Away from the media scrum that often follows him, Congress leader, author and Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor opened up on many issues — personal and professional and musical — at the Firstpost Salon on 13 July in Mumbai.
Following is the transcript of his conversation with Firstpost senior editor Sandip Roy:
Sandip Roy: Thank you everybody for coming and thank you Shashi for coming and Saloning with us.
Shashi Tharoor: Good to be here. Good to see you all.
Sandip Roy: I want to start on a slightly personal note. I know that you recently lost your grandmother, who was close to a 100…
Shashi Tharoor: 98.
Sandip Roy: 98… And … not many of us have the privilege, in a way, of knowing our grandmothers, for having them with us for so long in our lives. She lived in your ancestral home in the Western Ghat. Touch a little bit on how important was she in your life and how important is that house to you.
Shashi Tharoor and Firstpost Senior Editor Sandip Roy.
Shashi Tharoor: Yeah, the house represents a kind of a principal connection in some ways to one’s own lineage. I was born in London and when my parents moved back to India the first house that I was brought to was this one which was about a couple of hundred years old. No one knows exactly how old it is, but it is about a couple of hundred years old. It is in the middle of the Western Ghats, in the district of Palghat, the rice bowl of Kerala. When I first started going there as a child – because my parents were a part of this typical Diaspora- my father worked in Bombay, then Calcutta and then Delhi. And every year, the kids will be taken back to their “ancestral home”. And what was striking about this place was that it was so different from urban India, because it was this big old sprawling house in the middle of the rice fields. And literally, when I first started going there, there was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and no indoor bathrooms. Basically, we would brush our teeth and spit into the paddy fields. It was quite extraordinary as an alternate experience.
Sandip Roy: Was it fun or a punishment?
Shashi Tharoor: I think initially, we all felt it as more of a punishment. I remember saying to my father with the precociously unpleasant wit that comes to the young, that going south is strictly for the birds. But, the fact is that, after a while, it actually began to grow on one. The intangible things, the easy sort of comradeship with the relatives growing up in the house; And because my mother was the eldest child a lot of my uncles and aunts were more like brothers and sisters to me. In fact, I actually have an uncle who is younger than me, because he was born when my grandmother was forty and I had already been born 11 months earlier. The remarkable thing about my grandmother’s longevity is that we have a photograph of five generations of women from the family that is she, my mother, my sister, my niece and her baby… all in one photograph, which means the world to us. She and I had even joked mildly about the prospects of celebrating her 100th and my 60th together, because, she would have turned 100 in the November of next year. And I will hit the dreaded shashtiyaathpurti in the March of next year, but it was not to be. She represented lot of things. She represented leadership of the family. My grandfather passed away in 1967. So, she suddenly, went from being the mild, not so terribly talkative wife to being the matriarch, who had to raise the entire brood, run this house. And, she grew very impressively into the task. She was the glue that kept us all together. We would all gather from far flung corners, not just India, but from all over the globe.
Sandip Roy: What did she have to say about you joining politics?
Shashi Tharoor: I have to admit that, for most of the families, who don’t come from a political background, the instinctive reaction is one of disapproval. Why on earth would you go into this? What was the point in you studying so hard and getting good marks, if you had to end up in politics? That is for the people who don’t study and don’t get good marks. That’s the usual attitude, I am afraid. My mother and my grandmother never took well to my suddenly being a politician.
Sandip Roy: Your father worked for The Statesman newspaper. Was politics at all a part of your daily life in anyway? How did you encounter it?
Shashi Tharoor: No, it was something that we talked about but, very much with the detachment that intellectuals tend to have. In other words, I read newspapers; I talked elsewhere about it, including in this book, about, how, in the morning, my dad would sit down with me and read all the newspapers available in the city we were in, which was Calcutta in my high school years. And then in the evening he would bring home the newspapers from the rest of the country. I actually read and wrote a lot for Indian newspapers and Indian news. In that sense, intellectually politics was one of my major interests. But, I have to admit that actually…
Sandip Roy: Getting your hands dirty…
Shashi Tharoor: … Putting one’s feet into it never struck me as something that I was ever likely to do, largely because the political world seems so foreign to the world that we occupy the middle class professionals.
Sandip Roy: What I wanted to talk about, was growing up in a socialist India, how were your beliefs and assumptions? If you think about somebody of your background, your class, growing up now, what would be the most radical points of difference?
Shashi Tharoor: People growing up today are much more attuned to that India, the India that has come into being since 1991 and liberalisation, because what we have seen with post-liberalisation India is that, profit for example is no longer a dirty word, as it was when I was growing up. The idea that people can actually value entrepreneurship is now very much accepted, whereas when I was advocating it in my college days, I was literally alone. There wasn’t a constituency in those consensually socialist days for ideas like that. In that sense, the backgrounds were very different and people would take much more for granted that capitalism and private enterprise are desirable things rather than these bogeymen, these villains, which goes back to the whole East India experience. The British East India Company came into trade and stayed on to rule so, instinctively the suspicion was that you have a hidden agenda behind the business of commerce.
