I should have joined politics at the age of 40: Shashi Tharoor


South Block might almost be an architectural metaphor for Shashi Tharoor, PhD, international diplomat for 31 years, barely six months old in Indian politics and minister of state for external affairs. The building was designed by British architect Herbert Baker using Mughal and Rajputana styles. So too Dr Tharoor, balancing flag-waving with internationalism. As his government completed 100 days in office, he spoke to Rashmee Roshan Lall. Excerpts from the interview.

100 days of your government. 100 days as a first-time MP. Not quite 100 days in office for you personally. How hard has it been to be the new kid on the block?

It’s been hugely challenging but tremendously exciting as well. But the 100-day headline doesn’t really apply to either of my two hats – at the ministry of external affairs we deal with issues by and large that can’t – and shouldn’t – be solved in a 100 days and similarly, the MP of Thiruvananthapuram has a permanent job and there are a number of long-term things I need to get done, for which I can best initiate action in a 100 days.

But 100 days has been a useful spur to our activities. In fact I was very struck that the first day I came to Delhi as an elected MP, there was a gathering in the Central Hall of Parliament of the Congress Parliamentary Party and the Prime Minister made a wonderful comment. It stuck in my mind and it was when he said that we must never forget that we have won an enormous amount of support from the young voters and we must respect ‘the impatience of the young’. I love that phrase because all my life I’ve been dogged with the charge of being too impatient to get things done and here now was my Prime Minister saying impatience is a good thing. So we’ve all hit the ground running in the first 100 days.

You still feel you can claim ‘the impatience of the young’ at 53?

No I’m not considering myself young. I rather deplore the fact that India is the only country where at the age of 53, with 31 years of international experience behind me, I’m treated as young. I find myself seated with all the 20-somethings and 30-somethings and all of this is all very nice but the fact is yes, that my sideburns are turning grey and I’m starting to feel the weight of all those years. But yes, impatience is an attractive quality because the problems of our country are so urgent that to dawdle over them would be very unwise.

What would you say you’ve personally achieved as minister of state for external affairs, something that only a man of your international experience, bureaucratic skills and wide multicultural experience would have been able to do?

I wouldn’t say that no one else could have done because that would be presumptuous and probably inaccurate. In the first 100 days, there are 3 or 4 things that I’ve set out to do in the terms of my remit. Don’t forget that I’m one of two ministers of state and I’m not the external affairs minister.

Just to interrupt, the other minister of state is considered rather invisible?

I don’t want to get sidetracked. But as a minister, within the areas of my competence, I’ve done a lot to shake up our passport offices. I consider them very important because they are the face of the ministry to the public in India. Otherwise, the ministry essentially operates abroad and the Indian public doesn’t engage with it except when it comes to passports. I’ve visited a number of passport offices, already had one meeting of every single passport office from the south and the west and there’s going to be another one for the north and the east next month. We’ve started streamlining procedures and getting best practice demonstrations…we’re trying to change the culture.

Where do you think this ranks in the general scheme of things for this country? Madhavrao Scindia’s computerization of railway ticket reservation? Rajiv Gandhi bringing the computer into government offices?

Those were epochal changes. This is doing what needs to be done better. I’m not going to make grandiose claims for this but we are being responsive to the public’s concerns. I’ve also been trying to take the entire discourse on foreign policy out to the public – systematically making speeches to university audiences, business schools, newspaper associations about the need for India to be more and better engaged with the world – from more and better courses on international relations studies to better coverage of coverage of world affairs in our newspapers. I see this as very much part of the minister’s job – bringing foreign policy home to the Indian public and telling it this matters to you because it affects your life. You had better care. This has been an important aspect of my perception of my role and it has been encouraged by the Prime Minister.

I have also attended the Indian Ocean Rim Countries Association (IORCA) and Conference of Democracies, organizations where we have not traditionally been very active.

Was it your decision to go?

The minister asked me to go. But once I went there, I realized what an extraordinary gem we had of a body that spanned three continents, has only a few members and is small and manageable but at the same time brings together Singapore and Saudi Arabia, South Africa and India, Australia and Iran, all united by the fact that our shores are washed by the waters of the Indian Ocean. I’m not knocking non-alignment but I think we are now in the era of multi-alignment.

Do you mean that no Indian minister ever gone to these forums?

Of course they have but the spirit of our approach in recent years has been different.

You talk of multi-alignment, multi-lateralism, but isn’t it a bit of a paradox – your apparent flag-waving and your internationalism?

I’m proudly wearing the (tiranga) pin. We are still an international system built on a platform of sovereign nation-states. We are not thinking about global government but global governance. It took India 200 years to win sovereignty, we’re not about to surrender it to anybody. Equally, we want to leverage our sovereignty in partnership with others. So internationalism is necessary but doing it on the bedrock of being proud to be India. Diplomacy is not a running comment on world affairs, it is a sustained engagement with the rest of the globe to bring benefits to our people.

