When it comes to matters concerning the Hindu faith, Shashi Tharoor, a self-proclaimed liberal, seems to be taking the path of the Hindu Right
Educational qualification of politicians has always been a debate in modern times. In India, this demand is mostly led by the urban liberal population. If one takes a quick glance at what happens in Indian Science Congress and the frequent rants by Union Ministers in glorifying fiction as scientific truth, their demand might appear justified as well. Why not we have more educated people in politics and key ministries? A quick glance at the list of politicians based on their ‘merit’ and one cannot go past the big name of Shashi Tharoor. A former diplomat, well-known writer, an alumni of Tufts and Delhi University and a man who grabs social media attention with his knowledge of rarely used English words, Shashi Tharoor ticks all the columns you potentially ask for in a liberal politician of modern times. But is there more to Tharoor the politician than what you read on his glorious resume? Does he lack the political will of a liberal democrat who would vouch for constitutional democracy when there is a tendency to play to the majoritarian arguments in the name of customs and traditions? If one were to read his recent book “Why I am a Hindu” and were to take a close look at his reaction to the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala, one might have to think that there is a clever politician hiding beneath who is willing to compromise on his liberal democratic credentials to please the majoritarian narratives.
Tharoor on Sabarimala
Despite his criticism of what the BJP did in Kerala after the ruling Left government tried to implement the supreme court verdict, his opposition to women entry resonated with the arguments of Sangh Parivar supporters. Tharoor, who had previously welcomed the Supreme Court verdict, later came up with a clarification that his opposition emerges from his understanding that “abstract notions of constitutional principle also have to pass the test of societal acceptance — all the more so when they are applied to matters of faith“. How can a supreme court armed with Constitution find the societal acceptance on a particular issue related to faith? This is one question Tharoor does not try to address.
He quotes a few opinion polls to say that close to 90% of Hindus do not support the idea of women entry, though he did not refer to the source of the survey, in an article he wrote for The Print. These are times when propaganda is the toast of Indian Politics and the ruling BJP and Sangh Parivar has gone miles ahead of every other political party in manufacturing ‘Hindu consent’. This makes one wonder if Tharoor, the Liberal, is asking the courts to listen to the societal acceptance norms of a whatsapp-trained society in making decisions? Imagine the constitutional assembly listening to majoritarian voices in taking its call on abolition of untouchability! Tharoor, who introduces private bills frequently to champion the rights of LGBT community, could pause for a moment and think of the “societal acceptance” these marginalised communities have. The danger of such a statement is not just that it is a majoritarian argument, it also sets a bad precedent. There are a number of issues in India at present which could completely derail the social reform envisioned by the Constitution if courts in the country were to uphold societal acceptance in matters of faith. Modern liberals are socially progressive the world over and Tharoor’s repeated efforts on fighting for LGBT rights would make one believe that he is a quintessential modern liberal, but when it comes to matters concerning the Hindu faith, he seems to be taking the Hindu Right’s path.
Criticised by liberals online, Tharoor came up with another article to defend the stand taken by him and the Congress, saying he needs to stand by his electorate and not necessarily be the “true liberal “as everyone wants him to be”. But his potshots at the women entering Sabarimala hasn’t gone well with a few of the liberals. The MP, who has a penchant for words, cuts a sorry figure when he tries to explain the stand and end up repeating the language that the right wing brigade is repeatedly using on social media and TV debates. The truth is that the Nair Service Society (NSS) has decided to take a stand against the State government and alongside the BJP, which Mr.Tharoor fears would eat into his vote bank and dent his chances of getting reelected from Thiruvananthapuram in 2019. Though Tharoor has reelection on his mind, his and the Congress’s position on the Sabarimala issue has benefitted the BJP and the Sangh in the state.
‘Why I am a Hindu’
Disappointed at Tharoor’s stand on Sabarimala, his social media accounts were filled with angry reactions from his liberal supporters from India and abroad. But is it really surprising that Tharoor positioned himself with the Nair Service Society (NSS) on how Hindus should respond on an issue of faith than as the modern liberal international diplomat who almost became the UN Secretary General? On reading his book, “Why I am a Hindu “, one would have to say that his stand on Sabarimala is not surprising at all.
While talking about questionable Hindu customs, Tharoor starts off with casteism but blames social practices for its prevalence. He also points out how the British were instrumental in making caste appear the way it has appeared in Modern India. He tries to show that he’s outside the casteless utopia occupied by the upper castes by acknowledging casteism is bad, but is again treading a middle path by trying to give the casteist Hindu an innocent image. He appears very casual in portraying caste as a social practice and his comment on caste preferences in Hindu marriages goes like this: “Their logic is simple: caste is a form of community organisation that has been in place for ever, and we are not about to jettison it. We are comfortable with the affinities it implies, and we would prefer to perpetuate our family by arranging marriages within our caste group. But that doesn’t mean we will discriminate against people of other castes, or mistreat them: we are educated people, and we know that’s wrong. This may strike many modern Indians as a dubious compromise, but the attitude I have summarised is far more common within the Hindu population than many imagine.”
The kind of ambivalence he exhibits in condemning something like casteism must come across as disappointing for the modern day liberals especially when the Hindu Right is doing all what it can to resurrect the demons of the past in the name of preserving customs. If Indian Liberals want to find ways to meaningfully oppose hardline Hindutva of the Parivar, they will have to look beyond leaders like Tharoor because their soft Hindutva at the moment appears to be a rightward step and not the right step.