Sandip Roy: When you talked about your college days, when you were in St Stephens, you were a supporter of Swatantra Party and Swapan Dasgupta was a Trotskyite .
Shashi Tharoor: So, was Chandan Mitra actually. But, Chandan was a little more pragmatic and ended up being my campaign manager when I ran for the president. Swapan was on the other side but in any case, Swapan’s and Chandan’s journey to the right was one of the more interesting and amusing stuff for those of us in college.
Sandip Roy: What about you then? Will you still feel at home if the Swatantra Party existed?
Shashi Tharoor: I would very much feel at home with the liberalism of the Swatantra Party. But, what’s interesting is that the Congress party has moved a long way in that direction. First of all, the Swatantra Party disappeared while I was in college. It merged in 1974 with Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kranti Dal to become the BLD. Much to my horror. I remember taking Piloo Mody to task from the audience when he came to speak at St Stephens College. But, the fact is that it did disappear. It wasn’t that it was anymore an option. But, with liberalisation, the Congress party adopted many of its core tenets. It was always socially a liberal party. It also became economically more of a liberal party. It is a big tent party. You have people who are self proclaimed Marxists like my good friend Mani Shankar Aiyar and others who proudly say that they are Marxist. But, we also have people who would be in economic terms seen as right wingers in the same party. And ultimately, the main difference, and I suppose the main difference for me too from those days, is that the Congress party has become more of a social democratic institution. That is it is in favour of re-enterprise of growth, of liberal economics, but it wants the revenues that emerge from the growth to be distributed to those who have none. And to my mind, that is entirely a reasonable proposition because what they are saying is that we have to acknowledge that in a country like ours today that there are enormous numbers of people living below the poverty line; they don’t have a social safety net and frankly, the magic of the market cannot appeal to those who cannot afford to enter the market place. Therefore you need to be able to have the capacity to use the revenues and recruit a government, from the prosperity that comes through economic growth, in order to help the people who have nothing. And to my mind that’s what the Congress party stands for and I was very comfortable going into it today.
Sandip Roy: Well, you said in this book that you consider yourself as an old fashioned liberal, which puts you in a minority. When you say that you are comfortable going into it, was the party comfortable with your old fashioned liberal views coming into it?
Shashi Tharoor: I think that the answer would depend on who you ask, precisely with a party as diverse as the Congress is, you are bound to find some people with differing views and certainly those who are on the Left of the spectrum do not find my views congenial or even acceptable. Many others are quite happy to see what I stand for being within the party. The truth is that India’s ideological polarizations are actually quite peculiar. We go round, all of you in the media, calling the BJP a right wing party but in what meaningful sense are it a right wing party, it is culturally a right wing party but, it is a nativist party in its economics. Until Mr. Modi came along, it was Left in conventional terms, to even the Congress party. They are much more protectionist in the sense that the Swadeshi Jagran Manch talk against foreign direct investment. They are against foreign investment of any sort. They are also against many aspects of foreign trade. They came up with a slogan ‘We want silicon chips, but not potato chips’ which is not a choice that the West was essentially offering them. This is the kind of economics that the core of the BJP movement stands for. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch is much more authentic to it than Mr. Modi saying that the government has no business to be in business. This was very much a party whose idea of capitalism began and ended with the middle men, small traders of the mandis were the core of the BJP. And that, was one of the reasons why, for example, a kind of foreign direct investment in retail attracted such hostility in the BJP because, it would give better prices to the farmer, lower costs for the consumers and eliminate the middlemen. But, the middle men are where they draw their support from. This is not Right wing economics by any stretch of imagination. The Right wing and the Left wings are the terms that mean very little for our political discourse.
Sandip Roy: We are going to talk a bit more about the current economics, but, I want to go back in time again with your years in St Stephens. One of the things that we have learnt from an impeccable source is that when you were around that time, you were pretty good at pretending to be cricket commentators while shaving.
Shashi Tharoor: I was a cricket nut from a very young age. Yes, one of the things that I would do is… the radio was all that we had in those days; we had no television in my childhood. So radio commentary was the thing that I would do…
Sandip Roy: We also learnt, I don’t know how many of you know the song Lilly the pink had a particular connection with you, your family and car rides…
Shashi Tharoor: This guy has been infiltrating my family; my sisters are the only conceivable source. I have two sisters and he knows the one in California. ‘Lily The Pink’ was song by the group named The Scaffold, which is not known for anything else than ‘Lily the Pink’. But, with a limited vocal range, it was a song which I could sing. I sang it quite boisterously throughout my early teens. It came out in 69, so, I was 13 when it came out. And I think that I kept it going through high school.
Sandip Roy: Can we have a stanza of Lily The Pink
Shashi Tharoor: Sure, I will give you two, in fact.
Brother Tony was notably bony
He would never eat his meals
Then they gave him medicinal compound
Now they move him round on wheels.
Jonny Hammer, had a terrible st st st st stammer
He could hardly s s say a word
And then they gave him medicinal compound
Now’s he’s seen, but never heard.
We’ll drink a drink a drink
To lily the pink the pink the pink
The saviour of the human race
For she invented, medicinal compound
Most efficacious in every case.
