Shashi Tharoor, 58, gave up a career in the United Nations in 2008 to join politics as a member of the Indian National Congress. He contested his first election for the MP seat from Thiruvananathapuram in 2009 and won. This year he is seeking re-election from the same seat. He has served as a minister in the Ministries of External Affairs and Human Resource Development. He is also an official spokesperson of his party. An edited excerpt of our interview with him. (Watch the video here).
Tell us a little about the work you have done in your constituency that you are happy with, and a couple of things that you might have wanted to but couldn’t. I know there’s a massive report you have brought out on your performance, I have read it, but sum it up for people who haven’t.
I brought out a full-term report about a month-and-a-half ago before the elections were due, and had it released here. It’s about 40 pages long and I have left out things that I couldn’t fit into those 40 pages. So it’s been a very productive five years. At the risk of some immodesty, I will quote a senior journalist who said he didn’t believe there was a more productive five-year-term for any MP in his experience, and he has a fairly wide experience.
There’s a national highway bypass that has been log-jammed for 43 years. Since the marker stones were laid, one or the other part of the project lapsed; no one could get funding. It just didn’t work. I pushed every button I could, met every minister, every bureaucrat in the business and now the national highway bypass is becoming a reality. The tender is out for the first phase, the line has been bought for the second phase, and the money has been allocated. So that’s been a big, big triumph.
The second thing that I am proud of is record allocation for the central road fund. I have the highest of any MP – Rs 114 crores for my constituency. I brought in progress on the Vizhinjam port, which has been hanging for the past 25 years. We have got the coastal regulations clearance, and the environmental clearance from Delhi. But it was a long and complicated process full of obstacles, objections, etc., which had to be overcome.
There was also a tremendous amount of progress on the health sector. There is a Rs 179 crore allocation for a super speciality hospital in the Trivandrum Medical College. We just got another Rs 120 crores for the regional cancer centre, which serves the entire southern belt of south India.
I have been able to bring in two Passport Seva Kendras, including one for the rural part of the constituency. People actually had to wake up at 2.00 am and come and line up in the street outside the city regional passport office to apply. Now they have got one air-conditioned centre in the rural part of Trivandrum. I have been able to use my international connections to bring in, for the first time in the history of Kerala, a UAE consulate to Thiruvananthapuram. I have also been able to bring a Sri Lankan consulate and a Germany visa facilitation centre. So the international face of Trivandrum is changing.
I got in 14 new trains. When Mamta Banerjee had announced five world-class stations in India, I made sure Trivandrum was one of them. Then she went away and the other four were forgotten about, including Delhi, on which there has been no work done. In Trivandrum I pushed and badgered people. Now there’s a new booking office, new escalators and elevators being built, progress being made. Other stations that have been neglected for a long time have been renovated, revamped. Trains wouldn’t stop at those places. Now I have gotten trains to stop there so commuters who had to spend money by cabs or auto rickshaws or bus are now travelling half the time by train, at a fraction of the price.
We also came up with a big tourist allocation for Kovalam.
Now, the things that haven’t moved – one long running frustration, a problem that’s as old as I am is the long-standing legitimate demand for the High Court bench in the state capital; we don’t have one. And the problem is the prime minister can’t just sign a notification. It needs the consent of the chief justice of the state High Court. And successive chief justices have refused to allow it to happen, and have not even given any reasons. I have succeeded nonetheless in getting one chief justice to come and hold hearings and receive petitions on the matter. And I have succeeded in getting the current chief justice to appoint a high powered committee of the five most senior judges to study the 58 years of file on the issue, to hold hearings and come up with a recommendation with reasons. So, I am hoping I would be able to finally see some movement on the issue. But I am sorry it couldn’t happen in my term and hasn’t happened for the 58 years.
You spoke about the records of the railway station work that has happened. Would the expansion of the railway station also be one of your priorities?
The problem with that in Kerala is land. Thiruvananthapuram central station is, in terms of its track space, pretty much log-jammed. We are trying to develop an alternative coaching and state assembly yard in a nearby station called Nemom, which would free more track space in Trivandrum. We have also developed a satellite station called Kochuveli. The problem is that although we have got more trains coming in there, we don’t have enough feeder buses and transport. But, yes I am developing all of these things. I have even urged the railway and the state government to rename these stations – Trivandrum North and Trivandrum South – in order to get the sense that’s there’s a multiplicity of stations for one city. But there’s been some political reluctance to do that so far.
Were you in any sort of quandary over seeking re-election, especially given the controversy around your wife’s death? Has it been better or worse than you expected it to be?
