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April 06, 2015

Dr Shashi Tharoor’s ‘India Shastra’

Text by Nittal Chandarana

“There are days when I read things about me in the press and feel I’m stuck in a horror story myself!” Dr Shashi Tharoor in an evocative conversation with Verve

The Read: India Shastra
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Publisher: Aleph Book Company

What it is: Of tongue cleaners and Lok Sabha elections, Dr Tharoor’s India Shastra stays true to its name. A compilation of essays, articles and columns on where the country stands circa 2014 and thence, it almost serves to inform about the various transformations in our political and social system, generously peppered with the author’s opinion. An insider’s opinion, as one may call it. (For the real deal, one must do their own bit of research, but who even knows what the real deal is anymore?) Dr Tharoor’s opinion, though, is informed, cerebral and thought-provoking. And laced with immense amounts of wit and a humour that doesn’t dampen over the course of the novel. Of course the historic 2014 elections are covered. So are all religious and moral debates, unnecessary bans and cyber trends. What make for the most enjoyable reads are the experiential pieces. His career of 29 years at the UN is awe-inspiring and renders an insight into the workings of a global organisation by ‘one of our people’. The humara pratinidhi syndrome. His take on all Indian idiosyncrasies make for entertaining reads. We especially enjoyed the one on flying as an Indian passenger. The trials and tribunes of security checks, racism and explaining to a confused security official the intricacies of a humble tongue cleaner are hilarious.

Verve View: One can’t exactly review a work of non-fiction (no poetry of language, free-flowing imagination or ingenuity of plot here, you see). But we will say this. We felt too much weightage rendered to the elections and the political system. What we did like, though, was his take on both tiny and mammoth matters of the country. It’s like a journey through the course of a few years by touching on all important events that have now anchored themselves into the history of the country.

Read it for: A long-winded opinion (and reminder!) on the Indian system of things. Completely non-preachy and laced with witticisms, it takes you through all critical issues that the country has encountered.

Q&A with Dr Shashi Tharoor

1. According to you, how has our country changed from The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone to India Shastra?
“That’s the book in itself! A number of changes have been quite dramatic: the Modi victory and the transformation of Indian politics; the galloping mobile and IT revolutions; the increasing consciousness of corruption and black money. Some things haven’t changed, or continue their steady process of evolutionary change. The book tries to capture both sets of phenomena.”

2. In all these years you have been observing and writing about the country, what has been the most path-breaking event for India?
“The rise and stubborn persistence of identity politics, battling with an increasing consciousness of the need for performance politics. This election could mark a definitive transition from one to the other, but it’s too early to say.”

3. What was the most memorable part of your UN experience? Any anecdotes you remember?
“The United Nations offered me a platform to work on issues of all kinds, small and big, and every instance where I was able to make a difference proved an inspiration to do more and better. My stint heading the Singapore office with the UNHCR at the peak of the Vietnamese boat people crisis — negotiating the disembarkation of refugees, obtaining guarantees of their resettlement, persuading immigration officials to accept people who didn’t otherwise qualify, running the refugee camp — all these allowed me to put my head to the pillow at night knowing that things I had done during the day had made a great difference to real people’s lives, indeed transformed many for ever. I was also able to find creative solutions to many unprecedented problems, including handling the first Polish refugees in Asia and the first Acehnese refugees, all without ruffling political feathers.

And I did it all while concealing my age, since I was only 25 when I took charge of the office, and all my interlocutors assumed I was at least a decade older! But there were also times of lesser satisfaction, such as during the Yugoslav civil war. One often found oneself frustrated that one’s efforts, 18-hour days of unstinting work, didn’t stop the blood flowing. But even then there was the intangible satisfaction of playing a small but significant role in one of the momentous events of my time, and so leaving my smudgy thumbprints on the footnotes of the pages of history.”

4. What is the prime difference in the way an international organisation and an Indian one work?
“It’s very difficult to generalise broadly on something like this, but my own experience at the UN and subsequently in public life in India has revealed one or two things that stand out, not least because I’ve received outrageous flak in India for things that commanded positive respect and admiration abroad! India offers a level of diversity, a vibrant environment, and such a fascinating assortment of challenges and tasks that it is really difficult to have a ‘regular day’ at work, and one is every day on one’s toes, pushed to do better and better. Things abroad, while challenging at a different level and in a different way, are considerably more structured. Though both Indian and UN bureaucracies share some of the defects of all bureaucracies, I think it’s safe to say that the Indian government seems far more process-oriented and inflexible than the UN’s was in my experience.

