Rajdeep’s Political Rumble: Shashi Tharoor Vs Swapan Dasgupta

Echoing the Flavour of Our Times

India Today’s Rajdeep Sardesai has a formidable presence in the mainline media. In a recent programme, when Elections 2024 were more than half way, he interviewed two leading lights of the day, Congress politician Shashi Tharoor and BJP’s Swapan Dasgupta. Both, incidentally, studied in the same institution, Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College; both are articulate, erudite and bring their side of the discussion and debate around which these times are centred. Read on, as Rajdeep met the two separately, on the same programme. Reproduced with the permission from India Today Television.

Shashi Tharoor: The narrative of 2019, which was a national security narrative, which has also been a failure on the Chinese border. They decided they were going to go with the Hindutva narrative, centering the campaign around the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. And that fell flat, to their own surprise, because that was no longer enough. And as the India BLOCK came up with a series of issues centered around the wellbeing of the voter, the Nyaya concept, the five principles of collective social justice, suddenly you actually had an alternative narrative that was commanding the space; which is, let this election be about you, the voter, about your wellbeing, about your life.

And because the BJP didn’t have an answer to that, the prime minister, the home minister and other campaigners doubled down upon the Hindutva narrative and went into this extraordinary paroxysm of inflammatory rhetoric on Hindu Muslim issues, which I believe has been a sign of their desperation, but they’ve not been able to drag the election narrative back into that.

The rest of us are simply, I must say recoiling at the kind of language we are hearing from no less eminence than our Prime Minister. And we are focusing on what really matters to the voter. It is about the fundamental question of your finally asking yourselves, what has the Modi government done for you other than give you wonderful rhetoric about Hindutva, and you can’t find a good answer, then either you vote for us or you stay at home. And we are seeing examples of both in the first three phases. I think this is going to be a game changing election. And the lack of a narrative, as you see, as you suggest, is going to lead to the day when the only narrative that matters is the exit of this government.

Rajdeep Sardesai: Dr. Tharoor, many believe that the Congress subtly or not so subtly, is offering according to the government, is redistribution of wealth. And this has raised concerns in certain quarters that the Congress, rather than rewarding wealth creators in the middle class, is talking now of redistribution of wealth. That’s a theme that the Prime Minister has picked up on.

Shashi Tharoor: But Rajdeep, we haven’t said that. We haven’t said that. You know, our critics cannot put words into our mouth. Our critics cannot define for us what we stand for. The Congress party manifesto is what we are running on, what we stand behind. I was a member of the Manifesto committee, and I’m astonished by the caricaturing of that manifesto we’ve seen coming out of the BJP Number one, they claim it was written by the Muslim League. The word Muslim doesn’t even feature in the manifesto. Second, the word redistribution, doesn’t figure in the manifesto. We’ve in fact talked about a stable, predictable tax system that will actually allow entrepreneurs to flourish in our society. And I’m disappointed that someone like you, Rajdeep, would fall prey to allowing their mischaracterizations to define your questions to us. Ask us about what we have actually said, what we have actually published in the manifesto. And we’ll be very happy to answer that.

Rajdeep Sardesai: During the campaign. Dr. Tharoor, we’ve seen what some are calling weapons of mass distraction, and the accusation is also made, or the claim is made that the opposition has thrown some self-goals that the government has every reason to respond and then smash out of the park. So, whether it’s a Sam Pitroda calling one day for a debate on inheritance tax or remarks of which, which suggest some form of racial profiling, or indeed, dare I say, when you and leaders in Maharashtra, when you are in Mumbai, seem to suggest that 26/11 terror attack might have had a non-Pakistan RSS angle to it, which needed to be investigated. All of this has been used by the Modi government and the BJP to smash the ball out of the park and, and, and almost change the narrative.

