The Enigma Called Shashi Tharoor
20/August/2017

Shashi Tharoor could well be described as one of the most remarkable outliers of modern day India. A scintillating personality, an author par excellence, a thinker well ahead of his time, a historian of considerable rigour, in short, a man for all seasons.

He is the envy of most alpha males who don’t have a kind word for him probably because they feel threatened by his overpowering persona, and beautiful women go wobbly on their knees everytime he flicks his thick tuft of hair from his right eye.

Never one to mince his words and often someone who wades effortlessly through controversies, here’s Dr. Shashi Tharoor at his brutally candid best on a wide range of issues in an email conversation with Mubashir Ansari.

Q: It seems of late, you have taken up cudgels against the British Raj which often reflects in your views and your book, An Era of Darkness. So why is your antagonism towards the British rule in India so vehement, considering you appear to be an Anglophile with your impeccable English and mannerisms?

A:  Very simply, the capacity to speak in the English language does not preclude criticism of the colonial English state and the British Empire. The reformers of the Bengal Renaissance in the early 19th century read, wrote and spoke fluent English, but their soul was Indian. Our freedom fighters absorbed English and challenged colonialism in the very language of that regime. Then, there were those who stood up to power within the British system — Dadabhai Naoroji is an excellent example of that: the man who was ostensibly an Anglophile went on to produce one of the most devastating critiques of the British impoverishment of India.

So, circumstances and history have created in India one of the world’s largest English-speaking populations. But that, or our style of speaking English, doesn’t make any of us less Indian. The experience of the British Raj was a horrific one — it created landlessness, poverty, drained our resources, enriched foreign lands, and de-industrialized us. It deserves criticism, and as I have said, we must forgive, but never forget this past. Hence, the book and hence, my vocal efforts to remind Indians today of what our ancestors went through — the language and accent in which I do so is less important than this message.

“Patriotism is affection for one’s land; nationalism creates “us” and “them”, which in an interconnected world is a dangerous thing.”

Q: Democracy and globalization are two of mankind’s most hallowed symbols and both seem to be under siege across the world. What are your views on the future of these concepts?

A : It is a fact that there is simply no escaping globalization today. However, it must be admitted that there is a backlash against the way globalization has so far been managed. Protectionist barriers have begun to go up in those very nations that for years advocated the free flow of goods, labour, and capital now that other powers are emerging and demanding a place at the high table. Instead of conceding space to new global leaders, the old are attempting to close ranks, which will be to their own detriment. On one level, therefore, the turn against globalization is a political question.

There is, however, need for reform. If we witness the rise of strongmen around the world who challenge democratic processes and institutions, it is because globalization has not delivered its widely-advertised benefits, even though it has visibly enriched certain classes of people. Since 2008, for example, wages have grown in the UK by 13% but the stock market is up by 115%, benefiting only those who have a stake in the latter.

Credit Suisse recently found that out of 46 major economies, wealth inequality in the last decade has been growing in 35 countries. All this will need reform, which will not be painless, but globalization is here to stay. What we need is to wait and watch how democracy will reinvent itself and hold untrammeled globalization accountable to the people and to values greater than the enrichment of a few.

Q: Yuval Noah Harari is a proponent of a diluted form of nationalism. According to him, while patriotism is good, nationalism is responsible for the world becoming overtly insular. Can you give us your sense on this?

A: In an increasingly connected world, where nations are interdependent and there can be no closing of doors, nationalism of the aggressive variety can cause great harm. Nationalism is also, as we see currently in India, susceptible to political misinterpretation and indeed even perversion, delivering  gains to certain leaders while opening the door to worrying long term problems. Patriotism, on the other hand, comes from within — a love for the land of one’s birth, the culture that nourishes and makes us who we are.

This is a deeper feeling that is, in a way. purer and less contaminated by political ambition Patriotism is affection for one’s land, nationalism creates an ‘us’ and ‘them, which. In an interconnected world, is a dangerous thing. History is full of lessons about the damage hyper-nationalism can cause by casting things in black and white and appealing to baser instincts. Maturity would be to celebrate patriotism instead of raising nationalism (and ‘anti-nationalism’) The former, is a natural feeling we evoke as a people: the lane• is increasingly being used as a political tool

“I admire Nehru for his mind, Amitabh for his voice and presence, Wodehouse for his wit and Garcia Marquez for his rare ability to bring magic into, and make magic out of, the most mundane experiences of quotidian life.”

Q: Is India at a dangerous inflection point? There is a school of thought, though not necessarily correct, that believes that the government is increasingly interfering in the people’s way of life. In such a situation, what is your response?

