"An underdog can spring a surprise": Tharoor

Interview with Congress MP Shashi Tharoor

28-Shashi-Tharoor Groundswell of support: Shashi Tharoor after filing his nomination at the Congress headquarters in New Delhi | Sanjay Ahlawat

Shashi Tharoor admits that he is the underdog in the Congress presidential election. But, he is confident that while Mallikarjun Kharge, his opponent, might have the support of senior leaders he has the backing of the ordinary party worker. He describes himself as an agent of change pitted against a system that protects the status quo. In an interview with THE WEEK, Tharoor says that no matter the outcome, the Gandhi family will remain the foundational pillar of the Congress, and the party's moral conscience and ultimate guiding spirit. Excerpts:

I am contesting these elections principally because of my convictions. If that results in any negative reaction... so be it.

Q/ Why contest?

A/ There are three principal reasons. For one, I share the view of the Congress president and of Rahul Gandhi that a democratic contest will only strengthen the party. I am also contesting because I have several ideas to reform and re-energise our party, decentralise authority within it, increase consultative mechanisms and give our karyakartas more respect and access to the leadership at all levels. And finally, I’ve always felt that if one believes strongly enough in something, one must be prepared to stick one’s neck out for it.

Q/ What is your vision for the party?

A/ The immediate priority, whosoever is elected, is to develop and implement a roadmap that will help the party find a way to appeal beyond the 19 per cent of the electorate that voted for us in 2014 and 2019. The party has to attract those who did not vote for it in those two elections and drifted to the BJP, most of them for reasons other than hindutva. This would require a leader who, while anchored in the history of the party, looks beyond the past to speak to the aspirations of young India.

We need to both articulate a positive and aspirational vision for the nation and work to fix the organisational deficiencies that have impeded our recent efforts. The answer lies in a combination of effective leadership and organisational reform. We must decentralise authority and empower the grassroots workers. This will free the new leader from the onerous burdens of over-administration and help create a strong state leadership.

A fresh leader, who has not been jaded by being entrenched in the current system for too long, could do both—energise the party and appeal to voters. I believe I can be that leader.

Q/ What kind of feedback have you got about your nomination?

A/ It has been humbling to hear calls of support from workers, many of whom I have not even met. The rising groundswell of support is evident, whether through phone calls, on social media, or in person, as seen in the rousing reception I have received in the cities I have visited so far. I have, through my candidacy, sought to become a voice for the average Congress worker and the majority of those who have reached out believe in my vision for the party. The majority of those who signed my nomination are ordinary, and for the most part young, Congress workers seeking a reformed and revitalised Congress. I can only pay them back by putting in my best during the campaign.

Q/ You met Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Was it to seek her assent?

A/ No. No 'green light' was needed. I had met with Mrs Gandhi for two primary reasons. One, in keeping with the Udaipur Declaration of 2022, which stipulated term limits of five years for those in leadership, I had gone to follow up my letter of resignation from my position as chairman of All India Professionals’ Congress. Mrs Gandhi had politely refused to accept my resignation, and asked me to continue in the post until the matter would be decided by the next Congress president. Second, as someone seeking to contest in the presidential elections, I felt that the decent and respectful thing to do was to inform the Congress president of my decision. I was touched by the warm manner in which she welcomed the idea and by her assurances that the Nehru-Gandhi family welcomes this election and would remain neutral so as to facilitate a free and transparent democratic process.

Q/ The Congress will now have a non-Gandhi president. Where would the Gandhis be in the scheme of things after this election?

A/ The Gandhis are indispensable for the Congress but I think the question of Gandhi or non-Gandhi is missing the wood for the trees. Our attention must be focused towards facilitating a democratic process that will strengthen the party and then, under the leadership of whosoever is elected, work towards reforming the party with a focus towards taking on the BJP.

The DNA of the Nehru-Gandhi family is inextricably intertwined with that of the Congress. Each of them will always hold a special place in the hearts of Congress members. Aside from the great legacy they have inherited from their illustrious forebears, they have consistently brought together the various groups, ideologies, geographies and communities that collectively make up the fabric of the party. They also have a great record of success and experience in leading the party, both when in government and during tough times in the wilderness.