Sandip Roy: Have you ever tempted to Indianize the song for the political situations?
Shashi Tharoor: No, this was… I wouldn’t dare to.
Sandip Roy: But, in those days, when you joined St Stephens, in one of your essays about St Stephens, you said that it marked you for the rest of your life. In what way did it mark you, in both good and bad way?
Shashi Tharoor: St Stephens was very much an elite institution in the best sense of the word. It was very difficult to get into. They took the best students, not in terms of marks and cut offs, as it happens today but they took people of talents and abilities from various fields. Some of the better known, more illustrious names, people who have got third division in high school, but were outstanding debaters or actors or musicians and creative people. The college could see that qualities and would take them in. We really had an extremely impressive talent all around us. Second, it was an amazingly pan national college, people from every part of the country could be found there. It gave you a sense of Indian nationhood in the microcosm of the extremely well qualified. Then, you had tremendous amount of creative freedom. There were all these college union societies made up of students with a faculty advisor, who was by and large stayed away from being too directive. In that sense, you learn responsibility, you exercise creativity and you came up with your own things. I founded the Quiz club, which is still in its existence forty one years later. I revived the ‘Wodehouse’ society.
Sandip Roy: What did the ‘Wodehouse’ society do?
Shashi Tharoor: Sadly, it has gone extinct, thanks to the co-education. I am sorry to say to the ladies here. But, what it was a society that was dedicated to the great master of the English. It was dedicated to good humour in college. We ran mimicry competitions, extempore speeches, which were judged for its humour more than anything else. We ran a practical joke week, with the sanction of the college authorities, which was usually quite an extraordinary event every year. We also published a magazine which is much funnier than the official campus rep.
Sandip Roy: What kind of practical joke would a college sanction…. it sounds deadly. A college would never dream of doing something like that.
Shashi Tharoor: It did. I can’t sit down and remember all the practical jokes so many years ago. Some of them were very funny. I remember when I was a victim of, when I was the president of the union; a student came to me after dark, rather late in the residence with somebody extremely tattered up in a skirt. He said that, “Look, I am sorry. I got this whore into college and the gates are shut. I can’t get her out. You have got to help me out or else I will be expelled. There I was the president of the college and it’s not my job to escort… at the same time, one learns early that every vote counts, you don’t want to expel somebody, who has voted for you. Don’t want to see him being expelled. I got into all sorts of tangles in trying to actually spirit this offender out through the closed gates. Until, of course, it turned out to be some poor fresher in drag. I was a victim of this particular joke and I can’t remember whether that joke won the competition that year or not. But, there were others which were perhaps as funny as it sounds in retrospect.
Sandip Roy: If you look at your Wikipedia and all the other people who went to St Stephens with you at the same time, you mentioned some of them Swapan Dasgupta, Chandan Mitra and many others who went at that time. It sounds like a wonderful glorious golden time, the chosen class it feels like. But, is that some of the things that have come into attack right now where people say that ‘These are the people. This is the elitist India’. People who will shout at each other in a television studio, you and Swapan Dasgupta for example, but are chummy then will stick up to each other when they go off camera and they will do favours for each other. This is the worst of the elitist India.
Shashi Tharoor: I am afraid that is not always true of all the pairings you can come up with. But having said that, there has been a lot of mutual respect and regard which was fashioned by that sheer experience and in some ways, I wish that our country were run more that way. I think, for example, the way in which for today, there’s so much of bitterness and hostility between the principal opposition party and the ruling party is not good for getting things done in our country and in the democracy. So, I would rather argue rivalry with each other and then got on to strike an acceptable compromise in the interest of the nation. And frankly, if that’s the worst if you can accuse Stephanians’ of, then, I don’t think it’s such a bad sin.
Sandip Roy: Why do you think that thing felt so out of favour to the point of being looked at as a Oxonian old boys club who talk with an Oxonian accent and make the deals behind the doors and we need to get away from that. And if you are my political opponent, then you must not even drink tea with that person.
Shashi Tharoor: You know, that wasn’t the case. It certainly has become the case. I have given up trying to invite BJP people, ministers from the present government over to my house for a meal, because they no longer show up or they accept and then don’t come. It’s one of these things where there seems to be a systematic attempt to avoid the social interactions with the enemy. But, in the old days, we weren’t the enemy. We were the adversary, the rival, alternative, but not the enemy. And, that I think is the way democracy ought to be faced. You don’t have to agree with somebody’s views. You let the public decide which views should prevail and once they prevailed, you work with the outcome of the electoral process. We are not doing that enough, things are very nasty… even before I came back to the Indian politics, UPA 1, was deeply disrupted by the BJP of several times in the house. The no-confidence vote over an Indo-US nuclear deal, they had begun negotiating. And, then, at the end of the UPA 2, it was very clear that five sessions of Parliament were pretty much wrecked by the BJP’s behaviour. The result is that now, the golden rule of Indian politics has become ‘do unto them, what they did unto you’. Congress is also behaving in the same way because we are so bearing the scars when we would try to get things done in the national interest.
