Pundit, Patriot, & Politician
The charismatic and articulate SHASHI THAROOR, a former UN diplomat and current Congress MP, is a multifaceted dynamo who hardly needs an introduction to India-watchers. In a nation where people are increasingly afraid to speak out, Tharoor remains undaunted, as can be seen from this exclusive interview with Khabar. It’d be a mistake to hold his party affiliation against him. The erudite author of numerous books and numberless columns, Tharoor is above all an independent and effective communicator.
Growing up in India, Shashi Tharoor once read one full book every day for 365 days—such is his passion for words. Indeed, he is never at a loss for words. As a wordsmith, former diplomat, and cricket aficionado, the voluble Tharoor—a third-term Indian MP who represents Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala—is not shy about sharing his thoughts on a wide range of issues with legions of followers, both in India and abroad. His unique wit and large arsenal of words have made him a rock star in the literary world, and fans flock to his events just to hear him speak.
Scenes from Tharoor's early UN years. (Source: UN Photo Library)
In the fall, Tharoor was in the U.S. for the Jaipur Literary Festival at New York 2023. Despite his crazy schedule, he made time for an interview with Khabar magazine. But unfortunately, before it could happen, Tharoor, who was under the weather, lost his voice. He promised to do the interview after returning to India—and that’s exactly what happened, even though dozens of assignments and appointments awaited him once he got back to Delhi. For his carefully thought-out and candid responses on his various roles, India’s ruling party, Prime Minister Modi, the opposition, the Indian economy, Kashmir, the Middle East and, not least, B. R. Ambedkar, please read on.
You have so many valid identities: author, thought leader, former diplomat, and opposition party leader, to name a few. When you comment on current issues and events, it is through the filter of which of these identities?
Those identities are all aspects of the same person! I see myself as a human being with a number of responses to the world, some of which I manifest in my writing, some in my work. To my mind, which aspect of me comes to the fore at a particular time depends a lot on the nature of the issue at hand. Naturally, when I speak in parliament and question the government on its inadequacies, I wear my party hat and scrutinize where the government is faltering; and I have my own ideas on how best to articulate a cogent vision of policy in the public interest. Similarly, when I am in the public space and engage with matters that I cover in my writing, the role I play is either a literary or an academic one that flows from my reading, writing, and scholarship. I enjoy the convergence of these “identities,” or rather aspects of my identity, immensely; in fact, we can all have multiple identities, and juggle them as needed.
[Right] Before returning to India, Tharoor lived and worked in New York.
On that note, do you find that people have a tendency to discount your criticism of the ruling party as “good old politics” of an opposition leader?
I suppose some do, though I hope I have acquired enough of a reputation for fair-mindedness through my willingness to praise the government when praise is due—and therefore that my criticism will also be taken more seriously as coming from a fair person. As you acknowledge in your first question, I am a lot of things beyond being just a standard-issue opposition MP. I was first and foremost a writer and scholar, with a reputation to protect in this domain—and even in my political career, I have made it a point not to endorse anything that goes against my own principles and convictions.
There have been many instances where I have openly disagreed with my own party—I have been my own person. Assume, if you wish, that being an opp-osition MP, I can only be critical. I would urge you, however, to look at the reasoning, the content, and the nature of my criticisms. I make it a point to be nuanced, detailed, and buttress my arguments with facts, figures, and examples. No criticism is expressed without a solid basis for it.
[Left] As a parliamentarian in India, Tharoor is dismayed that most bills are pushed through without enough scrutiny. (Source: Lok Sabha)
Furthermore, I have never hesitated to acknowledge the achievements of the government: the internationalization of yoga as a very clever exercise of soft power, the deft diplomacy of the G20 New Delhi Declaration, the development-oriented outlook of some ministers like Nitin Gadkari, the helpfulness of Nirmala Sitharaman and Ashwini Vaishnaw, and the sharp-witted articulation of Foreign Minister Jaishankar are just a few of many examples where I’ve expressed views in favor of the government. Hence, the “good old politics” argument should not stand in my case, for I have made a conscious attempt to be balanced in my appraisal of both the government’s successes and failures, though the latter have definitely overwhelmed the former!
A lot has been said about the Modi government’s heavy-handed approach against dissent and its authoritarian tendencies. How great a threat do you feel this is to the nation? Or do you feel our democratic institutions and social fabric (diversity) are strong enough to sustain such assaults?
