While relations between India and China or India and the US have their moments of tension, nothing divides the country and Europe, except when Europe tries to give too much advice on domestic issues, said Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary general and a member of the Indian parliament, in an in interview with EurActiv.
Shashi Tharoor is a prominent member of the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament. He has served as Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and has been Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs.
He was speaking to EurActiv Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener.
In your book ‘The Elephant, the tiger and the cell phone’, about the changing face of India, you said that the country’s ability to manage diversity has resulted in a rise in its soft power internationally. What’s your perception of Europe’s proverbial soft power, particularly after the intervention in Libya?
It is absolutely clear that Europe represents itself a model of ‘soft power’ because it is a region of the world that attracts people for its culture, its history, its architecture, its cuisine.
Since you are not representing a menace for anyone you have a distinctive soft power. But sometimes people criticise you for being the example of soft power without hard power.
For example, in India we have always believed that to counter the threats we face at our immediate borders, or to face terrorism, you need a combination of soft and hard power, which in Europe you are starting to lose, as you are reducing your defence budgets.
Now, the intervention in Libya suggests that you are capable of using your military muscle to defend the values you promote with your soft power.
The problem here is that some might think that Europe is turning again towards colonialism and imperialism, which the world was starting to forget.
So there is a risk in the choices you have made.
India and the EU are currently negotiating a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). What will that change for India?
Trade between our countries will become more significant. For the moment, it is clear that the two most important trade partners for India are the US and China. And I believe that China is overtaking the US, if you exclude trade in services.
I believe the moment has come to enter this market; it is a very important market due to its size but also because its consumption capacity is growing annually. So for Europe this is important, and for us I believe that the diversification of our sources of imports is very useful.
A good thing with Europe is that nothing divides us. That is not the case with China, where we are in sort of strategic rivalry.
There are no complications with the USA, even if it behaves like a superpower and we sometimes have difficulties with some of its actions.
With Europe, we do not really have major difficulties. Sometimes Europe has a tendency to give too much advice on things that are domestic affairs, which is something we do not always appreciate. I believe that if we treat each other with the respect that is necessary for sovereign countries, we will have no problem in developing a real strategic partnership. But we will start with trade, because that is the easiest starting point.
But the deal could possibly be blocked by the European Parliament as the FTA lacks any mention of labour rights, in the fields of child labour or collective bargaining, for example. Is any dialogue taking place at parliamentary level between the Lok Sabha and the European Parliament?
We have bilateral parliamentary dialogue and this question has never been raised by Europeans.
Secondly, we should not forget that child labour is illegal in India. The parliament does not accept child labour, and civil society organisations do lead a constant fight against child labour.
We do not pretend that it does not exist in India. Unfortunately, because of poverty families send their kids to work. If the police finds out about cases of abuse, the children are sent to school. Unfortunately, it is the economic reality that leads to such cases.
Europe has to understand that we in India are very proud people and we do not accept that on problems that we are trying to solve ourselves, foreign powers or treaties try to impose one rule or the other.
For example, human rights. We are very proud to say that violations of human rights are mostly exposed, even in Kashmir, by either civil society, the media or public administration.
India is a country that likes to solve its own problems. Because of our colonial past, we don’t like it when someone from outside India comes to gives us lessons.
I am convinced that if Europe were to insist on imposing conditionality of such a sort on the FTA, then India would refuse to cooperate.
You can’t forget history, you can’t forget that for 200 years others have led India’s business and politics, and it is much more important for us to insist on our own rights than to strike an FTA. As simple as that.
Let’s go back to the problem of poverty, which is still unresolved in India, and so is that of social inequality. Indian voters may well again sanction those in power at the ballot box in upcoming elections. What solutions can be found for the problem of poverty in India?
Democracy in itself is a solution because when one is unhappy, he/she can always seize power through votes rather than Kalashnikovs.
The big problem [in these elections] is with the Maoists, who are active especially in some central and eastern central states, [but who] will not succeed in really changing their destiny, because the reaction of the federal state would be to suppress any violent action that they would undertake.
Elsewhere, people have 50 years’ experience of Indian democracy. Those who have tried to change the social and political order by calling on people to vote for them always have the possibility to win.
Of course this is the magic aspect of democracy: next time they may lose, and yesterday’s secessionists then become today’s prime ministers. Thanks to democracy, next month or next year they may become opposition leaders. That is how it works.
Democracy represents a solution and obviously there is also development. In this domain, there are several ways to see things.