Sandip Roy: So do you consider as a Macaulayputra?
Shashi Tharoor: I was asked once by Sagarika Ghose, who had asked to me to make a speech on the relevance of Macaulayputras. It was never recorded. So, I no longer recall what I said. Macaulay’s idea of creating this class of people who are as he put it, brown in colour or Indian in colour but English in taste and morals and opinions and intellect, that was very much a colonial enterprise intended to create a class of interpreters between the British and those they govern. That was the whole logic. And the fact that, it is a project one can object to intellectually and for historic reasons. It does not mean that in the process, some good wasn’t done. After all, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote The Discovery of India in English and the kind of pan-national vision that an English education has been able to ensure very, many people is nothing to be ashamed of. Yes, some would argue that it is less authentic than a sense of Indianness gleamed in a purely Indian language environment, but, it seems to me that the punning, collegians who speaks in English is as much a part of the Indian reality as the Hindi-speaking peasant in the Gangetic plain. In my view, there is no particular argument, other than numbers to make one more authentic than the other. We are all the part of the Indian reality.
Sandip Roy: Is it not true that the punning Oxonian accented Stephanian can be accused of looking down at the one who couldn’t do it?
Shashi Tharoor: Not the St. Stephens I knew. In fact, one of my classmates Harsh Mandar, who is very active on the social service league. I was an ordinary member he was a very, very active member. He went on to tremendous work for the poor, with the marginalised, with the discriminated, and the oppressed. And, he is, in no means, alone. Banker Roy, is another such Stephanian. Well, there is a strong sense of identification with the people who are not, shall we say, likely to be encountered in a Stephanian classroom, but, who ultimately make up the larger portion of the Indian reality and we are certainly not indifferent to them. As I said, the elitism of St Stephen’s was the elitism of merit. It was not snobbery. I don’t ever remember anybody at St Stephen’s having conversations about expensive watches or fancy clothes or foreign holidays. They were the conversations of ideas, of intellect, of creative energies being unleashed and indeed as I said that people like Harsh, of the social service commitment. It was not at all the kind of sneering snobbishness that people wrongly confound with elitism.
Sandip Roy: You give a very spirited defence about what a Macaulayputra could be. Which I guess, are you saying you are one? Do you admit to it? You accept this?
Shashi Tharoor: The term is obviously meant to be a disparaging one so, I certainly have no desire to lay claim to it. So, if I am asked to account for my place in India as somebody who is more comfortable in English than in any other language, which is a principal sin of which the Macaulayputras are accused, I have to plead guilty. I make speeches in Malayalam, couldn’t get elected in Kerala without that. I can converse in Hindi and I manage smatterings of Bengali and Tamil, but the fact is that English is very much my first language. If that makes me a Macaulayputra, linguistically fine, but, don’t assume that along with that comes a series of attitudes that are also ascribed to the Macaulayputras as I don’t really believe that’s fair. There are many with an English language education that have whole range of diverse views and awareness of the Indian experience, in ways I think, are denied to somebody who has never known anything except the Hindi speaking existence of small town UP. They are in some way cut off from the experience of say my grandmother had in Kerala.
Sandip Roy: People have talked a lot about the arrival of Narendra Modi, the age of Macaulayputra is over, the age of Lutyens elite is over. Do you culturally feel a difference in Delhi right now?
Shashi Tharoor: It’s too early to tell. First of all it has only been a year now. Secondly, the principal cultural difference I have seen is that the interaction and socialising after hours across the political divide is much less. Otherwise, Delhi pretty much chugged on as always. I don’t see an enormous amount of difference. There does seem have been some sort of instruction going out to the ruling party’s grandees that they should not be attending parties or hobnobbing with the others. That may be one sort of a cultural difference that has occurred. Certainly, one sees and hears much more of Hindi being used, thanks to Mr. Modi’s own inclination. That doesn’t mean that the English has disappeared from the intellectual conversations from the drawing rooms of Delhi. I don’t know how much can one speak about some sort of cultural sea change.
Sandip Roy: Let’s talk about when you go abroad; you were young and you go abroad, your college life and the Indian community at that time. Now, we live in an age where, on one hand, we have the ‘Modison’ Square Garden extravaganza, and on the other hand, you have the ‘Bobby Jindal’s so white’ hash tag going viral everywhere. What was it like for you when you went?
Shashi Tharoor: There were certainly fewer Indians around. I went to Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, which was near Boston and there was only one Indian restaurant in the whole of north eastern of New England. It was called the Indian restaurant. My American roommate and I would go there once a month as that’s all we could afford, to have an Indian meal. Phone calls were $12 a minute; I remember it wasn’t as you were calling home every minute to speak to Mom and Dad. You were cut off. You are making your own life, your own way. There were Indian associations, very occasional movie screenings, often far away in some suburb, I remember Sholay coming and it was a good one hour to get to the place where it was being screened, where there were a little more of Indians. I don’t think that at that point, one would have been able to project the kind of America today, where Indians are so influential even getting the American politicians elected. The Indian caucus is the largest caucus in any of the US congress. There is remarkable transformation. A show like ‘ER’ comes on the air, and the critics are saying, “How can it be a good show, because who so ever has heard of an American Emergency Room without an Indian doctor!” And then, they had to quickly write a part for an Indian doctor. Parminder Nagra, then came in. And then ER became the kind of success it went into became. That was not the America that I went to in 1975.
