If Shashi Tharoor does fight the elections for the next top boss of the Congress, it will be the biggest challenge yet to the Gandhi family's control over the party. Tharoor is not an old-school Congressman; he made a lateral entry into the party after a failed attempt at becoming Secretary-General of the UN, an organisation where he spent nearly three decades of his professional life.
His first brush with fame came in 1989 during the golden days of Indo-Anglian literature. Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel is a retelling of the Mahabharata in modern India, and it holds some clues to his attitude to the Nehru-Gandhi family and its politics. In that fictional world, the characters are thinly-veiled references to real historical figures; Dhritarashtra is Jawaharlal Nehru, Priya Duryodhani is Indira Gandhi, Yudhishtir is Morarji Desai, Drona is Jayaprakash Narayan, and the narrator Ved Vyasa is most probably a combination of C Rajagopalachari and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy.
Nehru as Dhritarashtra is potrayed as a blind idealist who self-confessedly is only good at foreign affairs since it “is the only subject where it does not matter that I can’t see: everything else requires an empiricism of which I am incapable.” Dhritarashtra has an illegitimate daughter with a Lady Georgina Drewpad (a not-too-subtle allusion to Lady Mountbatten) called Draupadi Mokrasi, better known as Di Mokrasi (democracy) who is envied and distrusted by her half-sister Priya Duryodhani (Indira Gandhi). It is telling that Nehru-as-Dhritarashtra leaves nothing for Di Mokrasi in his will when he dies, and she is courted and sustained after that by the rivals of the Kauravas (Congress), the Pandavas, who are led by their eldest brother Yudhishtir (Morarji Desai) and trained by Jayaprakash Drona (Jayaprakash Narayan).
If Tharoor has some sympathy for Nehru (he later wrote a biography of India’s first Prime Minister), he has almost none for Indira Gandhi. Her character Priya Duryodhani is portrayed as someone who “acted only according to the dictates of her own conscienceless mind” and who “emasculated her party by appointing state leaders rather than allowing them to be elected.” Tharoor’s narrator sets himself up against Duryodhani’s betrayal of the spirit of the freedom struggle by imposing a ‘Siege’ (Emergency).
It would be wrong to ascribe to the Shashi Tharoor of today the same assessment of Indira Gandhi that he had when he was just 33 years old. But even in 2003, just a few years before Tharoor joined the Congress, he hadn’t changed his views. In his biography of Nehru, Tharoor wrote that Indira’s proximity to her father gave her “a taste for power and its acquisition, with little sense of the larger good for which it could be used… she seized the mantle of Nehruvianism but never understood it.”
What about Indira’s ‘leftist’ economic policies, such as bank nationalisation? Here is what the narrator has to say about it: “Today we all realise what some of us realised even then, that nationalization (sic) only means transferring functioning and successful institutions from the hands of competent capitalists to those of bumbling bureaucrats.” Tharoor’s views on Nehru’s economic policies are equally negative. In the Nehru biography, Tharoor writes that the Prime Minister’s dogmatic adherence to Planning (with a capital P) “actively impeded, rather than facilitated, the country’s development,” and that even the achievements of Nehruvian ‘socialism’ “could have come through the private sector and that most of India’s public sector industries were so inefficient that the country would actually have been better off without them.”
Tharoor, therefore, is the most published critic of the policies of the Nehru-Gandhis within the Congress, a party he chose to join because he was “ideologically comfortable with it”. It would be easy to dismiss Tharoor as a caricature of the Lutyens liberal who prides himself on being a walking thesaurus, an English language – nob, a lover of elite comforts (remember that he landed in trouble for referring to economy seats in airlines as “cattle class”). Yet, unlike the Gandhis, whose attempts to flirt with temple-hopping found few takers, Tharoor has publicly called himself a Hindu, and written two books on it. His position on the Sabarimala temple-entry issue was carefully constructed to avoid being branded anti-Hindu. In an article written around that time, Tharoor backed those who opposed allowing women into the Sabarimala temple, writing that “when you disturb the beliefs of worshippers, you violate a space beyond reasoning.”
Despite his overt Anglophilia, Tharoor has successfully managed to project himself as a vocal anti-colonialist. His Oxford Union speech on “Britain owes reparations to her former colonies” went viral on YouTube, and his subsequent book on the Raj, An Era of Darkness, is a bestseller. This is a crucial positioning which makes it difficult for the BJP to attack Tharoor as a deracinated anti-national. One cannot call someone a Macaulayputra, however faux-British their accent might be, if they have made an impassioned critique of British colonialism. It is important to also remember that despite his lack of political pedigree, Tharoor withstood the “Modi Wave” to be re-elected to parliament both in 2014 and 2019.
Tharoor therefore appeals to that section of India’s elite which doesn’t like the BJP’s political Hindutva, but also dislikes Rahul Gandhi’s anti-capitalist rhetoric and his idealistic adherence to liberalism and his brand of secularism. Unlike Rahul Gandhi, who has closed most doors to India Inc, Tharoor would be welcome there. He is very clearly a supporter of the private sector, and opposed to big government. In fact, he has even backed the idea of cross-pollinating the bureaucracy by allowing lateral entries from the private sector, and temporarily posting government employees in multinational agencies and private companies. This makes Tharoor a better attracter of campaign finances than Rahul Gandhi is.
Tharoor is also smart at social networking; he has 8.3 million followers on Twitter, compared to Sachin Pilot’s 4.1 million, and P Chidambaram’s 1.7 million. This gives him significant reach amongst politically-conscious youth. Perhaps to add to that appeal, he recently did a stand-up comedy routine for Amazon Prime Video. He is conventionally good-looking and is always impeccably turned out, attributes which always help in contemporary TV-driven politics.
Yet Tharoor is unlikely to succeed against any Gandhi family loyalist (reports suggest it could be Ashok Gehlot) for the post of Congress president. The party is currently structured in such a way that it cannot do without the Gandhis at the top. If anything, this could be a dress rehearsal for Tharoor to see what kind of support he can get from the rank and file of the Congress party. It could be a precursor for him to launch a new Congress, which would be more conservative, pro-market, but also appeal to the old Lutyens’ elite. There was a similar attempt by C Rajagopalachari many years ago when he launched the Swatantra Party, but it failed. In Tharoor’s own words, “a pro-free enterprise, pro-Western, conservative party, never acquired enough support to mount a serious challenge to Nehruvian dominance.” Perhaps, now that Nehruvianism lies discredited, the time is no longer out of joint for such a party.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV’s Hindi and Business news channels.)