when the BJP government decided that the perpetual tradition since committees existed of the External Affairs Committee chaired by an Opposition MP, they ended that practice and removed me as Chairman of External Affairs and put a BJP MP on top. The second kind of practice that you’re seeing is when there are contentious or sensitive bills, rather than referring them to a Standing Committee, within the mandate they fall, the government has consistently preferred to name instead a Joint Select Committee, which is always chaired by the majority party, namely the BJP. So for example, on the data protection Bill (Personal Data Protection Bill), it was not given to my committee on whose agenda the topic of data protection actually exists, and was given to a separate committee chaired by a BJP MP. We have seen the same thing happening on the child marriage Bill (Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021).
Aashish Aryan: Experts and civil societies have said that this data protection Bill gives more power to the government than to the people. What are your views as the chairman of the Standing Committee?
Let me not express my views as chairman, but rather as an individual. In the previous Lok Sabha, before I became chairman of this committee, I had already introduced a private member’s Bill proposing a data protection law. I think this Bill does seem significantly deficient. I had taken the very clear view that the basic core principle of data protection in our country ought to be, which is the best practice internationally also, that data belongs to he or she who generates it, that the government may have legitimate reasons to have access to that data for specific purposes, but that should be limited by both purpose and time. And once that purpose is fulfilled, the data should either be destroyed or returned to the person who owns the data. That’s principle number one. Principle number two, there can be no exceptions for the government for the simple reason that the government is very much the reason why we need a data protection Bill. And then the third thing I wanted was that in case of any disputes, adjudication must take place with an independent data protection authority, whose members should be completely unconnected to the government.
Aashish Aryan: Would you agree with the views, especially on the dissent notes of the MPs, that it is like giving a blank cheque to the state to do with the data as they please?
I’m afraid it does. Every protection afforded by this law, can be ignored with impunity by the state, citing national security, national sovereignty, relations with foreign countries — there’s that list of seven classic exemptions. Almost anything the government wants to do is bound to fit into one of those seven exceptions. So you’re going to end up in a situation where the government will do exactly as it pleases, and ours will be the democracy where the public has the least protection from government intrusion into their data and government control of, and access, to their data.
Harikishan Sharma: Your party has strongly opposed the introduction and passing of Election Laws (Amendment) Bill 2021, which is aimed at linking Aadhaar with the voter ID. Does the Congress plan to take the fight outside the House too and does the party want to challenge it in the court?
I think it’s pretty clear there will be a challenge in the courts, whether it’ll come from the party or from individual lawyers, individual public figures, is a different matter. I think it’s for the party leaders who do these things to decide whether it’s sufficiently seen as a mass issue, the way in which a price rise affects every single individual, would having to take the Aadhaar number to the poll, be seen in the same way by every voter. That 14-month satyagraha by the farmers really began to threaten the BJP. As a result, they decided to cut their losses. I don’t quite see something similar happening here, at least not yet.
Vandita Mishra: Common sense says that the Congress is the centrepiece of any Opposition to the BJP. But we have seen election after election, and if you look at the data as well, you find that when the BJP is fighting the Congress, the overwhelming result is in favour of the BJP. Whereas, when the BJP is ranged against a regional force, that’s when the BJP is and can be defeated. Is it time to reconsider that common sense? Like Prashant Kishor says that there is a Congress space, but it does not necessarily have to be filled by the Congress.
I think all Opposition parties must realise that the only way one can effectively defeat the sort of gorilla on the beach in the shape of the BJP is by getting together. The Congress space is a space built on the Constitution, on institutions, on social justice policies, welfare policies, that whole mix of what has loosely been called Nehruvian ideas. If you look at the Opposition parties, I would say the vast majority of them subscribe to those same ideas anyway. If you think of the Opposition space, or the Congress space, as a space occupied by ideas, then those ideas are actually also the ideas of Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, or of Tejasvi Yadav or Akhilesh Yadav. Therefore, my argument is that we all broadly believe in the same understanding of India, we celebrate India’s diversity, we want people of all communities to get along together, we believe in social justice programmes, we want to see an inclusive India prospering. That space is one that all of us can occupy in a very all-inclusive and embracing way.
Krishn Kaushik: Do you think a party like Congress, in which there is a leadership crisis at the moment, can be a nucleus of a joint Opposition?
The Congress is clearly the largest-single party in the Opposition. It has the broadest presence in pretty much every state of the country. And that’s what makes it the party that naturally others can cluster around. Then that doesn’t necessarily enter into tactical questions of who should lead or who should be the convenor or the general secretary, and so on. As an observer, I would say that Congress is indispensable to an Opposition formation. But the leadership of a member of the Congress party may not necessarily be so; there can be an amicable conclusion on somebody else to be the face or the convenor of that grouping.
