Arguably, one of India’s most astute, charismatic and brilliant minds, Dr Shashi Tharoor is a former international civil servant, public intellectual, bestselling author, politician and commentator.
A former UN Under Secretary-General, and former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Dr Tharoor is considered a Goliath for his intellectual prowess.
As a Member of Parliament for the Indian National Congress, he has represented Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala since 2009. A passionate patriot, he is known for his liberal and pluralistic views of nationhood and his strident defence of the same.
In his former career at the United Nations, he worked with peacekeeping and refugees and administered at the highest level, serving as Under Secretary-General under KofiAnan.
In the 2006 run for the United Nations Secretary-General, Dr Tharoor came second losing out to Ban Ki-Moon. Before joining politics, Dr Tharoor also served on the boards of several renowned organizations including the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the Aspen Institute, American India Foundation and others.
Dr Tharoor has served as an International Adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. He was also a Fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities and served on the Advisory Council of the Hague Institute for International Justice.
A graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Dr Tharoor is the youngest person to receive a doctorate in the history of the school. An award-winning author of both fiction and non-fiction, Dr Tharoor has contributed to the national conversation in India and acted as a voice of conscience on a number of crucial issues. Dr Shashi Tharoor is in Kuwait for the Anniversary celebration of the Indian Business and Professional Council Kuwait, a non-profit voluntary association of leading members of the Indian business community, senior corporate executives and professionals from the private sector and also senior executives of Indian public sector undertakings in Kuwait, which was held at the Radisson Blu on Oct 28.
Here, in an exclusive conversation with Arab Times, Dr Shashi Tharoor speaks on a wide range of issues including his years with the United Nations, his journey in politics, his values and ideals in public life, and his conviction that India matters to the world, and that he would like to make a positive difference in its ability to do so.
AT: What inspired you to pursue a career in international diplomacy, and how fulfilling was your career as a diplomat?
Dr Tharoor: I have always been attracted to the idea of public service and a career with the United Nations (that lasted nearly three decades) offered me a unique opportunity to fulfil this on a global stage. Whether it was during my time in refugee work in Singapore at the height of the Vietnamese “boat people” crisis, or in peace-keeping in the former Yugoslavia during the civil war there, or even during my tenure leading the UN’s communications and public information department, I believe that in my own way I was able to bring about a positive change and make a difference in the lives of the people we served. That has been in itself an immensely rewarding experience.
AT: During your years in the United Nations, one of the many issues you worked on was the problem of illegal migrants. In the context of what is happening in Syria, and the influx of refugees into neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Jordan where they are herded into temporary camps, and with countries closing their borders to them – do you think the crisis could be handled better?
Dr Tharoor: I do think that the nations of the world have a moral imperative to provide a safe haven and a support system for refugees who have been forced to leave their original countries due to natural calamities and manmade conflict. Refugees at the end of the day are not the same as ‘illegal migrants’. They are fleeing persecution and countries have a strong humanitarian duty towards providing sanctuary to these victims. In turn, countries that can afford it have a moral duty to help the countries of first refuge cope with the additional burdens placed on them by the refugee influx. Influxes like the ones we are seeing in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, to name a few, are certainly complex and challenging situations but just as we have seen in similar cases before, if our societies can come together, reject their prejudices associated with refugees and work in collaboration, then we can easily find the resources and support systems to provide each fleeing refugee a fresh start.
AT: You spearheaded the first-ever UN seminar on Islamophobia after the September 11 attacks – Was it in anticipation of what was to follow later, later, and how was the response?
Dr Tharoor: The seminar was the second conference of a series that my department, the United Nations’ Department of Communication and Publication Information had started, on my initiative, on the theme ‘ Unlearning Intolerance’. Given the climate of hostility and prejudice that came in the wake of the Sept 11 attacks, this was certainly a much-needed intervention. The larger point, which I stressed in my own speech, was that even though prejudice has always existed among religious and social communities of the world, there has always historically been a healthy cross-fertilisation and cooperation between cultures, religions and peoples. Ultimately, it was important to recognise (especially following the attacks) that each one of us has many identities and sometimes, religion obliges us to deny the truth about our own complexity by obliterating the multiplicity inherent in our identities. And yet, if one could accept the truth that each individual had multiple identities – that one could be a good Muslim, a good Jordanian, a good Arab and a good human being all at once – and that each of these identities could live in harmony with the others, then intolerance might be resisted more effectively. The response at the time was positive, and eventually, the UN embarked on a “Dialogue of Civilizations” to take this approach farther.
AT: How disappointed were you on losing out to Ban Ki-Moon in the race for the leadership of the United Nations?
Dr Tharoor: Of course, I was naturally disappointed. We had put together a well-directed and spirited campaign and to come tantalisingly short of the final mark (by literally two votes in the first ballot, one of which turned out to be a veto) was not initially easy to come to terms with. But when some doors close, others open and ultimately, this episode paved the way for my career in Indian politics, which has been immensely challenging and often rewarding.
AT: What brought you to politics? It is not an easy profession, especially for an academic and an intellectual like you. Did life as a politician take you by surprise? Do you, at times, feel disillusioned?
