The controversy surrounding the entry of young women in Sabarimala has apparently ‘torn’ the hearts of ‘instinctive liberals’ such as Shashi Tharoor. On closer examination though, his so-called conflict of this self-proclaimed ‘liberal’ Hindu is just the subterfuge because he (Tharoor) knows the electoral math.
As has been written earlier, Sabarimala has resulted in an awakening of Hindus in Kerala. They have united across caste and class lines to demonstrate against the verdict and the undue haste of the Communist Government in the state to implement the verdict. It is this reality that has upset the calculation of every political dispensation in the state. All of them understood the political repercussions of such a widespread indignation with the Supreme Court verdict.
The BJP and Congress in the state both initially welcomed the judgement. They only decided to backpedal when it was clear that public opinion lay on the other side, and that they can make political gains by exploiting it.
Congress hailed the verdict as progressive, only to go back on its words later. BJP state leaders have in the past called for the entry of women into the temple. The ideological parent of the BJP, RSS has supported the entry of women into the shrine for a long time. It was assumed by everyone that Malayalis Hindus would go gentle into that good night – but we did not. And that has shocked more than a few of our great journalists, commentators and historians.
Tharoor was himself a proponent of desecrating the shrine. In 2016, he told reporters that he was personally for entry, “because traditions evolve”. He had posted some tweets as well, explaining his stand on the issue:
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) February 11, 2016
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) February 10, 2016
Two years later, it seems that traditions no longer can evolve, that it is no longer ‘discrimination’, all because of electoral realities.
Just a few days after the verdict, Tharoor had welcomed the verdict. Now, he has also retracted, like others. And the answer lies squarely in the fact that his electoral prospects are endangered.
Tharoor, whether he or others like it or not, as a Lok Sabha member, directly accountable to the people of his constituency. As such, his positions on issues have to be amenable to the opinion of those in his constituency.
In 2014, he won his constituency with an uncomfortable margin of 15,000 votes, or only ~2% of the votes against O Rajagopal of the BJP. In 2019 BJP is sure to have made even more inroads into his constituency. The gains BJP made, especially with the Hindu Community, would have grown with them adopting a harsher stand than the Congress on Sabarimala. This is why Tharoor had to backpedal and call for the wishes of devotees to be respected.
The ‘magic of democracy’ has, in a certain sense, made him accountable. He cannot adopt a stance that so plainly would cost him significant votes. But then again, Tharoor is a ‘guiding light’ for many liberals and he is the intellectual face of the Congress. As such, he cannot abandon this support base either. How these ‘liberals’ and ‘constitutionalists’ can support a Supreme Court judgement that surely violates religious liberty is a whole another matter that ought to be dealt with later. Tharoor the politician and Tharoor the intellectual are in conflict over this issue, and there is no way to resolve it, no reconciliation possible. Tharoor, therefore, tries in vain to please both through his piece in The Print.
Self-proclaimed intellectuals like Ramachandra Guha can look down upon the unwashed masses of Kerala and pontificate about ‘constitutional morality’ and ‘equality’ and whatnot while garnering applause from ‘secular-liberal’ Twitter. Tharoor cannot, for he and his party are aware of ground reality.
Much of Tharoor’s piece is an attempt to flog the horse of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee as the fulcrum of ‘secular’ and ‘non-communal’ resistance against Pinrayi Vijayan and the designs of the state government. He flags the BJP’s position as an attempt to gain the most from the polarization resulting from the continuing deadlock over the Hill Shrine. But he conveniently forgets that his own party changed gears to ensure that they do not miss out on an opportunity to gain political capital themselves. He, of course, has ignored his own hypocrisy in changing position on Sabarimala.
An irony in Tharoor’s piece is that he seems to think that the “seemingly unchallengeable principles” of constitutionalism and democracy are conflicting with one another. While this conflict by itself is legitimate in the larger sense, he like many others, seems to misunderstand what exactly ‘constitutionalism’ and ‘liberalism’ entitles. The concept of religious liberty, something that is core not only to constitutional rights and to liberalism generally, are conveniently ignored. Constitutional rights are not meant to circumscribe practices such as those in Sabarimala, which squarely fall within the realm of the religious practice. Indian ‘liberals’ have somehow defined this case as one of ‘equality’ and ‘discrimination’ when it is, in fact, a question of religious liberty. The Supreme Court has indeed effectively ruled that the Constitutional guaranteed under Article 25 & 26 are null.
Politicians are, at the end of day, guided by electoral considerations. One cannot expect principled positions from them, especially when public opinion is blowing so strongly in one direction. Tharoor, however, tries to wash away his duplicity. In Malayalam, the result of his two-timing of the electorate and his supporters can be described in a proverb: “രണ്ടു തോണിയിൽ കാലിട്ടുനിന്നാൽ നടുകടലിൽ കാണാം”. “If you put your leg in two boats, you will end up in the middle of the sea”.
Come May 2019 and that may very well be the position Tharoor finds himself in.