I will reiterate that the BJP still represents a fundamental threat to the future of India’s democracy and the freedoms that we have taken for granted since our independence from colonial rule 76 years ago. You have to look no further for the government’s contempt for institutions and procedure in democratic functioning to comprehend this. There is a remarkable shift in the BJP’s political ambition. They have gone from whispering about changing the constitution to openly undermining it; from suggesting that some Indians matter more to them than others to openly ensuring that, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the very experience of what it means to be an Indian is different; and from asserting control over independent national institutions to openly using them as instruments of their political agenda.
[Right] Tharoor was the Under-Secretary-General when he left the UN.
Part of the reason behind this systemic crumbling stems from the Moditva doctrine and its inherently autocratic concentration of power. Moditva articulates a cultural nationalism anchored in the RSS political doctrine of Hindutva but building upon it the idea of a strong leader, powerful and decisive, who embodies the nation. Autonomous public institutions threaten the Moditva doctrine because, by design, they are independent. This is why their authority must be undermined, and the “nationalist” argument advanced that opposition and dissent are by definition anti-national. The fear is that ethno-nationalism is taking India towards a peculiar hybrid, a “dictatocracy” which preserves the forms of democracy while brooking no dissent against its dictates.
As a parliamentarian, I have watched with consternation how BJP legislation like the farm laws, the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, the Digital Data Protection Bill, and the NCT (Amendment) Bill have been pushed through with only minimal parliamentary scrutiny. Where under the UPA government some 80% of bills were examined by parliamentary committees before being brought to the House for adoption, under this government the figure is barely 13%. The BJP’s behavior smacks of arrogance—offensive words uttered recently on the floor of the house in parliament, as well as the distinct disregard for parliamentary procedure or the spirit of consensus that once was the leitmotif of our parliamentary democracy, is proof enough.
The cult of Moditva and the centralization of power brooks no dissent—so deep and vitriolic is the polarization in India today that it is considered odd to sit with someone from the “other side” (so to speak) and even try to have a conversation. The abominable labeling of the other, the religious profiling, and even just the lack of fellow-feeling in parliament are disenchanting examples of the new climate of conformity.
[Left] With Kofi Annan, the UN's former Secretary-General, and music composer A.R. Rahman.(Source: UN Photo Library)
On the question of our democratic resilience, I am a cautious optimist. I would argue that there are enough Indians, including young people, who are committed to resisting these recent chauvinistic trends and to ensuring that the BJP’s project to remake India in its distorted image does not succeed. They will continue to fight for a national discourse that is constructive, recognizes and respects our diversity of faith and conviction, and promotes inclusive politics. Similarly, the opposition has largely been united and unanimous in their rejection of these forces and challenged the one-size-fits-all “Hindi-Hindutva-Hindustan” agenda that the government seeks to impose on all Indians. The INDIA alliance illustrates the seriousness of the opposition in rejecting the BJP’s chauvinistic agenda passionately and resisting the dismemberment of democratic India that the BJP seems determined to carry out.
Are you willing to concede that Modi’s governance style, based on hyper nationalism, has also done some good? Many have hailed the newfound assertiveness of India and Indians on a global stage. What do you make of it?
I will concede that Modi has invigorated Indian diplomacy, traveling tirelessly around the world, hugging world leaders, and addressing raucous rallies of Indian expatriates in foreign capitals. India's relations with the United States and its allies have never been better, and cooperation with key Gulf countries has never been closer. Undoubtedly, recent triumphs like the consensus on the New Delhi Declaration of the G20 must be celebrated, and so must the increasing space for maneuver for our diplomatic corps in most arenas of global governance.
It is equally important to acknowledge that India’s strategic importance is as much a corollary of structural factors in the international system and the legacy of strategic autonomy as it is of Modi’s efforts. We must not forget that it was PM Manmohan Singh’s tireless endeavors that made the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear agreement (the anchorage that set the tone for much that was to follow in the bilateral partnership) possible. Of course, it is imperative to be assertive when it comes to our global interests, which we have managed to do considerably well through the pursuit of what I dubbed, more than a decade ago, “multi-alignment.” Our steadfastness on being independent and our rejection of all attempts to push us into a corner are commendable, but we must ensure that we continue on this path, for it is easy to get waylaid with a government that values its domestic political compulsions over everything else.