Well, there was, in my mind, no hesitation about taking the plunge other than my own grief. Immediately after her death I was not in a condition to do anything. I lost my voice for a few days; I developed throat and chest infections. I was just basically… it was a sledgehammer blow. But then I went back to Parliament, started resuming my responsibilities. I came here to part with her ashes because her son and I had agreed that we would do half in Haridwar and half in Kanyakumari, both to reflect her connection to the south but also because it’s a triveni sangam. It’s the water that floats in all parts of the world, she and I were associated with. At that time I had literally thousand visitors in a few days. And they were all saying, “We need you. Don’t leave us.” That was tremendously empowering.
But was the campaign worse than I expected? Yes, it is a new low in our politics now – a vicious, unprincipled, amoral, and dishonest campaign has been mounted by both the left and the right. Overlooked in all of this is that the Delhi Police has shown no suspicion of foul play. They are investigating a cause of death, which is a medical investigation; involving principally two months in a forensic lab looking for poison that wasn’t there. The only poison that has been there is in the minds of the politicians and the media who have alleged this. There has been no charge sheet, no FIR against me or against anyone. In other words, there isn’t only no criminal, but no crime. And yet there are people openly portraying me as a murderer in such a disgusting and deplorable way that it has certainly shaken my faith in our democratic process, where such a thing is allowed to happen with such impunity.
This goes completely against the grain of how elections are supposed to be conducted in this country. Can the Election Commission be empowered more to take better cognisance of stuff like this?
I have complained and they have sent a notice to two individuals. And I have stopped bothering to complain because nothing has happened after that. These same individuals and others have continued going on saying vile things. Squads are being sent by both the parties to the homes of the voters, telling them, “How can you vote for this man, he murdered his wife”, and so on. And the Election Commission has turned out to be unable to prevent this. I don’t know what can be done. I mean, I would like to empower the Election Commission more, give them the right to fine people, give them the right to forbid people from campaigning if they campaign in such an evil way. There must be things that can be done other than merely issuing a notice, which is essentially ignored.
Recently, NDTV polls suggested that the United Democratic Front (UDF) is going to get 10 seats, down from the earlier projection of 13. Oddly in the same survey, 52% of people polled wanted to see Rahul Gandhi as their prime minister. What I want to ask you is, the veracity of these polls aside, how immune is Kerala to so-called nation-wide trends of politics. Because one has always perceived Kerala to be its own political creature.
Politically, Kerala is very left of centre – very progressive, some might say. Though, I think when you look at the politics of the left – the communists – it’s more regressive because essentially it’s been a politics that has obstructed development, obstructed progress. But at the same time, there has been this figure that you mentioned – 52% for Rahul Gandhi – which obviously includes many left voters. Because they would rather see Rahul Gandhi than any other figure. They see him as a progressive figure even from the point of view of the Left. So, the point is that Kerala is a bit of an outlier.
If you look at election results when the Congress was repudiated in 1977 across north India, they won every single seat in Kerala. Conversely, in 2004 when the UPA swept to power and defeated the NDA, they lost every single seat in Kerala. So, there are some very unusual trends here. Local factors play a very, very decisive role. And if the incumbent state government is for good or bad reasons unpopular, that definitely has an impact on the Lok Sabha election. Last time around we won not 13, but 16. We won 13 in the Congress and our allies won three. So we won 16 out of 20, and we certainly benefited from both the effectiveness of the first UPA government and the unpopularity of the local ruling LDF government. Today the UDF government in the state is nowhere near as unpopular as the LDF would have hoped. There is some limited anti incumbency, which might reduce our 13 to 10 as this poll suggests but we’re very confident that we’ll actually do as well as last time if not better. AK Anthony and Oommen Chandy have both said we expect to get at least 1 seat more than the 16 we got for the UDF last time.
Is voting on caste lines as common in Kerala as in the rest of the country, and do you necessarily see it as a bad thing?
I certainly see it as a bad thing. If you’ve read enough of Nehru, you’d know that if he hadn’t been cremated, he’d be turning over in his grave right now because he thought of caste as something that would gradually disappear from India’s consciousness and it’s actually become more entrenched.
Kerala, in that sense, is a sad story because actually politics in Kerala was much more ideological rather than caste-based. And people used to debate issues on the basis of ideology. Mind you, I don’t think very highly of the Communist ideology which has been rightly discarded around the world and which has been thoroughly discredited in India too. But at least it stood for some principles; some values. Now to see a party which is avowedly atheist, that is avowedly Marxist and so on, openly campaigning on the basis of caste and clan is certainly to my mind negative step in Kerala politics.
