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'Ousted MPs to Pass Criminal Laws. Isn't BJP Ashamed?': Shashi Tharoor Interview

On 'Badi Badi Baatein', Congress MP Shashi Tharoor talks Parliament breach, suspensions, and what's next for INDIA.

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Camera: Ribhu Chatterjee, Farzan Khan, Asif Iqubal

Video Editors: Purnendu Pritam, Nitin Bisht

"Some of the most important Bills of great consequence, including nothing more significant than replacing the Indian Penal Code which has been in existence since 1861... You're doing that without any views of the Opposition, without any serious debate, and only your allies and you speaking. Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Is this the kind of mother of democracy you want to show the world?" asked Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, as he spoke to The Quint following one of the most stormy Parliament sessions in India's history.

With the suspension of unprecedented number of MPs, a never-seen-before figure in Parliamentary history, following a shocking security breach on 13 December, the rift between the Centre and the Opposition has only widened.

The latter half of the session also saw the two sides sparring over the mimicry of Rajya Sabha chairperson and Vice President of India, Jagdeep Dhankhar, by Trinamool Congress MP Kalyan Banerjee. Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, too, came under fire for recording the event. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) weaponised the incident to go after both Congress and TMC, Tharoor calls it "the kind of triviality that the government specialises in distracting the media with."

"When 151-153 MPs have been kicked out of Parliament, when bills are being passed with no Opposition voice heard... Instead of focusing on that travesty of parliamentary democracy, we're busy discussing a one-minute act of mimicry?" Tharoor asked.

As the battle-lines for 2024 get clearer with the conclusion of the last full Parliament session ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Tharoor joins us on 'Badi Badi Baatein' to talk about the India's state of democracy in the backdrop of mass suspensions of MPs, BJP government's handling of the security breach, row over Dhankhar's mimicry, and the way forward for the INDIA bloc.

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As we speak, you're one of the 143 MPs that stand suspended from the Parliament of India. I don't know where that figure is going to go by the time we publish this interview. But you said that you are wearing it as a badge of honour. How are you enjoying it?

What we've been witnessing is such a travesty of democracy that to stand on the right side of those who have been taking the right moral stand is a privilege. Let me just say very simply that there's a basic concept about parliamentary democracy when we adopted the system.

And that principle is one of ministerial accountability to parliament. The Council of Ministers is accountable to the Parliament, starting with the Prime Minister, I might add. Now, when something important happens in the country, when Parliament is in session, the first duty of the concerned minister is to address Parliament on it and nowhere else. That is basic to the parliamentary system.

It is a system the British may bequeathed to us, but we chose that system and that's been the convention throughout. But when a breach of security occurred in Parliament itself, as people sponsored by a BJP MP leapt into the House and created a bit of a ruckus - what happened?

The Home Minister, who is the person responsible for the nation's internal security and who supervises the Delhi police, which is obviously the people who are in charge of security in Parliament.

He did not want to come and address Parliament on the matter, but he was quite willing to give interviews outside and to give press statements outside. That is unacceptable in any parliamentary system. So, the Opposition Leader said he must come and speak to Parliament and we must have a discussion on the matter.

But instead, what happened? They protested and the government reacted and the speaker reacted by suspending people. And when it became, it reached a point where everybody sort of was being suspended, one after the other, It became untenable not to stand in solidarity with them. I have historically and this has been rather well-known in political circles, opposed the idea of disruptions and so on.

But in this particular case, I felt I had to stand with my colleagues when such an unfair and unjust proceeding was taking place. And now we have a situation where never in the history of the world's parliaments has ever been in any country in through our history., so many people suspended from a national parliament. It's a dubious record for India to lay claim to.

You said that you've never resorted to that kind of protest. And this time we saw you in the well of the house. Was it a conscious decision?

It was a conscious decision. You know, I would normally not have done that because I believe in following the rules and everything I do. And I'm very proud of the fact that I have never been accused of violating any rule.

But in this particular instance, when so many of my colleagues were unjustly kicked out of the house, I felt that we also.... I held up a very innocent placard saying we demand discussion on the security breach. That's all it said. And it wasn't lavishly or garishly illustrated. It was just a black and white slogan on the placards.

Some media have taken pictures of it which you can probably find that was it. I didn't actually raise any ruckus myself or shout or make any sloganeering. I just felt that it was important to make the point that I stood solidarity with my colleagues.

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We have seen several disruptions of sessions throughout the past few years. Is disruption or sloganeering the only way for the Opposition to make the point to go through.

Clearly, many of my colleagues seem to believe so. I mean, respectfully, I would have preferred a different approach. My own view is that we lose out a great deal on disruptions.