Of course each side’s characteristics and strengths can equally serve as an asset and sometimes as a daunting liability. Diversity can easily descend into chaos and lack of discipline, while structure sometimes transforms into bureaucratic inflexibility and rigidity. In the end, I think, it depends on human ingenuity and how we apply ourselves to different environments and conditions of work. I enjoyed working in the stable structure of the UN, even while grappling with fast-moving refugee or peace-keeping crises, and I have, for six years now, enjoyed serving in India as a Member of Parliament, including about two and a half as a Minister in two different ministries. They are vastly different worlds, but so long as one is committed to productive service, I don’t think anything else is excessively problematic or insurmountable.”

5. You comment abundantly on cyber trends and living in the digital age. How have these changed the world we live in?
“They have practically transformed the world we live in. Sitting in 2015, can you really remember the way the world was before mobile phones or Google? The speed and swiftness with which we communicate today, whether on social networks or even in general daily online interaction, has become so pervasive and absolutely essential to our functional productivity that those who remain reluctant to embrace these changes are increasingly getting left leagues behind. Some, on the other hand, noted the full potential of the digital age well in advance and have exploited it with remarkable and almost fascinating tact. The BJP, for instance, took to social media when most other parties still aired reservations about its utility in the Indian context. The result was that a few years down the line, they had the most organised (even if shockingly undisciplined) social media armies out to promote their agenda (frequently questionable I must add). Prime Minister Modi became a hero to the social media Twitterati and others, and it would be foolish not to acknowledge the gains he made in the 2014 elections as a result of his effective communication strategies.

As 3G and soon 4G internet becomes widely accessible and as smartphones become more and more inexpensive, most Indians—remember how young we are as a country — will gain easy, cheap access to the web and all that it offers. There will be no need for computers and their complicated paraphernalia in, for instance, rural areas. This will, I think, be the next big communication “revolution” that will once again change things forever. I believe there are already advertisements on TV about students in faraway places using mobile phone internet to study and innovate and so on. This could soon be reality.”

6. Should media personalities tone down what they have to say on social media platforms?
“To begin with, if anyone ought to tone down their virulence on social media platforms, it is the organised trolling parties and their sponsors! I personally have, after several shocking experiences of being completely misquoted, taken out of context, misrepresented, and attacked, become more cautious in how I express myself on Twitter (which is the principal platform I use, though with an automatic link to Facebook). Numerous public personalities (often women) have given up or suspended social media accounts due to the sheer hatred channelled their way.

It is not so much about the things media personalities say as much as the fact that a section of the users, delighted by the offer of a space where they can get away with saying absolutely anything with little or no accountability, tends to enjoy finding scandal where there is none, and reading into things which really have no other meaning beyond their face value. The anonymity often afforded by the Internet, where you can cloak your persona in a fake ID and picture and say things to people that you would never think of uttering directly to their face if you met them, makes things worse. Having faced this, I think it is social media bullying that we should be weeding out, though not by any control or censorship but by developing public standards that are higher than at present. Just as media personalities should, one could argue, articulate with greater responsibility, so too their audience, the average social media user, must learn to be less virulent.”

7. Who are our opinion leaders today? With a population that is high on intolerance and easily gets waylaid by a selfie, tweet or video, what is the role of the opinion leader?
“I must confess this is a concern I share. The vast explosion of the digital media space has allowed platforms of all kinds to arise, which by itself is a welcome development and a trend that should be encouraged in an enthusiastic, eager, energetic public space as ours. However this also means that all varieties of half-baked ideas and poorly defined opinions, more often than not lacking in depth (and often even basic research) do the rounds on the net and go viral. I myself have been the victim of sensationalism where a gripping headline, with a farrago of lies to follow, becomes ‘the Truth’ and before you know it, there are news panels and discussions and the clamour of online outrage as the ‘nation wants to know’ details about something that hasn’t happened or wasn’t there in the first place! There are still, luckily, men and women of worthwhile standing and measured words and capabilities in our public life today, so I am optimistic and feel that things are not entirely going downhill. But I do hope that the current tendency to make an opinion leader out of anyone who happens to have an opinion, no matter how illogical or even defamatory, is cause for concern.”

