Much before he took the plunge into Indian politics, Shashi Tharoor was a poster boy for a resurgent India.
A successful United Nations (UN) diplomat and author, Tharoor was once even a contender to the UN secretary-general post but lost to Ban Ki-moon in 2006. In 2009, he entered electoral politics as part of the Congress party, contesting from Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of his native state of Kerala in southern India. He won by a landslide.
Tharoor joined the prime minister Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government as a minister of state first in the external affairs ministry and then in the human resources ministry. However, during those five years, his wife Sunanda Pushkar died under mysterious circumstances, he faced graft allegations and was shunted out of the foreign ministry following this.
“Agnipareeksha” (trial by fire) is how Tharoor described those years. Today, he is among the handful of Congress parliamentarians to have retained their seats in the 2014 elections that saw a massive anti-incumbency wave deal the party its worst electoral debacle ever.
In an interview with Quartz, Tharoor opened up about his life, ideology, the future of his party, and prime minister Narendra Modi. He also spoke about the intent and inspiration behind his latest book, An Era of Darkness, which will be released this month.
You have spent close to a decade in Indian politics. How has the journey been?
Tumultuous! The first five or six years were very hard. The proverbial agnipareeksha (trial by fire). My back was perforated by assorted stilettos, some from my own camp. In college, we went through ragging. As a fresher in politics, one must also go through the same thing. At the end of it all, here I am, still standing, bloody, and unbowed.
What have you learnt in these years?
First of all, pretty much everybody in politics has done nothing else their whole life. This has been their activity since school or college. The resentment against lateral entry, which seems to characterise every profession in India, is heightened in politics.
Nothing prepared me for the nastiness. You can never really learn to grow a thicker skin until you are forced to.
Now I get a thousand nasty messages a day, accusing me of everything from murder to sycophancy to loyalty to dynasty… When you are accused of things you haven’t done, once you grow a thicker skin, you take it in stride.
Doesn’t it bother you when a large electoral mass makes such accusations?
It would if I lost an election. But I managed to win twice. The voters who actually have seen me at close quarters for five years trusted me and not the lies. There was a certain degree of vindication. I recognise that popular opinion is also fickle. Tomorrow I may not be looking at this sort of success. You have to ultimately be guided by your own conscience in life.
You are in a party that has seen an electoral collapse. How is the Congress looking for 2019?
I think it’s in the process of rebuilding.
I would say many of us would like to see some organisational changes. I have huge admiration for Mrs Gandhi, and in my case, I owe my political career to her. So it’s not an implicit criticism, let alone rejection, of her but rather a sense that there comes a time when the torch must be passed. I think in the widespread perception of people, that time is now. We don’t want to do it too close to the next election.
We also do need to revive the party organisation. Rahul Gandhi has some ideas. But he needs a free hand. I am not sure he yet does. I also believe there are enough people in this country who share our basic values and are disillusioned with the Modi government, particularly its inability to fulfil some promises of an economic nature.
Opinion polls suggest the BJP is likely to return to power. How do you rate prime minister Narendra Modi?
Mr Modi has rarely said anything wrong. But has he not allowed, often through his silences, a lot of undesirable currents to flourish in this country? Even if he cannot be blamed for directly encouraging, he hasn’t discouraged them (either).
Many people who are not hardcore BJP voters or Hindutva voters voted for him because Mr Modi’s message was, “I have been a highly effective CEO of Gujarat Inc. Give me a chance of being the CEO of India Inc.”
Have we seen greater efficiency? No. We have seen late appointments in a number of areas. We have seen no progress in a number of economic reforms or in labour reforms. We have also seen promises of employment creation being embarrassingly betrayed.
But India’s GDP is still growing fast and improved over UPA-II when there was paralysis.
The counterargument is that GDP growth without job growth doesn’t actually help voters.
To win again, you have to win votes. The message from the BJP is going to be, “Five years is not enough.” And the message from the opposition will be, “They have let you down once by not fulfilling their promises, do you really want to trust them?”