Dr Tharoor: As I mentioned previously, public service has always had a different kind of appeal to me personally. Following my departure from the UN, while I briefly took up a career in the private sector, the “bottom line” proved to be an insufficient motivator and at the same time, when the possibility of an entry into Indian politics opened up, I was instantly attracted to the idea of getting back into public service again. And the journey since has been hugely interesting and offered much satisfaction. There is an immense sense of satisfaction that one tends to get knowing that your actions could help make a difference in real human beings’ lives. Years before coming back to India for good, I remarked to an interviewer that “India matters to me and I would like to matter to India”. Politics has given me the chance to fulfil that wish. I believe that in the time I have served as a Member of Parliament, a Minister in the Government and in other public positions, I have, in my own little way, managed to effect a certain positive change, and that has been immensely gratifying. In addition, as a public intellectual, I have been able to able to contribute to the national conversation on a number of vital issues crucial for the evolution of the country. Of course there have been trials and challenges along the way and plenty of unsavoury moments where one has felt unfairly attacked or targeted which, in turn, could easily make one feel jaded about staying in politics. But ultimately, I remain committed to my role as the MP for Thiruvananthapuram and the values and convictions that I have always affirmed, and which I have had the opportunity to reiterate and fight for at the national stage. Ultimately the incredible support that I have received from the people I have represented for three consecutive terms at the national stage has always proven to be a great motivator to keep me going.
AT: What are the values and ideals you have tried to promote through your public life?
Dr Tharoor: There are many, but to highlight a few: I am a passionate patriot who chose to return to India despite having lived most of my adult life abroad and enjoyed many comfortable options abroad. I believe that India matters to the world, and I would like to make a positive difference in its ability to do so. At the same time, I have also worked to promote the ideals of pluralism, of acceptance of difference, of harmony between our diverse communities and safeguarding our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, particularly for the vulnerable and marginalised sections of our society. As for the way I strive to go about all this, a strong moral and ethical approach has always been at the centre of my actions and this has also been translated into my duties and responsibilities in public life. Honesty and transparency are equally important for me, particularly as a representative of the people, and I have always worked to ensure this at all levels of my work and within my team, whether in Delhi or in Thiruvananthapuram.
AT: Unlike most politicians, you do not believe in blind conformism to party politics, and for that, you have paid a price at different stages in your career – Any regrets on your part?
Dr Tharoor: None at all. I was brought up in a household where I was free to express my convictions and to affirm these convictions – and to do so when it would often be easier to stay silent. In a democracy, speaking up matters. Yes, some of my forthright views have resulted in challenging times but when I look back there is always a great degree of comfort and strength one derives in knowing that you have not compromised on your beliefs in the face of the pressure to conform.
AT: In your book ‘Why I Am a Hindu’ you explore the concepts and practices of Hinduism. How worried are you about the bigoted form of Hinduism on the rise in India?
Dr Tharoor: The rise of Hindutva, which is a narrow minded and exclusionary political doctrine (that has little to do with Hinduism in itself) is certainly worrying. But I do believe there are enough like-minded Hindus like me who do not subscribe to this distorted ideology, and who will continue to do everything we can to resist the advances of those who try and promote this chauvinistic doctrine and its petty bigotry.
AT: What is the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva and how connected is Hindutva to the far right?
Dr Tharoor: I think one of the most remarkable aspects of Hinduism, which I personally deeply admire and reiterate within my new book The Hindu Way: An Introduction to Hinduism, is that while versions of the faith come with their own prescriptions and proscriptions, there is no one universal way or regime that Hinduism requires every believer to subscribe to. The faith is not a monolith – you are free to choose what set of beliefs you believe in, which manifestations of the divine you choose to worship and on what days, which of multiple sacred books to choose from, what convictions you would like to hold dear, and ultimately, are equally free to reject any assumptions or requirements that do not sit well with your worldview. In stark contrast, what the present ruling dispensation and their allies propagate through the Hindutva project is not Hinduism in any true sense. It is an exercise in identity politics of the pettiest kind. As the great Swami Vivekananda memorably said, true Hinduism is not just about tolerance. Rather it is about acceptance, which includes acceptance of difference, both within the faith and of other faiths – and this is a message they ignore since they only care about political gains from “Hindu consolidation”.
AT: The voice of dissent is being silenced as we saw in the case of Gauri Lankesh, and more recently, the sedition FIRs against 49 celebrities in India. How do we justify this to the future generation of Indians? And do you see any redressal?
Dr Tharoor: As a cautious optimist, I do not think that hope is lost for the future of the country. I remain confi- dent that we can preserve India’s secular and pluralistic heritage. For one, I can feel a strong sense of disillusionment with the current ruling party’s attempt to polarise Indian society, a project that I am confident will ultimately fail. And second, people are starting to wake up and ask themselves whether this is the kind of India they want for them and their children and they are increasingly finding out that the answer to that question is a resounding no. And finally, with the tools that we have in our democracy – a resilient (if sometimes intimidated) press, vibrant social media and alternate means of information dissemination, plus institutions of checks and balances like our judiciary – I believe that we can ultimately prevent these forces completely taking over and transforming our society.
By Chaitali B. Roy
Special to the Arab Times