Congress struggles to put a lid on Tharoor, Singhvi, Jairam statements

From left: Shashi Tharoor and Abhishek Manu Singhvi had recently voiced their support for Jairam Ramesh over his comment that demonising Prime Minister Narendra Modi all the time would not help the Congress
More than obsequiousness to the dynasty, it was professional jealousy, default behaviour, and a desire to settle scores with the so-called “interlopers” that pushed Congress functionaries to criticise their colleagues Jairam Ramesh, Shashi Tharoor, and Abhishek Manu Singhvi for their supposedly charitable comments on Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week.

When Ramesh said the constant demonising of Modi was counterproductive — with Tharoor and Singhvi weighing in on his behalf — several of their party colleagues said the commitment of the three to the Congress’ ideology was ambivalent because they were lateral entrants.

Some imputed motives that the three were trying to cosy up to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ignoring their larger criticism of the Sangh Parivar, but more intriguingly brushing under the carpet the current misgivings within the party that a couple of its younger leaders from north India, considered close to Rahul Gandhi, could join the BJP instead of the three veterans. Party strategists are dreading the recriminations and disintegration that the party’s likely decimation in the Assembly polls in Haryana, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand is sure to unleash.

The most vehement opposition to the three came from the Congress’ Tamil Nadu and Kerala units. Ramesh and Singhvi escaped any disciplinary action, but Kerala Congress chief Mullapally Ramachandran show-caused Tharoor. “Those who want to praise Modi can join the BJP,” said Lok Sabha MP K Muraleedharan, son of the late chief minister K Karunarakan.

Not many in the Congress were willing to concede that Ramesh could be making a tactical point. Which was surprising, given his record. He had led the party’s successful 2004 election publicity campaign, which focused on punching holes in the BJP’s ‘India shining’ campaign, but was also careful in not launching personal attacks on then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose personal credibility was high among the people.

Ramesh’s statement, and the support it received from Tharoor and Singhvi, was interpreted in the party to be a criticism of Rahul Gandhi. Rahul’s personal attack of “chowkidar chor hai” on Modi, which he made the leitmotif of the Congress campaign in the 2019 polls, had backfired spectacularly.

Off the record, party leaders described Ramesh as an “interloper”, a lateral entrant who did not rise through the Youth Congress and National Students Union of India (NSUI), the students’ wing of the party. They said Ramesh was therefore irresolute about the party’s core ideological underpinnings. Incidentally, not just Ramesh, but Tharoor, a well-known international diplomat, and Singhvi, considered the country’s best senior advocate, are also lateral entrants into the Congress.

Those sympathetic to the point of view of Ramesh, Tharoor, and Singhvi say that since they are “outsiders”, with public identities that did not rely on the blessings of the Gandhi dynasty, they can think more rationally. Unlikely support for the three has come from Swaraj Abhiyan leader Yogendra Yadav.

Yadav has agreed with Ramesh that indiscriminate criticism of Modi is counterproductive. He says Modi critics, himself included, are guilty of three mistakes. According to him, excessive focus on Modi gives him a larger than life image. Blaming him for all that goes wrong anywhere in the country is not only misplaced, but also an obstacle to constructive criticism of government policies. Lastly, Modi’s critics are unable to understand the reasons for his electoral triumphs, including the one of 2019, which also hinders any objective assessment of future tactics and strategy to counter him.

After his comments at a book launch in the national capital, Ramesh has opted not to speak further on the subject, but seems to be adhering to his own advice in his tweets — criticising the government without a reference to the prime minister. On Saturday, Ramesh tweeted about the decline in gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the first quarter of this fiscal year. “Remember the hit movie ‘QSQT’ —Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak? Now QSQT is synonymous with ‘Quarter Se Quarter Tak’. Two consecutive quarters of low GDP growth sought to be buried by managing headlines,” he said.

Singhvi was more direct but careful in his choice of words. “India’s GDP growth rate is 5 per cent, but even this is according to the new methodology which comes with a Modi booster. Real GDP minus Modi booster is around 3 per cent. #Modinomics,” he tweeted on Friday.

Tharoor, meanwhile, sent a combative response to the Kerala unit notice, which had its leadership stumped. According to observers of Kerala politics, one of the Congress camps suffers from “Tharoor phobia”. They not only resent Tharoor the “outsider” for usurping their political turf, but also consider him a possible chief ministerial candidate of the Congress for the 2021 Assembly polls in the state.

In his reply to the notice, Tharoor pointed to his consistent criticism of the government and its policies in Parliament. Rather embarrassingly for them, he asked the Kerala unit to find one Congress leader from the state who made “10 per cent of the effort” that he did to study, research, anticipate and oppose the Modi government on every Bill it sought to introduce against the spirit of the Constitution and values of the Congress.

The Congress has 15 MPs of Kerala’s 20 in the Lok Sabha.

Tharoor has continued with his calculated blend of positive response to the prime minister but unsparing criticism of the Sangh Parivar’s larger politics. Last Friday, Tharoor welcomed Modi’s suggestion that people should learn a new word a day from an Indian language other than their own. “I welcome this departure from Hindi dominance,” Tharoor said, and tweeted the word “pluralism” as his language challenge of the day, with its Hindi and Malayalam synonyms. In another tweet, he criticised the “national register of citizens”, and the Sangh Parivar’s version of nationalism.

With Rahul quitting as party chief and Sonia Gandhi again at the helm, several seniors have found their voice back. The next battle, as some of the younger Congress leaders are itching to fight, is purging the party of the overwhelming influence, or so they believe, of “leftists”, which is also blamed for the Congress losing its nationalistic moorings. “The Congress losing the nationalism narrative is a great casualty for our country. We need to reclaim it otherwise it will be too late,” says Rachit Seth, until recently the media coordinator of the party.

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