[Right] With Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State. (Source: UN Photo Library)
It is mistaken to assume that it is Modi’s hyper nationalism that has led to this success. If anything, the hyper nationalism has made our friends in the group of democracies uncomfortable, particularly with the constantly vitriolic rhetoric on minorities and the erosion of institutions. In this context, the BJP's belligerent Hindutva nationalism—which promotes a narrow interpretation of history and demonizes India's minorities, particularly Muslims—can be likened to a toxin injected into the veins of Indian society. While global cooperation is made primarily on shared interests, the role of time-tested values that we have championed globally should not be understated.
Speaking of the Gulf countries, the crisis in the Middle East prompts a question. The Modi government remains a strong supporter of Israel. That's quite a change from India's earlier staunch support of the Palestinians. In fact, under Indira Gandhi, India was the first non-Arab nation to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. How do you think the Arab nations will respond to the current Indian stance?
India’s position on the ongoing conflict has been, to put it mildly, confused. On one hand, the PM has been quick to issue statements of unqualified support to Israel as well as abstain from the UN General Assembly vote. And on the other, the little that has been done to try and balance this with a sympathetic view towards the plight of the Palestinian people, or in keeping in line with India's historic position on the matter, has come in a much more timid form. To make India’s muddled position on the conflict even more puzzling, the PM, who has made no secret of his close friendship with Israeli PM Netanyahu, began this week with a phone call to the president of Iran, Hamas’ principal backer. Since Hamas is Israel’s sworn enemy and [the Palestinian Authority president] Abbas’ rival, this completed the circle of confusion around India’s stance.
What this makes clear is that despite many areas of continuity, India’s foreign policy has begun to change in important areas under Modi, arguably beyond recognition on the Israel issue and more subtly in other areas. For instance, the rise of China and its overt assertiveness vis-a-vis India has already prompted a greater affinity to the United States. With Russia a decreasingly useful partner in global geopolitics, and China nibbling away at India’s disputed frontier with it, the makings of a fundamental reorientation have become apparent. India's muddled position on the ongoing Gaza conflict is the latest manifestation of a perceptible change in India’s view of the world.
How about other claims made by the Modi government and its fans—such as a robust economy, even as other giants like the U.S. and China are said to be in a vulnerable position?
It is true that the global economy has suffered severely due to the pandemic, and the impact has been pervasive; our vibrant market, entrepreneurship, and other structural factors, including some government policies, have ensured that we have weathered the inflation battle relatively well. But the claims of a “robust economy” are, unfortunately, overblown. The former star performers like tourism and service industries are devastated; agriculture and MSMEs, the backbone of the economy, are both in crisis. Inflation and price rise are hurting the aam aadmi [common man] severely, with even basic commodities needed for daily sustenance becoming prohibitively expensive for the economically vulnerable. And there is an alarming lack of jobs in our economy, particularly for our unemployed youth, whose futures are at the risk of being derailed. If despite all this, we are growing faster than other major economies, it offers scant consolation. Moreover, there is a larger and more worrying trend that the nation is witnessing under this government—the use of financial policymaking and weaponization of fiduciary institutions as tools for coercion and control. The union government has deliberately used these instruments to handicap our states financially, but also to clamp down on political opponents of the government—practically anyone who is even remotely critical, whether think tanks, the media, or even vocal citizens.
Modi supporters often point to India’s impressive inflows of foreign investment. But this largely reflects portfolio investments in the usual information technology-related sectors, which add little in terms of new capital assets and create very few jobs. More generally, the widespread perception in India that Modi is be- holden to a handful of corporate interests—and tailors his economic policies accordingly—does little to enhance international confidence in the country’s economic future. I strongly believe that we must keep this bigger picture in mind as we scrutinize the government’s economic hyperbole.
When Article 370 was revoked in Kashmir in 2019, there was heavy criticism against the Modi government, and speculation that eventually Kashmiris will revolt against this move. But today, less than four years from this milestone, Kashmir seems to be far more stable. Kashmiris seem to be happy with the investments being made for their development. In hindsight, do you feel the revocation of Article 370 was not as grave an error as it was made out to be?