Let us not forget the magnitude of what they have achieved for the party, or the ultimate sacrifice paid by two former presidents from the family. This is why many of us had expressed our hope that Rahul Gandhi would resume his leadership. It would undoubtedly be the most popular choice among the rank and file of the party. Now that it appears unlikely, it is my belief that all will recognise that the family are and remain the foundational pillar of the Congress, our moral conscience and ultimate guiding spirit. They cannot and must not withdraw from that role, whatever the formal designations they choose to retain.

Q/ Do you feel Rahul Gandhi ought to have come back as party chief?

A/ As I said, when after the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Rahul Gandhi offered his resignation as the party’s president, I was one of many who tried to talk him out of it. He stuck to his decision and we must respect that. That being said, the longer the Congress waits to get its act together, the greater the risk of a steady erosion of our traditional supporters and their gravitation towards our political competitors. Which is why I have long been an outspoken advocate for free and transparent elections within the party, including for the post of president—because a leader elected by the party workers will have a great advantage in addressing organisational challenges. Such a president would have extra legitimacy in reaching out to the public.

Q/ How do you view your rival Mallikarjun Kharge?

A/ I have great personal respect for Mr Kharge. At the age of 80, which includes six decades and more in the party, he is a kind of Bhishma Pitamah for us. He certainly brings abundant experience to the table. My own strengths are in different domains. But we both share similar convictions and strong loyalty to the ideals of the Congress. This is not a battle between rivals but a contest between colleagues. The choice for our voting colleagues on October 17 is only on how to reform and run the party most effectively. Having a healthy and constructive exchange of ideas will strengthen the Congress and intensify the interest we command in the national consciousness.

Q/ Looking at the show of strength for Kharge, is the playing field level?

A/ In some quarters, it has been suggested that there will be an ‘official candidate’ backed by the leadership. On the contrary, it has been repeatedly stressed by the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi in my conversations with them that the Nehru-Gandhi family welcomes these elections. They would like to see a diverse field of candidates and are neither directly nor indirectly backing any one candidate. I am happy to accept their assurances and remain convinced of the commitment of the party towards ensuring free and fair elections.

It does not bother me that many senior leaders have chosen to support Mr Kharge. I am seeking to represent the average Congress worker who desires change and recognises that business as usual will not take our party forward. Riding on the back of their widespread support, I am glad to move on with the election process.

Q/ Many of the leaders of the so-called G-23 seconded Kharge's nomination.

A/ The freedom to choose is the foundation of any democratic process, so I don’t have any specific take on who has publicly backed Mr Kharge or who has backed me. However, as I have repeatedly pointed out, the G-23 is not an organisation. The term is a creation of the media and a distraction from the larger cause of reviving the Congress, a priority shared by all Congress workers and not just a group of 23 people who happened to be in Delhi during the Covid lockdown to sign a letter.

I am neither contesting on G-23’s behalf nor sought any collective endorsement from them. My candidacy aims to revive the party, not to disrupt it. I am approaching these elections from the perspective of someone who has been advocating for a certain set of reforms as far back as 2014, much before there was any G-23.

Q/ Could your anti-establishment image become a handicap?

A/ That the establishment has rallied around the status quo doesn’t make me anti-establishment. It makes me an agent of change. Don’t forget I have spent a lifetime advocating personal beliefs that are also among the core convictions of the Congress. My writings and books speak of my profound commitment to a pluralist vision of India. My innings in Indian politics has been spent defending the values of inclusive India. I am contesting these elections principally because of my convictions. If that results in any negative reaction from certain quarters or tags, then so be it.

I do appreciate that I am widely seen as the underdog in this race, and that many people believe the establishment will come together to defend their own entrenched interests. But sometimes one must have the courage of one’s convictions to do the right thing, regardless of the likely outcome. And an underdog can always spring a surprise when the votes are counted!