‘Democracy Is Under Threat From The Relentless Assault Of BJP’: Shashi Tharoor To YKA

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

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Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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