It seems like a long time ago when Shashi Tharoor was an ambassador of India before the world stage, even coming within touching distance of the United Nations Secretary General's office. Tharoor is now firmly a part of India's political firmament. A second-time Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram, he is now known as much for political controversies as for his books, as much for being a part of the Congress party establishment as a player in India's foreign policy.
We sit down for a chat over breakfast at the Tata Suite in Delhi's Taj Palace Hotel. It's a suite mostly reserved for visiting heads of state. "Of course," said Shashi Tharoor, as he stepped in, "I've been here." He recalled visiting the suite to meet former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, among others.
We didn't have to spend time picking our breakfast from a menu because we knew in advance what he was going to have: "Dr Tharoor has idlies for breakfast every day and has asked if the chef can supply tomorrow: 1. Pomegranate seeds with papaya; 2. Idlies; 3. The usual chutnies; 4. Gunpowder with coconut oil; 5. Coconut water."
I took the cue from my interlocutor on this day and picked my meal in advance too: a fluffy egg white omelette with chicken sausages and some greens.
We begin with coconut water right away. Tharoor is impressed the hotel has fresh coconut water in Delhi.
So what's been keeping him busy? "Plenty," he says, "but most recently, I've been busy with my new book that is now in the press." An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India will be published by Aleph next month.
In July last year, Tharoor spoke in a debate at the Oxford Union, ripping apart the British Raj as a rapacious force and arguing why Britain owed reparations to India. The video of the speech went viral, and the publisher immediately urged him to write a book on the subject.
He told his publisher, "Look, come on yaar, everyone has known this. I've known this since high school and college. It's Indian nationalism 101. But he said if everyone knew this it wouldn't have gone viral."
So there is nothing new in the book?
He laughs, giving his papaya some rest, and explains at length why the book is of relevance today. He has put together a lot of scholarship on colonialism that is recent. It's not just about how the British shaped caste and Hindu-Muslim relations, but also fascinating nuggets such as the one about the ship-building industry. In the days of wooden ships, India made better ships than Britain, but to promote their own industries, the British destroyed Indian enterprise, including the ship-making industry. In what promises to provide grist for the British literary journals, the book has rebutted the pro-Empire arguments put forth by the likes of Niall Ferguson.
India was always a more heterogeneous society than the West. We are not a mono-ethnic state
Tharoor is all for moving on. History, he says, is its own revenge. "But if you don't know where you have come from, how do you know where you are going?"
So, for example, we need to understand how the British divide-and-rule policies separated and hardened identities, hurting the shared, syncretic culture between Hindus and Muslims.
That, Tharoor says, is the root of the majoritarian rhetoric of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, whereby they paint 700 years of foreign rule, equating Muslim rulers with British colonialism. The key difference, Tharoor says, was that most of the former stayed on, assimilated with Indian society, and contributed to it. In north and south alike, they contributed to Indian arts, crafts, culture and architecture. Whatever they took from India, they invested here.
Racism and xenophobia exist in many parts of the world and are on the rise today, but "India was always a more heterogeneous society than the West. We are not a mono-ethnic state." Tharoor hopes the Narendra Modi government would learn from the process of government how important it is to acknowledge India's diversity. India's diversity has always been one of its USPs and it would be "insane to throw away one of India's USPs on the grounds of majoritarian politics."
He keeps the pomegranate seeds aside for the moment and asks for the idlies to be served. He gives a "pretty high rank" to the Modi government's policies "as articulated". How can the Congress oppose the reforms carried out by the Modi government, he asks, when they were all initiated by the UPA? "You've got the Aadhar bill, the insurance bill, increasing foreign direct investment and the Goods and Services Tax. All of these were initiated by the UPA, opposed by the BJP and now adopted by the Modi government. These are our policies, so we welcome them."
It is implementation where Tharoor finds the Modi government failing, especially on programs such as Swachh Bharat, Start Up India, Make in India and Digital India. "They have said a lot but they are not being translated on the ground," he says.
Tharoor doesn't buy the reasons usually given for the tardy pace of change. One explanation is that two and a half years isn't much time. "They are halfway through their term. They should at least be able to demonstrate the beginnings of progress."
No party in India has a monopoly over virtue and no party has a monopoly over corruption
A "slothful bureaucracy" isn't a good excuse either for him. "That may partly be the result of an over-centralised administrative system. If the slothful bureaucracy is the excuse that they have to send everything up in a file to the PMO and it sits there, then obviously they won't get things done. Ideally, one needs to empower more people, decentralise more authority, give ministers more power than they currently have and allow them in turn to trust their own bureaucrats to get things done."
