India and its complexities and socio-cultural dynamics are not a new ground for Shashi Tharoor as a writer. Having looked at the country from the vantage point of a UN diplomat and interacted with global Indians in various time zones, Tharoor has had a first-hand experience of the fret and fever of Indian politics and life. Representing Thiruvananthapuram in Parliament for the second time, Tharoor has also been a keen observer and part of the changing flavour of Indian politics. His latest book, India Shastra (Aleph), is a collection of 100 articles and essays that stand as contemporary reflections of a changing India since his return to the country in 2008.
In India Modi-fied, the first of the eight sections that make up the book, Tharoor wades into the contradictions and conflicts in the first six months of the bjp government. He calls Prime Minister Narendra Modi a master communicator, but finds him failing to live up to the hype. Modi’s India and the World sums up the prime minister’s much-publicised US visit and the new government’s foreign policy, where Tharoor is sure-footed.
With his refreshing, intelligent and intimate takes on the country, its politics, people and their cultures, Tharoor holds up a mirror to a contemporary India and Indians who “…after all manage to live in that rare combination of modernity and superstition that defines them as a breed apart from other people”.
In an interview with Sabin Iqbal, Tharoor talks about the changing India, Prime Minister Modi, questions of identity, the curious case of Bobby Jindal and more.
Edited excerpts from an interview
India Shastra is your yet another take on India. How different does India look to you now from the time of your two earlier books?
Very different. I have always argued that India is anything but the unchanging, timeless land of cliché. In fact, in the book, I write: “A Rip Kumar Winkle who had fallen asleep at the end of the Second World War seventy years ago would be unable to recognise the India of 2015. Everything has either changed dramatically or is in the process of changing: the nation’s politics, its economic preferences, its social assumptions, the relations amongst castes, the material and professional choices available in the country, the patterns and habits of daily life, and the intangible attitudes of Indians towards everything from religion to profit-making.”
You have been a long and committed believer in India’s ‘pluralistic democracy’. How dynamic a challenge has that become in a country that has made you proud in many ways?
The challenge has increased dramatically with the ascendancy of the Hindutva forces after the BJP’s victory last year. They do not subscribe to this fundamental principle of our civilisation and our Constitution. The result is that the new regime has given a free rein to the most retrograde elements in Indian society, who are busy rewriting textbooks to glorify Hindu leaders, extolling the virtues of ancient science over modern technology, advocating protectionism and self-reliance against free trade and foreign investment, and asserting that India’s identity must be purely Hindu. Majoritarian communalism, as Nehru had long recognised, is a fundamental threat to our pluralist democracy.
It is often said that the country has been moving from the ‘politics of identity to politics of performance’. But with the bjp storming to power at the Centre, clearly riding a wave of religious identity, has the belief been wrongly perceived or has there been a reversal in the mindset of the larger populace?
This is the paradox at the heart of Mr Modi’s prime ministership. His speeches and rhetoric appear to recognise, and harness, this vital shift in our national politics that I had traced in my books, from a politics of identity to a politics of performance. Yet, he has ridden to power at the helm of a party, the BJP, which is ill-suited to the challenge of delinking India’s polity from the incendiary issue of religious identity that it had built its base on. And his rise to office has empowered the khaki-shorts wearing ‘cultural organisation’, the RSS, whose views on every subject — economics, politics, history, culture, morality, gender relations, even matters of appropriate dress or conduct — are totally illiberal. Mr Modi has built his appeal by putting the focus on what the Indian people manifestly need — more development, better governance and wider socio-economic opportunities. But having won an election by attracting voters to these themes, he has allowed the forces of bigotry and religious chauvinism to run rampant. Ironically, I don’t think that’s what the Indian people want, as the Delhi polls result have borne out.
You are a communication expert — be it personal or organisational — and you have called Prime Minister Modi a master communicator, but have equally elbowed him saying, ‘It’s not enough’. Where do the words and images fail and real action take place in national and international politics?