The Parliament is a place where the Opposition is in a minority, government can pass almost anything it likes because of its brute majority and armed with the anti-defection law, even people within the party who disagree with something will have to vote along with them. So, in my case, I certainly feel this very keenly because since the disruption began, I have lost out on zero hour, I've lost out on a 377 notice.

So, I do feel a certain sense of regret that we've adopted this tactic because we in the Opposition need Parliament more than they do because they control everything anyway. They'll pass whatever they want and they can say anything they like because it's all there for them to run. Where I felt, however, that the Opposition had come to this conclusion was that every time they tried to raise an important issue, be it, for example, the aggression by China on the border, which people wanted a constructive discussion on, nobody's anti-national in the Opposition, we have the same interests as the ruling party.

They didn't want the discussion. They don't want to look bad before the nation. We wanted a discussion on the second wave of COVID. There was no discussion. We wanted a discussion when it came to the question of unemployment ever since figures have been kept in this country for unemployment, the highest recorded unemployment was two years ago. They have not allowed a discussion.

So, one issue after another we want to place before the nation, they don't want to discuss. And frankly, at this point, it's become very clear that they want an Opposition mukt Lok Sabha. That seems to be their preference.

And it would be added that some of the most important Bills of great consequence, including nothing more signific ant than replacing the Indian Penal Code, which has been in existence since 1861... You're doing that without any views of the Opposition, without any serious debate, and only your allies and you speaking. Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Is this the kind of mother of democracy you want to show the world?

Speaking of mother of democracy - close to 20% of MPs stand suspended today. Where does India stand as a democracy and what message does it send to the world?

Well, I'm sorry to say that already the most reputable international organisations, the Varieties of Democracy Institute, the Vadim Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, has already said that India is removed from the list of democracies and listed as an electoral autocracy.

You freely elect your leaders once you've elected them, they can conduct themselves as autocrats and not as democrats. That's hardly a distinction worthy of a country that wants to sell itself to the world as a model of democracy.

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Speaking of the security breach, it was quite a shocking incident. Where does the accountability lie? Where does the buck stop? Because somebody says it stops with Lok Sabha secretariat, somebody sees the Home Minister should answer.... Who is accountable at the end of the day?

Look, everyone is accountable. Ultimately for everything that happens in the country, the government is accountable. And in the parliamentary system of the Council of Ministers, starting with the prime Minister, he is accountable, the MPs...

And that's the rule of the game. Yes, there is a special responsibility that the Speaker has for overall arrangements in the Secretariat and the Parliament, but the fact is that the Delhi Police... and that's where action was taken where the nine policemen was suspended. The Delhi police don't answer to the Speaker, they answer to the Home Minister. So the Home Minister needed to come and say what he was in fact prepared to say to the outside world.

He gave interviews and statements saying we've taken action, we have suspended some people, we're taking the matter very seriously, a high level inquiry has been instituted, there will be a report in two weeks - those are all things you could have said to the Parliament, to the MPs who are the most concerned and the most directly affected by the security breach.

There's a view from certain quarters that comes that yes, the way the intruders protested was definitely not correct or justified, but the issues that they were trying to raise are very much there. Even Mr. Gandhi said that unemployment is very much an issue. Where do you stand on that?

No, I don't think Rahul Gandhi intended to say that as a justification. He was saying it as an explanation.

And I think it's a very reasonable explanation. You asked these people why they had done it according to their own families. It was because they were unemployed and they felt that their issues of unemployment were not getting the attention of the government and they wanted to draw attention to their problems in a dramatic way.

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The latter half of the last week of the session has seen disruptions over the mimicry of the Vice President. Where do you stand on it personally?

I think this is the kind of triviality that the government specialises in distracting the media with. Honestly, when something as major as a fundamental threat to our parliamentary democracy is staring us in the face, when 151-153 employees have been kicked out of Parliament when bills are being passed with no Opposition voice heard... Instead of focusing on that travesty of parliamentary democracy, we're busy discussing a one-minute act of mimicry? What kind of priorities, what kind of scale of reason is this? It's typical. The government loves to distract the media with trivialities instead of allowing them to focus on the really big issues facing the nation. And as the Congress' Jairam Ramesh pointed out on X, the Prime Minister actually conducted mimicry of the Opposition leaders inside the Lok Sabha, and the video is available and that was not allowed to be discussed.

It was a Prime Minister's right with a light moment. Okay, we take it as a light moment and let it pass. Here what do we see? There's not a light moment that should be allowed to pass? It's become somehow a national disgrace? I find that very, very shocking double standards.

And I honestly think the media is wasting too much time on this. This one-minute episode has consumed thousands of hours of media time and television channel discussions. Let's move on and focus on the really big picture here.

