Sunday, March 30, 2008


Shashi Tharoor was at our university yesterday for a talk. There are three self-generated axioms in his talk which are quite evident:
1. Shashi Tharoor cannot stop praising India, and like many others these days, muses a lot on how we can close in on the "gap with China".
2. Shashi Tharoor keeps on saying "The cliche that India is a land of paradoxes is a cliche because it is so true" so many times that his statement becomes cliche.
3. Shashi Tharoor lists some obvious problems that India has but offers no insightful solutions or even inspired guesses except for saying "This situation needs to change"

First, Mr. Tharoor's fulsome praise. Now I love my country too, but apparently Mr. Tharoor rarely follows one of his own favourite quotes; that whatever you can say about India, the opposite is also true. There are few things you can lavishly praise about India which do not need to be qualified, and this is not even a gloomy outlook on the country's present but a testament to the very complexity of the country which Mr. Tharoor keeps on noting. And among the things you can unabashedly praise are unfortunately some rather trivial ones; Mr. Tharoor could not tire praising Bollywood movies and Zee TV soap operas for example. His 5 minute long digression on how even Jihadis in Afghanistan religiously (no pun) watch "Kyun ki saas bhi kabhi bahu thee" at 8.30 every evening may be an affectionately amusing anecdote for Americans who are new to India, but hardly a testament to the country's greatness or global reach. Likewise, his constant focus on how even fishermen and toddy-collectors in India now have cell phones detracts from real achievements; large-scale availability of cell phones can constitute the means but not the end to progress. In short, Mr. Tharoor's praise for India, while not unwarranted is not exactly very consequential, and I shudder when it comes dangerously close to reminding me of those outwardly mobile Indian yuppies for whom malls, cheap electronic goods and yes, the latest cell phone models are all emblematic of real "progress".

Moving on to China, One of Nehru's great follies in my opinion was to underestimate China. Contemporary Nehruvites seems to try making up for Nehru's shortcoming in a strange way; by going to the other extreme and obsessing about how India needs to "catch up" with China. Just like these other distinguished members of the intelligentsia, Mr. Tharoor could not stop noting how the wealth of India's top four billionaires surpasses that of China's top ten richest people, or how cell-phone (again) sales in India vastly top those in China. The comparison is not only inconsequential but not exactly a matter of pride. What does it exactly indicate? How does it add insight to serious comparison between the two countries? Shouldn't Mr. Tharoor talk about the freedom of the press and freedom on the Internet that make up a significant difference between our two countries?

On the other hand, what about those crucial matters where China is orders of magnitude ahead of India, matters which can make or break a country? Amartya Sen in his wonderfully insightful book "Development as Freedom" talks about the crucial difference between the two countries when it comes to basic infrastructure like primary education and healthcare. China has overtaken India in many ways because of vastly improved basic infrastructure that was already in place at the beginning of market liberalisation. Why couldn't Mr. Tharoor focus on this? Why couldn't he focus on the fact that the Indian government is not making primary education available and easy for the lower castes, thus actually foiling their chances for personal advancement? You have to be fair when you compare India and China; you cannot just obsess about how India can "overtake" China by establishing more Nehru Centers around the world or by producing more billionaires, as Tharoor contends.

And finally, about the paradoxes and problems. Mr. Tharoor talked about a lot about India's multicultural traditions, its secular history and respect for disagreement. This is becoming sort of cliche now, even if it's true. And yet he did not talk about the very real personal freedom in India that regularly comes under attack, largely by the government, and is not allowed to flourish. Even today, the government finds it prudent to intrude upon or at least encourage criticism of our private lives, how women dress, what they say (Sania Mirza: check), sexual preferences, what goes in the bedroom and which celebrity kisses which other celebrity. Tharoor did focus on Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists' extreme intolerance toward pre-marital relationships or Valentine's Day celebrations, but again, these transgressions constitute a minor component of a nationwide intolerance toward private individual matters by the government. While libertarians are screaming themselves hoarse about constant violations of individual preferences and freedom by the government in small and big ways, Tharoor limits himself to talking about Valentine's Day curbs and M. F. Hussain's exile, which although deplorable and shameful, neglect the bigger picture.

