Shashi Tharoor, acclaimed author of “The Great Indian Novel” and “Show Business,” returns to political and social analysis with his latest book, “India: Midnight to Millennium.”
Tharoor has a uniquely international vantage point in his analysis because of his long tenure at the United Nations, including his current position as Executive Assistant to the U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan.
His strong and sometimes provocative views on the progress—or lack thereof of—the Indian enterprise make for an interesting read, especially for Indian-Americans. Advance praise for the book has begun to come in. Amartya Sen of Harvard, writing in the New York Review of Books, has called it “well-balanced, informative, and highly readable.” publisher’s Weekly calls it “a literate and affecting panorama of the world’s largest democracy.” Library Journal said. “Superbly written, this book will be useful to anyone interested in modern India.”
Shashi Tharoor spoke with me by phone from New York.
What prompted the writing of the book?
Quite literally, I was talked into it over lunch by David Davidar of Penguin India. He thought we needed a book that explored what Independence really meant, and he said he couldn’t think of anyone better to do it. This was in January 1996. The challenge, the flattery (laughs), and the deadline—it had to be completed by the end of 1996—helped concentrate my mind on the whole process of reflection and debate around the 50th anniversary of India’s Independence
But the book really is the outcome of almost a decade of thinking and writing. I have been reflecting constantly on these issues in columns, op-eds, interviews, and occasional addresses to groups of Indians, especially after Ayodhya. Several of my ideas here have appeared previously in a variety of publications in India and the U.S., but this book gave me the opportunity to develop my thoughts more fully. The book will appear both in India and in the U.S. on August 15th, 1997.
Who is your audience? As someone of the same generation as you, I find many of your thoughts in articulate my own feelings, as they did in “The Great Indian Novel.”
I wrote it for Indians like myself. In both my fiction and my non-fiction, I am glad to note I seem to have struck a chord with Indians both in India and amongst those settled abroad. I am always pleasantly surprised at the amount of interest in India that people have, both those who grew up there, and those who grew up abroad. Of course, there is also a smaller audience of non-Indians who are Interested in India, too. But what I have written is not a guidebook to India: it assumes a level of interest and engagement. You will find some explanations that Indian readers may think unnecessary, including a glossary, but this was in the interests of having a uniform text around the world.
You have structured the book around major debates going on in India at this time: bread vs freedom, centralization vs federalism, pluralism vs fundamentalism, and globalization vs self-reliance. But isn’t there another, that cuts into the core of the ills of society, that of morality vs hypocrisy?
Certainly, but I would argue that the issue of morality is not separate from these four debates, but that it underlies and influences all of them. The issues I have identified pose dilemmas for which the only solutions must have moral underpinnings. In discussing democracy, for instance, I raise my concerns about corruption and about the increasing criminalization of politics in our country.
There is no doubt that India is undergoing a period of ferment in which profound challenges have arisen to the secular assumptions of Indian polities, to the caste structures underpinning society, and to the socialist consensus driving economic policy. Anyone of these three changes would be significant enough to send political scientists scurrying to their keyboards; all three occurring simultaneously point to a dramatic transformation.
Many observers point to the bad news coming out of India—riots, corruption, the rise and fall of governments, uncertainties on economic policies, yet you seem quite upbeat about India.
Yes, there’s a lot of bad news, and my book doesn’t gloss over it. But at the same time, the bad news is offset by ample evidence of good. There are remarkable levels of food production and distribution that enabled the country to withstand a drought in 1987 which could of cast the specter of famine across any other developing country. Ten years later, India boasts a record harvest, exceeding its own targets. India has conquered starvation (though not yet hunger).
There is the profusion of skilled workers, talented professionals, inventive technicians, and able managers at all levels of Indian industry. There is the entrepreneurial spirit which, when unshackled at last, has begun to prove a remarkable engine of growth. There is the very stability of the economy—for decades a vehicle of slow but steady growth—which suggests a capacity to absorb and transcend the problems that now beset it.
There is even the immense size of the country, which has converted serious insurgencies into “local- problems” leaving most of the rest of India unaffected and ensuring that the center holds even when things fall apart on the periphery.
Corruption is being tackled by an activist judiciary and by energetic investigative agencies that have not hesitated to indict the most powerful Indian politicians. The press is free, lively, irreverent, disdainful of sacred cows. Non-governmental organizations are active in defending human rights, promoting conservation, fighting caste injustice.
