The removal of Shashi Tharoor by the Congress Party as its spokesman is instructive in the way political parties operate. There is a reason why the word “Party” rattles like used soda cans behind Congress or Bharatiya Janata or for that matter any political organization anywhere in the world. They are all partisan, ideologically disparate entities. Their members are not expected to and barely tolerated for making pronouncements about their sworn adversaries that are nuanced and even positive. Tharoor either overestimated his own standing within the Congress Party or underestimated its partisan meanness while offering what is objectively a reasonable response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conduct so far.
His removal as a party spokesman on recommendation from a three-member disciplinary committee consisting of Congress leaders who should have been superannuated a long time ago is a predictably and inevitably partisan action. The Congress Party stands for a set of political convictions and principles, none of which is elastic enough to allow Tharoor to stretch it to the extent he seemed to have. The tether has only two options built into it—it can either effectively enforce the range of movement or snap. In Tharoor’s case so far, the former has worked. No one should be surprised if there are elements in the Congress Party’s Kerala unit who would be happy to see the back of Tharoor as he is expelled for his transgressions.
Tharoor, a former high-ranking United Nations official, has had what could only be described as an ambivalent relationship with the Congress Party. I suspect that in his mind he perceives the party in its original avatar in the run-up to India’s independence when it was ideologically self-assured enough to allow the expression of a variety of views. Intellectually, it was a much more vibrant political movement rather than a just party which stands so diminished today that it has to desperately cling to its shrinking core. Being one of the world’s great movements, the party is entirely capable of staging a strong comeback but for that it has to return to its ideological self-assurance rather than get stuck in petty vindictiveness. That said, I come back to my original point about why it has the word party tagging along after its name. Like Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which abhors nuance even more, the Congress leadership simply does not have enough bandwidth to permit reasonable views right now.
The optics of Tharoor’s writings and television comments certainly created the impression, even if a false one, that he was willing to extend the Modi government courtesies where due. That is not how a political party can work. If Tharoor wants to pursue ideology-free politics, which is by the way a laudable ambition to have, he should consider becoming independent and contest elections as an outsider. He cannot possibly have his independence and actually practice it too within a party. All parties have that invisible dog fence which can be breached only at your own peril. When he joined the Congress Party, Tharoor implicitly agreed to wear an ideological collar whose receiver gets activated when he approaches the boundary of the invisible fence. A piercing signal goes off as he comes closer. The fact that he was relieved of his duty means that he had managed to set at least one foot outside the fence.
I have no emotional or moral response to Tharor’s fate other than saying that if independence of political thought is his thing, he should hand back the ideological collar and roam free.