So it was that Mr. Tharoor talked for almost two hours after which there was no time for questions and he himself admitted that he got "carried away". My friend accurately quipped that half of the talk was all smoke and mirrors. At the end, I thought that Mr. Tharoor is actually in love with the concept of India rather than India itself. But having said all of the above, I must say that Mr. Tharoor is a charming man and an enthusiastic public speaker, someone who appreciates language and maintains a good command over it. His talk may have been trite and rather superficial, but at least he made it entertaining by injecting jokes and anecdotes which even if inconsequential were fun. And I would rather sit through an entertaining talk with which I completely disagree, rather than a dull talk where I am nodding in agreement. So I am glad I went to this one.

Note: Middle Stage has already accurately nailed Mr. Tharoor's banality in a review of his book.

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Anonymous Pooja said...

I've only ever read Mr. Tharoor's articles and I agree with you about his enthusiastic love for the concept of India, rather than India itself.

Excellent observation about the upwardly mobile Indians' obsession with malls and cell phones as a sign of progress!

One thing: What's 'tawdy'??

2:21 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Haha...sorry, that was supposed to be "toddy"! Thanks, I will make the changes.

7:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at the same talk and it doesn't seem you were listening very carefully. For instance, Tharoor most emphatically did NOT celebrate India's billionaires -- he pointed out that the Indian press had made much of the fact that the top four were worth more than China's richest forty (not ten, as you write), but they seemed less keen to write about the 260 million Indians living under the poverty line. He talked about farmer suicides, AIDS sufferers, the blind; he celebrated the free press, the human rights orhanizations, the NGOs fighting for social justice. Your criticisms imply he did no such thing. This is palpably unfair.

At no stage did I ever hear him talk about "catching up" with China -- and his talk was videotaped, so we can see who was listening more attentively.

Shashi Tharoor is the finest speaker I have heard in a long time, combining intelligence, erudition and wit. It's a pity you approached his talk with blinkers on. And a deaf ear.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Ok, so let's talk about the points you raised one by one.

1. Billionaires: I don't recall him talking about the press in this context. It did not seem like he was condemning the fact that the press had made a lot of the "billionaire excess" that we have. On the other hand, I remember him stressing that we had more billionaires in the list than even the US. Under our circumstances, I could care less if we had more than all countries put together.

2. He did mention farmer suicides, AIDS sufferers and the about 30 seconds. His roll-call of NGOs and human rights organizations was similarly swift and he decidedly spent more time on Bollywood than these matters.

3. He did not use the exact phrase "catching up". That did not mean he did not imply it. The one-upmanship attitude was pretty obvious in his constant comparisons; perhaps he was half-joking, bit it came across as kind of silly. You don't always have to spell out everything exactly to emphasize its importance.

The real point in my article, which based on your comments I doubt you understood, is that while he mentioned some important things, the time he spent on them was much less than the time spent on billionaires, Bollywood and cell phones. I agree that he is quite witty and that he has a fair knowledge of history, philosophy and current affairs; probably not too surprising given his previous UN position. But all these qualities don't necessarily add up to relevant perspectives.

And I might also say that my opinions were shared by a couple of people that I met later. Perhaps we all must have decided to collectively wear blinkers that day.

5:58 PM  
Blogger sumz said...

Am really not sure how I ended up in this blog. But because I was an admirer of Shashi Tharoor, I couldnt help but read through it.

I agree with a part of your view. Tharoor is indeed an out and out diplomat in the true sense of the word. That he doesn't do much to bring out the major issues that are prevalent but keeps walking along the sidelines. But couldn't help noticing how you mentioned mobile phones as being insignificant. That is indeed a revolution that all classes of people do have such a facility at their hands. It is indeed such a blessing to the common fish mongers, vegetable sellers the actual grass roots.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I do think that mobile phones are very significant. All I am saying is that in the absence of a sound and fair political and social system, they can do only so much good. For example Tharoor quoted the fact fishermen who have mobile phones can call and find out the rates of fish in markets along the coast. But I wonder if all of them are free to quote their own price in a free market of fish. Don't get me wrong; I don't think the things he mentioned are not important. What I am criticizing really is his style, where he sort of gets carried away with certain less important and superficial things.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Deepa said...

I must admit, I am rather partial to Shashi Tharoor. I do agree that some of his articles in the TOI were somewhat superficial but then I saw him on The Colbert Report.

He managed to hold his own with Steven Colbert and came across as intelligent & well versed. Now that is no mean feat :-)

7:18 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Yep! I definitely agree that he has considerable charm and presence of mind, and I am not even questioning his intent. I think he would be a great person to have as a friend.

9:31 AM  

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