Sandip Roy: We have a question from Twitter, my apologies for not able to find out the name of the person who sent us this question. It’s basically asking do you think that the long distance nationalism of the Indians abroad is actually a dangerous thing.
Shashi Tharoor: It could a dangerous thing or it could be a positive thing. Many of us go abroad for the first time, voluntarily or involuntarily find themselves becoming the ambassadors of the country where we have come from, particularly when we see the foreigners who are ill-informed about our country or who have little knowledge about our country. We have an instinctive desire to defend it. The normal human nature equally applies to an American going abroad and French people going abroad. We Indians are no different. To that degree we become prouder of India we left because we are somewhere else and called to account for it as a part of accounting for ourselves. I have also witnessed a sort of expatriate extremism where you find some of the Diaspora go abroad and start supporting and sometimes financially supporting some of the most famous extreme causes in the country that they had left behind. I am trying to analyse this with pop psychology that they go abroad, they don’t fully fit in, they look in the mirror and they realise that they are not like the other people who are settled. And rather like the faithless lover, who blames the woman he has spurned for having left her, the expatriate’ extremists blame the country for obliging him to leave. And therefore he decides to support or finance extreme ideas as to how to change that country for the better. That can range from the support for the Khalistani terrorism in California, or the support for the Irish Republican army in New York or the Sri Lankan Tamils who financed the LTTE from Diasporas from America, Canada and everywhere else. All of that is, explained by these phenomena, but in a slightly milder way, it also explains the extraordinary support for the hate movement and the Hindutva movement and so on, amongst Americans who are living far away from what they see as a point of Indian civilization. It’s the same people who are surrounded by white non-Hindus and engaging with them and living amidst them, send money back in dollars to promote intolerance back in India, which is a very strange and unhealthy phenomenon.
Sandip Roy: Do you see the phenomenon as growing?
Shashi Tharoor: I don’t know. First of all, I no longer live abroad and I don’t see it around me. People like me started writing about it; I started writing about it in the 90s. As numbers grew, those who were against this kind of intolerance also grew and their voices began to be heard as well, by and large, because those people who preach divisiveness, religious chauvinism are themselves out of touch and out of sync with the kind of prevalent culture liberalist pluralist culture prevailing in the country they are living in. But no they are attempting to mask a little more their overt intolerant agenda.
Sandip Roy: Speaking about intolerance, referring to Chetan Bhagat, what he had written about it recently about the pop psychology analysis of the trolls. Do you believe that there is a difference between Right wing troll and a Left wing troll in terms of quantity and quality?
Shashi Tharoor: I was looking for Jaggi (R Jagannathan, Editor-in-chief, Firstpost), because he just began this evening by talking about trolls from both the sides. I am not aware about any Congress trolls. We just don’t have them. We are civilised, moderate, reasonable party.
Sandip Roy: That is incompetent not to have your own army of trolls!.
Shashi Tharoor: The point is that there are of course people who express their views in extreme language; using the distance that the internet gives you sometimes the anonymity that internet gives you. The anonymity of the internet and more importantly the distance; which actually permits people to speak and write in terms that they know that they wouldn’t get away with in a normal conversation. I remember once being in a social occasion where a couple of young men came up to me and chatted with me in the most respectful manner, called me Sir and all that. And when they gave me their names, I realised that one of them had just abused me one day before on Twitter.
Sandip Roy: Did you call him on it?
Shashi Tharoor: No, I said. Why bother. He was trying to be nice. It’s better to take people on their face value. The irony about all of this is that you never know how much of this is posturing. Of course, you don’t like reading it. I congratulate Twitter for having invented the mute button. You can now just silence these characters by having them not inflict their vileness upon you. The numbers, there is no comparison. As I said that I don’t really agree with the Right and the Left here, the organised preparation of the pro-BJP and pro-Hindutva elements vastly outstrips anything remotely comparable from the other side of the spectrum, in terms of the quantity and also the vileness, sustained nastiness of personal attacks. And I think it partly because they all felt at one point that they weren’t getting a fair enough shake in the mainstream media. So, they would take over the social media, they came to this conclusion much earlier than anybody else had and they moved into this way and occupied the commanding heights. For they are in large numbers and very well organised and in some of the abuses that I get, for example, it’s very clear and instruction had gone out, because around 30-40 people will be abusing me in the same identical manner and sometimes with the same identical words, but always the same angle of attack. And you know that this is a sustained campaign and there is nothing that you can do much about it.
Sandip Roy: Before you joined the UN, you had thought that after you finished your PhD, you will come back to be a journalist, as you were thinking. So, do you ever wonder about the road not taken that you could have been in… Arbnab Goswami’s chair!
