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Congress Presidential Polls: Those At The Top Don’t Welcome Change From Below, Says Shashi Tharoor

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor says he seeks to represent the average Congress worker who seeks change and reforms, and recognises that ‘business as usual’ will not take our party forward.

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Shashi Tharoor paying tribute to Rajiv Gandhi in Chennai
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For the first time in over 20 years, Indian National Congress will see a non-Gandhi at the helm of its affairs. In the fray is Gandhi-loyalist Mallikarjun Kharge against diplomat-turned-politician Shashi Tharoor. 

Tharoor has accused many Pradesh Congress Committees (PCC) for being unfair to him. Syed Kamran Husain interviewed Tharoor for Outlook about his plans if he is elected and his apprehensions regarding the fairness of the elections. 

Are you getting the desired support from within the party?

Let me just say that my experience has been that the PCC in some states have been following the guidelines issued by the party’s election authority [with regard to support to candidates] better than others. The party’s election authority headed by Madhusudan Mistry has been at all times accessible and supportive and I am grateful to them for their support and for their efforts in making this election possible.

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Ashok Gehlot called you an elite and has openly backed Kharge. When such major leaders openly support a candidate, your candidature gets weakened. How do you respond to that?  

It does not bother me that many senior leaders have chosen to either support Mr Kharge directly or not back me. It is hardly a surprise that those at the top do not welcome change from below! I am seeking to represent the average Congress worker who is seeking change and reform, and recognizes 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 an election process that in my view will only strengthen the party.

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Could someone who is supposedly ‘elite’ win three consecutive Lok Sabha elections from a constituency that is primarily rural? That too in a seat that had been with the Left in the two elections prior to that. I grew up in a middle-class family, where my parents made it only through the traditional Indian way of studying and working hard. The same was true for me as well. I neither had any inheritance or any political godfathers who helped me get to where I am. I worked my way to good academic results and then performed well at whichever professional role I have carried out and that is how I am here today. That is a story shared by many who hail from aspirational India. 

If elected, what are the first steps you would take to revive the Congress?

There are 10 focus areas that I have outlined in my manifesto which I believe are essential to rejuvenating the party. These have been circulated in detail to party colleagues and have been shared with the media as well.  Amongst these the top priorities would be as follows:

a) Our party must collectively embrace a process of rejuvenation, particularly by bringing in fresh faces and young blood into its leadership at all levels — village, block, district, and state as well as national. We must become the party of Young Indi — they are the future. The majority of Indians is already under 25. 

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b) We must work towards decentralising the organisation, empower state leaders, and facilitate and encourage leadership at all levels (including empowering grassroots workers), not just at the top. At the same time, respect the efforts and sacrifices of long-time party workers by rewarding them suitably with appointments and authority in this effort.

c) We must also broaden participation in our party, by reviving and strengthening consultative mechanisms such as the Parliamentary Board, elections to 12 seats in the 23-member Congress Working Committee and the creation of a Shadow Cabinet to hold the government accountable.

If you win, what will be the role of the Gandhi family, particularly Rahul Gandhi, in the party?

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As I have often pointed out, the Nehru-Gandhi family has held, and will always hold, a special place in the hearts of Congress party members — and with good reason too. 

Aside from the great legacy they have inherited from their illustrious forebearers, they have consistently brought together the various groups, ideologies, geographies and communities that collectively make up the fabric of the Congress 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, when they still managed to rally the men and women of the Congress together. 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. 

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This is why many of us had expressed both publicly and in private our hope that Rahul Gandhi would resume his leadership, an outcome that would undoubtedly be the most popular among the rank and file of the party. Now that it appears unlikely to happen, it is my hope that the family will recognise that they 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.

The Gandhi family is often considered as the binding force for the entire Congress. Do you think you will enjoy such support from the fellow Congressmen?

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I don’t think anyone can replicate even remotely the kind of support and adulation that the Nehru-Gandhi family enjoys among Congress workers and for good reason too. As I said, they are the force that holds the majestic diversity of the Congress together historically and a foundational pillar of our party. 

During the course of my election campaign, the feedback that my campaign has elicited from ordinary Congressmen and women from across the country has been incredibly positive and even effusive. It has been humbling to hear calls of support from party workers from around the country. The rising groundswell of support is evident, whether through phone calls, on social media, or in person, as seen during the rousing reception I have received in several places. I have, through my candidacy, sought to become a voice for the average Congress worker and the majority of those who have reached out have done so because they believe in my vision for the party and that my candidacy offers a certain change to our current functioning. 

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The majority of those who have signed my nomination papers are ordinary, and for the most part young, Congress workers who are seeking a reformed and revitalised Indian National Congress. I can only pay back their moving support by putting in my best foot forward during the campaign.

Lately, we have seen many Congress leaders jumping the ship and becoming a source of embarrassment for the party. How would you check it?

I believe that, quite simply, some of our leaders lost faith in the party. We need to revive our self-belief and I would argue that the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the presidential elections are both major elements in this process.

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You come from the southern part of the country. But the real challenge for the party seems to be from the northern region, particularly in the Hindi Heartland. Do you have any roadmap to improve the party’s prospects in this region?

The party has to find a way to appeal to those who did not vote for it in those two elections and drifted away to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), most of whom did so for reasons other than Hindutva. This would require a leader who looks beyond history to speak to the aspirations of young India and address the anxieties of everyone else – one who firmly believes the party can set the country on the route to a better society, one that is ready to take on the opportunities offered by the world of the 21st century.

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At the same time, along with organisational reforms, we must reiterate the core convictions that the Congress has historically championed and make our differences with the BJP clear. The Indian National Congress stands for “Inclusive India”, a land that lives up to the Constitution’s promise of liberty, fraternity, and justice for all, irrespective of religion, region, language or gender. 

While honouring India’s rich cultural and spiritual traditions going back millennia, we will constantly affirm the principles of secularism and respect for India’s diversity and pluralism. We will support civil liberties, including freedom of expression and the press, and citizen’s right to privacy, keeping the government out of the kitchen and the bedroom. 

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As Mahatma Gandhi taught us, we will offer a haven for the poor, the marginalised and the disenfranchised, and fight for social justice, with special attention to the problems of women, SC/ST communities, and minorities. We will support economic growth, a robust national security posture, and an energetic and confident foreign policy, in keeping with the rich legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru.

You have at multiple occasions expressed concerns regarding the fairness of the elections. What exactly is your apprehension? Is Kharge’s proximity to the Gandhi family a factor?

This is the first time our party is holding elections for the post of Congress President in 22 years. So there was always bound to be certain gaps in the system despite the best intentions of those involved in administering the election process. Such glitches—such as certain disparity within the lists of delegates or the absence of key information— are inevitable and I do not attribute any malice to anyone nor do I think anyone’s proximity is a factor behind this. 

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I am grateful to the Chairperson of the party’s election authority, Shri Madhusudan Mistry-ji, and his team for the manner in which they have been supportive and accessible for their efforts in bringing this election together. I am sure it was no easy task. That said, the behaviour of some leaders and office-bearers in brazenly flouting the official rules and guidelines, while pushing support for Mr Kharge, has been disturbing and has contributed to a playing field that is not level.

(Syed Kamran Husain is an independent journalist. He tweets at @kamranhusain_.)

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