Congress leader Shashi Tharoor on Sunday denied that his party was emulating the Bharatiya Janata Party by pursuing a “soft Hindutva” strategy, and claimed that secularism continues to be a fundamental tenet for the party’s existence. In an interview with PTI, Tharoor said the Congress was clear that it could not allow itself to become a “BJP lite” version of the saffron party.

“I have long argued that any attempt to emulate ‘Pepsi Lite’ by ‘BJP lite’ will end up with us becoming like ‘Coke Zero’ – that is, ‘Congress zero’,” the parliamentarian said, drawing an analogy between politics and soft drinks. “Congress is not BJP in any shape or form, and we should not attempt to be a lighter version of something we are not.”

Tharoor said the Congress party makes a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. The Hinduism Congress respects, he said, is “inclusive and non-judgemental”, whereas the BJP’s Hindutva is a political doctrine based on exclusion.

“So we are not offering a watered-down version of the BJP’s political messaging,” the MP from Thiruvananthapuram said. “Rahul Gandhi has made it explicitly clear that, for all his avowing his personal Hinduism by going to temples, he does not support any form of Hindutva, neither soft or hard.”

The Congress parliamentarian said that in his recent book, The Battle of Belonging, he has argued that Hindutva as a movement was the “mirror image” of the Muslim communalism of 1947, and its triumph would mark the end of the “Indian idea”.

“A ‘Hindu India’ would not be Hindu at all, but a ‘Sanghi Hindutva state’, which is a different country altogether,” said Tharoor in the book. “Hindutva is not Hinduism; it is a political doctrine, not a religious one.”

On secularism

Secularism as a principle and practice in India was in danger and the ruling dispensation may even try to remove the word from the Constitution, Tharoor told PTI. “There is certainly a concerted effort to erode secularism and replace it with a sectarian way of being that offers no place to religious minorities in Indian society,” he said.

But the Congress leader added that the “forces of hatred” cannot alter the country’s secular character. “Secularism as principle and practice is in danger, but I do not see it falling anytime soon: India embodies tolerance and pluralism in its very essence, and I do not believe that forces of hatred can permanently overcome our fundamental secularism,” he said.

He added:

“The word is only a word; but even if the government takes the word ‘secularism’ out of the Constitution, it is still a secular Constitution. After all, freedom of worship, freedom to profess and propagate your religion, freedom of expression, minority rights, and equality of all citizens, are all part of the basic structure of the Constitution, and they can’t disappear by deleting a word.”  

— Shashi Tharoor to PTI

Tharoor said the recent backlash by Hindutva supporters over a Tanishq advertisement reflecting communal harmony in India offered yet another illustration of how “reactionary and bigoted certain right-wing fringe elements” have become, even as the ruling dispensation was quick to distance itself from the episode.

“But let us not forget that this is a Frankenstein’s monster that they have created, sustained through organised and vicious social media trolls, and it’s just one more reminder of the appalling power of the full-throated communal hatred that is so often unleashed in today’s India,” he said. “As I have said, if such people are so infuriated by Hindu-Muslim ‘ekatvam’, why not boycott the world’s longest-surviving symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity: India itself?”

Tharoor also denied that his party, the Congress, has not offered an antidote to the Hindustan agenda by creating a discourse on secularism. He said the party was striving every day to ensure that Indian secularism is “alive and well”.

Tharoor added:

“We have at every opportunity stressed our unshakable commitment to secularism – not as distancing from religion but encouraging all to flourish – and the party’s glorious heritage of advocating freedom of religion has sustained and strengthened over time. Politically and personally, we embrace the acceptance of difference. I think that the spirit of Indian secularism is alive and well, both in the Congress party and in the country at large, and we are striving every day to ensure that it is safeguarded from those who seek to erode it.”

— Shashi Tharoor to PTI

On Article 370

When asked about Congress leader P Chidambaram’s recent remarks calling for the restoration of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Constitution, and its criticism by the BJP, Tharoor said he has articulated his stand clearly in Parliament.

“It’s not just an issue of abrogating 370 – even [Jawaharlal] Nehru ji had said the provision was a temporary one,” Tharoor said. But the Constitution specifies how it is to be done, he said.

“So though it shouldn’t matter what side of the debate on Article 370 you stand on – after all, differing voices are the lifeline of any democracy – the manner in which it was implemented, the way our own fellow citizens were overnight clamped down upon by their own government, consciously and willfully disregarding the democratically enshrined rights guaranteed to all Indians, does not bode well for the future of the country,” Tharoor said.

No political objective can justify the huge-scale abuse of the rights of Indian citizens in this manner, he added.