Shashi Tharoor: No. That’s again, a caricature of what was actually said, and which is one of the reasons why I posted my entire remarks on the subject. Of course, the attack was perpetrated by Pakistan directed terrorists. Of course, we know that, because we are the ones who arrested the terrorists and actually put the survivors on trial. And indeed, having accumulated all the evidence, presented it to the world and executed the man. So, there is no question, all the comment that was raised by the leader of the opposition, in Maharashtra, was about one possible case of one person having been killed by bullets that did not come from this person. They killed 166 people. The only question is about one person, one victim. So again, all this caricature, we are letting Pakistan off the hook. Certainly not. We stood behind these words and don’t forget it, as a UPA government that presented the case against Pakistani terror to the rest of the world and earned Pakistan, the opprobrium it rightly deserved for having ordered and conducted essentially this terrorist attack on foreign soil from its soil, whether it was done with the knowledge of the government or not is a different matter, but it was done from Pakistan. No one doubts that. No one in the UPA is questioning that.

Now, coming back to your first point, Sam Pitroda is a wonderful man living in Chicago. Why his comments should be the substance of an election in India is bizarre. And it’s again a reflection of the gullibility, I’m sorry to say, of our friends in the media in allowing essential irrelevancies to become major distractions because that suits the interests of the ruling party.

Rajdeep Sardesai: But one of the things that is making the headlines is Muslim reservation. And this has pushed the opposition somewhat on the back foot. There’s a belief that somewhere the BJP has chosen to interpret your manifesto, and this is the Prime Minister as well, that the Congress, if it comes to power, will ensure in some form Muslim reservation and thereby playing on the insecurities and fears that Hindus may have. How do you respond? Is this again, somewhere where the opposition perhaps has allowed Mr. Modi to play Hindutva for politics?

Shashi Tharoor: Rajdeep, you say you’ve read the manifesto; you know perfectly well. There is no reference to Muslim reservation in the manifesto. I mean, the fact of the matter is, Mr. Modi’s deliberately conflating an issue that the BJP have tried to flog during the last Karnataka elections and now with the Lok Sabha elections nationally. Now, we all very well know that in our country there are reservations both by the national government and by state governments. And that those reservations will vary. And as far as this particular Lok Sabha is concerned, it’s about the national government, and therefore it’s not a set of state issues. It so happens that in two or three states, yes, state governments have at different times implemented policies under which some Muslims have been deemed to be part of the OBCs. And in those states, Muslims also benefit, are also included amongst those eligible under OBC reservations.

But that is not yet a central government policy at any stage, nor has it been proposed by us in our manifesto. So once again, we are talking about issues that don’t exist. We published a manifesto. I was very proud to be part of the committee that prepared it. And, and I, we all thought that this might be discussed by the public, and we paid much attention to it. We never expected a day would come when the only discussion would be on things we haven’t said in the manifesto, but they claim we intend.

Rajdeep Sardesai: You know, all I can say Dr. Tharoor is that the BJP seems to believe very clearly that it’s the Congress and opposition voters who are not coming to the polling booths, that they believe there’s an inevitability to the outcome. But you are giving a completely different perspective. So, what can I say? You seem to live in hope, and you are certainly seemingly more hopeful than you were just a month ago.

Shashi Tharoor: Rajdeep we are very hopeful and I think the nation too will wake to a new dawn when the results are out on the 4th of June.

Rajdeep Sardesai: Shashi Tharoor, thank you very much for giving us an opposition perspective on the state of play as you see at the halfway mark in this 2024 election. Let’s now get a perspective from the government side. Swapan Das Gupta, former Rajya Sabha MP and BJP leader is joining me to give us where the government sees this election at the halfway point. Let me start with the same question I put to Shashi Tharoor which is three phases of the Lok Sabha election done, there seems to be no central narrative. One day it’s about Hindu-Muslim, one day it’s caste politics, ‘rojgar or Ram’. What according to you, has been the central binding theme from Kashmir to Kanyakumari so far.

