When you call Shashi Tharoor multifaceted, you do not use the word lightly or glibly. Tharoor is many things rolled into one: an author (now completing his 13th book) , United Nations peace-keeper, refugee worker and Under-Secretary in a 29-year stint, a human rights activist, a former Minister of State for External Affairs and now an elected member of the Indian Parliament from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala.
He’s an unusual politician, finding himself at ease spending half a month each month in Kerala, the land of his roots but in a country he’s not lived in for three decades. He now traipses around the constituency, making certain he impacts and improves the lives of the people living there – and making sure he gets re-elected.
He’s active on social media – and now has more followers than any other Indian – 1.4 million of them. He tells his followers what he’s doing, he asks them about their concerns, he shares his observations with them and answers their queries.
Firstpost spoke to Dr Tharoor in an exclusive interview at his New Delhi office to understand what makes him what he is.
For those of our readers who do not have a robust Internet connection, the transcript of the entire interview is reproduced below. The transcription is verbatim, so please do understand if some of the sentences seem unstructured – because they are, as Dr Tharoor was only having a relaxed conversation with Firstpost.
If you were still in New York, and the CEOs of a few Fortune 500 companies asked you what on earth was happening in India, how would you answer the question?
Actually, I found myself in a similar position, not in New York but with a lot of international CEOs — at a conference recently and I’d tell them exactly what I said, which is, “there is a perception that the bloom is off the Indian rose and things are going wrong with the India story, that the country is in some sort of irreversible decline, and so on.” My answer to that, very frankly, is that India is a much more complicated story than that, that the pessimism I hear today is as exaggerated as, perhaps, the earlier optimism about India becoming a superpower was overblown. I think we really have to moderate both the optimism and the pessimism that people feel about our country. To my mind, there are a number of strong, underlying verities that encourage optimism about India. Yes, I’m very conscious that the growth rate has gone down steadily in the last two to three quarters, that projections for the next year will have to be scaled down as well, But the underlying realities are still that, even with all the scaling down, we are still the second fastest growing major economy in the world after China.
There are a lot more reasons why we should continue to grow, including some ongoing projects – not just pie in the sky dreams – but things like the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, which is already a real plan with real financing, partnership with the Japanese government and a number of Japanese companies and major, billion-dollar investments coming in.
So it’s not as if we’re looking at only a story of gloom and doom in India – that’s what I would tell your foreign CEO friends.
On the paralysis in decision-making and on roll-backs..
Both of those are important concerns. On the question of decision-making having slowed down, I believe it has something to do (also) with the current atmosphere in the country of anti-corruption and all of this which has made a number of decision-makers unnecessarily cautious, fearing that any decision that they make could be questioned on grounds of impropriety of some sort or the other, even if they feel that they are doing the right thing for the country. We’ve got to get over this blip, and we will, I’m sure.
But the other side of the question is, as you said, decisions being rolled back – and that should not be happening. They’ve only been a couple of instances and those instances are regrettable. (But I think) There will be new signals coming out of the government. Already, you saw the prime minister having a very focused meeting with the planning commission with a number of key ministries present trying to set new targets and new actions. I think the government is going to proceed very much along those lines. We’re hearing that with the presidential elections (out of the way), there will be changes of personnel, there will be a cabinet reshuffle. I expect there will be a lot more energy and focus in the last couple of years of this UPA government.
How are you so confident that the UPA will complete its term?
I think the confidence comes from a shrewd assessment of the political realities and the economic needs. Take the case of FDI in retail, which was one of the policies you mentioned was announced and then rolled back, because of opposition not just from the opposition, but also from coalition partners. I think, very clearly, it’s something that the government is convinced is good for the nation and it will certainly send a very positive signal to investors outside. But I think, next time it will be announced, and it will be one day, it will be after the political homework has been done and the numbers have been added up. These are some of the things that have to be sorted out.
The irony about FDI in retail is that it doesn’t actually need parliamentary approval. It is an administrative governmental decision to be made, but because it happened to be announced during a parliament session, it became impossible to go ahead with. But, nonetheless, the government will have to take that into account.
Look, no one’s claiming that the UPA government has been perfect, but I think it’s got a pretty good record that people are not giving it enough credit for.