In Conversation with Shashi Tharoor: Congress has as much stake in Indian nationalism as BJP does
Former Indian minister Shashi Tharoor speaks about his fascination for Indian history since he was in school. Photograph: (AFP)
Shashi Tharoor, an Indian lawmaker and former minister of state for external affairs and human resources development, looked at my notepad and pen and asked, “Aren’t you going to record the interview?” Slightly taken aback, I replied with a gentle shake of the head. I still rely on the old school method especially when interviews are scheduled in haste and recording equipment lay in deep slumber in the bottomless pit of my ‘ladies bag’. “Oh, but you must! I’ve been misquoted so many times that I now insist on recordings,” he said.
My phone, a usually reliable back-up, chooses to misbehave at this juncture. Amused, Tharoor offers to record it on his phone and email the audio file. With this newly-forged rapport, we embark on a freewheeling conversation.
I begin by asking what he sees himself as: a writer, a one-time academic, a diplomat or a politician. He has his answer ready. “Why does it have to be just one thing? Why can I not be all of it at the same time? A politician can also be a thinking man, you see!” He invites the interviewer to shed her predefined notions.
Of Histories, Personal and National
With 15 books belonging to different genres to his name, Tharoor certainly takes his writing seriously. Glancing at the oeuvre, it is easy to discern his preoccupation with history. He nods in agreement. “I was always fascinated by history as a child.”
He then begins to chart his journey. “In high school, I was that crazy kid who wrote history essays out of sheer pleasure and not because the teacher asked. Because I was so interested in the subject, I read way beyond what was required. I wrote essays on topics that interested me, particularly modern Indian history.” He shares with a proud smile, “I stumbled upon that notebook recently and found out that they weren't too bad for a fourteen-year-old in 10th standard.”
Tharoor sheds light on the traditional science versus arts battle. He too got a taste of it. “When I was to go to college, it came as a surprise to many people. I stood first in West Bengal. I had the highest possible marks in ISC examinations. I opted for History and everyone was horrified including my parents and teachers. St Stephens College was astonished because they had never got an application for History from somebody who had such good marks. They admitted me without an interview.” He adds, “My interest continued and I topped the university in History. When I graduated, I left the field but never lost interest. Finally, today I found myself writing a book on history, admittedly popular history, which does take into account a lot of contemporary debates and scholarship in the field.”
The 'Us and Them' of Nationalism
But what explains his preoccupation with national history?
Tharoor says: “Nationalism is an inescapable part of our 20th-century history because it was a dominant issue in the first half of the 20th century.”
"In terms of contemporary politics, I have argued quite a few times, even publicly, that Congress party should not cede Indian nationalism to the ruling party. We have as much of a claim to speak in the nationalistic spirit. And what is more, we do so in a more expansive and inclusive way and not the other kind.”
There is no getting away from the ‘us and them’ binaries.
“What I've done in my books speaks for a more inclusive vision of India that my party also stands for. But nationalism has many meanings and connotations in people's minds. There are people who think of nationalism only in terms of ‘bharat mata ki jai’ kind of bigotry. The current ruling dispensation seems to be thrusting patriotism down people's throat where loyalty becomes an act of performance rather than something that is felt in the heart. That's not my kind of nationalism,” he continues.
Is this urge of Tharoor, the writer, to narrativise history linked to Tharoor -- the politician’s aim to build a certain brand of nationalism?
Every narrative of a contemporary country has to be steeped in its history. Today when we speak of what India is and celebrate Indian nationhood, we need to have a sense of what we are celebrating. As you may have seen in some of my books, I articulate a vision of Indian nationalism that is anchored in Indian pluralism. I talk about all the forces that have made India and nearly unmade it. I celebrate multiplicity, inclusiveness, and involvement of multiple communities and regions in making the Indian national narrative. Others interpret nationalism more narrowly.
‘Us and them’ again but he is gracious enough to allow some space.
