California Literary Review

Dr. Shashi Tharoor: Understanding India

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October 8th, 2008 at 9:33 am

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Dr. Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor

CLR INTERVIEW: Dr. Shashi Tharoor is Chairman of Dubai-based Afras Ventures and former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. He is also an award-winning author of nine books, as well as hundreds of articles, op-eds and book reviews in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, Time, Newsweek and The Times of India. His latest book is The Elephant, The Tiger, And the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power. Below is Dr. Tharoor’s interview with the California Literary Review.

The Elephant, The Tiger, And the Cell Phone by Shashi Tharoor
The Elephant, The Tiger, And the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power
by Shashi Tharoor
Arcade Publishing, 498 pp.

How do you explain India’s sudden economic growth? What political and cultural changes made it possible?

A major paradigm shift was necessary to make this happen. Whereas in the US, most people axiomatically associate capitalism with freedom, India’s nationalists associated capitalism with slavery. Why? Because the British East India Company came to trade and stayed on to rule. So our nationalist leaders were suspicious of every foreigner with a briefcase, seeing him as the thin edge of a neo-imperial wedge. Instead of integrating India into the global capitalist system, as a few post-colonial countries like Singapore so effectively were to do, India’s leaders were convinced that the political independence they had fought for could only be guaranteed through economic independence. So for more than four decades India suffered from what I call the economics of nationalism: self-reliance became the slogan, the protectionist barriers went up, and India spent the first 45 years after Independence with bureaucrats rather than businessmen on the “commanding heights” of the economy, subsidizing unproductivity, regulating stagnation and trying to distribute poverty. (Which only goes to prove that one of the lessons you learn from history is that history sometimes teaches the wrong lessons.) It took a major financial crisis in 1991 – one so severe that India had to physically ship its gold reserves to London to stand security on its debts, a deep humiliation in a land where a family’s gold is often the repository of its honor — to prompt India to change course, and now that seems truly irreversible.

A measure of the extent to which the globalization debate has ended in India came for me a couple of months ago when I spoke in Kolkata alongside the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya, a stalwart of the CPI-M, the Communist Party of India-Marxist. And he said: “some people say globalization is bad for the poor and must be resisted. I tell them that is not possible. And” — this is the crucial part — “even if it were possible, it would not be desirable.” So when a Communist Chief Minister speaks that way about globalization, one can accept that this debate is largely over.

What stumbling blocks stand in the way of India’s continued growth?

There are many – vested interests of various kinds, from politicians and bureaucrats who are no longer able to profit from the power to permit, to trade unions more anxious to protect the jobs of their members than to see more jobs created. But above all, India needs to improve both the hardware of development (its infrastructure – ports, roads, airports, railways, irrigation and sanitation systems) and its software (schools, universities, clinics, courts, everything that goes to enhance the “human capital” of the country).

Though we have more dollar billionaires than in any country in Asia — even more than Japan, which has been richer longer — we also have 260 million people living below the poverty line. And it’s not the World Bank’s poverty line of $1 a day, but the Indian poverty line, which in the rural areas is 360 rupees a month, or thirty cents a day – in other words, a line that’s been drawn just this side of the funeral pyre.

How do young Indians view America? Is it still the place to come and establish a career, or is India itself becoming more of an attraction economically and culturally?

Young Indians think the world of America, and many emulate American lifestyles and cultural practices. But though many Indians still seek scholarships to study in the US, and some stay on to make careers here, several more go back to India, and many who might have left India for the US in an earlier era do not do so any more, since the opportunities at home are greater than ever before.

China and India both seem to have awakened at the same time. What are the fundamental differences between their two approaches to growth and how will that affect the future of both countries?

It has become rather fashionable these days, in bien-pensant circles in the West, to speak of India and China in the same breath. These are the two big countries said to be taking over the world, the new contenders for global eminence after centuries of Western domination, the Oriental answer to generations of Occidental economic success. Some even speak of “Chindia”, as if the two are joined at the hip in the international imagination.