Above all, there is the flawed miracle of Indian democracy itself. At a time when most developing countries opted for authoritarian models of government to promote nation building and to direct development, India chose to be a multi-party democracy. And despite many trials and tribulations, including 22 months of autocratic rule during a “State of Emergency’ declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975, a multi-party democracy-freewheeling, rambunctious, often corrupt and sometimes inefficient, but nonetheless flourishing- India has remained. The system has successfully allowed the expression of the competing claims of the various forces in Indian society, with several peaceful changes of government through the ballot box.
India’s democracy helps to acknowledge and accommodate the various identities of its multifaceted population. Indians are comfortable with multiple identities and multiple loyalties, all coming together in allegiance to a larger idea of India, an India which safeguards the common space available to each identity, an India that remains safe for diversity.
You seem enamored of Indian diversity, but many would argue that our diversity is a source of division rather than strength.
The point about Indian diversity is that you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite, and a good Indian all at once. Our founding fathers wrote a constitution for a dream; we have given passports to our ideals. Where Freudians note the distinctions that arise out of “the narcissm of minor differences,” in India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. If America is a melting pot, then to me India is a thalli, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.
For me, what is precious about India is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, costume, and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus. That consensus is around the simple principle that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree—except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. The reason India has survived all the stresses and strains that have beset it for 50 years, and that led so many to predict its imminent disintegration, is that it maintained consensus on how to manage without consensus.
You seem to have strong views on secularism, and in particular on Hinduism versus Hindutva.
My views on the topic are not easy to summarize in that I approach the debate as a believing Hindu, but one who sees the fundamentals of the faith quite differently from the so-called “fundamentalists.” In particular, I believe in the eclectic, inclusive, tolerant Hinduism that Vivekananda preached—which is open to ideas of all sorts. On the one hand, I see the votaries of “Hindutva” articulating a narrow, exclusive, doctrinaire Hinduism which I find hard to reconcile with Vivekanada’s Hinduism. On the other hand, I cannot accept those secularists who would make the state hostage to the most obscurantist among the minorities.
The Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992-93 are less than five years old. Yet recent trends suggest that economic liberalization and political democracy will make sectarianism and bigotry unviable. Market forces militate against fundamentalisms; the rupee, though not quite yet as almighty as the dollar, does not recognize the faith of the man making or spending it. Many a Hindu businessman depends for his profits on a Muslim worker, or tailor, or weaver, who in turn depends on the Hindu for his employment; they thus develop a vested interest in keeping each other safe. A riot against the Muslim artisans of the Hindu sacred city of Varanasi would deprive Hindus of the traditional masks and paraphernalia required for the annual Ram Lila; without these industrious and experienced Muslim hands. Varanasi Hindus could not celebrate their own religious epic.
In any case, Hinduism is a civilization, not a dogma. Hindu resurgence is the mirror image of the Muslim communalism that partitioned the country in 1947; its rhetoric echoes the bigotry that India was constructed to reject. Its triumph would mark the end of India, and that, I am convinced, Indians will not let happen.
You use the term “muddling through,” not unaffectionately, to describe the Indian enterprise.
That is not an inappropriate term in the Indian context. India has never come across as a nation with a single-minded, dedicated purpose. It is so large and diffuse and diverse it is sometimes in harmony and sometimes in disharmony. It takes three steps forward, and two steps back. Policies are implemented only after much debate, argument, side-tracking. But in the end, the country comes out all right. That is what I mean by “muddling through.”
Don’t you think there is a greater feeling of India as a nation now? When I go to India, I see bumper-stickers saying “I love India.”
Very much so, but there is a paradox.
There is a great deal of nationalist sentiment. But there is also much more consciousness of casteism and regionalism. Especially casteism. In the past, it was not respectable for politicians to appeal to caste or religion overtly, but today explicitly sectarian campaigns are conducted. But in parallel, there has been a genuine drawing together, and a pan-Indian culture. For example, North Indian clerks going to a dhaba after work eat masala dosas as easily as they would chhole bature. While politicians focus on what divides us, in a cultural sense there seems to be less dividing us than there used to be.
But isn’t casteism in some ways a symptom of the coming of age of the hitherto depressed groups, as you point out in your chapter on the scheduled caste youngster who makes good?
You could in one sense say this is a vindication of political democracy. With freedom, you can begin to deliver bread to those at the back of the queue.
After Independence, the underprivileged have been if not exactly privileged looked upon more kindly by the state Democracy has worked the extent to which there is awareness of caste is an indication of this people have been forced into awareness. partly because of the thorough-going reform instituted by affirmative action laws in India, which have been more successful than the much narrower reforms attempted In the U.S People wield power in India today who could not have dreamt of such power 30 years ago. That is an example of how democracy has transformed the country.