When the whole Jaswant Singh and Jinnah book controversy broke, many thought you deliberately drew attention to yourself, saying oh I wrote this controversial thing about Sonia Gandhi in 1991.

I did not say that. What I said was no one should be expelled for writing a book.

But you did mention your previous comment on Sonia Gandhi

Thereafter, when people wrote articles on it.

But you did say you’d been forthright about Sonia Gandhi in the past?

I simply said that I’d been critical of the Congress Party in the past.

And of Sonia Gandhi?

Well, not exactly. That’s been misunderstood. It was about Sonia Gandhi in 1991. the argument that Sonia Gandhi was not prepared to be Prime Minister in 1991 is one that after all, is after all, borne out by her own decisions at the time because Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister.

Sure, but in our rather ossified system, isn’t it foolhardy to talk about issues to do with the Gandhi Nehru family and still expect to be something and someone in a Congress government and Congress politics?

Look, all I can say is I don’t think I’d be sitting here were it not for the Congress president deciding I was a worthy nominee.

So do you have a special relationship with the Gandhi family?

I have no particular special relationship. I’ve known and dealt with the Congress president when I was outside politics and indeed outside India and I hope that the respect that I feel for her is reciprocated, but that’s not for me to say. All I do know is that Mrs Gandhi has often spoken to me about my books. Whether she disagrees with them or not, she has read them and that has not prevented her from feeling that I could be an asset to the party and the country.

Your track record suggests you are driven to win – it was only in class VIII that you didn’t come first – what would you define as winning in Indian politics for a man like you, who’s not part of a political dynasty?

The answer is provided by the electorate. I won with a lakh of votes in Thiruvanthapuram.

But what about winning to be right at the top of government?

No, in a country like ours, with its vastness and scale of challenges, victory would be that I could look back on my political career whatever it may be, and say I made a difference by being there.

What space is there, if any, for the intellectual in Indian public life?

There should be more space.

There isn’t any?

Of course there is. The fact that there are people like Jaswant Singh and Arun Shourie in that party, people like myself and many others in our party, who have come in with some credentials that show they can think and write and speak would suggest that there is some space. It would be nice to have more. For eg, Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to bring fresh blood into the Youth Congress, will mean bringing in people who have professional backgrounds. Some like me can legitimately feel we left it this late – I should’ve come in at 40.

But would you accept that such people might be doomed to be political lightweights, perhaps rather like you, doomed to be dependent on Congress High Command largesse?

How would you define a political lightweight? I seem to have won an election with a fairly heavy majority. Is that someone who’s a lightweight?

Would you describe yourself as a political heavyweight then?

No I’m not saying I’m a political heavyweight. I’m very much a political novice but I didn’t choose the appointment route. I chose to prove my political credentials that I had what it took to win votes in a frankly rumbustious democracy. I hope to be an effective MP.

Now’s your cue to tell us what you’ve done for your constituency.

I’ve done a lot of good to the Thiruvanthapuram passport office, I believe. But the concrete things go all the way from development initiatives to specific humanitarian problems to the larger, more ambitious thing of opening up the windows of Thiruvananthapuram to the world, such as twinning with Barcelona. Railway and highway development, the horrifying drinking water problem. You’re electing an MP to be a catalyst.

But what link does Thiruvananthapuram have with Barcelona?

They are very comparable. They are both regional capitals, seaports, both coastal cities, knowledge centres, cultural centres.

Fortunately, you don’t have a Catalan-style problem, as in Barcelona.

No, no We are as proud of our language as they are of Catalan.

20 years ago you said India was the one place Indians can’t do well…

No, I said Indians succeed everywhere in the world except in India. That was before the liberalization of 1991. With this regurgitation of earlier criticism, people should look at the periods covered.

Why are you being defensive?

I am being defensive because it would’ve been hypocritical if I’d been critical of the very government I was joining. What I said was what Rajiv Gandhi said in 1985. As a free independent spirit I’ve had nothing but praise for the UPA led by Sonia Gandhi and the government led by Manmohan Singhji. I don’t want the impression gaining ground that I’m going around acting as some sort of dissenter.

But many Indians might have agreed with you 20 years ago. My question was that no doubt you must’ve changed your mind because you are back here in India?

The India of the last 18 yrs has demonstrated that it’s a place Indians can succeed.

You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t rather pleased with yourself – a reasonably high-profile international diplomat, author and now a government minister despite being a first-time MP. Are you impressed with yourself?

No I’ve never allowed myself the luxury of complacency. There’s so much more to do, there’s absolutely no time to sit back on laurels. The very terms of the question imply that one should look in terms of oneself but I’ve always believed that accomplishment in public service is a reflection of what you’ve been able to do to affect the lives of others.

Rashmee Roshan Lall / World Report