Interview with Dr. Shashi Tharoor

We were lucky enough to interview Dr. Shashi Tharoor, renowned statesman, writer, Member of Parliament and former diplomat who’d visited IIT Bombay as part of Mood Indigo 2015. In a free-wheeling twenty minute interview, he spoke extensively on the pluralism of India, the media and its growing focus on the sensational over the important, how his views on social media have evolved, section 377 and how he sees its future, the role of academics, India’s political atmosphere and much more.

Correspondent: Shardul Vaidya
Cinematography: Vikas Kurapati
Editing: Madhusudan Kumar, Shreyam Natani
Transcription: Abhinav Garg, Kewal Bhat, Sagun Pai

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Chief Editors: Mihir Kulkarni, Niranjan Thakurdesai
Mail to: insight[at]iitb.ac.in

Shardul: You have always taken immense pride in pluralistic India. But in the spate of recent events, do you see that the dogma of unity in diversity is a little shallow?

Tharoor: Yeah, I mean, my worry is… No, it’s not shallow in civilisation terms. I think India actually remains quite profoundly pluralistic in its civilisation, culture and orientation. Look around you – you’ll see Indian pluralism at every corner of Mood Indigo, on these streets. I think that the problem is that we have voted to power a particular ruling dispensation which is insufficiently committed -coughs- to the same notion of pluralism. They have, unfortunately, stoked a certain level of bigotry, on the part of the majority community, in ways that to my mind genuinely threaten the sense of security and well-being, and the comfortable assumptions of people of other religious faiths. That must be changed. You know, it’s…to my mind, it’s not India that has failed because I don’t think that it’s as simple as that. It think it is in many ways, our politics that has allowed a certain intolerance to gain brand, and gain attention, and gain visibility, which it does not deserve and which should not be there. But the truly lived reality of India remains pluralist. Most Indians live amongst, work amongst, socialise amongst people of other backgrounds and faiths and I do not believe that they’re going to be seeing it purely in terms of religious or similar divides.

But the truly lived reality of India remains pluralist. Most Indians live amongst, work amongst, socialise amongst people of other backgrounds and faiths and I do not believe that they’re going to be seeing it purely in terms of religious or similar divides.

Shardul: Talking about the political climate — I don’t want to restrict myself to, say, only the Parliament or the Vidhan Sabhas — how mature do you think the political climate is, including the electorate, the expectation of the media, and do you think there will be a change?

Tharoor: There is tremendous scope for change and improvement. You can take each of those categories. The politicians have to become by and large, better educated and better informed, and they already are becoming. I think there is a conscious realization that you need to have a little more knowledge than you thought you would get away with in the earlier days. Secondly, you definitely need an electorate that demands performance out of politicians and not just identity. The days when a politician could win in elections saying to people of a similar caste or similar religion, “Isn’t it time that people like us got elected?” [are gone]. So, the politicians are not getting [inaudible] the electorate is starting to demand more. So, the whole idea in the past, that essentially all you’re obliged to ask for is, “Isn’t it time people like us were in power, vote for us because we’re like you” – that kind of politics is giving way to the question of bijli, sadak, paani, now and roti, kapda, makaan. I mean, these are now “What have you delivered for us that deserves you our vote”. And, that kind of thing, making performance the yardstick has to become much more widespread. It isn’t always. There are still in many parts of our country. ‘When you cast your vote, you vote your caste’. But, that’s got to change.

The media, as you asked, the media has to dramatically evolve. The media has this obsession with triviality, with superficial gossip, with what is sensational rather than what is really important, which has to transform and actually, that has got worse in the last twenty years and before because of the advent of All-News TV, in which there are simply too many channels, trying to do too much, competing for the same number of eyeballs in the same timespace and so each of them want some ‘Breaking News’ to attract people to come and watch them rather than somebody else. And, the result has been that the superficial story, the trivial story, has become privileged over the substantive story– the story that truly affects millions of lives. So, you would rather have a story, about some murder or affair or relationship or scandal or something, which may titillate millions of people, than a story about a major scheme or a major failure or a major success, that can actually change the lives of millions of people. The media has to grow up, or at least have some channels or some publications that do that nonsense. But, that the mainstream bulk of the media should have a greater sense of responsibility. So, everyone of the category to mention- the politicians, the electorate and the media- need to change and evolve. I think, as I said that the change is happening gradually. The media is the only one, where the change went into the wrong direction. In the others, the change is going in the right direction, and I believe particularly the electorate and the politicians are going to change all the more to the better because of the fact that education levels have gone up so much more, that more and more educated, that in the olden days what you think of as middle-class professionals, the people who could only aspire to be middle-class professionals, are now thinking of entering politics. And, so you are getting a different breed of voter and a different breed of politician.