Often, the mathematics of elections also become a factor. We have seen in Bihar how a Mahagatbandan can result in a lopsided defeat (even) for the once most favoured party. Could it happen on a national scale? I don’t know.
Would it be all economics or would identity politics play a role?
There are two other factors, I assume, lurking behind your question.
One is identity politics, the appeal of Hindutva and religious polarisation. That confirms my point. I would hope that a responsible government would not want to rule a divided people. That is not a healthy way of going.
The second thing implicit is the question of what happened with the LoC attack, whether military chauvinism and jingoism can be drummed up to win votes. Again, that is not healthy. I hope no one would use the blood of our soldiers for electoral gains. Certainly, I don’t want to accuse the government of (doing) that.
Let me leave it at that.
There is this idea of nationalism sweeping the country. Can the Congress fight that off?
I think it goes to the heart of the definition of nationalism. The Congress fought for the country’s freedom. So we are more honest nationalists than anybody else. The question is, do you want a nationalism that is inclusive, that takes everybody along? Or one that is narrow, bigoted, sectarian or religion-defined? To the Congress’s mind, the answer is very clear.
I am not suggesting that everybody in the ruling party (BJP) necessarily has a narrower view. But certainly, they have helped unleash a view of nationalism that is divisive.
I want to stress that we in the Congress must make an effort to reclaim the nationalism narrative. One of the reasons why I wrote this book, which I don’t talk about much, is that I believe we are no less nationalist.
Has nationalism become necessary in Indian politics?
Yes. I don’t see why it has. But it has. There is no way we can escape the fact that they (the BJP) made it into an issue. And indeed, I suspect that in the next election, it’s going to be one of the things. They are going to say “if you are a true nationalist, vote for us” or “if you don’t like us, go to Pakistan.”
Is this outburst of yours against the British Raj an extension of your now-famous speech? Is it a smart attempt at image management?
The book, first of all, is essentially a passionate argument that takes into account what the British did to India and at the same time refutes a lot of self-justifying mythologising by the British who sometimes portrayed colonialism as an exercise in benign altruism.
I have gone into some detail both on the negatives… 35 million people died in famines, massacres like Jallianwala Bagh, (and) some details of a lot of other horrors… creation of landlessness and poverty, drainage of Indian resources, partition and divide and rule.
The third concern of mine is the extent to which colonial legacies haunt us. Whether it is the caste system in its present form or laws lingering from McCauley’s penal code drafted in 1837 and enacted in 1861, (like) the sedition law or the anti-homosexuality section 377.
Fourth, for those who get misty-eyed in India about positives of the empire, I take every single one of these—the railroad, political democracy, even cricket, tea, and the English language—and argue that either these were never intended to benefit us, or were created for the selfish interest of the empire.
Fifth, it is an argument that asks, “Could our history have been different?” It is not as if colonialism has passed history. It continues to haunt us today.
British kids aren’t really aware of the damage done by colonialism. Will that change?
There is a deliberate historical amnesia. Instead, there is all this mythologising, rosy television series, painting of a romanticised view of the Raj, and other colonial experiences. I think it’s time we stood up and said it is false.
Reparations in the financial sense frankly won’t happen. What we can talk about instead is atonement, just the way the Canadian prime minister said sorry for the Komagata Maru incident.
Not only do the Germans teach the wrongs done by their forebears, they (also) organise busloads of school children to go visit (Nazi) concentration camps and show them the atrocities done so that it does not happen again.
It would be nice if there was a colonial-era museum somewhere in England telling those children that those wonderful monuments and building they have were built with colonial era loot, even that Kohinoor on their queen mother’s tiara.
What are your political ambitions today? Do you fancy being the prime minister?
Anyone who knows Indian politics knows that is not feasible. Ultimately there are many ways to serve the country. I have paid my dues at the minister of state level. If I were given anything from sanitation to foreign affairs, from defence to Panchayati raj, I would take it.
But Manmohan Singh still became prime minister?
As they say in House of Cards, “You can say that. I can’t possibly say that.”