A: Borrowing from my previous answer Yes this government is playing dangerous game of ‘us ad ‘them’ and unless you follow the views of government and its views you are not part of “us”.  And this is being done based on what language you speak, what you may or may not eat, what animal’s you can or cannot transport and worse. This is not direct interference — after. all the government isn’t actively or openly promoting such goals — but the silence of the government allows what are called ‘fringe elements’ to act with brazen violence and determination which does  even more damage to our institutions

When the police stand by the wayside while Muslims are assaulted or killed for transporting buffaloes, we are looking at issues far greater than the episodes might mean in themselves. India has a Constitution that protects everyone and in a country of our diversity of color, custom, costume, language, cuisine and more, trying to force everyone to one standard government designed box is a perilous game. The future of Indian democracy itself is at stake.

Q: Do you believe that the future of democracy in India is questionable since there is a lack of strong opposition in this country now?

A: It is the duty of other pillars of democracy like the judiciary, civil society, a free press and people like you and me to ensure that the government is held accountable for its actions and that checks and balances are kept in place to ensure that they do not interfere in a malicious way in our way of life.It must be conceded that Opposition is weak but is not like India has not seen this in the past — Jawaharlal Nehru was a taller leader than Narendra Modi and the opposition in his day was weak.

But he, instead of using that to his advantage. Empower the opposition Indeed,  on one occasion he even published an article critical of himself in a leading journal, to instill in our people a culture of holding  power to reason and account. That is true leadership but what we see at the moment is not the strengthening of democratic institutions but an effort to demolish the very idea of Opposition, going against every constitutional principle that make India, India.

Q: You have been a proponent of the Presidential form of Government for India. Why do you think so and how would that make for a better model of governance?

A: In a nutshell, I believe our parliamentary system has created a unique breed of legislator, largely unqualified to legislate, who has sought election only to wield (or influence) executive power It has produced governments obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance. It has distorted the voting preferences of an electorate that knows which individuals it wants but not necessarily which policies. It has spawned parties that are shifting alliances of individual interests, rather the vehicles of coherent sets of ideas.

It has forced governments to concentrate less on governing than on staying in office, and obliged them to cater to the lowest common denominator of their coalitions In a Presidential system, on the other hand, you have an executive that is not victim to the shifting sands of the legislative support and thus, you would have a government focused on governance rather than on extending their tenure in power. And India, as you will agree, is in urgent need of steady governance more than anything else.

Q: There have been reports of you being fielded as a Prime Ministerial candidate for Congress. Should this come to pass, what would be your three most important priorities for India’s growth?

A: While I was touched, and surprised by a petition calling for a higher role for myself within theCongress Party and the2019 General Elections. I must stress that I am a Member of Parliament for the Congress Party, nothing more and nothing less.

The party has a settled leadership, which is not up for debate. When changes occur they do so through an established procedure. I have my vision for India as articulated in my books encourages you to read them all and you will get more than three important priorities for our growth!

Q: Consider this a question of alternate history: What according to you would be the state of India had the British lost the First Battle of Independence back in 1857? Do you think the many kingdoms and princely states in pre-partitioned India would have coalesced to form a united country?

A: Indian history is full of an impulse for political unity and it is naive to imagine that it wouldn’t have happened without the British. In fact, when the British started making inroads into India, the Maratha Confederacy in Central and northern India exercised de facto control over large swathes of territory. The Mughal Emperor was maintained by the Marathas as figurehead and one can well imagine the evolution, gradually, of a constitutional monarchy on a larger scale.

The British never freely gave democracy to India, and whatever they conceded was given most reluctantly and it was prised from then grasp. Tipu Sultan bought in technology from Enlightenment era France, and there is no reason to believe that we would not Cut of our own choice, come into modernity without the British. It was the British who told us that without them we would never have evolved out of prehistoric darkness. This plainly, is a staggering untruth India, led by Indians, would are charted its own course and found its destiny.

Q: Who and why you envy the most — Jawaharlal Nehru or Amitabh Bachchan; PG Wodehouse or Gabriel Garcia Marquez?

A: I was born without an envy gene—I’ve always believed the world has enough challenges and opportunities for everyone to thrive and I’ve never begrudged anyone else their success. So, it’s hard question to answer because I can’t relate to the idea of envy. Still I admire them all–Nehru for his mind, Amitabh for his voice and presence, Wodehouse or his wit and Garcia Marquez for his rare ability to bring magic into, and make magic out of the most mundane experience of quotidian life.

Q: There is so much we know and admire about Shashi Tharoor, the politician, the author of many interesting books, the orator, the historian, yet there is something enigmatic about you. Could you tell us the Shashi Tharoor the world does not know?

How about Shashi Tharoor the cricket fanatic? From a very young age, I was obsessed with the game. My father took me to my first Test match at . And I always wanted to play cricket very badly—which is exactly what I did, I played cricket very, in places like Singapore and Geneva. Even these days,  even in the midst of election Campaigning.  I will sneak a look at the latest scores. Or stop in a village to watch some kids playing a casual match. There’s an addiction many don’t know about!

In a Presidential system, you have an executive that is not victim to the shifting sands of the legislative support and thus, you would have a government focused on governance rather than on extending their tenure in power.

Article Originally Published in Vantage



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