Shashi Tharoor’s ‘The Paradoxical Prime Minister – Narendra Modi And His India’ is a book that you can safely judge from its cover and title. In one of his easiest reads till date, Tharoor analysis Modi’s 4.5 years in office and how many of his government’s initiatives and schemes have said one thing on paper, while the reality on ground stood as a stark contrast.
I reached out to Dr. Tharoor with some questions about his book and his idea of Narendra Modi’s India. Here are a few excerpts from the conversation.
Lasya Nadimpally (LN): In 2014, Sanjaya Baru wrote ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, speaking about the Manmohan Singh regime. While that book talks about giving an inside look into the official life of a Prime Minister who was deemed to be silent, Paradoxical Prime Minister talks about a PM who likes to be in the news. What have been the challenges of writing about something that is already so public yet bringing novelty to the content?
Shashi Tharoor (ST): I think one challenge I faced from the onset was that given the character at the centre of my book and my own political affiliations, there would be an assumption that as an Opposition MP, I could only be critical—and at some level, I can understand why such an assumption may have been fair.
At the same time however, I do have my own credibility as an analyst and writer to protect, and what my book has consciously sought to do is to make a fair-minded and rational argument–I have consistently (even in my criticism of Mr Modi) tried to maintain a fairly reasoned and substantiated argument by actually laying out the yardsticks in terms of very specific things that he said he would do and he has not done. And I have gone through it in some detail with the wealth of evidence, research, facts and figures, anecdotes and footnotes. In fact I have, alongside my criticism, also listed several aspects of the PM that I find commendable. His rise from very modest origins is admirable. I also defend his habits of personal grooming and his giving away his salary to charity. I have also praised the energy with which Mr. Modi jet-sets around the world. But at the same time, I have questioned the results of all of his personal qualities: how have they benefited the nation?
Just to say that we don’t like Modi is not the point. There are many people in India who do like Modi. Why do they like him? That is a point worth understanding. But at the same time why shouldn’t they be as impressed by him and his record? That is the other point that is fully answered in my book.
LN: Paradoxical Prime Minister is one of your easier reads. It is paradoxical in itself. While it throws in a lot of facts and figures, it is also something a layman could read and easily connect the dots to. Was this a conscious attempt to ensure the book’s message reaches more people?
ST: While it was definitely important to ensure that the arguments in the book could reach a large audience, I would like to point out that I have always tried to use words that I think can best convey the meaning and emotion of what I am trying to say. Sometimes some words may not be as well-known as I’d like, but if I was willfully difficult to understand no one would read me or listen to me! However I’ve been happy to play into this perception that has been floating around (of me being somebody who uses obscure words) just for fun – occasionally an odd word generates extra attention for a serious point I want to make, such as “snollygoster” after a politician’s defection or the ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ tweet that managed to get most of the country talking about my book.
LN: In Chapter VII, you talk about the BJP majority in the Parliament and legislative assemblies across the country and how this could offer scope to amending the Constitution – changing the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’. Give us a picture of how you envision such an idea of India might be implemented or enacted.
ST: I think evidence of this distorted idea of India can already be seen in events that are unfolding in the country today. Under the rule of a BJP majority, we have seen a significant assault on our democratic institutions of governance, from the Election Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the functioning of Parliament. Even our judiciary has openly questioned the conduct of some of its former members, an event that was unprecedented in over 70 years of Independence. Strikingly, some BJP members have openly called for the revision of our Constitution, a document that their ancestors have openly rejected as a westernized import, filled with wrong ideas and written in the wrong language. These ideas may very well be the ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ principles that protect our minorities and protects our pluralist way of life. My bigger worry is that the inclusive India we have built in the Constitution and in seven decades of democratic political practice is under threat from the relentless assault of the BJP and its fellow travellers. The longer the BJP and Modi remain in power, there is an evident danger and the damage may be profound and to a certain extent, may even become irreversible. In the current context, it is clear that the 2019 General elections may be the last obstacle to the realisation of their chauvinistic idea of India.
LN: Chapter VIII focuses on the situation of women’s safety in India. While there is a lot of discussion on political leaders supporting the accused, there is not enough dialogue or uproar over spiritual leaders being the accused themselves. Do we, as a country, hold different standards of criticism on the men we place on different levels of pedestals?
Yes and I think it’s a truly unfortunate reality, one that is unbecoming of an India of the 21st century. The fact remains that as a country, we continue to use different yardsticks to judge women compared to the ones that are used for men. Some of this has been garbed under the excuse of tradition or custom, but in most cases this has only been a camouflage for a more sinister underlying patriarchal structure that has sourced power from the subjugation of women over the years. For instance, we have seen the kind of public uproar and rioting that was on display when Gurmeet Singh, a self-appointed godman, was arrested last year for sexually exploiting two of his female followers,. Ironically, an overwhelming majority of his followers are Sikhs, believers of a faith that has always promoted equality among the faithful. Which also goes to show that with close reading, there is little in our spiritual and religious texts that justify the mistreatment of women.