Shashi Tharoor: Oh My God! Perish the thought. I haven’t allowed myself to think of what might have been. I think it’s slightly a self-indulgent thing to do. But, first of all, when I left India, I have to admit that my ambition up to college had been the Foreign Service. I was just very good at taking exams, came first and I thought that would ace those exams too and get in. Then, the Emergency came along. There was the profound disillusioning period. I just did not want to take the exams anymore. So, I never took the Foreign Service’s exams. So, that eliminated the most obvious profession for the people of my kind and background. And then, I was left with the choice between essentially academics or journalism, the other two things that interested me, until the UN came along. And, once I got into the UN, I thought that I will do it for a year or two or three no more for some, put some hard currency in the banks in India, that was very sought after those days and come back and in any case, I was more inclined to write than to teach. So, probably, it would have been journalism. Of course, there was no serious television journalism during those days; it would have been the print media. Looking back, I am not sure if I have any enormous regrets. I have led a very, very richly rewarding, not from the financial sense, but the intellectual satisfactions thereof. Life at the United Nations and on the international stage…
Sandip Roy: When you were joining the UN, you were told don’t bother about applying, there are too many Indians.
Shashi Tharoor: Yes, that’s right. When I first tried to apply to the UN, I was told that there are too many Indians over represented. Then what happened was that I was able to go out and join the UN organisation that didn’t have too national quarters. It was the UN High Commissioner for the refugees. After 11 years, I moved into the regular UN, that was at the end of the Cold War and when peace keeping was beginning to expand and I grew with it.
Sandip Roy: Tell us a little bit about you going to Singapore, the boat people crisis. What kind of impact that it leave on you?
Shashi Tharoor: Huge! First of all, I was alarmingly young for my responsibility. So, I had to conceal my age. It was an amazing time of personal growth. We had these Vietnamese fleeing their country in boats, and then being rescued on the high seas by the merchant vessels, which inevitably would come to Singapore to offload the people. The Singaporeans were resistant to offloading refuges until it was known what it would become of them. So, the job involved unusual combination of things, negotiating with the Singapore government, negotiating with the embassies of various countries for resettlement, working with shipping companies, many of them were flying flags wherein you couldn’t expect to resettle the refugees, including in a few cases Indian and Bangladeshi and ships; and at the same time running a refugee camp because unlike the other South East Asian countries, Singapore did not want it to be their responsibility. They wanted the UN to do it. So, I learnt a lot of things, including finding creative solutions to bureaucratic dilemmas all the time. At some point, I should write about all of this, but, I haven’t. But, there were these amazing experiences. But the most amazing experience was to be able to put your head to the pillow at night knowing the things that you have done during the day have made a difference to many human being’s lives, human beings who you would meet at the refugee camp. So many stories I can tell. We had a few dramatic ones as well as a few tragic ones including that of cannibalism, which had to be investigated. One story that I recall is that of a young family that had left Vietnam in a tiny boat with a cannibalised engine. The engine however conked out, and they started drifting at the China Sea. They were living on rain water and hope and because the baby and infant would not survive on the rain water, the parents’ cut their thumbs and children were seen sucking on parents’ thumbs for survival as the blood had nutrients; and later after they were rescued I saw the same family, all healthy and well-dressed ready to embark a new life in the US. I have seen an enormous amount of human satisfaction; there are people who are grown up, Canadian, or French or Australian, because of my skill of persuading the ambassadors, immigrating officers or visiting ministers, to make exceptions to their policies to bend the rules, under which these people were taken. It was an extraordinary life.
Sandip Roy: Even as you talk about the satisfaction of being able to put your head to your pillow at night, knowing that you made a difference in people’s life you were also the face of the UN at that time, when the Srebrenica massacre was going on. That must have been hard to face the media day after day…
Shashi Tharoor: That was in the peace keeping incarnation. I have just been at a seminar in Hague at the Institute of Global Justice with the number of those who had dealt with the Yugoslavian crises. I was handling the Yugoslavia headquarters, the people who faced the horrors directly were the ones who were in the fields, which I still haven’t done. Those with us for the political responsibility from the very beginning argued to the Security Council that peace keeping is inappropriate to a situation where there was no peace to keep. It wasn’t devised to be sent in during an ongoing war. The rules and principles of peace keeping worked effectively, won the Nobel Prize in situations where the parties had agreed to a peace and our job was to maintain it and ensure that it didn’t break down. But, you can’t go into a shooting war where people are actually using the peace keeping force to manoeuvre their own military interest behind them. We said this repeatedly in black and white of the public record but in any case, it was painful. First of all, such kind of a major international event and you never acting in any autonomy, like a huge pressure, the weight of the government’s pressure playing upon you, certainly by then the media had become the significant player in the international affairs. We were the good UN officials waiting for the reports from the fields before conveying them into appropriate form, the ambassadors were like ‘we just have seen this in CNN, why haven’t you reported to us’? And there was an entire transformation of the world happening at that time when all this was happening. And yes, you had the peacekeeping blue helmets, attempting to conduct themselves according to the rules and the principles of peacekeeping when clearly what was needed was to take sides, which was not what peacekeeping was all about. It was simply the wrong solution applied to a major problem.