Shubhajit Roy: The sense that one gets by talking to various regional parties in the Opposition fold is that most of them have a feeling that the Congress has this sense of entitlement in terms of the leadership role. Is that a fair assessment?
In the past, because the Congress was so much larger than any other Opposition party, the Opposition parties naturally gravitated to the Congress, as late as UPA I and II where the Congress was smaller than the seats it had, when it lost the 1989 elections. Nonetheless, it was five, or even six times larger than the next largest Opposition party in Parliament. So they all came together, and there was no debate or discussion about the fact that Congress would head the UPA. Therefore, that’s a consideration that has to be borne in mind — should we have an alliance but wait for the election results to see who is the obvious leader? That’s certainly one possible formula. Another could be that we appoint a convenor of the Opposition alliance, but that person is not necessarily the prime ministerial fish. A third one is that each party essentially goes almost alone in their own areas where they are strong, with the other parties agreeing not to challenge them in those areas.
Vandita Mishra: There is another common sense, especially in the Opposition ranks, which is that you either talk of communal issues, or you talk of secular and developmental issues. Is it that the Opposition is fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the response that is required to the BJP’s project, which is that there is no inconsistency between talking of religious issues and developmental issues?
The core message is a very simple one: are you better off than before these people came to power? For the vast majority of Indians, their lives have not improved. So you move the conversation from a politics of identity to a politics of performance, and the BJP’s performance has left much to be desired. So to allow the government to get away with purely getting people to vote about identity issues, I believe is an abdication on our part.
Vandita Mishra: Can you actually continue with this line you’re drawing between identity issues and governance issues? The BJP does not draw that line; the BJP talks of identity and governance in the same breath. Can the Opposition then answer the BJP by continuing to draw a hard line between these two?
When you’re going out to campaign, you talk to people about what’s on their mind. That’s what you need to focus on. The government understands this. So when they don’t have a good performance to point to, what do they do? They beat the drums on national security. Now, somehow, we were not able, perhaps, to keep the conversation sufficiently focused on the developmental and governance failures of the government, that they were able to distract a lot of voters with national security. And that certainly contributed in north India to some of the results we’ve seen.
Aakash Joshi: Where the battle is being fought politically and ideologically, there is a sense that the Congress is so afraid of being labelled a Muslim party that you cease to be weighing in on issues that matter.
We were caricatured as being a party that allegedly appeases the minorities and so I think there was a consciousness among some of the political managers of the party that we must avoid being tarred by that brush. We may have a certain identity, we may have a certain clear vision within our own minds but if we say or do things that can lead to us being portrayed in a certain light to the voters, we will unnecessarily lose votes without in any way changing what we actually stand for. It’s not entirely fair to imply that somehow the Congress is trying desperately to signal that it’s as Hindu as the BJP or staying away from Muslims and others.
Krishn Kaushik: Last year, 23 leaders from the Congress wrote a letter, famously now termed as G23. Have any of those issues that were highlighted in that letter been resolved?
Now that the issue has been blown up out of all proportion into some sort of dissident thing, we have to resolve these things within. Clearly there has been no significant progress in some of these areas and Covid-19 has also cramped the style of the party. The party has decided to hold an AICC in September 2022. In between what may happen, will remain to be seen. Ultimately, a lot of these issues are best settled within the party forums.
Krishn Kaushik: Previously, you had advocated for a presidential style of governance within the country. What Prime Minister Modi is doing at the moment, is it what you foresaw when you were advocating for presidential style of governance in the country?
When I speak about a presidential system, I’m anchoring myself on one fundamental principle — of the value of separation of powers. Right now, you have a situation where people are not elected to legislate, to hold the government accountable; they’re elected to the legislature to be the government. And once they’ve created the government, they cease to have any independence or any value whatsoever. In a presidential system, you will have much less danger of the kind of autocratic rule that you’re seeing under Modi today, where anything he decides gets through Parliament. Right now, the Prime Minister has given us a situation where he is far closer to the kind of dictatorial ruler that people who oppose the presidential system are afraid of.
Esha Roy: Once the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill becomes a law and comes into force, it will supersede the other personal laws. What is your opinion about this?
There is a perception on the part of some minority groups that this is simply a way of bypassing personal laws. A second one is a concern of feminist organisations. Third, there is a concern that once you make any marriage under 21 illegal, you may actually be depriving girls forced into underage marriages of their legal rights upon divorce or abandonment.
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