I believe particularly the electorate and the politicians are going to change all the more to the better because of the fact that education levels have gone up so much more, that more and more educated, that in the olden days what you think of as middle-class professionals, the people who could only aspire to be middle-class professionals, are now thinking of entering politics.

Shardul: Talking about the media, why do you think that state-run media, for example, DD, has become extinct, if I may say so?

Tharoor: Well, that’s the argument that these other channels use. If serious journalism is what you want, you watch Doordarshan. If you want entertainment, action, scandal, gossip, “Nation wants to know” kind of ranting, then you go watch one of their channels. And they’re basically arguing that the TV-watching public has voted with their remote controls and voted for them, not for Doordarshan. I think that’s a pity and I must admit. But there are certainly some people in our country, who rightly or wrongly assume that Doordarshan being government-controlled is also going to be largely government propaganda, but who would certainly watch a neutral private channel that gave serious news, even if they would not, at the moment, watch Doordarshan. By the way, one more footnote, Doordarshan may have collapsed in the ratings on cable but in those on terrestrial broadcast areas, rural India in particular where many people don’t have cable, Doordarshan is still doing very well.

Shardul: So, when you talk about the media, another new player, if I may say so, has been social media and you’ve been an earnest adopter of that. So, do you think social media is a place for mature political discourse. Is it possible or has it been hijacked by… I can’t, I would like to use the word (pauses, Tharoor says “Trolls”), I was gonna say gundas but trolls is a better word.

Tharoor: No, I would admit to you that the negative sides of social media become more apparent since the innocent days when I first adopted it because, for example, when I would engage in dialogue and repartee and Q&A with people, I could always assume these were real human beings with genuine questions. Now I’ve realised that the vast majority of the comments and questions addressed to me have a political agenda behind them and they’re very often organised and the person asking the question may not even really exist. I am told, for example, the BJP has entire squads organized, where one person can run up to six hundred fake accounts! It’s an amazing figure. The guy does nothing else all day and is paid a salary, to sit at his computer and issue very similar tweets and sometimes identical tweets in six hundred different names. And, even if that’s an exaggeration, as I would like to think it is, it certainly strikes me as one where, as a phenomenon that shows anything that is invented and can be used, can also be misused and the whole phenomenon of people ‘trolling’, is to my mind, is a clear indication that you can twist what might otherwise would have been a very useful means of communication to nefarious purposes, political purposes, abuse verification, etc.

But that doesn’t make the actual thing bad. Just as doctors say that a glass of red wine is good for your health, but if you drink a whole bottle, you can actually make yourself sick, or poison yourself with toxins. Similarly, there are some aspects of social media that are good taken in moderation because they do enable you to reach a large audience to get your message out and to get a sense of what other people are getting agitated about. The only problem is that if you start getting obsessed with it, and are spending the bulk of your time on it, you make two mistakes. First, you tend to assume that’s all the public there is and there isn’t infact the vast majority of the voting public for a politician are still people who are not on social media. And the second thing is you may get a distorted view of where public opinion really lies. There is often some very very strong things being said because particularly the anonymity permitted by the internet, generated the expression of extreme views very often. Whereas, the vast sort of silent majority, who are not on social media, may actually be far more moderate. So, you need to make allowances for both those considerations, and then by all means, use social media with moderation. I do it seven times a day and it certainly is much better than issuing a press release or holding a press conference, believe me you get more reach. If I put out one tweet, there are fifteen news organizations that could report it, if the tweet is sufficiently newsworthy and that’s as good as summoning a press conference, and it takes a lot less time for the writer to write a 30 second tweet than calling a press conference.