Count me amongst the sceptics. It’s not just that, aside from the fact that both countries occupy a rather vast landmass called “Asia”, they have very little in common. It’s also that the two countries are already at very different stages of development – China started its liberalization a good decade and a half before India, shot up faster, hit double-digit growth when India was still hovering around 5%, and with compound growth, has put itself in a totally different league from India, continuing to grow faster from a larger base. And it’s also that the two countries’ systems are totally dissimilar. If China wants to build a new six-lane expressway, it can bulldoze its way past any number of villages in its path; in India, if you want to widen a two-lane road, you could be tied up in court for a dozen years over compensation entitlements. When China built the Three Gorges dam, it created a 660-kilometer long reservoir that necessitated the displacement of a staggering 2 million people, all accomplished in 15 years without a fuss in the interests of generating electricity; when India began the Narmada Dam project, aiming to bring irrigation, drinking water and power to millions, it has spent 34 years (so far) fighting environmental groups, human rights activists, and advocates for the displaced all the way to the Supreme Court, while still being thwarted in the streets by protestors. That is how it should be; India is a fractious democracy, China is not. But as an Indian, I do not wish to pretend we can compete in the global growth stakes with China. We can co-operate, of course, and China has now overtaken the US as India’s largest single trading partner. But they are, and will remain, in a different league.

What is Hindutva and how does it compare to your view of Hinduism?

Hindutva is a political project that seeks to capitalize on the fact that 81% of Indians are Hindus by attempting to mobilize a majority of them in favour of a Hindu chauvinist agenda. A majority of Hindu voters has steadfastly rejected such attempts. And so they should, because Hindutva rests principally on bigotry and intolerance, whereas Hinduism is the most open and tolerant of faiths. As a Hindu, I relish pointing out that I belong to the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. Hinduism asserts that all ways of belief are equally valid, and Hindus readily venerate the saints, and the sacred objects, of other faiths. Hinduism is a civilization, not a dogma. So the rejection of other forms of worship, other ways of seeking the Truth, is profoundly un-Hindu, as well as being anti-Indian. In rejecting the case for Pakistan (a state created for India’s Muslims), the nationalist movement rejected the belief that religion was the most important element in shaping political identity. In India, our system recognizes the diversity of our people and guarantees that religious affiliation will be neither a handicap nor an advantage. The reduction of non-Hindus to second-class status in their own homeland is therefore unthinkable. It would be a second Partition: and a partition in the Indian soul would be as bad as a partition in the Indian soil.

The central battle in contemporary Indian civilization is that between those who, to borrow from Whitman, acknowledge that we are vast, we contain multitudes, and those who have presumptuously taken it upon themselves to define (in increasingly narrower terms) what is “truly” Indian. If the Hindutva brigades are allowed to get away with their lawless acts of intolerance and intimidation, true Hindus would have to permit them to do violence to something profoundly vital to our survival as a civilization.

The United States is still coming to terms with the attacks of 9/11 and how we should react to them. One of the views taking hold is Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” often interpreted as a battle between Western Democracy and Radical Islam – a battle that we need to pursue in an aggressive manner. India has been dealing with religious extremism for many decades and I’m interested in your thoughts on the “war on terror.”

I’m not a believer in the Clash of Civilizations: none of Huntington’s supposed “civilizations” is monolithic and there are major political and cultural differences between states professing adherence to the same majority faith. The danger is that the “global war on terror” could provoke such hostility between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds as to make some part of this a self-fulfilling prophecy. After 9/11, we have seen war in Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban government in Kabul; the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad, followed by occupation, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and now the “surge”; the pursuit of terrorists by the West, with an attendant curtailing of civil liberties, epitomized by Guantanamo and rendition; and the addition of Madrid, London and Bali to the list of places targeted by Islamic terrorists loosely affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

India’s own experience with terrorism both predates 9/11 and goes beyond these issues. Much of it is the result of a deliberate decision by the Pakistani military that, since they cannot win a conventional war against India, they can bleed it by financing, equipping, training, arming and supporting terrorists.

So the 21st century has been born in fire and baptised in blood. But it need not grow up that way. The world now has seven years’ experience of learning to deal with terror without the abuses that were undermining the very values the terrorists sought to destroy. It just has to keep getting better at doing so. As an Indian, I would say that Americans cannot afford to forget Benjamin Franklin’s wise dictum that those who sacrifice liberty for security will end up with neither.

It was interesting to see a reference in your book to affirmative action in India — not based on race, but on caste. America seems to be gradually dismantling affirmative action. How is India dealing with this issue and what are your thoughts on how it should be handled?