You spoke of social inequalities and in a way that is not correct. In fact, liberalisation is pursued by all political parties in India – there are three different political trends that are represented within the Indian government: the Indian National Congress, the BJP, and the third political camp includes the Socialist Party and the Communist Party – all have followed the same policy of liberalisation and economic opening up.
It is through this policy that we sustain a growth rate of 8% per year and that we manage to pull 1% of our population out of poverty every year.
This is not much, true, yet 10 million people have managed to escape poverty this way. That explains why despite the fact that the population continues to grow, hitting 1.21 billion people, GDP per capita has also grown from year to year.
So we are lifting people out of poverty but maybe too slowly. Although it is true that rich people are growing richer, I would not say that the poor are becoming poorer.
As India’s neighbour, Pakistan, is in the grip of secessionists, what guarantee of stability can India give to the international community and in particular, the European Union?
The strategic partnership comprises two aspects: there are regional responsibilities as India is the largest country of South-East Asia, it represents 80% of the economy and 70% of the population among the seven countries, or rather eight, as Afghanistan has joined the regional association of the countries of South-East Asia.
India can play a very important role here and is beginning to do so. For instance, India offers asymmetrical benefits. That means that we do not demand reciprocity when we make trade concessions and offer relationships with other countries. And this is quite rare in international relations.
The second issue lies with the so-called global partnership. There are several questions on which one can share a strategic opinion with the EU, one of which is human rights – although with some caveats, as India is never very favourable towards military intervention, which is why we abstained at the UN Security Council over Libya.
Apart from human rights, there is also the environment, there are matters of global commons, like the Internet, cyberspace and cybercrime. We have a certain know-how and potential in this area, which is becoming ever more important in the 21st Century.
If you think about how to manage that in a globalising world, where we are all more linked than we used to be, I believe that India has the capacity and the will to act, which I believe is important for Europe.
India prefers assured independence and is not planning any fixed, long-term partnerships with other states…
A little like the France gaulliste! India is a democracy and is proud of that, but it does not consider it a must to join NATO or accept all the other decisions that Western democracies take.
We have our history, we were colonised, we have all the memories of 200 years of history that are very different from those of a Western democracy. And for us, democracy is a means to deal with internal affairs, but regarding our international position one must not forget our colonial history and consider our solidarity with third-world countries on matters of development.
Also, we should not forget our moral, spiritual and political values and the importance of preserving our country’s diversity in the world. For instance, in this famous battle of civilisations, we are a country in which all civilisations coexist, all religions coexist.
Now we have a woman as our president, a prime minister who is Sikh, a Muslim vice-president. The party leader of the governing party is a Catholic of Italian origin and 80% of the country is Hindu. So we have all that, and we manage this diversity in a friendly manner, but we also offer the possibility to change things through the ballot box.
Could India teach Europe about managing diversity, as the 27-country bloc struggles to exist as a political entity?
The European experience varies from country to country. In France, for example, you have a large minority that is not of French origin and cannot recongnise itself in ‘our ancestors, the Gauls’. France is surely much less religious than other countries. But I also notice reactions to that in Europe. In Switzerland there has been the referendum against minarets, in Germany there have been local protests against mosques.
In India, on the other hand, we tend to say that you can be who you want to be, behave as you choose, dress as you wish, wear external symbols of your faith, it is your choice. But you will have to coexist with others who also wear such symbols. And if you accept this principle for everyone, then you can see burqas in the streets, turbans and Western garb, you can see all of this in the streets of any Indian town.
Do you think Indians see Europe as a political entity?
We have relations with the member states of the EU and we tend to think that it is more useful to speak to Prime Minister Cameron or President Sarkozy – both of them came to visit three times over the course of the past four, five weeks – rather than speaking to Baroness Ashton who takes care of European diplomacy.
There are EU countries with whom we have real diplomatic relations that go back a long time in history. Because the European institutions do not have the same weight, we will of course prefer to deal with the governments.
Perhaps within a few decades, or a hundred years, we could imagine a Europe that would be more like India. Because the real comparison should be made between Europe and India, these are nations with diverse languages, different appearances, different customs and cuisines, and all of that coexists in the same geographical and economic space. India is essentially like that.
We speak of an Indian nation, but strictly speaking and in the Marxist sense of the term, this is a country, a nation that comprises several nations. And I think that we have had the great chance to create a single country from roughly 25 different peoples, from an ethnical, cultural and linguistic point of view. And Europe is trying to do that, but obviously, the process will be a little slower.