Author Interviews

‘Any Truism About India can be Immediately Contradicted by Another Truism’: Shashi Tharoor

| Updated on: Jan 03, 2022
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The Congress MP and author whose latest book gives a panoramic range of his writings on men, morality, country and more

Congress MP and author Shashi Tharoor’s recent book by Aleph—Pride, Prejudice, and Punditry—presents readers with a collection of his writings on a variety of subjects and styles – poetry, fiction and nonfiction. From politics to cricket to personalities to his Kerala Heritage, the range is varied. In this interview, he talks about India’s pluralism and how both morality and culture are dynamic systems that often interact and influence each other. Excerpts:

You write we are yet to prove wholly worthy of Ambedkar’s legacy. Could you elaborate?

I think Dr Ambedkar’s multifaceted legacy illustrates how far-sighted a leader he was and how much we as a nation must still travel in order to realise the India that he dreamt of and dedicated his life to. For instance, Dr Ambedkar, who lived with the daily reality of caste discrimination, was not convinced that the entrenched practices of traditional Hinduism could ever disappear. In the end, he found a Constitutional solution to remedy the injustices he fought against all his life.

His faith in democracy, which he shared with Jawaharlal Nehru, is also one of his proud legacies to our country. Whereas some saw Ambedkar, with his three-piece suit and formal English, as a westernised exponent of occidental constitutional systems, he was inspired far more by the democratic practices of ancient India, in particular the Buddhist sanghas.

Ambedkar saw in the institutions of Indian democracy that he was helping to create, the best guarantee for the future development and welfare of his own people, the oppressed and marginalised of India. He fought hard to introduce into the Constitution fundamental protections and guarantees of civil liberties for individual citizens in order to end the tyranny of pre-established loyalties and hierarchies.

Ambedkar also convinced the Constituent Assembly that it was not enough to abolish untouchability: what was needed to undo millennia of discrimination and exploitation was a system of affirmative action to uplift the oppressed, including reservations of jobs in the civil services, schools and universities. This gave India the world’s oldest and farthest-reaching affirmative action programme, which guarantees not only equality of opportunity but of the outcome, with seats reserved for Dalits in Government jobs, universities and even in Parliament.

Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true. Would you agree?

Absolutely. As I have often pointed out, any truism about India can be immediately contradicted by another truism about India.  Our country’s national motto, emblazoned on its governmental crest, is ‘Satyameva Jayate’—Truth Alone Triumphs. The question remains, however: whose truth? It is a question to which there are at least 1.4 billion answers—if the last Census hasn’t undercounted us again.

But that sort of an answer is no answer at all, and so another answer to those questions has to be sought. And this may lie in a simple insight: the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural. There are, in the hackneyed phrase, many Indias. Everything exists in countless variants. There is no single standard, no fixed stereotype, no ‘one way’.

This pluralism is acknowledged in the way India arranges its own affairs: all groups, faiths, tastes and ideologies survive and contend for their place in the sun. So pick any generalisation about India, and you will get pushback. “We are the world’s largest democracy” but we are increasingly under one-man rule. “We have every religion known to mankind” but we are rushing headlong into a Hindu Rashtra. And so on.

You recently landed in a controversy for wishing L K Advani on his birthday. Your thoughts on it.

Frankly speaking, I was appalled by the backlash I received following my tweet wishing LK Advani on his birthday. My critics denounced my tweet as that of a Sanghi sympathiser—if only they were this quick to at least once look at my long list of books, speeches and articles from the last 40 years where I have criticised everything that the ruling dispensation and its political ancestors have stood for!

It was Gandhiji who taught us to respect and honour humanity in our political opponents even if we were diametrically opposed to their beliefs and convictions. He told us to fight sin but love and embrace the sinner. Sadly, it seems the days where those words would be looked up to have left us and have been replaced by an era where intolerance has been embraced by both sides.

For my part, I intend on continuing to wish not just LK Advani, but even PM Modi and others from his party on their birthdays, while opposing them for what they stand for politically. My values will not be discarded just on account of the vitriolic attacks by a few partisan trolls.

You have referred to the parliamentary system as the source of many of India’s political ills and have stressed how a presidential system would be better. Could you elaborate?

With regard to the limitations of our parliamentary system, I think the facts speak for themselves: Our parliamentary system has created a unique breed of legislators, largely unqualified to legislate, who has sought election only in order to wield executive power. It has produced governments dependent on a fickle legislative majority, who are therefore obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance. It has distorted the voting preferences of an electorate that knows which individuals it wants to vote for, but not necessarily which parties. It has spawned parties that are shifting alliances of selfish individual interests, not vehicles of coherent sets of ideas. It has forced governments to concentrate less on governing than on staying in office and obliged them to cater to the lowest common denominator of their coalitions. The parliamentary system has failed all of us who cherish the idea of a liberal, pluralistic and inclusive democracy, led by a government committed to prioritising the development of our country over short-term political objectives. And it violates the simple principle of separation of powers, which requires an executive, a legislature and a judiciary distinct from each other. Instead, the executive’s majority controls the legislature, reducing it to a notice-board and a rubber-stamp, and reducing the Opposition to dramatic disruptions.

On the other hand, the case for a presidential system has, in my view, never been clearer. A directly elected chief executive in New Delhi, in each state and in each city or town, would have the stability of tenure free from legislative whim, be able to appoint a cabinet of talents, and above all, be able to devote his or her energies to governance, and not just to government. At the end of a fixed period of time, the public would be able to judge the individual on performance in improving the lives of Indians, rather than on political skill at keeping a government in office.

Why do we equate morality with culture?

In any society, the notions of morality (and culture) originally were derived from a certain set of widely accepted belief systems, including religion, which has significantly influenced our understanding of right and wrong, what is acceptable and what is not. Some may argue that we have linked morality and culture too rigidly in a country like India, where the idea of being ‘sanskaar’ carries both a cultural connotation as well as a reflection of what is deemed to be the right kind of moral system to subscribe to.

And yet, both morality and culture are dynamic systems that often interact and influence each other—it would be a mistake to consider them to be static entities. Over a century ago, it was considered in many parts of India to be the moral obligation of a woman to jump into the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Thanks to the work of enlightened reformers, this practice has not just been eradicated but has become an abhorrent idea, far from being socially acceptable. Similarly, today, homosexual relations no longer provoke the same degree of outrage as they once used to (though admittedly we are still far from where we should be—changing ideas of morality and culture can take time) because our morality has, rightfully, evolved and with it our cultural notions of what is socially acceptable.

In the book, you talk about your mother’s expectations. So have you finally lived up to her expectations?

That’s almost like asking “will the rain fall upwards?” No, and I never will, because my mother’s expectations have always been pitched tantalisingly out of my grasp. But we are both a lot more accepting of each other these days, and that’s almost as good!

( (Medha Dutta Yadav is a Delhi-based journalist, literary and art critic. She is on twitter @primidutt )



Pride, Prejudice and Punditry: The Essential Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor

Aleph Book Company

600 pages ; Rs 999 (Hard cover)

Check this book out on Amazon

Published on January 03, 2022

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