SHASHI THAROOR: IN LOVE WITH THE CONCEPT OF INDIA
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.