8. You’ve commented on the Elections ’14. How much have they changed India? Have the results succeeded in making a difference?
“They have changed India in the most basic sense that this is the first full majority government in three decades in this country; and in the fact that the political tendency that has triumphed openly disavows the ‘idea of India’ held by Indian nationalist leaders since the struggle for Independence. Mr Modi also led a formidable election campaign, mixing the right messages with the BJP’s usual pontifications about culture and Indianness. Difference, however, is yet to be seen. The most vociferous aspect of their campaign in 2014 revolved around development and the future. But in the eleven months that this government has been in power, we’ve been going backwards on social questions (what with such bizarre proposals like ghar wapsi and competitive recommendations to totally unwilling Hindu women that they must produce a certain number of children) while development seems to be all about sound bites and less about sound government! This is linked to the previous question. As I said, because everyone now seems to have patience only for a headline or to glance at a statement in bold, or worse yet, one that scrolls by in a ‘Breaking News’ flash on a TV screen, the government, well aware of what the gallery demands, feeds the frenzy, and is considerably more lax when it comes to actually making a difference and doing something to follow up their very animated declarations and lofty pronouncements.”

9. You had a strong opinion about the liquor ban in Kerala. There’s a beef ban in Maharashtra now. Your thoughts on the same?
“I think this government has initiated a depressing season of bans, which should not be surprising given the antecedents of its chief promoters and patron organisation. In essence, however, it appears to me that this government is eternally seeking the easy way out—if you care about cows or animals in general, promote information in favour of vegetarianism and educate people. Win them over to your cause instead of unilaterally declaring a ban. If your supporters are so anxious to protect the cow, let them educate the public and sensitise them, while respecting the right of others to differ, whether on cultural grounds or personal preferences. An outright ban means this government does not really want to take the difficult route and is looking for easy solutions that cater to their fixed constituencies who would sooner see majority Raj than bother with the tedious but necessary business of democratic consensus. So they give you sound-bites and bans and bombastic statements. Where they need to make a difference, they will not. Where they’d be better off not tampering and tinkering, they proceed to make a spectacular mess!”

10. Describe India in 140 characters.
“India: a land of unparalleled diversity, emerging from an ancient civilization,shaped by a common geography and tempered by a shared history [exactly 140 characters!]”

11. What’s the best and the worst part of enjoying a position of power and the fame that comes along with it?
“Power and fame is a simplification. Fighting elections, seeking a mandate from the people, spending all waking hours of the day in their service (from attending weddings and funerals to getting them jobs to enabling infrastructure projects to building ports (the list is endless!), is not for the shallow pleasures of enjoying power and fame. These things come with great responsibility. They bring with them adulation, but even a minor lapse, a human error, or one foot (or word!) wrong could have vast, unforgiving repercussions. And, as I discussed earlier, given that in any case there is in our media and online a virtual army to rip one apart, one has to be doubly careful about everything. For me, it is knowing that I have worked for the two million citizens of Thiruvananthapuram each day, or delighted someone through my writing, that constitutes the best part of being in public life. The worst part, dinned in everyday, happens now to be so constant and unjustified that one just learns to live with it and learn to be positive!”

12. Who are some of the contemporary authors you enjoy reading?
“I am an eclectic reader. Of currently living authors, I’ve recently enjoyed novels by Alessandro Barrico, Jonas Jonsson and Aatish Taseer, and I’m looking forward to the latest Amitav Ghosh when it comes out.”

13. One genre you want to try and one that you’d never touch.
“Horror, though there are days when I read things about me in the press and feel I’m stuck in a horror story myself!”

14. Any tips for budding authors – especially with increasing number of books being published today.
“Never imitate or want to be like someone. Have your own voice. You can absorb and learn from good books as well as bad, but what you produce must be a result of the deliberations in your own mind and intellect, and not a copy. Copies might do well commercially but will they leave a lasting mark?”

15. How much of a gap is there between Shashi Tharoor – the person, and Shashi Tharoor – the public figure?
“None. With me, I am what you see – and what you see is what you get!”

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