Sandip Roy: You have worked with the UN, now you are working with India and its bureaucracy. They are regarded as the well-funded, and pampered…
Shashi Tharoor: I must say that bureaucracies have something more in common. But, India is more process oriented than process driven. UN is much less hierarchical. I have never been able to cure an Indian bureaucrat’s habit of calling me Sir, whereas in the UN, as a 22-year-old UN staff, I was encouraged by my senior UN staffs to use their first name. To begin with, the place is more informal, it was easier to cut corners and take decisions and get things done. But, obviously there were certain challenges like there was a lot of diversity of nationality, languages, cultures, work ethics, procedures which sometimes in areas like peace keeping were irrelevant because everyone who came there were all action oriented but in other parts in the UN could have been a less happy. In India of course we have a national bureaucracy, but we are really very much rule bound. All this notions of file bound interminable process would be to get tasks done. I would argue that we are less efficient than we should be; given the importance of the tasks here we face in the country.
Sandip Roy: I hear two different stories from reading papers. One is that now in the Modi-era, is that of an empowered bureaucrats. The minister is bypassed, the bureaucrat is empowered. Then we also read a story in The Times of India recently where the bureaucrats are flying back to their states in a reverse migration that hasn’t been seen before. You have a lot of bureaucrat friends. What’s the kind of gossip that you have been hearing?
Shashi Tharoor: The gossip I’m hearing is that empowerment is a myth. Mr. Modi started calling and meeting the secretaries directly and that is what he does even it today. The whole thing has mainly resulted in secretaries not going to play golf; and they make sure that they are known to be in office till 8 or 9’o clock. That’s the major impact. But what they say is that everything that they do ends up in the PMO. They are waiting for the overburdened PM to tell them what they want to do. It’s a much less effective bureaucracy in the present government than it was in the bad old days of the UPA.
Sandip Roy: We have couple of questions from people through twitter. Jaishree Vijayan asks ‘Do you think that you lost your freedom of expression when you became a politician’?
Shashi Tharoor: To some degree yes. When you become an elected politician, you represent the interest of your voters and that of your party, because you are a member of a political organisation. Sometimes your party takes a stand that you may personally disagree with, but you are not at liberty to express your disagreement. I remember when we had this outrage in Parliament with the so called cartoon controversy, of the 1950’s cartoon of Shankar, of Nehru ji flogging a tortoise with Dr. Ambedkar sitting on it. Honestly, I thought that our party’s position was completely absurd and immature that the cartoon was clearly not meant to be denigrating Ambedkar at all. It was a political commentary of the progress of some issues Dr. Ambedkar was in charge of. And what is more, is that Shankar, the person who had drawn the cartoon was a favorite of the Nehru’s who went onto win the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan. For us to suddenly make him into this Dalit-hating person was absurd. Given the fact that my party was unanimous in the passion of its views of the subject, I preferred to keep silent rather than to express my views at that time. This is an example of my freedom of expression not being the same.
Sandip Roy: What is the most appropriate definition of economy class in India now? Would you venture?
Shashi Tharoor: I will refrain from any further contributions to the lexicon. I must say that I have travelled Indian economy class are much more spacious and roomy than the equivalent in America.
Sandip Roy: Do you think that the media is responsible for a certain dumbing down.
Shashi Tharoor: We have a media culture now in which breaking news is all about getting TRPs. There are a large number of economically unviable channels competing for the same number of eyeballs. And the only way that they can do it is by over sensationalising. The media that I have seen has certainly not lived up to the ideals that I thought they should have. My father worked for a media organisation, on the managerial side, not on the journalistic side. We grew up believing in the freedom of the press and the importance of the media and I’m sorry to say but the print media is selling news the same way. It is a sad thing what has happened to the media now.
Sandip Roy: With that media culture, after your wife died and the whole controversy erupted, do you feel in all these high profile cases, because there is so much of a media trials that happens at the same time, whether it is this case or the Aarushi case; that in the end this phrase ‘having your day in court’ means nothing in India …
Shashi Tharoor: The horrifying thing about this is that some deeply obnoxious anchors have taken upon themselves as not just to be witness, which is the job of the press, but, witness, prosecutor, judge jury and executioner all into one. The result is that even if the police conclude their work, and come up with the truth, and that is now established in the court of law, there will still be a lingering whiff of suspicion having been created by the lies that has been residually spread in a quest for TRPs. It’s really sad that our media class has become like this. I have actually had many moments about I ought to take some legal action. My lawyers advised me that I cannot do so until the investigation is over. I went through an earlier bout of being falsely maligned in the press during the so called IPL controversy. I chose at that point not to take legal action feeling that this was a free press played its role in a political democracy. Subsequently, when other kinds of maligning occurred, I felt, that at this point one should take action. You will, spend an enormous amount of money and emotional energy and the case won’t be heard for many years. Is it worth it? Now, if the media organisations are going to get away with the expectations that most of the victims won’t be able to take effective action against them then, they will continue to be irresponsible and convict innocent people, ruin lives and break heads and break reputations. I think that at some point, some of us will have to stand up and confront. The Press Council, the Editor’s Guild, all have been very, very weak in confronting all of this, maybe, one will have to look at the legal institutions to see what we can do. This is not just irresponsible; this is dangerous for the society.
