NEW DELHI — Shashi Tharoor is the global Indian who came home — who scored a thundering victory in his first run for office, and has been paying the price ever since.
Bounced in April from P. M. Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet but still a honeyed voice in the Indian Parliament, Shahshi Tharoor is the politician people talk about in India, the one that 800,000 follow on Twitter.
Married for the third time this past weekend, at age 54, his life appears to unfold as in a 19th Century novel by George Eliot or Anthony Trollope. Bollywood-handsome and a moon-light novelist himself, Shashi Tharoor could be living a version of the triumphs and trials of Phineas Finn, The Irish Member in Trollope’s Parliamentary series of Palliser novels.
The best of Shashi Tharoor’s story is that though several long plot lines are clear, the outcomes are not.
Born in London, he is a child of privilege who marked himself, with a certain theatrical flair, for public service — first at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and then at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he was the youngest ever (22) to take a doctoral degree.
After a meaty 20-year career at the United Nations in peacekeeping and refugee crises, he became Kofi Annan’s Under-Secretary-General and spokesman. When Kofi Annan stepped down, Tharoor made a creditable run in 2006 for the Secretary General’s job. When that failed (on the nod of the Bush White House) he made an unconventional choice in middle age: to develop his own political base in India.
But can a Non-Resident Indian go home again? Can a smooth-as-silk diplomat from the East Side of Manhattan put down roots in Trivandrum, the capital of famously leftist Kerala? With strong support from President Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party, the popular vote last year was overwhelmingly: Yes.
But could Shashi Tharoor, a voluminous commentator on Indian history and politics, and a biographer of Jawarhalal Nehru, learn the hard way how the inside game gets played?
Could a master of public-speak and digital media cope with newspaper headline writers who seemed suddenly out nail him — for referring on Twitter, for example, to economy air-line seats (in the land of the sacred cow) as “cattle class”?
And then, crucially, in the gold-rush of professional made-for-TV cricket, did Shashi Tharoor blur public and private interests when he advocated for a Kerala franchise in which his fiancee had a sweat-equity interest of nearly 5 percent? This was the question — about judgment and appearances, not wrong-doing or financial gain — that cost Shashi Tharoor his plum seat in the Cabinet as Minister of State for External Affairs.
Will he be invited back, after a decent interval, into the government? And will he yet emerge as a talking embodiment of a New India still more seen and admired than it is heard?
ST: I think India stands for an astonishingly important experiment in the world, of trying to pursue development and overcome huge problems of poverty and internal social divisions, violence and so on, through democracy. And that is its most important contribution to the world of today. Secondly, it’s been an astonishing advertisement for the management of pluralism of a diversity that rarely can be found anywhere in the world and that yet is being managed without tyranny, and indeed with a startling insight that people are free to be themselves, including fully covered Muslim women and Turbaned Sikh men and people in a wide variety of clothes and so on, because the whole logic is that you can be divided by caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, custom and costume, and even conviction, but still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is around the sort of Indian idea that it doesn’t really matter whether you agree all the time or not, as long as you agree on how to disagree. We’ve managed to sustain that effectively, and it’s a very different example from that of China, which is rightly being admired around the world for what it’s been able to accomplish, but which functions as a society and as a player on the world stage very differently from India. And I think that the world should have room for both styles and both ways of doing things. Both are ancient civilizations with their own cultural underpinnings that give us the contemporary reality of today.
CL: There is something in this moment, I sense, that is calling for India. It has something to do with India’s post-imperial recovery and its growth, its emotional groove, and a connection with so many other parts of the world that are struggling with these same transitions. Africa first, but Latin America too; the South, the poor, the post-colonial. Would you draw a little bit on your own dealings in Africa, with Rwanda for example, and elsewhere where you sense some sort of potency in the Indian idea?
ST: It’s been very, very striking. First of all, Africa represents a continent of enormous need and enormous potential. But there is a global perception of this kind of scramble for Africa in which China is beating all comers. I would just say with all respect that we are not China. I mean, we’re not there to scavenge for resources. We are certainly not doing anything as India to either directly influence African governments or to tell them what to do. Our approach is very much, “Tell us what your needs are, and let’s see if we can help you” sort of thing. And it’s been working very well. We don’t have the kinds of resources that others do to give large grants, but we do do a lot of very soft loans, practically with no interest, which are being snapped up. We do have one intriguing advantage that I’ve discovered from talking to a very large number of African leaders, which is that when Africans look at the Western model or the Chinese, they are very impressed. They look with awe and admiration. But they don’t actually see any affinity there, whereas when they look at India, they see a country which seems to be facing many of the kinds of problems they face, and seems nonetheless, through all the chaos and difficulties, to have overcome some of them. And they feel, “Hey, if India can do that, maybe we can learn from them, maybe we can overcome some of our problems too, because they’re so much like us.” That affinity is a huge advantage to us, and it helps that India has been on the side of African freedom from the colonial era onwards, and there are lots of longstanding relationships between India and Africa.
CL: But then what? What does India do with it?
ST: What India does with it is we offer them our expertise, we encourage our private sector to go in again. And another way that India is different from China is that most of India’s current engagement in Africa is through facilitating the work of our private sector. It’s Indian companies going in and building the presidential palace in Ghana or building a railway line in Ethiopia or constructing factories like many, many countries in the world. An Indian entrepreneur has bought large chunks of land in Ethiopia to grow flowers to export to Europe. Now that’s the sort of thing that would never occur to an Indian government organization, but it’s part of the sort of newly liberalized economic thrust of today’s India that we’re seeing. And I must say that it’s a way in which India can contribute to Africa without being part of … allegations of either government corruption or statism, or any of the problems that have bedeviled previous international economic engagement on that continent.
Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010