Swapan Das Gupta: There is a central theme in this selection. And that central theme is number one, about stability. Number two, it’s about making India a developed country. And thirdly, about the continuity of leadership. Now a prolonged, a slightly extended timetable for an election, no doubt propels the leadership of all parties to give out additional new talking points. And those talking points, sort of govern the agenda, the headlights for three days, four days, even a week. But the real issue of this election, as far as I think the BJP is concerned, as far as the Prime Minister is concerned, is that there will be that same element of continuity and focus, which marked the first two phases of first two terms of his administration. And he wants to continue that. And for that, he needs an emphatic mandate. And that emphatic mandate he seeks from the people. The rest are interesting talking points. These are jousting as far as election year concerned. You head back at the opposition, et cetera. That’s part and parcel of the democratic exercise. But let’s not forget, the main issue has always been stability, continuity, a developed India.

Rajdeep Sardesai: You are saying stability, continuity, development in India. How do you respond when Dr. Tharoor seems to suggest that there has been a complete shift away from core issues to more divisive issues, what he calls divisive Hindutva issues.

Swapan Das Gupta: Well, he has his own divisive issues, and one of those divisive issues was this attempt to get an inheritance tax through the back door. Now, the Prime Minister’s assault on that idea, this idea of contrived redistribution rather than wealth creation, which is what he was attacking. And the use of the Mangalsutra was really a very popular way of driving home a point.

Rajdeep Sardesai: The point is it’s not there at all in the Manifesto. The word, it may not be there in the manifesto anywhere – inheritance tax, no mention.

Swapan Das Gupta: But the point is, they chose to raise the issue in their manifesto. And the Prime Minister naturally chose to attack it in giving it a decent gap, as he says, because no one else picked it up. So, he picked it up. Now, as far as what you call dog whistle is concerned, Hindutva has always been a part of the BJPs manifesto. The idea of Hindu nationalism, the idea that you have the cultural underpinning of India will actually be a factor in the elections or in the mental makeup of India, has always been a part of the BJP’s understanding of politics. And I think that has come to the fore and the way that the BJP views politics is quite distinct from the way the Congress views politics, has now become sharpened by the interventions of people like Sam Pitroda, et cetera. You know that’s not the way that BJP does it. And also, Ayodhya, that is also a very legitimate issue in this election.

Without the BJP, the intervention of the BJP, the persistence of the BJP, the doggedness of the BJP and the sacrifice of the BJP, the Ayodhya Temple wouldn’t have been there. And therefore, if a news comes across from an ex-Congressman that the Congress actually believes that were it to come to power, they would actually do a ‘Shah-banu’ on the Ayodhya Supreme Court judgement. Naturally, that calls for a retaliation. And I think there’s nothing wrong in the Prime Minister retaliating. I think compared to many other elections, this election has actually been quite tepid in its character, in terms of the exchanges. And that’s because it’s been very long, and the summer heat, the excruciating heat hasn’t helped matters either.

Rajdeep Sardesai: But creating fears about minority reservation, Muslim reservation about redistribution, about inheritance tax, all of this seems to be creating somewhere fear mongering about the opposition rather than focusing on what many were hoping would be the real debate on issues of ‘rosgar’. How are you going to actually provide jobs to more and more Indians? How are you going to resolve the daily issues of the day? When you said that this election is about stability, continuity to develop India, we would have thought that would be the focus over the last few days. Look at the Prime Minister’s statement even yesterday where he spoken about Ambani, Adani and black money going to the opposition. And why is Rahul Gandhi silent, when the truth is Rahul Gandhi’s been raising Adani every day. So, is the Prime Minister resorting to what some call weapons of mass distraction?

Swapan Das Gupta: Oh, that’s your perspective, Rajdeep? Certainly, you are entitled to have that perspective. But the point is that the issues which the opposition has thrown up are divisive in nature. The reservations for Muslims, using a religious criterion, is in my view, divisive.

Rajdeep Sardesai: Again, it’s not in the manifesto.

Swapan Das Gupta: It is an attack. Everything does not have to come from the manifesto. It can be raised through various ways. And Laloo Prasad Yadav very rightly, you know, very proudly said, yes, we will do this.