Ironically, the Modi government's centralisation of power in the PMO is the very opposite of how things were in the Manmohan years. In the UPA's ten-year regime, there seemed to be too much decentralisation, with powerful ministers undermining the prime minister. When I make this point, we go into the familiar UPA debate, with Tharoor using UPA-1's achievements ("from RTI to RTE") to cover the UPA-2's failure.
"No party in India has a monopoly over virtue and no party has a monopoly over corruption," he says. We are in the midst of a rather dated discussion of what led to the Congress getting reduced to a historic low of 44 seats in 2014. "The history of UPA-2 needs to be re-examined in light of what we have seen since then. We had the rather unpleasant phrase 'policy paralysis' flung at us for a very long time. We can turn around and say right now there is implementation paralysis."
Tharoor spent a brief eleven months as a minister of state for external affairs in 2009-10 until the corruption allegations over his involvement with the IPL controversy took cost him his job. Tharoor jokes that being an MoS was like standing in a cemetery. "There are a lot of people under you but nobody is listening."
At heart, the former UN official remains a foreign policy wonk. What does he think of Modi's foreign policy? How is it different from the UPA's?
"I don't think the Modi government's foreign policy is very different in substance from ours. But he has brought a great amount personal energy into his foreign travel, which is certainly admirable. When a country's leader travels around the world, the country is noticed. Another difference, in a less attractive way, is the chest thumping that seems to accompany a lot of things. Everything is grist to a PR mill. So you go to Myanmar and do something that has been done 7 times before, but you do such chest thumping that the country concerned complains they are embarrassed. Similarly, the surgical strike or attack or whatever you want to call it is being put to use in UP," he says.
Tharoor is of the view that there is no such thing as a Congress foreign policy or a BJP foreign policy. "There's only India foreign policy. Our political differences stop at the borders. Unfortunately, the ruling party today is using foreign policy and security policy for partisan political gain. And that is not a healthy trend," he says.
Our political differences stop at the borders. Unfortunately, the ruling party today is using foreign policy and security policy for partisan political gain
Perhaps in keeping with the idea that there is no BJP or Congress foreign/security policy, he supports the surgical strike and also supports the lack of military action after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. "At that point I think the government did the right thing. Even at the time I wrote that showing restraint once is something we can do. The political price of showing restraint the second time is not worth paying. So the message must go, this time we shall show restraint provided the Pakistanis co-operate. For some months the policy worked. Zaki ur Rehman and others were arrested. There was huge diplomatic pressure on Pakistan from across the world. And the Pakistanis did behave. For the next few years, there was only one major terrorist attack, on the German bakery in Pune. Otherwise we did have a respite from terrorism. So our policy not only at the time but in hindsight was the right thing. But at the same time, a second Mumbai attack would not have gone unpunished," he says.
That's all very well, but how does the Congress revive itself? It's a question many have stopped asking, the party's slow death is now deemed a foregone conclusion.
"Firstly, we are trying to identify the issues on which the government can be said to have failed the people, and highlighting such issues before the public. Second is to show serious activism, such as through Rahul Gandhi's kisan yatra in Uttar Pradesh—going out to the people and showing our presence," he says.
But he's alive to the larger problem. "One thing I am big on is to revive the grassroots presence of the Congress. One of the Congress' traditional strengths has been that it is everywhere. There was a time when there was no village without the presence of the Congress. Those units were not merely active every five years for elections. Those units did social work in the intermediate five years, helped people in need and so on. Somehow that tradition has been atrophied and I think some effort has to be made to revive that," he says.
While that is a tall order, Tharoor has a personal suggestion for his party. "I am also big on creating a structure to engage educated people, professionals and the middle class. There are a lot of educated people who are not happy with the majoritarian direction of our politics. They would be happy to contribute to thinking through an alternative. I don't mean an alternative in a political sense alone. I have suggested to the party the creation of a Professionals' Congress along the lines of the Mahila Congress and the Youth Congress," he says.
This writing off of the Congress is massively pre-mature. Much worse was being said about the Congress in the '90s when Sitaram Kesari was heading the party
Such plans and hopes, some would say, are already too late. Facing one electoral defeat after another, the Congress is widely considered to be in terminal decline. "You are slightly behind the times," he says, pointing to the recent sense of resurgence of the Congress in Punjab, despite the aggressive push of the Aam Aadmi Party. In other words, Punjab is a victory the Congress desperately needs.
"This writing off of the Congress is massively pre-mature. Much worse was being said about the Congress in the '90s when Sitaram Kesari was heading the party. A lot of very senior leaders left." He counts the names of those who left: Pranab Mukherjee, ND Tiwari, Mamata Banerjee, Mani Shankar Aiyar, P Chidambaram and Arjun Singh. "People thought the Congress was finished. But most of these came back."