In addition to the politics of violence, and the politics of character assassination and indeed the politics of actual assassination that have been practised by the Communists in Kerala. I am running an argument on the politics of performance and that’s standing up against the politics of identity. And the question that comes to mind is – in a relatively educated, relatively – affluent is the wrong word – but we have a per capita income in Trivandrum of about Rs 10,000 per person. So in a relatively alright sort of society, whether the politics of performance will outweigh the politics of identity is what this election is going to demonstrate.
It isn’t just the Left that is playing the caste card...
The BJP has always been communal, it’s not going to change.
Narendra Modi was here.
There was talk of him mobilising the Ezhava community traditionally associated with the Left. Do you feel that there are certain insecurities that politicians can feed off to create this sort of caste polarisation in the state?
It’s not insecurity based on caste. In my view, it’s entirely based on identity. It’s all about ‘people like us’. So, for example with one particular candidate in this election the message is: we represent a certain kind of identity which deserves to have an MP.
So you’re saying it’s more chauvinism...
Totally. We as a community deserve to have a minister in the state government, why don’t we have one? That kind of argument. It is a sense of almost overweening arrogance which confounds the issue of representation with the issue of the community’s honour or its place in society. The truth is, any community would be better served by a representative who has the clout to deliver for them in Delhi than a first termer from a party which has a very, very mediocre, if not almost non-existent presence in Parliament and who has no connections or impact in Delhi.
You are one of the first politicians who joined Twitter and despite a couple of controversies you did not quit.
The only break I really took was after Sunanada passed away.
So what made you stay?
Well, I’m not a quitter. I’ve not quit anything without long, persistent hard work. If I had intellectually decided that it was the right thing to do, it didn’t suddenly stop becoming the right thing because a bunch of trolls went after me. As far as I was concerned, I had to look at the larger arguments, and the larger arguments are important ones – that social media is here to stay, that it’s become an extremely important forum for the young and that increasingly, India is heading the way of the internet, not so much on the computers, the desktops, laptops, which will always remain the privilege of the small elite, but because of the increasingly affordable trends in mobile telephony. You see we have a country where 10-12% is on the internet, but 70% already have mobile phones and it’s going to go up to 80% in the next five years. At the moment, most of that 80% just uses it for phone calls, SMSs, maybe taking pictures. The moment we go from 3G to 4G, and we have broadband connectivity throughout the country, and access to the internet becomes more affordable, rapid, the vast majority of the Indian electorate will be on social media.
The other thing is, rightly or wrongly, social media has begun to influence the narrative in mainstream media as well. But what I find interesting is when I speak with people within the Congress party, I often hear that other leaders were reluctant to join the medium because of the kind of experiences that you had had. Now there’s been a lot of conversation including Rahul Gandhi admitting that where the party fell short the most was communicating its achievements. Can there be a more coherent communication policy?
It’s happened already, and Ajay Maken has done a very good job, except of course now he has been distracted by his own Lok Sabha election. I’ve been impressed by the coherent feedback, the sustained and effective research, the effectiveness and rapidity of guidance, the overall ability to find the right messaging and push it. And I think it will be better once the elections are over and everyone has more time to do it systematically. We rushed into this headlong really in the last six-nine months. And I think we’ll be heading in the right direction.
And if and when the UPA does come back to power in the Centre, are you people looking at a more communicative government?
Well look, I think you’ve been a little unfair, but I accept the fact that as the prime minister himself said, he wasn’t always the happiest talking, he was much happier doing things rather than going out and talking about it. I think in the 21st century the practise of reticence, which maybe something people respect in the people of our culture, doesn’t work so well in our political democracy. I still think however, there is a big difference between talking rhetorically to an audience from a platform that Narendra Modi specialises in and talking heart to heart with a person, a journalist which Narendra Modi runs away from. So I still don’t think that we are somehow inferior. The way Rahul Gandhi stood up to 90 minutes of interrogation by an unfriendly journalist, Narendra Modi has never shown the capacity to do. We are the party that talks to people, that listens to people and you’ll see that much more with Rahul Gandhi than you ever will from the alternative.
We have a lot more platforms for communicating now. But the template for communication is getting increasingly rigid. So, a lot of politicians and leaders might be on television, but television debate is limiting. It’s the same with social media, it used to be a great interactive platform, but increasingly there’s no place for nuance. What do you feel is the most effective way to actually talk about policies, legislation, work?
I can tell you what should be the most effective way, is if Parliament is allowed to function effectively. That’s what Parliament is for. But the BJP has unfortunately chosen to spend the last five years disrupting the process of reasoned discussion and democracy and debate, thinking disruption will serve their interests better than actually discussing issues. I think that’s been one of the biggest disappointments of my first term as a politician.
