Podcast • August 24, 2010

Real India: Shashi Tharoor, the ‘NRI’ who came home

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shashi Tharoor (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Shashi Tharoor is the global Indian who came home — who scored a thundering victory in his first ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shashi Tharoor (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

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

Podcast • May 12, 2010

Amartya Sen: This Open-Ended "Year of India" (8)

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Amartya Sen (47 min, 21 mb mp3) Amartya Sen at home in Cambridge, before his hero John Rawls Amartya Sen, when I ask about this “Year of India,” ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Amartya Sen (47 min, 21 mb mp3)

Amartya Sen & John RawlsAmartya Sen at home in Cambridge, before his hero John Rawls

Amartya Sen, when I ask about this “Year of India,” quips that the biggest change in the “new” India is in our non-Indian heads. Meaning: that common wisdom has finally shaken off the British imperial canard that “old” India was a backward pre-industrial scene before the East India Company, in the 17th and 18th Centuries, rescued it for civilization and modernity.

India’s grandest eminence outside the subcontinent is satisfied that we’ve all absorbed the news that behind the modern Bangalore boom lie 3000 years of an “accounting culture” and India’s own imperial trading history. The name of Singapore, he notes, comes from the Sanskrit for “City of Lions.” So “all those people who say: the West is materialist and business-oriented, Indians are spiritualist and thought-oriented, are talking absolute nonsense.” Neither are those “new” Indian stakes in software and biotech all that new, or all that Indian. Many of the great Indian success stories were incubated in Silicon Valley, starting in the 1950s, and at MIT, where Nehru got the model of the endlessly fertile Indian Institutes of Technology. So Kipling is dead and buried; the twining of East and West, the meeting of the twain, is no surprise anymore. The unfolding story, in Amartya Sen’s telling, is Open India.

Part of the reflection of Open India is the willingness to accept that you don’t have to belong to the mainstream [80-plus percent Hindu] in order to be counted as a genuine Indian. As Rabindranath Tagore said in two quite famous statements: one, that anything that we admire, no matter its origin, instantly becomes ours. And the other, similarly, that any person who comes from abroad and is ready to live the kind of life that people lead in India is instantly accepted as being Indian. Because a lot of Indians are going everywhere in the world, and they’re traveling as a kind of modern Jew of the 20th century and 21st century, India doesn’t get enough credit for the fact is that there has been more immigration into India than almost any country in the world — for one thing, tens of millions of Bangladeshis. Even though people grumble about it… you don’t see the kind of hysteria about it that’s going on Europe, for example, or the United States. That anger may yet come, but it hasn’t been a part of traditional India at all. The fact is the boundaries are porous between India and abroad and it’s served India very well. I think India booming would not have happened but for the openness of the educational sector, of the high tech sector, and the big booms, the informational as well as biochemical and medical, have come very much from a dialectic interaction with the West.

Amartya Sen warned famously (five years ago) that India is at risk of becoming “half California, half Sub-Saharan Africa.” To me he says he was offering tabloid India a caution, not a prediction. In conversation these days, Amartya Sen sounds half Victorian gent, half liberal social critic, but not a worried man — not about India’s engagement with the United States in Afghanistan, for example; and not urgently concerned about the decline of the once sacrosanct “village India.” He doesn’t “miss” village India, he said, “because it’s not gone.” From his father’s house 100 miles from Calcutta, “I walk half a mile, and I’m in rural Bengal.”

The villages are not gone, but the tragedy isn’t so much that [village India] is changing and going, but it’s not changing and not going, in the sense that we want every village with schools, we want them with hospitals and primary health care institutions…. These things are not happening. So my grumble isn’t that the Indian villages are changing; my grumble is that it’s not changing fast enough. I have nothing against village life. I very much enjoy…getting on my bike and taking 15, 20 miles of bicycling through the rural areas. Absolutely wonderful! But I would like to see dispensaries, primary health care, schools there. And that’s not happening fast enough. That’s my grumble. And sometimes when I complain that India is becoming bifurcated between half California and half Sub-Saharan Africa, my complaint is that the line is unfortunately often rural and urban. It’s not just that, because there are a lot poor people in the urban areas as well, it’s a more complicated line, but the rural-urban division, that’s a very big division that we have to keep in mind.

Amartya Sen in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, May 7, 2010.

I thank him for an hour’s discursive gab with “an old fashioned Indian wiseman.”

“Shame on you,” he says, laughing. “Thank you.”

Did I get it wrong, I ask.

His last word: “You got it exactly right.”