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Shashi Tharoor at Emory

May 2008
Shashi Tharoor at Emory

It doesn’t matter if he is writing or speaking them, celebrated author and former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor, always casts a spell with his words. When he spoke at the 8th Sheth Lecture at Emory University on March 30 about the transformation of India in the 21st century in conjunction with his new book The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone, he had a full house enthralled with his words.


When Nehru’s India made a tryst with destiny, launching it into a new era of governance, it was remarkable, said Tharoor. “Remarkable because it was happening at all.” There is no country like India, he said, that proudly boasts of being not a melting pot, but a thali (a full course meal plate) of a diverse mix of ethnic groups, culture, religion, a profusion of incomprehensible languages and much more. And yet, “India is more than the sum of its contradictions... a land with its own distinctive place in the world.’

And that was the world that Shashi Tharoor chose to explore that evening. He observed that in America people equate capitalism with freedom; but in India it has been associated with slavery. Why? “Because the British East India Company came to trade and stayed on to rule. So the nationalist leaders became suspicious of every foreigner with a briefcase.” For them, the freedom that they fought so hard for could only be retained if they became self reliant. That didn’t do too well for India and so, said Tharoor, his tongue firmly in his cheek, the “lessons to learn from history is that history can sometimes teach you the wrong lessons.”

Tharoor pointed out that with the recent transformation taking place in India he has heard extravagant phrases describing India as an emerging world leader and even the next super power. These statements are based on many things like India’s strategic advantage, its economic rise, political stability, its proven nuclear space, the country’s growing pool of young and skilled manpower to name a few. “But what makes a country a world leader? If it is its population then India is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by 2034. Is it military strength? If yes, then India is already a world player, and if it is economic development there too India has made tremendous strides.

“But a large number of people in India sill live in poverty and despair and economic reforms happen slowly.” In fact, said Tharoor, a comment about Indian diplomacy could well be applied to its economic reforms. It is “like the love making of an elephant: it is accompanied by much bellowing, but the results are not known for two years.” That, said Tharoor, amidst laughter, is very true of many economic reforms even today.

The cell phone trumps socialism

Tharoor then talked briefly about his book, mentioning that Dr. Jagdish Sheth, the eminent professor, author and community treasure, taught us the value of the “Rule of three,” and therefore he too chose to have three elements in his title: the elephant, the tiger, and the cell phone. The elephant and tiger symbolize India’s transformation from a rumbling, bumbling elephant, covered with dust and flies to a sleek tiger of strength and agility. And in that transformation, the cell phone has come to play a very significant role.

Tharoor went back to the times in the early ‘60s and ‘70s when growing up in Kolkata he remembered that the word “wrong number” was more frequently used than “hello.” He quipped that just because you had a phone didn’t mean it would work. And if you were ever to place a long distance call, known as “trunk call”, you had to sit by your phone forever waiting for that call to materialize. In spite of all the hassles, unless you were a VIP, you had to wait eight years before you could get a phone line. “When I left India in 1975, we had perhaps 600 million residents and just two million land-line telephones. In contrast, when I finished writing my book, I was able to report in it that in April 2007, India had just set a new world record by selling seven million cell phones that month—more than any country (including the U.S. and China) had ever done in a single month.” This, according to him was a historical landmark in telecommunications. He went on to say that by the time his book was published and released, that figure was already out of date. “In each of the last three months, India has been breaking its own world record. Last month (March 2008) it sold 8.3 million cell phones. So, today in a single month India sells four times as many phones as the entire country possessed three decades ago.”

This cell phone revolution, he said, has opened up a whole new world for Indians. The cost is so cheap that street vendors and fishermen are able to afford it. Thanks to it, the fisherman can now know the most lucrative markets at any time for their catch. “The cell phone has empowered the Indian underclass in ways in which forty-five years of talk about socialism singularly failed to do.”

The strength of “soft power”

Tharoor also talked about “soft power’, where a country made strides and was able to attract and persuade others through its culture, political ideas and foreign policy, in contrast to hard power growing out of the country’s economic and military dominance and which was used to coerce. “No great civilization can afford to ignore the way it is perceived by others. But, soft power is not only what we can definitively and consciously put on display. It is rather how others see what we are, whether or not we are trying to show it to the world.”

One such event that brought the world’s unanimous respect was when Sonia Gandhi, a Roman Catholic of Italian descent won the elections and chose to put a Sikh at the helm, who was in turn sworn in by a Muslim President in a country 81 percent Hindu. Compare that, Tharoor said to America, the oldest democracy in the world. In 220 years, it has chosen presidents and vice presidents that were white, male and Christian. Obviously India can teach others a thing or two. And yet it is not just material accomplishments that we need to celebrate in the transformation of India. It is more important that we celebrate the values and principles that India stands for.”

A country of contrasts

And yet, cautions Tharoor, we have a long way to go, because India remains a land of paradoxes and for each of its accomplishments, there are many things on the flip side as well. On one hand you have the Tata Nano, a car that has revolutionized the automobile industry, and on the other, bullock carts still remain an indispensable mode of transportation for millions. The pride of India being a nuclear powerhouse is offset by the fact that 600 million people in the nation are without electricity. India is the leading manufacturer of generic drugs yet millions cannot afford the cheapest medicine to treat diseases like HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis. One hundred and fifty million people are blind in spite of their disease being preventable and curable. Thousands of farmers are committing suicide because they can’t make ends meet. Four Indians have made it to the Forbes billionaires list; their combined net worth being 180 billion dollars. And yet, there are 260 million that are under the poverty line surviving on a meager 360 rupees a month. Millions of children have not seen the inside of a school.

There are violent communal tragedies, young boys and girls face persecution for celebrating Valentine’s day, India’s Picasso, MF Hussain, lives in self exile in Dubai because some self appointed detractors didn’t like the depiction of nudity in his work. Bangladeshi writer Tasleema Nasreen has to leave India after being granted asylum because the state and the central government don’t have the courage to stand up against the Muslim fundamentalists threatening her life. It is also shameful when a minister asks a French channel to change their fashion programming because their model’s outfit was “allegedly contrary to Indian sensibilities.” Where does that put the Khajuraho temples, the Kamasutra, the Krishna lilas then? Asked Tharoor, “Where does it leave treasured erotic verses that are a part of India’s rich cultural heritage? What do we tell India’s admirers? That Mahabharata is Bharatiya sanskriti but the erotic longings of Gopis for lord Krishna is not?”

Tharoor said emphatically that self appointed arbitrators should not be allowed to inflict their narrow mindedness or “to define Indianness down till it ceases to be Indian.” Though, he said, he still had great hope for the survival and success of Indian pluralism. “I don’t believe India will allow the specter of religious intolerance and political opportunism to undermine its soft power, which is its greatest asset.

For Dr Jagdish Sheth, who, along with his wife Madhu, has sponsored the Sheth Lecture series via the Sheth foundation, said it was a matter of great satisfaction to see a full house yet again at the annual event. “What began as a project to educate the local community about Emory university and to give Emory an appreciation of how much the local communities are hungry for knowledge about India and Indian studies, seems to have evolved into an event with world class celebrity speakers who come and educate us on so much.”

- Kavita Chhibber

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