“This is a contested terrain. Obviously, Mr Savarkar's view of Indian nationalism is not my view of Indian nationalism. This difference is what goes into the process of making of an Indian identity.” He pauses to think. “But at the same time, nationalism cannot be impervious to the past. Talking of British nationalism today, brushing colonialism under the carpet is inexcusable. You can't really celebrate Elizabeth, Francis Drake, Victoria, and Walter Raleigh and overlook the subjugation of hundreds of millions of people around the world whose resources were plundered for British industrial revolution. All nationalism is steeped in history whether people acknowledge it or not.”
Tharoor’s latest ‘An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India’ seeks to revive the memory of India’s colonial past and the attached horrors.
How, as a historian, does he deal with flashpoints in history? Does he see and react to the ploy of outsourcing the violence by the West?
“It’s a very well expressed idea. ‘Outsourcing the violence.’ As a UN official, I had to deal with the contemporary outsourcing of violence. We can celebrate the fact that the UN prevented the third world war. However, the fact is that wars went on in the periphery while the so-called global centre was celebrating peace. The world, on the whole, has not been at peace,” he responds.
What about the flashpoints in Indian history?
Tharoor begins by referring to ‘An Era of Darkness’. “While I haven’t looked at the contemporary Indian history in the latest book which stops at 1947, it does shed light on the roots of communal trouble in the country.” Raising his pitch a bit he adds, “The divide and rule, divide et impera, was a very conscious colonial policy. Caste system became much more ossified and rigidified thanks to British intervention. I've talked about how the classification of entire tribes as criminal tribes, or entire groups as martial races, and so on have had pernicious and lingering effects.” He slips in casually, “There are some echoes of the Raj in today's contemporary politics. I've alluded to it a bit in the last chapter.”
The Opposition Within
Since the historian’s politician avatar becomes visible, the next question is about the vulnerabilities of a freely writing and expressing active politician. Tharoor has faced opposition from his own party members for not toeing the line.
“I remain a strong critic of the BJP, the ruling party. But I believe that a part of being responsible opposition is giving acknowledgement and at times more than acknowledgement when it's due. Two such incidents happened in recent past which were only a few months apart. The first one was due to an article in which I asked the question: is there a Narendra Modi 2.0? Without giving a definitive answer, I only said it's too early to tell. But the headline and a very inadequate paraphrase in the Times of India created a huge uproar.”
“The second one involved my appointment as a goodwill ambassador of the Swachha Bharat Mission which I saw as a national endeavour that needed to be supported beyond politics. Now, our political atmosphere has reached a point where nothing is beyond politics and as a result, I suffered. But I stand by my ideas,” shares Tharoor. He hopes that his “intellectual independence and integrity of views” will eventually be respected. “Hopefully, people will see that though I attack the government as strongly as any other congressman on the majority of issues if there are any issues that I feel the government deserves credit I'm willing to take a different stand,” he adds.
Does his status as a politician stand at loggerheads with his writing career?
Tharoor responds to it by talking about responsibility and censorship. “I don't censor myself on those grounds. A part of my responsibility as public figure is to accept the opportunities that a public forum gives me to write and speak. I may not always find myself earning applause from my party but at the very least I'm able to have a point of view. In some cases, if there's an established party line I'll shut up after a while. But I'll continue to share my viewpoint within the party and behind the closed doors. I've done it on several occasions.”
He shares another instance of backstabbing from some of his own party members. “My opposition to the tactical disruption of the parliament was leaked by insiders. I did not go to the press with it. Some others did it to make me look as being disloyal to the party. I wasn't. Even though I dissented, once the party decided to go ahead with it despite my objection, I worked as an acquiescent member of the party's presence in the Lok Sabha.” It is easy to trace the signs of hurt in his voice.
So what will Dr Shashi Tharoor like to be remembered as, a writer or a politician?
Smile comes back to his face. “It’s a fairly easy question to answer. Writing endures for an individual far more than politics. At the end of the day, a politician may feel that he can do better for the society as a whole than a writer can. But look at me as an individual: I'm already a former minister. One day, I'll be a former MP. I hope never to be a former writer.”
His choice is clear. He may not be a reluctant politician but the writer in him is what keeps him thriving.