Asserting that the Congress has a duty to defend secular space, senior leader Shashi Tharoor on Sunday said the answer to the party's woes in the Hindi heartland does not lie in "majority appeasement" or offering some sort of a "Hindutva Lite" like a "Coke Lite" as such a pursuit will only end up in being "Congress Zero".
He also alleged that for the BJP dispensation and its allies being a Hindu is no different from the team identity loyalty of the "British football hooligan".
In an interview to PTI ahead of the launch of his book 'The Hindu Way: An Introduction to Hinduism', Tharoor claimed that what those in power are propagating is not Hinduism in any true sense, but a "grotesque deformation" of a glorious faith, which they have converted into a narrow-minded political tool to serve purely political and electoral gains.
Tharoor said, as a cautious optimist he would argue that there are enough like-minded Indians, including among youth, who are committed to resisting recent "chauvinistic trends" and will continue to ensure that a "distorted idea of India" does not prevail.
"As a member of the Congress party, I do believe that the party has a fundamental role -- and a duty to take the lead -- in defending the secular space in India," the Thiruvananthapuram MP said.
"Those who are suggesting that the answer to the party's woes in the Hindi heartland is to become more like the BJP in 'majority- appeasement' are making a cardinal error: if the voter is presented with a choice between the original article and a pale imitation, he will choose the original every time," he said.
Tharoor argued that rather than allowing itself to be intimidated by the BJP's success, it is far better for the Congress to stand up for what it has always believed in and urge the country to follow its principles.
"The loyalist will respect a party that demonstrates the courage of our convictions rather than offering some sort of 'Hindutva Lite'; like 'Coke Lite' and 'Pepsi Zero', 'Hindutva Lite' will only end up with 'Congress Zero'," the 63-year-old leader said.
Tharoor's remarks come following Congress' washout in the Hindi heartland in the Lok Sabha polls and suggestions by some from both within and outside the party that it needs to counter the BJP narrative of "minority appeasement" and go soft on its secularism refrain.
'Coke Lite' and 'Pepsi Zero' are sugar-free and no-calorie variants of the original soft drinks.
Asserting that 'secularism' is a word that is often misunderstood, Tharoor said western dictionaries have defined secularism essentially as the absence of religion and distancing from religion, but in reality, Indian secularism has always meant a profusion of religions and the state engaging with all of them but privileging none.
Secularism in India did not mean irreligiousness, which even avowedly atheist parties like the Communists or the DMK found unpopular amongst their voters, he said.
Tharoor also cited the example of Kolkata's annual Durga Puja extravaganza, during which, he said, the Communist parties compete with each other to put up the most lavish Puja pandals to the goddess Durga.
Throughout the decades after Independence, the political culture of the country reflected these 'secular' assumptions and attitudes, but that has started to change in recent times, Tharoor argued.
Under the present ruling dispensation, "insidious and often overt attempts" have been made to differentiate and divide on the basis of religion, the Congress leader alleged.
He, however, asserted that the Congress party remains committed to the definition of 'secularism' that all religions are equally important, welcomed, respected and celebrated within the party.
"The Congress remains committed to ensuring that each of these faiths and customs are given the space to grow and thrive in India — that tradition of the party will not change, irrespective of the distorted versions that some of our political rivals may promote," he said.
Tharoor also said the most remarkable aspect of Hinduism, as highlighted in his new book, is that while versions of the faith come with their own prescriptions and proscriptions, there is no one universal way or regime that Hinduism requires every believer to subscribe to.
"The faith is not a monolith -- you are free to choose what set of beliefs you believe in, which manifestations of the divine you choose to worship and on what days, which of multiple sacred books to choose from, what convictions you would like to hold dear, and ultimately, equally free to reject any assumptions or requirements that do not sit well with your worldview," he said.
"The beauty of Hinduism is that we have no Pope to lay down the law, no imams issuing fatwas as to what constitutes true beliefs, no single sacred text from which deviations are impermissible. There is no such thing as a Hindu heresy," Tharoor said.
He alleged the BJP dispensation and its allies have taken the soaring majesty of the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and the Gita and reduced them to "irrelevance".
"For them, being a Hindu is no different from the team identity loyalty of the British football hooligan. In their cynical pursuit of majoritarianism, these individuals forget that no version of Hinduism either promotes violence against others nor discrimination against those who don't subscribe to our views," Tharoor said.