Welcoming the recent "wave of Opposition unity", Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor on Sunday said the Congress will "de facto" be the fulcrum around which other parties converge, but asserted that if he were in the party leadership, he would not "crow about it" and encourage one of the smaller outfits to play the role of convenor of an alliance to take on the BJP in the 2024 general election.
In an interview with PTI, Tharoor said Rahul Gandhi's disqualification from Lok Sabha following his conviction in a 2019 defamation case has generated a "surprising wave of Opposition unity" with many parties having begun to feel the truth of the adage -- “united we stand, divided we fall”.
The former Union minister also said if most of the Opposition parties have now found a new reason to come together and stop dividing each other's votes, the BJP might find it much harder to win a majority in the 2024 elections.
Asked about Congress leader Digvijaya Singh's 'thank you Germany' tweet after that country took note of Gandhi's disqualification, Tharoor said he would have advised his senior party colleague not to say what he did.
"The international attention - and the negative press for India - should not surprise Mr (Narendra) Modi and his government. Doubts about the democratic credentials of this government have been growing for some years, as is evident from the global media," he said.
"Still, I would have advised my highly respected senior colleague and friend not to say what he did. It has always been an article of faith for the Congress party that we do not require or accept any foreign tutelage after 200 years of subjection to colonial rule," Tharoor stressed.
That pride is deeply ingrained in every Indian, he said, asserting that we are perfectly capable of solving our own problems.
"I am confident the people of India will vote for democracy and the right to determine who rules them," the MP from Thiruvananthapuram said.
On Gandhi's disqualification and the ensuing display of Opposition unity, Tharoor said the judgment has generated a "surprising and welcome wave of Opposition unity", as regional parties traditionally opposed to the Congress in their states - AAP in Delhi, TMC in West Bengal, Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Bharat Rashtra Samithi in Telangana, CPIM in Kerala - have come out in his support.
"Many have begun to feel the truth of the adage 'united we stand, divided we fall'; if they don't back Rahul now, they could be picked off one by one themselves, by a 'vengeful' government," he said.
If the Surat court verdict gives India a more united Opposition, it could be bad news for a ruling party that won the 2019 elections with just 37 per cent of the votes but more than 60 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats, he contended.
"The rest of the votes went to 35 victorious parties, all represented in the current Parliament. If most of them have now found a new reason to come together and stop dividing each other's votes, the BJP might find it much harder to win a majority in 2024," Tharoor asserted.
Asked if the Congress would be the fulcrum around which an Opposition alliance can be built to take on the BJP in 2024, he said, "Objectively we are the only Opposition party with a national footprint. There are about 200 seats where the elections will witness a straight fight between the Congress and the BJP."
All other Opposition parties are essentially strong in one state and have a presence in just one or two more, he said, adding that in the circumstances "we will de facto be the fulcrum around which the Opposition converges to offer a credible alternative."
"But if I were in the party leadership, I would not crow about it; in fact I would actually encourage one of the smaller parties to play the role of convenor of an Opposition alliance. Unity is far more important than pride of place, in my view," Tharoor asserted.
Everyone knows what the Congress represents and it doesn't need to insist on that being recognised, he said.
In fact a modicum of humility will go a long way towards winning over the other parties, said Tharoor, who had contested for the post of Congress president last year but had lost the internal party election to Mallikarjun Kharge.
Asked if he sees a parallel in Rahul Gandhi's disqualification with that of his grandmother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, in the 1970s, Tharoor said there is little doubt that public sympathy is with Rahul Gandhi after this "reprehensible disqualification and jail sentence".
People realise it is not good for democracy that the principal leader of the major Opposition party is sentenced to jail and denied a voice in Parliament, he said.
"When put that way, even several BJP voters tend to say that it's deeply damaging to democracy," he claimed.
The issue is no longer just about one man or one party - it's about safeguarding our democracy by granting every participant in it a level playing field, Tharoor said.
"As for what happened in the late 1970s, I am always wary of facile analogies simply because times are different and historical political circumstances are different. But we certainly hope and expect that this public sympathy translates into tangible support at the elections," the Congress leader said.
On the BJP's persistent attack on Gandhi, Tharoor said that it seems to him that the BJP is rattled and has been alarmed by the positive energy the Kanyakumari-to-Kashmir Bharat Jodo Yatra has generated among Congress workers.
"Once Rahul Gandhi commanded the nation's attention with his expunged speech in the Lok Sabha, a decision appears to have been taken to silence him politically," he alleged.
After years of trying to caricature Rahul Gandhi, they realise he is a "serious threat", Tharoor claimed and said that explains much of the BJP's approach in recent weeks.
"I am aware that cynics suggest that what we are seeing now is an elaborate game meant to build up Rahul Gandhi as the principal challenger, thereby turning 2024 into a 'Modi versus Rahul' election that the BJP is sure they can win. If they are right, that is Chanakya in the extreme, but building up a major rival is also an extremely high-risk strategy for the BJP," he said.
Since the result of the exercise so far has been to put a halo on Rahul and unite a fractiously divided Opposition, the entire episode looks like an "own-goal" scored by the current regime, Tharoor said.
Gandhi was disqualified from Lok Sabha on March 23 after a court in Gujarat's Surat convicted him in a 2019 defamation case over his 'Modi surname' remark.
- With PTI Input