When we talk about parliamentary conduct and you have said that it is the fundamental duty of the Prime Minister and the Home Minister to give a statement on it. When we talk about parliamentary fundamentalism, for the past few years, we've seen the way the bills are passed, we've seen the way amendments are brought in, the committees are ignored... What is the way forward for India's Parliament from here?

I don't know really. As it is, we have the worst of two worlds because we have a parliamentary system being run presidentially. The parliament gives the executive, namely in this case the Prime Minister and his government, a complete rubberstamp. They pass what they want because they have an automatic majority. At the same time, they run the country as if they were elected in their own right as a presidential system, not accountable to anyone, least of all to a legislature.

It's the worst of all possible worlds. I almost feel it will be better to go directly to a presidential system where the legislature is independent of the president. The president has no control over the legislature. There is no anti-defection law because defecting will not put you in power. The president is elected in his own right. Legislature is there only to hold him accountable.

That might be a more honest system than the one we've got now, where two of the three branches of government under the direct control of one man and the third one apparently is also sometimes trying to fill it needs to accommodate the wishes of the executive.

Frankly, the only worthwhile strategy now is to fight to defeat this government in the next election. We have perhaps four months at most. Do we have to put those four months to very good use. Let's remember that five years ago, when the Congress won the three states that had lost this time, there was a widespread belief that the Opposition was coming to power and that the BJP was going to lose in four months. The BJP turned the narrative around. Yes, they were helped by Pulwama-Balakot and they made it a national security election. But they turned the narrative around and they won the election in four months.

We've got to turn the narrative around that now says, oh a BJP victory is inevitable. We have to get out there to people. We have to ask them - Is your life better in the last ten years because of anything this government has done? Do you have a job that you didn't have before when you wanted to win and you voted for this government? Are you able to afford the same food you were affording two years ago? What is your life? Asking people to think of their own self-interest rather than being snowed under by the propaganda of the ruling party... and let's see whether we can bring a different result about four months from now.

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Speaking about four months from now, the name of Mr Mallikarjun Kharge was brought up in the INDIA alliance meeting to be the PM face. What do you think would work for and against him as the PM candidate?

Look, first of all, I mean, as he himself said of the occasion... Though, he's obviously an extremely well qualified candidate - a senior experienced figure, a lot of ministerial experience in the state, ministerial experience in the Centre, a lot of parliamentary background as well, somebody who's seen hardship from a humble background and risen to the very top.

He's a wonderful candidate, but he himself said, let's wait to win the election first and we can discuss leadership later. And I think that makes sense when you're dealing with an alliance, because ultimately, at the end of the day, the alliance parties will have to weigh their options, see what their respective strengths are, see who they would find the most acceptable leader.

There were surprise choices in the past, no one expected Mr Deve Gowda to emerge in 1996, No one expected Dr. Manmohan Singh to emerge in 2004. So, I think Mr Kharge has taken a very wise stand.

And it's nice that some of them are saying 'pehle aap' to Kharge. But we'll have to see in due course. Also frankly, the relative balance of the parties is going to be an important factor with numbers added up. I don't think this ought to be the preoccupation.

Any tips for the Opposition alliance, the INDIA Alliance going ahead for the next four months?

I think we need, first of all, a wide-ranging manifesto. We need to talk about the importance of communal harmony in a country that's been bitterly divided on bigotry and prejudice by certain people in power.

Second, we need to focus on the the failings of this government, particularly unemployment and price rise, which have been shocking. We also have to talk about issues that matter in different states and to different leaders.

Some will focus on issues of caste census. Some will focus on issues of governmental corruption, some cronyism, etc.. Some will focus on local issues in their states where there are particular problems resulting from the way in which the BJP has been governing.

Bulldozer politics, is an example that has been talked about. So, it will vary from state to state. The campaign in Kerala may not be identical to the one in Bengal, may not be identical to the one in U.P., but that's the magic of our country. We are a big, large, diverse country. Let's go out for the full range of issues and let's also ask voters this question that I mentioned earlier - are you better off?

We are in a situation where a lot of the freedoms that Indians took for granted are withering away before our eyes, where people are afraid to speak about some things in public, where people worry about consequences of their suddenly dubbed as anti-national or disloyal or anti-Hindu, or any of these things that suddenly have entered our political vocabulary that weren't there before.

In addition, we have to do one thing the BJP has been doing better than us, which is to get that last mile connectivity with the voters. Go on, knock on every door. Go and persuade people of our message and kindly ensure that we can come forward and bring them out to the voting box. Once that happens, I am reasonably confident we will have a much better result than we had in the last couple of elections.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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