We have the world’s oldest and farthest reaching affirmative action program, written into the Constitution by India’s James Madison, Dr B. R. Ambedkar, who happened to have been born an outcaste, or untouchable, himself. Our system guarantees not just opportunities but outcomes – the “Scheduled Castes and Tribes” (so called because the eligible groups of Dalits and aboriginals were listed in a Schedule annexed to the Constitution) were granted reserved seats, or guaranteed quotas, in schools and colleges, in government jobs, both in officaldom and in the public sector industries, and uniquely, in Parliament. The initial hope was that as the country developed and progressed, such “reservations” could gradually be phased out. Instead they have not only become entrenched in our system, but politicians have been agitating for extending such benefits to more and more groups, so that in some Indian states affirmative action quotas cover the majority of positions available! Despite these constitutional protections, inequalities persist between the upper castes and the former “Untouchables”. Affirmative action, perhaps inevitably, benefited a minority of Dalits who were in a position to take advantage of it; independent India has witnessed the creation of privileged sections within formerly underprivileged groups, as the sons and daughters of rich and influential Scheduled Caste leaders get ahead on the strength of their caste affiliation. Caste Hindus have increasingly come to resent the offspring of Cabinet Ministers, for instance, benefiting from reservations and lower entry thresholds into university and government that were designed to compensate for disadvantages these scions of privilege have never personally experienced.

Ironically, caste, which nationalist leaders like Nehru abhorred and believed would disappear from the social matrix of modern India, has not merely survived and thrived, but has become an instrument for political mobilization. Caste is increasingly important in elections – all too often, when you cast your vote, you vote your caste. The result has been a phenomenon that our founding fathers like Nehru would never have imagined, and which yet seems inevitable: the growth of caste-consciousness and casteism throughout Indian society. An uncle of mine by marriage, who was born just before Independence, put it ironically to me not long ago: “in my grandparents’ time, caste governed their lives: they ate, socialized, married, lived, according to caste rules. In my parents’ time, during the nationalist movement, they were encouraged by Gandhi and Nehru to reject caste; we dropped our caste-derived surnames and declared caste a social evil. As a result, when I grew up, I was unaware of caste; it was an irrelevance at school, at work, in my social contacts; the last thing I thought about was the caste of someone I met. Now, in my children’s generation, the wheel has come full circle. Caste is all-important again. Your caste determines your opportunities, your prospects, your promotions. You can’t go forward unless you’re a Backward.” Caste politics as it is practised in India today is the very antithesis of the political legacy Nehru had hoped to leave.

I do believe there is a place for affirmative action to undo millennia of discrimination, but that it should be linked to other factors, including a means test, and that unfilled positions from these caste-based set-asides should be made available to general applicants. Ultimately I would like to see a situation in which merit is the sole decisive factor, but I don’t expect that to occur in my lifetime.

How deep is the animosity between India and Pakistan? What needs to happen to avoid war between the two countries?

There is no real animosity between the peoples of India and Pakistan, who are essentially the same, even if they have been evolving under different political systems (like East and West Germans or North and South Koreans). This is readily apparent abroad, where Indians and Pakistanis work, eat, play and socialize together. But the central fact of Pakistani politics has always been the power of the military, which has ruled the country for 32 of its sixty years of existence. In other countries, the state has an Army; in Pakistan, the Army has a state. The military can be found not only in all the key offices of government, but running real estate and import-export ventures, petrol pumps and factories; retired generals head most of the country’s universities and think-tanks. The proportion of national resources devoted to the military is perhaps the highest in the world – and the only way the military can justify this is by perpetuating hostility with India. India is a status-quo power: it wants nothing that Pakistan has. Pakistan’s rulers, however, are obsessed with Kashmir, which they have repeatedly tried and failed to wrest from India through war and militancy, and with a desire to “cut India down to size” by bleeding it through terrorism. What needs to happen is for a new political culture to prevail in Pakistan, one that privileges peace, dialogue, co-operation, tourism and trade instead of resentment, bigotry, militarism, intolerance and violence. But I’m not holding my breath.

  • http://CONVERSATIONSWITHHISTORY sirijitti panngoen

    THANKING YOU FOR A GREAT TOPIC.
    SIRIJITTI PANNGOEN
    THAILAND

  • heather malcolm

    Shashi Tharoor is an inspiration

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