Sandip Roy: How did you decide that you won’t go into radio silence like other politicians do when they are surrounded with controversy? You would continue with your professional life, your professional engagement at the risk of appearing to some as brazen?
Shashi Tharoor: That was a risk that I had to take. Initially, in fact I did go into radio silence. Certainly, losing my wife was enough to ensure that. I went off Twitter or any public appearances for almost six weeks, of which in the three weeks, I had physically lost my voice. It was a psychological situation, but I literally couldn’t have been heard anyway. After that, when I finally re-emerged, first of all, I knew that I had done nothing wrong. And there was no reason to be cowed by false accusations into silence. Second, I had an obligation to those who had voted for me to serve their interest and I couldn’t do that in silence. And third, a few months down the road, I had an election to fight. Either I would run away, which some would see as an admission of guilt or I would face the electorate and ask them to judge me for the person that they knew me to be. And I chose consciously the latter course. And in the end, yes, certainly a lot of damage was done. Rival political parties sent squads into the homes of voters to say how you can vote for this man, he murdered his wife. Enough people disbelieved it and I still managed to win the elections.
Sandip Roy: I don’t know about the people in the audience, but, I was surprised you won in an election where many Congress heavyweights were routed and you had the double whammy of having this cloud following you. Were you surprised?
Shashi Tharoor: I wasn’t surprised as I had worked very hard for that. One good thing that came out from my resignation from the External Affairs Ministry was that suddenly I had time for the constituency, that in that job, I didn’t have. I really devoted myself and I got a lot of things done which hadn’t been done by any of my far more illustrious predecessors. This included a national highway bypass project that was stuck for 40 years! The stones had been laid and nothing had been done. I got the whole of the bureaucracy moving and here in Delhi and funding done. That bypass became a reality. Trains for the constituency, a lot of lives were changed for the better that I was able to ensure were done. The voters fortunately remembered that and voted for that and not for other things.
Sandip Roy: That was the election that you won. As somebody, like you said, were very good at taking exams, when you decided to step back to from the elections to the UN Secretary General, withdraw from it, did that sting?
Shashi Tharoor: It was hard. I was just 22 years when I had joined the UN. I really had spent my entire life there. I had an unusually interesting career and I had worked in all the key fields of the UN. Humanitarian works, refugee work, peace keeping, political, been in the Security Councils, worked in the Secretary General’s office, run my own department and all of this stuff. In many ways, I had felt uniquely prepared for that position. But, you know of course I had enough sense to realise that the secretarial elections is not about the best resume, but, it is ultimately a political decision made by handful of member states in the Security Council and you have to accept that those are the basis on which the decision will be made. So, when it happened, I certainly accepted that was the outcome, but it certainly meant a huge change in my life, in my plans, because if I had not contested I had a decade to go at the United Nations. As a career person, I could have continued. And I would have had to reinvent my life at that point. Equally, as I look back, I had a very short campaign of three and a half months, nominated by the government of India in June, which was a bit later than what was ideal for the contest. And many ways, I would look back at the three and a half months and say ‘Should I would have done it?’ But, my answer was a yes. It was worth doing, it was worth trying to do. Then I took refuge in the lesson of The Gita that you really have to do something without the expectation of a reward or without focusing on the outcome. And the outcome turned out to be two votes short: one of which was a permanent member and that was enough to knock me out of the fray, but the effort was worth making. Of course, there was a consolation that out of the seven candidates, who included a deputy PM, clutch of foreign ministers, a sitting president of a country and a prince, I still managed to come second beating a lot of them.
Sandip Roy: Since we talked about the flawed legal system, when the photographs were flashed out in the media and such terrible things in the course of the investigations, how much faith you have in the system to vindicate you?
Shashi Tharoor: One has to believe in the system. It’s the system that we have got. I very much have co-operated throughout with the investigations, whatever their requests, they have raided my home and taken away my phone. I have co-operated with all of this. I have even done something which I never thought that I would ever do… giving them access to all my emails, which they have dutifully copied onto a hard drive. I believe that in a fair minded probe, that there’s absolutely no way in which I can be found wanting in terms of co-operation. The police themselves had said so. The supposition that a crime has occurred rest entirely on the word of an extremely suspect individual, a doctor facing charges of plagiarism and incompetence. It is something that the police have to investigate, whether there was a crime at all. That’s what they are investigating. This gentleman has alleged that there was poisoning… without any visual evidence and no chemical evidence of poisoning. There will be an entire process. I am sure that at the end of it all, reasonable conclusion will be found and whatever that conclusion is, I will then have to draw my own stand on whether this has been a fair process in the end or not. But, I start off with the premise that the people will be fair. In matters of life and death, these are not issues where biases or political agendas or other issues should come in and determine the conclusion. I am certainly hoping and believing in the fairness of the integrity of the system.