It’s been quite a crisis. Do you feel that there can be any sort of reform to prevent this sort of thing from happening?
See, what’s happening is that rules exist in theory. Thou shalt not raise slogans, thou shalt not stand up without being asked by the Speaker, thou shalt not speak out of turn, thou shalt not wave placards or printed material – there’s a whole bunch of rules. But they are violated and when you ask the Speaker, “Why don’t you take action?”, you’re told there is a consensus in our country that the opposition should be allowed to have its say because it’s anti-democratic to throw them out. Well, frankly it seems to me that if you suspend people for a day and set an example, the next day they’ll want to be back and work, this is what they’ve been elected to do. In fact I’m shocked that people would actually vote again for MPs who, instead of speaking in Parliament, chose to disrupt the House. People should say, “We paid you a salary to actually go and debate and vote in Parliament, and you didn’t use that authority correctly. Why should we vote for you again?”
You’ve been a minister in the human resource development ministry. It’s been now four years since the Right to Education (RTE) was implemented. How is it working? How do you assess the criticism about the act? A lot of people feel it was hastily drafted. Do you see a need for any amendments?
Well, we don’t have the choice because, as we know, Parliament has barely been able to deal with pending bills. So, revisiting an existing bill that’s already become an act would have been quite a tough job. Having said that, the RTE was adopted before I became a minister. There are some things I would have perhaps done differently but that’s academic. When I came it was law. As law I believe it served a couple of very important purposes.
It has democratised the basis of education. Our gross enrolment ratio at the primary level has actually broken all records. We have a 116%, which means more kids are in school than we thought existed at that age group, and which also means some kids who missed out on school earlier and older than they should be in primary school have come into primary school because they now have to be in school.
Secondly, it has helped pump a lot of money to some basic infrastructure resources which many of the state schools were missing – as basic as drinking water facilities, toilets, particularly for girls and so on. On the minus side, it has probably made more demands of existing school systems than they are able to cope with. They were given three years to do X, Y and Z and they haven’t even managed to do X yet. And now technically under the Act they should be closed down by the state government. Now, obviously closing on educational institutions in a country which is crying out for education is not a good thing. So we have to find sense of balance. It’s not the Central government which has to do it, it’s the state governments.
A second challenge is the way the act can be applied has taken all flexibility out of school management and governing bodies, and I find that a bit troubling as somebody who has always been a lifelong advocate of free choice. We should have found some way of allowing schools a certain level of freedom more than currently we have been able to give.
What about quality of education? The other question that I also wanted to ask you with regards to implementation is, we increasingly talk about greater power, strengthening our federal structure, greater power to states. But for example, and this just a random example, that if you’re studying in Gujarat you are not allowed to study English up to a certain point, which makes it difficult for a lot of people to get into the service sector, move into the middle class which is part of the larger plan. So how does one strike the balance when it comes to implementation? Of course all of us would like to advocate more freedom of choice like you were talking about but...
Well, ours is a federal system, so you have to accept that in any case there will be things that will vary from state to state, because each state has its right to run its school system, to prescribe its own textbooks based on the guidance it gets from the National Curriculum framework, but which sometimes is sometimes not fully respected by some states. There is no question that the average kid in the state school in Kerala gets a better education than the average kid in the state school in Bihar. That’s life. And it’s a shame. It’s a pity. It shouldn’t be that way but that is the way it is.
Quality is a very important issue. We in the UPA government have been trying to put more and more emphasis on learning outcomes. How do we get teachers to teach better? Remedial training for teachers, in service training after a certain number of years, teacher eligibility tests etc. because if you have lousy teachers you’re not going to get better students. Then we’re trying to also encourage research outside the government system on how we can improve the learning. There’s good work going on with some NGOs, some scholars that are actually studying this in very great detail. There’s an interim study from Harvard University, by a professor of Indian origin who argues very effectively that teaching assistants for teachers in classrooms might be more effective than multiplying the number of teachers, it would be a cheaper and at the same time, apparently, a more effective result. If that study is vindicated, it might be good policy direction to consider in the future.
There are some other initiatives on the quality side, but above all it’s making sure that kids absorb what they are being taught. So if we can use video conferencing, if we can use technology ICT to enhance the quality of the child’s experience, the child will learn more and learn better. But that comes with other requirements. There’s no point providing smart classrooms and ICT if electricity doesn’t work or if we don’t have generators in schools, in neighbourhoods where electricity conks out during school hours etc. So, there are some basic infrastructure challenges. Even our last mile connectivity is still a work-in-progress. Getting broadband into village schools and so on hasn’t happened yet. So, there’s a lot to be done.