You may get a distorted view of where public opinion really lies. There is often some very very strong things being said because particularly the anonymity permitted by the internet, generated the expression of extreme views very often. Whereas, the vast sort of silent majority, who are not on social media, may actually be far more moderate. So, you need to make allowances for both those considerations, and then by all means, use social media with moderation.

Shardul: So, moving on to current affairs, in regard to the bill that you tried to introduce in the Parliament, why do you think that the Indian society is still cautious. I wanted to say digressive, but I would use the word cautious, in matters of sexuality, especially when we are the land of the Kamasutra and Khajuraho?

Tharoor: There is an entire chapter in the Kamasutra, by the way, about homosexual relations. But, let’s not go there because a part of the problem is, by defending it on those grounds, I’m playing into the hands of those who have tried to block this law, by making the debate about sex. I would argue the debate is not about sex. It is about freedom. If you look at the articles* of the constitution, that guarantee our fundamental rights, there’s an article, I think it’s Article 12 or 13, that guarantees you right to life, to privacy, to dignity. There’s another Article, I think it is 15, that guarantees you equal treatment before the law. There is Article 21, that guarantees you non-discrimination. And, what I am saying exactly is that, you don’t have equality before the law, if you can be arrested for what you do in the privacy of your home. You don’t have non-discrimination if you suffer certain disabilities in your capacity to express your love for another human being, because of your orientation. So from my point of view, we’ve got to get the government out of the bedroom. The government has no place in the bedroom. By the way, it’s not only homosexuals because according to the spirit of the law which was written in 1860, it criminalized any kind of sexual activity, other than what you might call, classic procreative sex and certainly there are many things that a married couple might do with each other that is technically against section 377. So, I mean the whole thing really represents an attitude of morality on part of the government, that is massively out of date. At a time, when even the holy father of the Catholic Church is showing understanding and compassion for homosexuals, it seems to be utterly bizarre that some BJP legislators are sagging the importance of arranged marriage in Indian families to oppose section 377. That is totally laughable.

Let’s not go there because a part of the problem is, by defending it on those[pertaining to sexuality and culture] grounds, I’m playing into the hands of those who have tried to block this law, by making the debate about sex. I would argue the debate is not about sex. It is about freedom.

Shardul: Is this a misappropriation of culture? Because morality stems from culture.

Tharoor: See, culture is always contested territory. To my mind, whenever you have a debate about culture, you are actually debating different interpretations of what culture is. The German general Göring, who famously said, “when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun”, settling cultural differences with by shooting someone who doesn’t agree with him.

I’m sorry, but when I hear the word gun, I reach for my culture. I want poetry, literature, cinema, music and art to prevail over the culture of the gun. These are all legitimate differences in arguments within every society. The narrow interpretation of culture, that 74 BJP MPs voted for, is not the interpretation of certain very prominent BJP leaders, who have said otherwise in public forums. So, even within the BJP, there seems to be a disagreement, or a struggle or whatever. And, someone even suggested to me, that the position was taken, and taken this early, precisely to send a message to a certain BJP leader, rather than on the merits of the issue. There are internal tussles going on in that party, and that’s part of the problem in our politics. So, my argument is that we were relatively underprepared because honestly, the introductions are always a routine matter. The real challenge is the discussions after the introduction. But, when the introduction is challenged, and you are not allowed to discuss it, this has got many people’s backs up and we would try and once again bring it to the parliament for a discussion. And this time, we will ask all the people who want to defend our constitutional freedoms, to show up that afternoon and vote for it. Let’s see what we can do. Let’s see how many people are prepared to vote against freedom.

Shardul: When you talk about about the Parliament, our law-enthusiastic students back in college tell that in the past 60 years, at most a couple of private member’s bills have been passed.

Tharoor: Fourteen private member’s bills have been passed. The last one was in 1970, but there is one that is well on the way, which is passed at Rajya Sabha already, which is the rights of transgender persons bill. And, presumably if that continues in this way, and I don’t sense any opposition in the Lok Sabha, then that’ll become the fifteenth.

