'The triumph of Hindu resurgence would mark the end of India'
With a long tenure at the United Nations, including his present position as executive assistant to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Shashi Tharoor has had an uniquely international vantage point. The acclaimed author of The Great Indian Novel and Show Business, returns to political and social analysis with India: Midnight to Millennium.
Advance praise for the book have already started coming in. Professor Amartya
Sen of Harvard in the New York Review of Books, has
called it "well-balanced, informative and highly readable."
The Library Journal says it is "Superbly written, this book will be useful to
anyone interested in modern India."
Tharoor's strong, and sometimes provocative views on the progress
or lack thereof of the Indian enterprise make for an interesting
read, especially for diaspora Indians. In a telephonic conversation from New York, he spoke to Rajeev Srinivasan on his assessment of India in its 50th year.
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 me concentrate on
the whole process of reflection and debate about 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 US, but
this book gave me the opportunity to develop my thoughts more
fully. The book will appear both in India and the US on August
Who is your audience? As someone of the same generation as
you, I find many of your thoughts in 'India' articulate my own
feelings, as in The Great Indian Novel?
I wrote it for Indians like myself. In both my fiction and my
nonfiction work, 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 such 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. Of course, so 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 various major debates
going on in India at this time: bread versus freedom,
centralization versus federalism, pluralism versus fundamentalism, and
globalization versus self-reliance. But isn't there another, that
cuts to the core of the ills of society, that of morality versus
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
criminalisation 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 politics, to the caste structures
underpinning society, and to the socialist consensus driving
economic policy. Any one of these three changes would be
significant enough to send political scientists scurrying to
their keyboards; all three occurring simultaneously point to a
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
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 the remarkable levels of food
production and distribution that enabled the country to
withstand a drought in 1987 which would have cast a spectre 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 centre 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 organisations are active in
defending human rights, promoting conservation, fighting caste
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
twenty-two months of autocratic rule during a state of
Emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, a
multi-party democracy -- freewheeling, rumbustious, often corrupt
and sometimes inefficient, perhaps, 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.