But, at the same time, I do think there are some counter forces at play that have challenged that vested authority—we have seen with the rise of India’s ‘MeToo’ movement hundreds of women speaking out against not just sexual harassment, but discrimination and the inequitable power structures of patriarchy as a whole. And while we may yet have a long way before we can reverse this reality, these are strong and important steps that are being taken.
LN: The North Vs South chapter in your book talks about the unfair distribution of funds to south Indian states. There has also been the problem of inadequate disaster relief fund transfer by the Centre during Kerala floods and Andhra Pradesh not receiving a special status as promised – these kind of problems are not new. As an MP from Thiruvananthapuram, what do you suggest as a solution to the unfair distribution or allocation of funds? Should India adopt a more federal structure of governance?
ST: I have publicly argued that it is time that we acknowledge a need for a decentralised democracy, one in which the central share of tax resources is not so crucial, and the political authority of New Delhi not so overwhelming. This would ensure that unfair financial distribution from the Centre and the grossly inadequate disaster relief package Kerala funding wouldn’t have risen. Moreover, there is a fear that a federal structure would create a further divide, but one must remember that the singularity of Indian-ness is that it works in the plural. We need genuine federalism, recognising strong regional identities is a mark of a strong and confident state.
LN: Your book also talks about Modi’s foreign policy and how it isn’t well thought of. In today’s times, when many powerful countries have right-wing governments, what should ideally be the tone of India’s foreign policy?
ST: I have always argued that the fundamental thrust of India’s foreign policy, irrespective of what party is at the helm, must first and foremost be geared towards the successful realisation of the domestic priorities of the country. Under the present government, this has sadly not been the case. Yes, Modi has brought a significant new energy into India’s foreign policy, with his frequent trips to various countries across the world—in his four years as PM, he has spent the equivalent of at least a year in other countries. I have also applauded him on certain policies, an example being the celebration of International Yoga Day as a clever exercise of India’s soft power. But all of this has resulted in little when it comes to measure able foreign policy gains. It would have been another matter if his extensive travels, the most by any Indian Prime Minister in history, had actually done the country much good. Sadly, they have not. Our relationship with Pakistan is rocky, China is pushing us around, ties with the US are at a low ebb, Nepal mistrusts us and is moving towards China, the Maldives refuses new visas to Indians, and so on.
LN: You also talk about how the Prime Minister’s frequent absence from his office is resulting in slow movement of work in New Delhi. However, the government perpetually seems to be launching some or the other new campaign. On the lines of what you say in your book, are all these campaigns and schemes PR strategies rather than good governance?
ST: Sadly, it would certainly appear that way. On one hand, we have a Prime Minister who has made more addresses in foreign parliaments than in the one in his own country to which he was elected. At the same time, when in his absence one should have seen the leadership of a strong and empowered Cabinet, under the present government, most Ministers have been reduced to figureheads, with the real power concentrated within a bureaucracy that takes its orders from, and reports directly to, the PMO. Given this, no matter what sum the government has spent in promoting their policies (and they have spent a staggering amount on advertisements and other PR related material amounting to over 4,300 crores as of May, 2018), the promised objective of good governance was always likely to suffer.
As the present government nears the end of its tenure, we have a country that is reeling on several fronts—a fearful populace, an economy that has been hobbled by his foolhardy initiatives, a painful lack of jobs, a devastating number of farmer suicides, insecure borders, instability in Kashmir and the palpable failure in implementation of even laudable initiatives like Swachh Bharat, skill development and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao.
LN: Do you think Narendra Modi’s popularity as an able leader increased or decreased since April 2014? Do you see him getting another term as the PM?
ST: I do believe that the Indian voter – crippled by the twin disasters of demonetisation and GST, the lack of jobs, a weak rupee and fuel prices at an all-time high – is waking up to the realisation that the last four years have been the playground for jumlas or false promises and the mandate offered to the present government in 2014 has been wasted. After all, why would a young man who voted for the BJP in 2014 believing that Modiji would get him a job, vote for Modiji again when he still has no job? In addition, the performances of the Opposition in recent by-elections and state elections have shown that there is certainly a groundswell that is developing against the current ruling dispensation. There is a realisation that has permeated into the national consciousness thanks to a united and spirited Opposition that is holding the government to serious standards of accountability for its failures.
LN: Is there a plan to release ‘The Paradoxical Prime Minister’ in other Indian languages?
ST: Yes, absolutely! I understand that the English reading audience is a minority in the country and I would like for this book to be released in vernacular languages across states. I also believe that this is a book every Indian must read before the elections – clearly, the BJP has not delivered on its grand promises. And as for Mr Modi, the central paradox is that he makes liberal pronouncementa while depending for political support on the most illiberal sections of Indian society. There is also the gap between rhetoric and reality, the contradiction between a man of action and the disastrous records of his government.