But that’s not the point you see, because very often, a large number of private member’s bills got adopted by the government taking the mover and saying to the private member, “Look! We will adopt it and push it through, as a government bill”. Obviously, if the government were to come to me and say that, I would be quite receptive. The point is that, if you only count the ones that are passed as private members bills, that happened because the government didn’t want to take it on itself, due to whatever political reasons, but didn’t want to oppose it and let it pass. Now, in today’s situation with the BJP as a crushing majority, if they decide they don’t want the bill to pass, they can vote it down anytime! Throughout the next 3.5 years in parliament, their majority looks very rock-solid. So, that’s the situation, as of now.

But, if the government is neutral or divided and they let the private member’s bill process carry on and people essentially have what’s called conscience vote rather than a whip, then I would say that the chances are very good, because there are people in many many parties, who are in favour, who do not subscribe to the intolerance being metted at you.

Shardul: In your lecture, you spoke at length about globalization. We spoke some while earlier to Medha Patkar, and her problem with globalization was that the decision-making did not include the people at the grassroot levels. So, what are your thoughts on this? Whether we can improve this, or this if at all, is an issue?

Tharoor: Well, it is not a discussion like a law you are going to pass, but simply a fact of life. The institutions have moved on to a point where globalization is a reality. It’s like saying we haven’t involved the poor people in discussing the weather, even though the weather affects them. True! How do you actually influence the weather? How do you influence globalization?

Let’s say we have a democratic discussion about it. At most, you can influence certain policies, but there are huge ramifications, and you have to decide for yourself whether you are prepared to sacrifice, for example, gains for large sections of the community of the population of India, by moving out of the global economy, because let’s face it, you did it for 45 years. It is only in the last 20-25 years that you’ve actually become relatively globalized. When you say people were not consulted, when our gold was shipped off to London in the protectionist days, in order to stand collateral, were poor people were consulted then either? We needed to move away from that, and sometimes in some subjects, it is important to leave it to the experts to judge.

At most, you can influence certain policies, but there are huge ramifications, and you have to decide for yourself whether you are prepared to sacrifice, for example, gains for large sections of the community of the population of India, by moving out of the global economy, because let’s face it, you did it for 45 years.

Shardul: What do you think the role of academia, such as writers or philosophers, is in the political process, or in the larger sense of society right now? Bring about change compared to people on ground, for example, social activists or politicians?

Tharoor: What I think the role of academia… academics can be of… See the thing is I have a lot of respect for academics, in fact, I believe there are absolutely serious, solid, well-researched [academics]. Academics is the fundamental intellectual life of a nation like ours. But it seems to me in any case that they can animate debates, they can inform and educate politicians, voters, activists, etc. But they don’t have a directly active role themselves, you know. I mean, an academic’s job is scholarship, a politician’s job is policy, an activist’s job is activism. The scholar infuses the others, with his or her knowledge, findings, research, etc.

Shardul: The role of academia is to inform the debate. So, with regard to recent events, so, for example, the the intolerance debate – what are your views on the action taken by academia in India related to that? Was that an expression in a personal role or is that something that…

Tharoor: The role of academia taken in the debate on intolerance?

Shardul: Yes.

Tharoor: See, the point is that there it was a defensive principle. I don’t know if it’ll qualify as activism except that obviously those academics themselves, Sahitya Akademi award winners who returned their awards, they would qualify as doing something that is activism. But once again, the role of the academics was in provoking a political debate and the reason that they succeeded was not because they get to… do anything, but because their defence of principle and their critique of intellectual freedoms or lack thereof, or threats thereto rather, all of that actually had a very valuable effect in influencing the way politicians thought and spoke about it. So, and then by the way you mentioned that academics and you can add the media too. So, the academic gets upset and says that academic freedom is threatened, intellectual freedom is threatened. The media then highlights it and the politician can’t ignore it. So it’s actually a combination of academia, mass media and politicians who collectively dealt with the challenge of intolerance in our society.

Shardul: Thank you so much for this interview and for your speech. It has been a privilege and an honour

Tharoor: Thank you! Enjoy your day. Thanks very much.

*As requested by, Mr. Tharoor, here are the correct Articles of the Constitution that he referred to.
It is the Article 21 of the Constitution that guarantees that no person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. It is the Article 14 of the Constitution that guarantees Indian citizens equal treatment before the law, and Article 15 ensures prohibition of discrimination on grounds of
religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth by the State.