I called the abrogation of Section 370 and Jammu and Kashmir’s bifurcation into two union territories the political equivalent of Modi’s 2016 demonetization: an idea that was poorly conceived and implemented with little consultation with any stakeholder group. The removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status through sleight of hand (based on the “consent” of a governor appointed by Delhi rather than the elected representatives of the people) amounted to an assault on India’s democratic values, and I stand by that stance. Since then, the situation in the fraught Kashmir Valley paradoxically seems both better and worse—better in the sense that tourism from the rest of India has gone up by leaps and bounds, and money is therefore flowing into the economy, but also worse because stories of sullen hostility and alienation of Kashmiri Muslims have greatly multiplied.
India’s constitution rests on the idea of an inclusive country, on the spirit of cooperative federalism and democratic practices, and on guarantees of individual and group liberties. As I argued in parliament, the political risks are huge—particularly the risk posed to the very federal structure of our country, which has been organized as a “union of states” since independence. The fact remains that asymmetric federal relations (such as Article 370) have always existed within this union of states. Could the government use the same—until now, unprecedented—methods they have used against Kashmir against other states tomorrow? They have set a dangerous precedent. In Kashmir, by first locking up and then marginalizing democratic parties and their leaders, stripping statehood and still not holding elections four years later, the government has opened up the space for undemocratic forces.
You recently wrote a book about Ambedkar. How do you see his legacy in present-day India? Any thoughts on California’s pending legislation to ban caste discrimination in the state? [Note: The bill passed, but Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed it.]
Arguably, there is no more important figure in contemporary India, after Mahatma Gandhi, than Dr. Ambedkar. His posthumous stature has grown enormously: a controversial figure in his own lifetime, who lost more elections than he won and attracted both opprobrium and admiration in equal measure, he is almost beyond criticism today. All Indian political parties seek to lay claim to his legacy. Yet he is not as well-known globally as he deserves to be. In the constant tension between Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of India and Ambedkar’s, it is fair to say that it is the latter’s vision that endures, codified in the Constitution of the Republic. In so doing, he transformed the lives of millions yet unborn, heaving an ancient civilization into the modern era through the force of his intellect and the power of his pen. And that vision is his finest legacy. That’s why I wrote a short, accessible biography for the general reader.
California’s anti-caste legislation only confirms that caste consciousness among Indians has increased compared to Ambedkar’s heyday. Now every caste is conscious of its identity, and this identity label has become a marker for political mobilization. Both Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru wanted the caste system to disappear from India, and the latter thought that with modernization it will disappear. Ambedkar fought for "annihilation of caste" because he felt that as long as the consciousness of the caste system existed, oppression would also exist. He will probably be horrified to realize that, if anything, the caste system is more and more entrenched in the political arena—so much so that the need is felt to draft legislation dealing with it even outside the concept’s country of origin. Going forward, the optimists among us would hope is that caste becomes a benign label of identity like an old school tie, but the realists are seeing through examples like the U.S. legislation that that future is much farther than we had initially thought.
What do you hope to achieve with the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). What’s your strategy?
The idea underpinning the INDIA Alliance is to posit a united front at the center despite complex dynamics among parties in the states. Strategically, the alliance parties agree on big questions, but need to soon devise a “common maximum program.” In states like Maharashtra and Bihar, the convergence between the parties of the alliance is sufficient that you can be confident that the key stakeholders will be able to straighten out most contentious stresses. With that being said, there are also states like Delhi and Punjab, Kerala, and perhaps West Bengal, where consensus may be more elusive—so the task remains uphill. But an agreement that embraces most parties in most states is still, in my view, enough. And some who clash in some states will still converge on national issues in parliament.
What gives me hope is the commitment of the major opposition leaders to persevere and ensure that common ground be found. There is a deep internalization of how important this moment is to quell the tide of BJP’s divisive politics. Elections have become the principal vehicle of our democracy and remain the primary way of expressing dissatisfaction with the government. Our responsibility now is to ensure that we provide a convincing, principled, and egalitarian alternative at the ballot to the majoritarianism of the BJP—and persuade the voter to safeguard the idea of India articulated at our founding—even as that means rising above contentious party disputes in the larger interest of winning the struggle for India’s soul.
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications and publishes Lassi with Lavina (www.lassiwithlavina.com). Follow her on Instagram (@lassi_with_lavina).
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