By Kainat Sarfaraz for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Earlier this year, renowned politician and author, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, released his latest book – India Shastra. From the man who is often found in the middle of controversies (the jury is forever out on him), this book, by one of the few surviving MPs of the Congress party (his is the Thiruvananthapuram constituency), gives voice to Tharoor’s perception of modern India through 100 articles and essays. Among the contemporary set of politicians, the former MoS was clairvoyant enough to recognize the power of social media. He was one of the first netas in India to join Twitter and his follower count currently stands at 2.9M. As an author, he has been widely appreciated for his satirical book The Great Indian Novel; making a great Indian reader out of many of us(he asked this question of a friend of mine, who got her copy of it signed from him)?!
In between his crazy flying hours and an even crazier schedule, the former UN diplomat shared with Youth Ki Awaaz, his thoughts on the recent spate of bans in the country, the issue of rampant corruption and, as I couldn’t resist asking, the mythical writer’s block.
Kainat Sarfaraz (KS): We, the young, are a restless generation, hungry for action and change. We believe in social media powered revolutions and the power of the internet to really bring people together. In this context, and keeping in mind your chapter ‘Twitter Revolution’, how do you think the internet and social media are shaping communications today? Is there a fear of armchair revolutions only?
Shashi Tharoor (ST): The youth of every generation (and I’ve been there!) are anxious for change. And each generation exercises its chosen tools and instruments to propel such change. For centuries really, it was the traditional power of the pen that inspired revolutions and the realisation of great ideas across the world, in many countries, including India. Today, after unprecedented technological leaps over the last few decades, we also have 140 characters on Twitter and the somewhat more generous space Facebook offers to articulate our thoughts, to champion causes, and to express solidarity with ideas, people, and actions. Is there, in these circumstances, a fear of armchair revolutions? Yes, for the simple reason that each generation also has those whose sincerity dissolves at the slightest hint of inconvenience and who essentially just jump on to bandwagons. It takes no effort to issue a simple click and “like” something online, or to retweet a second-hand opinion, or troll an undeserving victim, whether or not you genuinely believe in the underlying principles, or are educated about the issue at hand in any depth. But for a hundred hollow “likes” or tweets, one can hope for one honest, empathetic expression of support for a real idea or movement. And in the end, it is those who really believe in a cause, those who, when the moment arises, are willing to get out of their armchairs and get their hands dirty, that bring to the world (and to their generation) the change that defines history.
KS: While always debated upon, national heroes, from Nehru, to Mahtama Gandhi to Patel, have all increasingly become topics in an extremely belligerent discourse, especially under the current government. What is it really about? National parties claiming national leaders for themselves? Is history, according to you, being manipulated for partisan interests?
ST: It is a belligerence these heroes themselves abhorred, renowned as they were for dignified statesmanship and for their celebration of ideas rather than individual egos. They shunned personal aggrandisement and dedicated themselves entirely to their noble causes, only years later to be turned into unwilling (and frequently misinterpreted) mascots for political motivations of all varieties. The problem has become particularly acute in recent years: in “India Shastra”, for instance, I have an essay on the BJP’s meretricious appropriation of Sardar Patel and the attempt to cloak their present leader in his mantle.
The misuse of history for partisan political purposes has long been a concern of mine. My novel “Riot”, for example, specifically interrogates this issue in the context of the contested versions of our shared history that arose around the Ram Janmabhoomi issue. The notion that there is “my history” and “your history” of the same events may seem an obvious insight, but when it is abused, it can dangerously divide a complicated country. We live, Octavio Paz wrote, between memory and oblivion. Memory should not be manipulated by politicians to lead our society to oblivion.
KS: You have also talked about the legacy of Gandhi and how the fasts don’t work today. What according to you works in Indian politics today, and what doesn’t?
ST: Fasts are employed today by those who fail to understand how Gandhiji used them – to inflict suffering upon himself in defence of a moral cause, in order to shame the rulers with their own brutality. Today it is just a case of drama without sacrifice, as in the absurd “relay fasts” where people take it in turn to starve, so no one is really suffering! At one level it is also (audacious and politically incorrect as it might be to suggest this) a failure of the protestors’ ability to innovate that leads them to adopt this hollow strategy. Gandhiji, after all, was an innovator par excellence who confronted the might of the British Empire with a fistful of salt or the threat of a fast unto death, in an age of violent upheavals. While the Raj prepared to face mutiny and armed revolution, he baffled them and ultimately triumphed over them with a beatific smile and techniques of non-violent resistance shorn of all glamour yet unexpectedly effective. But nearly a century after the Mahatma first enunciated his ideas and introduced non-violent moral resistance, the world is a different place. Those who conduct fasts today might have causes worth championing, but they are merely imitating a strategy that has seen its day in history.
Indian politics, as you suggested in your first question, is to a great extent defined by growing impatience about its pace. Nearly 51 percent of our nation is under the age of 25 today, and living as they do in a restive world of cut-throat competition, jobs, technology, and daily progress, young people want results now. Indian politics is today defined by those who deliver, those who can resolve problems in the most effective manner and in the least amount of time. It is the arena of those who understand the impoverished circumstances of a rural farming community but who enable us to race ahead in a globalised world. What works in Indian politics is the ability to deal with change on a daily basis and to adapt relentlessly to its demands. We need politicians to think beyond fasts and dharnas to deliver results to young voters.
