He is not only one of the most erudite politicians in contemporary India but also one its wittiest, even though that often lands him in troubled waters. An interview with Shashi Tharoor.
I have to start with the question, from the fragrant international diplomatic circles to grassroots Indian politics, was this a natural trajectory for you, or was there a fundamental difference in both the spaces?
No, there are differences, no question about it. I’m afraid most of my adult life was spent internationally – not most, all of my adult life was spent internationally – I went abroad to graduate school at the age of nineteen and essentially after my PhD, joined the UN, worked almost twenty-nine years there, and I’ve come back to India at a time when, obviously, I’m entering a profession that others have served for as long as I’ve served the UN and don’t always welcome these interlopers like myself. So it’s certainly been a tough adjustment. Having said that, the problem is really at the grassroots. Ordinary people are receptive; they want someone to care, to attend to their problems, to sort of advocate their issues – the problem is more at the grass tops, like the lower-level and mid-level party workers and others who have put in the hard yards and wonder why somebody who hasn’t done that, is given something like a ticket.
You wear so many hats with a lot of panache, but what is it that you want to speak about? What is the cause that’s closest to you?
I think the most essential thing in our country is the deepening and widening of our democracy. Because ultimately, you know, everyone can prescribe solutions, and I certainly have a whole laundry list of everything to do with the hardware of our development, the ports, the roads, the railways, infrastructure – to the software of our development – human capital, education, all of that – I mean, all of this we can go on and on at great length, and it’s difficult to even say one is more important than the other because everything has to grow together. But the deepening and widening of our democracy – in other words, for every single person – however poor, however unlettered, whichever farthest corner of our country they may live in, to feel they have an equal stake – that has been our big strength. And we must preserve that, and I’m sure that the pluralism and diversity which is the best thing about Indian civilisation is also fully reflected in our politics. I think, in a curious way, as somebody who’s studied India and Indian politics and written about it from outside, the surprise I felt was [at] the level of conformism within what seems like such a widely spread democratic system. And we have political opinions expressed in India which are not even present in many other democracies – Communism, for example, wins elections still, at least they have one state, they’re still ruling there, three just a few months ago, whereas in most other democracies, people don’t take Communism as a serious idea anymore. So we’ve got all this range of opinion, from there all the way to the sectarian bigotry of groups like the MNS in Bombay, or the Shiv Sena, people like that, the VHP, which, they’re not a political party but play a political role – we’ve got all this diversity of opinion. And yet there seems to be a certain conformism built into the way in which opinions are expressed, the way in which Parliament is conducted, what is permissible in terms of people thinking, speaking, acting, and I’d like to see some of that loosening up a little bit, as I’m sure it will in the years to come.
Just picking up from your UN connection, how do you see India’s desire to be a permanent member of the Security Council? Do you see it fructifying in the near future?
Depends on how you define ‘near future’. It’s not going to happen overnight. I think if we had hoped that when we leave the Security Council after two years of being a non-permanent member that we would then go straight into permanent membership, that isn’t going to happen. Because part of the problem is reforming the UN Security Council, it’s a long, arduous and complicated process that requires two-thirds of the member states to vote an amendment and then two-thirds of the member-states’ Parliaments to ratify it. And the second process, the ratification, has to have the parliaments of all five member-states who are now currently Permanent Members, agreeing to it. In other words, you need to arrive at a formula that is acceptable to two-thirds of the world’s countries and that is not unacceptable to the five countries whose powers you’re planning to dilute. That has proved a very, very tall order, and until we get there, I think it’ll be unwise for us to issue any unwise predictions.
What is your view on the secessionist movements, and the way the Maoists have taken over the poorest belts of India?
They are, for the most part, misguided young men who are unemployed, who have nothing to gain from the system as they see it and nothing to lose from picking up the guns, so they’re given a gun and given a thousand rupees a month or whatever to go out and kill and destroy because the sort of malign people who are are misguiding them, have managed to persuade them that that is the path to salvation. But they’re not seceding from India, they want to rule India, they want to take over and transform India in their misguided way. The secessionist movements in different parts of the country – Kashmir, the North-East – are of a different background, different vintage, and should be dealt with effectively by the very methods that we have used in the past for other previous, no longer extant movements, which is a combination of pretty firm enforcement of rule of law and order, also open, generous co-option into our political democracy, so that yesterday’s secessionists become today’s politicians, tomorrow’s Chief ministers, and the day after tomorrow’s Leaders of the Opposition – such are the ways of democratic politics.
Finally, do you see yourself going back to fiction writing?
Well, right now I see myself focusing on my political career, I have a Lok Sabha seat to look after, a constituency of voters who’ve placed their trust in me and I want to reward that trust by working hard for them, and one hopes I’ll have a chance to be re-elected. If that’s the most time-consuming thing I can do, which it is, then writing takes a second place, and the writing that I find myself able to do is usually the writing that is interruptible by the demands of politics, and that means mainly non-fiction. You can write a thousand-word column but you can rarely start a novel, because the novel or fiction generally requires not only time but a space inside your head – a space in which you can create an alternative moral universe, where you can populate it with characters, individuals, dialogues, situations that are as real to you as those you are encountering in your daily life – and frankly, I have lost the space in my head for that right now. [But] one day, I fear that the voters will return me to the world of literature and then I can write, but till then, I think I need to concentrate first on being the best MP I can be, and second, on keeping my ideas out there through non-fiction writing. I hope to produce a book next year on India’s place in the world; that’s what I’m working on right now, and once I’ve done that, I’ll be able to think once again about what follows.