On the other hand, caste has also become a special interest group, born of economic necessity, perhaps?
It is true, of course, that people are mobilizing for their share of an economic pie which hasn’t grown much in the first four and a half decades after Independence With slow economic growth and rapid population growth there is less and less to distribute I have al ways had my doubts about the prevailing Fabian socialist orthodoxy. As a student in Delhi, I must have been the only Swatantra Party supporter around (laughs). They seemed to have economic ideas that made more sense than the government’s faith in state control of the “commanding heights” of the economy.
Isn’t history behind out general animosity towards foreigners and our desire for self-reliance?
History sometimes teaches us the wrong lessons. Because of colonialism and the East India Company, which came to trade but stayed on to rule, we became suspicious of every foreigner with a briefcase. But there were also opportunities we could have gained from foreigners, as elsewhere in Asia. Foreign Investment could have created jobs, reduced poverty.
The purpose of any governmental policy should be to ensure the well-being of the people. India’s economic policies haven’t quite done that 40% of the population linger just above destitution, below a poverty line that has been drawn just this side of the funeral pyre. Other Asian countries like China, Korea, and Malaysia have managed to improve themselves through the judicious use of foreign Investment. If India’s rules hadn’t been so self-righteous, perhaps ordinary Indians would have been better off. On the other hand, one must acknowledge that the government has done whatever it has in the face of innumerable challenges.
Granta editor Ian jack contends that no nation has ever simultaneously done the following: grow its economy rapidly, distribute its wealth equitably, and function as a democracy. India is attempting to do all three.
That is not particularly good history. The U S itself is a good counter-example, although over a much longer period, though it is true that blacks were excluded from democracy. Over perhaps 120 years the U.S. has pulled off all three. Other examples might exist, for example, Germany and Japan after the Second World War.
But the comment does define the scale of the challenge. Which of the three would you rather suspend? All three are interdependent. India has embarked on a course towards all three now: previously, growth was held to be unimportant, now we see we need it to build a future.
In the economic race, India seems to be falling behind others such as China.
China has done remarkably well, attracting 40% of all the private sector investment in the world today, much of it from the Chinese diaspora, though also from its many fans among multinationals. India is also beginning to benefit from its diaspora. Indian-Americans are beginning to matter in America even though some are sectarian as well. It is an effective community, of greater significance than immigrants from comparable countries.
You seem to place much significance on wnat you call the “Malayali Miracle” -the fact that they have succeeded in creating a relatively equitable society.
Malayalis have been outward-looking for a long time. For example, there is a Nair-san restaurant on the Ginza in Tokyo; there is a profusion of Malayalis around India, as clericalor professional workers, employed by multinationals and Indian business houses. Keralites emigrate for work. But more interestingly, Kerala is an example of what a di verse society can achieve. There is little correlation between background and power. Various groups many religions and castes live in comparative harmony. In Kerala, none of the things that have been serious disabilities in the rest of the country seem to matter: being a woman, being of low caste, being poor, and so on. The celebrated “Euro-communism” in fact worked earlier as Kerala’s IndoCommunism; literacy, education, better wages, a greater consciousness of workers’ rights. Of course, Kerala is not perfect, but they have done a pretty good job.
You seem to be inclined to favor greater decentralization. Isn’t there a danger that could break up the country?
There is much to be said for “de-centering Delhi”; It is a refreshing change for India already, with the regional parties in the United Front Government, to see the national capital in the hands of those whose roots are in the distant soil and not in the federal ministries. At the same time, there is little risk of fragmentation because of the continuing role of the national civil services, the “steel frame” of the government. Though regionalist decentralization could be dangerous, the devolution of power-accepting [the premise] that answers to every question in Dharwar are not necessarily found in Delhi can strengthen democracy rather than dilute it.
In a nutshell, what is your vision for the future of India? How do you see the debates you have described working out?
The future of India lies in the hands of Indians. I believe they will sustain an India open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world, wedded to the pluralism that is India’s greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfill the creative energies of its people. Such an India can make the 21st century her own.
Any closing thoughts?
I hope what I have to say echoes many of their own thoughts. I believe strongly that the kind of society India has tried to create in the last 50 years – pluralist, democratic, all-inclusive, and adaptable—is well worth celebrating. Our nationalism is not one of language, or race, or blood; our founding fathers gave passports to their ideals. Let us try to live up to them in the next 50.