We are a developing country. We started off with a huge disadvantage. The British left us with a 16% literacy rate and with less than 9% – 8.9% women being able to read and write. We’ve come a long way. It’s not long enough and the hurdles and obstacles are gigantic, but with clarity of purpose, vision, humanity, good judgement – even if we make some mistakes along the way we can do the right thing and I believe we in the UPA too have demonstrated we’re doing the right thing on education.
Is there a shift of emphasis when it comes to foreign policy? Is the public discourse around it becoming lesser and lesser over time? When one thinks back to Indira Gandhi’s time, the Bangladesh war was such a huge part of when she was seeking re-election. Rajiv Gandhi’s death was a foreign policy issue. It used to be a much larger part of even elections...
And not just those issues, in our own neighbourhood... But even general foreign policy in the 60s and the early 70s, reading Indian newspapers and, believe me, the percentage of coverage of foreign affairs in those days was far greater.
Or the discussion in drawing room over our relationship with Russia, Israel etc.
But I find that decreasing over time. The Congress just released its manifesto but it isn’t highlighting its foreign policy anywhere.
And I’ll tell you why. The public discourse has been run by the media and its TRPs are dominating what people think and talk about, Foreign policy is considered the esoteric privilege of a few and not of interest to the general public. And so the only foreign policy that gets space in our media is that which is immediately relevant to our neighbourhood, and are usually national security related. “Oh, the Chinese have crossed across our line!” or “The Pakistanis are attacking our soldiers during the ceasefire!” That becomes a discussion. The moment you get into something that is not national security, the media, particularly TV, cannot sell it to the public as affecting their lives, and essentially it gets no traction, no coverage.
Believe me, in the days when we only had newspapers and no mass television, we actually had as much attention being paid to something like what is happening in the Ukraine and the Crimea today, what’s happening in the Israel-Palestine crisis, what’s happening in Africa. I wrote Pax Indica partly to attack this, and I failed. I wrote a chapter in which I argued why foreign policy in the 21st century is actually relevant to the daily lives of every thinking Indian, in our increasingly globalised, interconnected world. The book sold very well for a foreign policy book, but it sold only to that predictable audience of informed, already reasonably well educated, knowledgeable, globally minded people, the kind of people in India who would actually read a foreign magazine like The Economist or Time or whatever, and perhaps to some who were students and felt they had to read the book to learn or sit for the UPSC exams. It never made it to the general, living room conversation reader. And that’s because these living room conversation aren’t happening anymore.
So you’re saying that parties are not also, the Congress itself is not talking about its foreign policy...
We’re talking about national security in the manifesto. We’re not talking about foreign policy really.
Do you see this as a good or a bad thing?
I think it’s a bad thing, but in some ways I could be selfish in saying if I became foreign minister one day it’ll be darn good thing, because there’ll be very few people bothering me because they know so little. It’s an irony. My first book was my PhD thesis The Reasons of State. I actually attacked the way in which certain foreign policy mandarins in our country – Swaran Singh comes to mind – used their own special expertise and relative ignorance of others to talk down to people on foreign policy. Actually, today it’s much easier to talk down on foreign policy because the general public is so much less informed than the days when Swaran Singh was foreign minister.
If you were to come back to Parliament what might be some of the national issues you’d be interested in working on?
I’m fascinated by most things. So I enjoyed the transfer from foreign affairs to human resource development because it suddenly made me not stereotyped as a one issue guy. Education is a huge issue, a national security issue even, because if we don’t educate our young to equip them to take on the opportunities and the challenges of the 21st century, what we will have in India is more of the Naxalite, Maoist kind of troubles that are already assailing so many of our impoverished districts. We’ve got to create an educational system that enables our young to take advantage of the opportunities that are available in the globalised world. So it’s a fascinating area. But if tomorrow I was asked to be in charge of sanitation, I think it’s very important. As I said, my wife and I worked hard on e-toilets and other toilets for girls. It’s an important issue.
I will take on whatever challenge I am offered where my party leadership believes I have a contribution to make. And if I’m not in government I will serve faithfully in whichever committees I’m assigned to. I was, I believe, the only MP with five committees when I was not a minister and I enjoyed every one of them. I was on the foreign affairs committee, I was on the consultative committee on defence, both areas are of my previous expertise. But I was also asked to convene the first parliamentary panel on disaster management and I got in all these people that you’ve since heard about after Uttarakhand. I got them to talk about lack of preparedness. I was also on the notorious JPC and I was on the public accounts committee which holds all government accounts responsible.