I think Mr Modi has a genuine talent for speeches, soundbites and compelling narratives. His words command attention. But the gap between articulation and implementation, in his case, remains currently wide enough to drive a rath through. For a prime minister elected on a promise of delivering results, it’s a crippling flaw that his very fine speeches and liberal pronouncements appear completely disconnected from any tangible action plan, adequate funding or budget, or execution capacity.
You were a human resource development minister. How discouraging is the overtone of religious bigotry increasingly evident among the educated Indian youth?
I still have faith in the essential decency and tolerance of India’s people, including a majority of the young. Economic deprivation and a hunger for opportunity can sometimes breed intolerance and bigotry against those competing for the same things. It is the duty of elected leaders in our democracy not to stoke this resentment, but channel it in a positive, aspirational direction.
Books on history can never be precise, but rewriting history is worse. How do you look at the alleged efforts of the BJP to rewrite history?
With contempt. History is not “his story”. It is my story, your story, his story and her story all at the same time — a compound of various stories and narratives, based on differing experiences and perceptions. History will always be written from multiple perspectives. Officially sanctioned narratives never prevail in a democracy, least of all one as diverse as ours.
You have been a global Indian. What makes one Indian? Or, in a larger context, what is identity?
That’s a subject on which I have written entire books and made hour-long speeches! One cannot give a simple or short answer without raising more questions. But I would say that Indianness is not just an ethnic, geographic or even civilisational label; it also embraces multiplicity, because the unique thing about us is that you can be a good Keralite, a good Muslim and a good Indian all at the same time. Every one of us, as Amartya Sen points out, has multiple identities; it is which identity we choose to privilege in a certain context that defines us principally in that context. Indianness involves the celebration of a central idea of pluralism: to stand Michael Ignatieff’s phrase on its head, we are a land of belonging rather than of blood. in his case.
You have written, and it is true, ‘Indians, after all, manage to live in that rare combination of modernity and superstition that defines them as a breed apart from the other people.’ How is it going to push or pull back India in its mucheulogised surge to lead the world?
Not sure it need necessarily push us back. It could just be an Indian quirk, allowing our lives to be influenced by astrology, vaastu, numerology, gemology and various other scientifically unverifiable but culturally sanctified practices. So long as we still work hard and recognise that such things should not be allowed to dominate our conduct — that they can influence the way we do things, not determine the things we do — then superstition and modernity can still go together!
In India Shastra, you have written about Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana. Should Indians in India or America be proud of Jindal for, after all, having Indian parents? Or, has he redefined national and cultural identities?
I think Bobby Jindal has achieved a great deal, but he has done so at the price of discarding his entire ethnic, religious and cultural background. That is his privilege — and his brand of assimilationism has long roots in a very American debate about “hyphenated identities” where he leaves no doubt about which side he falls on. But given his rejection of his own Indianness, I find it peculiar that some Indians feel the need to celebrate him as an Indian and take pride in his accomplishments. By all means applaud him if you agree with him, but don’t take pride in his Indian identity, because it’s an identity he has explicitly and ostentatiously rejected.
You have always loved to write fiction, but been hard-pressed for time. As a writer, when will Shashi Tharoor come up with his next novel?
I wish I could answer that! My laptops and desktops are littered with incomplete attempts at fiction. The problem is that with fiction, you need not only time — which I am always struggling to find — but you also need a space inside your head, to create an alternative universe and to inhabit it so intimately that its reality infuses your awareness of the world. That is all the more difficult when your daily obligations and responsibilities are so onerous that they are constantly pressing in on you, and you don’t have a clear stretch of time to immerse yourself in your fictional universe. You can’t easily write a fragment of a novel and return to it eight weeks from now. The illusory world you have created gets shattered; you can’t reinvent the novel each time you do that. I find that an enormous struggle. Non-fiction is more interruptible and so I have written much more of that as my working life has become more demanding. But one day, certainly, I hope to return to fiction… And who knows, the voters might decide to return me to the world of literature!