Rajdeep Sardesai: And then retracted from that. But my point is, is there fear mongering?

Swapan Das Gupta: The point is there are the issues, the inheritance tax, it is a way of actually destroying the economy. And that’s a negative creation of the Congress, and therefore the Prime Minister has every right to attack it. So, you want an election, which is really what sort of an election is this. This is something which is fought on the ground, various different forms of issues are there. And the Prime Minister will go on the offensive, not least to motivate the cadres that, look, this is not something you should be complacent about despite the opinion polls, et cetera, despite the fact that most people think that the BJP is going for a victory, but despite the fact that there is a chance so far, slogan there. Mobilize at the grassroots, this is how it’s done.

Rajdeep Sardesai: But you think, Dr Das Gupta, that the opposition in some way this time, has set the narrative, for example, on caste census – the opposition set the narrative on what they claim was their definition of Nyaya or justice, even went to the extent of saying, that if the BJP gets 400 seats, they will change the Constitution, and therefore the Prime Minister was forced in some way to respond that the government is actually responding to a narrative said by the opposition this time.

Swapan Das Gupta: Will you make up your mind? Firstly, you said that the Prime Minister is actually making up issues along the way, and now you’re saying he’s responding to it.

Rajdeep Sardesai: He is making up issues to distract from what the opposition is trying to say.

Swapan Das Gupta: No. Look, the Prime Minister had every right to pitch the terms of the debate in any way they like, just as the opposition has every right to pitch it the way they want to. That’s the way elections are fought. It’s up to the people. It’s up to the electorate to accept which one is credible. Now, the point is, the opposition finds itself when contrasted with the force of a Modi speech. They go on the offensive, and then they start shouting. Now, elections are not fought by ticking the boxes of an opinion poll.

Rajdeep Sardesai: Sure. But they’re not fought by division slogans either.

Swapan Das Gupta: When you talk about the economy, et cetera. Those are issues which come across with your track record, and there’s nothing more compelling than your track record. And I think that the track record speaks volumes. Having established the track record, you can then embellish it with attacks on the opposition, what they’ve said, et cetera, what they haven’t said, it’s, oh, maybe we even make a caricature of it. That’s part of life. That is how elections are fought. And I’m glad that elections are fought like that because elections in the end are also a carnival. It’s not a boring exercise.

Rajdeep Sardesai: Sure. 2014 Swapan Das Gupta, was seen as an election for change. People wanted change. And Mr. Modi became a symbol of that change. 2019 it seemed that the election became about a need for a muscular leadership, muscular nationalism, again, embodied by Prime Minister Modi. What is it in 2024? Why is it that we are not seeing that kind of enthusiasm, at least when one travels among crowds that once saw to some extent, in 2014 and 2019? Is it fatigue? Is it just that people have heard many of these speeches before? What’s the sense you get? Is there a 10-year itch?

Swapan Das Gupta: No, it’s not a 10-yr itch. What I think has happened in fact is that there is a certain confidence that the elections have been pre-determined. I don’t believe that that’s a very nice thing to happen. But in anyway, among lot of people, they said, look, it’s settled. Modi ji is going to become the Prime Minister. The question is whether he gets, BJP gets 300, 350, 400, whatever those sorts of numbers are being played at. But the important thing here is that they are choosing continuity. The ship of India is sailing very well, smoothly. They want no disruption in it. And maybe that enthusiasm, which normally accompanies elections where change is the main criteria among all the elections, I think 2014 had the greatest amount of enthusiasm on the ground. Because there was a thing about change, getting this guy in. For a lot of people, Modi was not merely just a candidate, he was a project. And I think that project also came about it, manifested in 2019, when it was showing that leadership, determined leadership was a thing. And now we have, India is in safe hands. India is in safe hands with the Prime minister, whose track record is there for you to examine and see and assess.

Rajdeep Sardesai: Let’s leave it there. Pleasure talking to you and getting your perspective. Thank you so much for joining me here on this Political Rumble.

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