KS: “Corruption is an Indian problem, not a problem to be blamed on Manmohan Singh alone.” Why do you say that?
ST: It’s become rather fashionable (and I daresay very convenient for the ruling party’s misleading favourite political narrative) to make corruption a question of billion-dollar scams or illicit financial dealings in high places. These are certainly a problem, but they are not the whole problem. As the UPA’s record shows, these “big-ticket” corruption cases have been handled with a firm, uncompromising hand—we were, you must remember, the first government to ask ministers, and even a Chief Minister, to resign simply on the basis of media allegations, when no legal charge, let alone conviction, had occurred, and that too at a time when the then Chief Minister of Gujarat retained not one but three convicted Ministers in his Cabinet, pending appeal.
But, as I have written, corruption is endemic in our society, which is why it is really an Indian problem. Making it about Manmohan Singh allows many politicians to turn it into an “us vs. them” problem. But is it really so? An army widow who must wait years to have her martyred husband’s pension sanctioned because she cannot afford to pay a bribe to the relevant official; a starving family that cannot obtain a BPL card because they cannot pay as much money as the clerk demands; a labourer’s wife who can’t get a bed in a government hospital if she can’t bribe an orderly, and must deliver her baby on the floor…all these happen daily and prove over and over again that corruption is a social question in our country that has penetrated all layers of society, all sections of our public life, and our accepted way of life here. How many of us can truthfully say that we have never been complicit in an act of corruption, from slipping people a few extra bucks for a seat on a train or in a cinema, to actually paying a bribe to “get things done”?
We have largely a culture of patronage, as opposed to one of professionalism, and this breeds an atmosphere where “individual discretion” becomes a byword for underhand dealings. Blaming it on a man of integrity like Manmohan Singh is politically convenient for some, but corruption is in fact something each of us as an Indian needs to feel responsibility for and resist.
KS: What do you think of the recent spate of bans in the country, especially the documentary India’s Daughter, and the beef bans (especially as a MP from Kerala, a state that is loudly protesting against it) that are on the rise?
ST: I think they are absolutely ridiculous. We reveal at once our appalling thin skin on matters we really ought not to care about, let alone interfere, as well as an abiding feeling of profound insecurity and distrust about everything that might lead to negative perceptions of us. It is also revealing of a government that rides on the back of a right wing organisation that has made a business out of re-writing history, with generous inaccuracies and convenient fallacies, and wants to influence every narrative now! They seem to be so bent on shaping public thought even from the level of primary school textbooks, that they cannot deal with any real challenge to or inquiry into their agenda to define the past in order to influence the future. When you cannot argue and defend your position, you go ahead and ban; this seems to be the policy of the government. I must clarify here that I am against bans of all kinds, no matter which political party sponsors it, and whether it is of books, or cartoons, or, as you ask in your question, what kind of food people must eat. The beef ban is also inherently casteist. Ask any Dalit scholar and she will tell you about the elitism of the idea (a largely North Indian, upper-caste Hindu idea) behind the ban. And as I recently said in my speech in Parliament about the government’s budget, we’d all be better off in general if the government focussed more on avoiding financial cuts in national programmes than on cuts made in the editing rooms of the BBC!
KS: Is there a latest version of ‘The Great Indian Novel’ that you see in the making? If yes, what do the first few chapters look like?
ST: Nope – been there, done that!
What does your writing space look like?
The view from your window…
My garden. Greenery soothes.
That what keeps you from writing/work
Compulsively checking cricket scores.
What aspiring authors must not do…
Procrastinate. Better to write badly than not to write at all.
Tea Or Coffee? Early Bird or Creature of the Night? Road trip or flying?
Tea. Used to be early bird, now night owl because my life obliges me to. Used to drive on long trips when young, now time constraints mean I’m always airborne.
Okay to sip wine while writing?
Sure. I prefer tea, sometimes single malt. Carlyle went for opium, which I strongly recommend against!
What do you do when you hit the mythical ‘Writer’s Block’?
I don’t. I write through it. Then the flow comes and the writer is unblocked!
And where does one find that mystical Muse?
Inside your own head.
If not a writer/politician, you’d be?
That’s who I am. Wish I could have answered “cricket star”, but never had enough talent for it. I always wanted to play cricket very badly – and that’s just what I did, I played cricket very badly!
A character of your own creation you have fallen for?
A politically correct answer might be Draupadi in The Great Indian Novel, my symbol of India’s democracy. But the truth is no one really – when you’ve created them you can’t really fall for them: it would be too narcissistic.
A character from a movie or book you wish you could be…
I’ve never wished to be anyone else than myself. But if pressed, maybe a combination of Jeeves and Superman!
A book’s ending you wish you could change (not yours) and how…
The Ramayana: if only Rama had put the gossips in their place and honoured Sita publicly instead of subjecting her to an agni pariksha!
Critical acclaim or crazy screaming fans in a mosh pit?
Critical acclaim.Decorous but sustained applause. No screams (and fewer selfies please).
The one author you’d be happy to swap lives with?