As the idlies are served, we move to Kerala. The BJP has been making a push in Tharoor's home state and is strongest in the capital, Thiruvananthapuram, from where Tharoor has won two consecutive Lok Sabha elections. But Tharoor thinks it is not going to be easy for the BJP to wrest his constituency. "The attraction of having a representative who is potentially a minister always weighs heavily with voters."
As my fluffy egg white omlette arrives, Tharoor is breaking his idlies with a fork, mediating them with the chutnies, with very little sambar.
I ask him about the continuing political violence in Kerala. "There seem to be some very specific factors that have made the two parties like Sicilian warring clans, where you are born into a blood feud, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. We were able to contain it when we were in power, because we've been neutral. We didn't take sides and the police were objective. But now that one of the two sides is in power, namely the Left, I would say that undoubtedly it has become worse in recent weeks. There was a perception in the past that the CPM has an unfair upper hand, largely because they had greater political power in the state than the RSS. Today with the RSS in power, as it were, in Delhi, that is no longer true. Therefore the two sides are more balanced and unfortunately the number of victims is increasing," he says.
Where MPs have done good work for the constituency, that weighs heavily with voters. Voting on identity has rarely been a full explanation for anything
As the gunpowder and coconut oil arrives, Tharoor quickly remembers he wasn't done answering my question about his ability to retain his constituency in the future. "The BJP's rise across the state is interesting in terms of vote percentage, but still modest. They only had about 10% of the vote in the assembly elections, and we are talking about a long way to go before they could be a significant contender for power. There's only one constituency in the Lok Sabha election where they came second, and that was mine. Objectively, one could argue that there is no reason why they are in a position to do much better in Kerala. The voters also tend to judge on the basis of performance. Where MPs have done good work for the constituency, that weighs heavily with voters. Voting on identity has rarely been a full explanation for anything."
In other words, Tharoor doesn't see the BJP snatching away his seat anytime soon.
My fluffy omelette, meanwhile, is delicious. It's an education in how good egg white can taste, if you liberate it from its eternal role as bland sidekick to the flavourful yolk.
Tharoor changes his mind about the gunpowder-and-coconut-oil mix. He asks the butler to give him gunpowder and melted ghee instead. "They shouldn't be mixed but given separately."
Tharoor's attention to the gunpowder mix suggests his morning preference for idlies isn't just a habit but a ritual. "I eat idlies for breakfast every single day, including in New York. When I was working at the UN, I used to make my own idlies in industrial quantities, freeze them and thaw four at a time every morning. I couldn't live without them."
As he mixes his gunpowder with ghee, making his own fresh gunpowder chutney, I ask him about his legal troubles. "What legal troubles? I don't have any." He makes me spell it out: the Delhi Police's repeated questioning of him in the investigations of his wife Sunanda Pushkar's death.
"One of the more unpleasant experiences of being in politics has been that when you suffer a personal tragedy, instead of being allowed to mourn in peace, you are harassed by a voyeuristic and sensationalist media and, I might say, by some opposition party individuals as well. In fact the election campaign of 2014 was particularly vicious because of personal attacks on me, just three months after the tragedy," he says.
"But when you say legal troubles, there is no case against me or against any individual. The police have spent two and a half years trying to establish whether there was a crime at all. No one in the family, in which I include her two brothers and her only son, as well as me, has had any reason to suspect any sort of crime. And yet we have cooperated fully with the authorities to answer any query they've had, no matter how unreasonable. The fact that almost three years after the tragedy there has been no proof of crime, raises the question, why is it still going on?"
The fact that almost three years after the tragedy there has been no proof of crime, raises the question, why is it still going on?
The media suggestion, based on hints by the Delhi Police, that Tharoor was involved in Pushkar's death, was in his book a heavy price to pay for being a politician. It was a moment when he regretted having joined politics. But there were other such moments, especially in his first year in politics. "I went through one agnipareeksha after another. Everything I said or did was deliberately twisted. Cattle class was a classic example. All I meant was to tease the airline for herding us like cattle. Somehow it was translated and twisted into my being a snooty elitist who had disdain for economy class travel. It had nothing to do with that at all."
"There was the IPL controversy. I am still shocked anyone could believe I had taken money in a process where players are given money. So when I was forced to resign at the end of 11 months I wondered whether I had bitten off more than I can chew," he says as he is finishing his idlis. Asking for south Indian filter coffee, he describes his first year in politics as ragging in college. Not being a quitter, he says he's now passed those freshmen's tests.
Before we can move to the cameras for some portraits, Tharoor has a last dietary requirement. He sheepishly takes out his box of vitamins and pops some. "People say I've been Americanised," he jokes. It was bad enough that our meeting cost him his time at the gym this morning.