June 2008

Vol 7 - No. 12
























Letter from U.S.A.  | June 2008



(L to R) Madhu Sheth, Shashi Tharoor and his wife Christa Giles, Dr. Jagdish Sheth [Picture courtesy: Ravi Ponangi]

On Transformation of India in the 21st century
The Elephant, the Tiger, the Cell Phone and Shashi Tharoor keep Emory spellbound


It doesn’t matter if he is writing or he is speaking them, celebrated author and former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor always casts a spell with his words. And when he took center stage, to speak about the transformation of India in the 21st century while plugging his new book the Elephant, the Tiger and the cell phone at the 8th Sheth lecture at Emory University on 30th March, he had a full house enthralled with his words.

While many Indian dignitaries, eminent entrepreneurs and politicians who come to America, talk incessantly about India shining, Tharoor is a rare exception who does not hesitate to remind everyone that India has a darker, more paradoxical side to it.


When Nehru and Nehru’s India made a tryst with destiny, launching India into a new era of governance, it was remarkable, said Tharoor. “Remarkable because it was happening at all.”

There is no country like India, he said that proudly boasts, of being not a melting pot, but a “thali” of a diverse mix of ethnic groups, culture, religion, a profusion of incomprehensible languages and much more; and yet “India is more than the sum of its contradictions.. a land with its own distinctive place in the world.’


And that was the world that Shashi Tharoor chose to explore that evening.


Ten years ago he wrote a book “ From midnight to millennium” as India celebrated its golden anniversary of independence. In it he said that the country stood on the cusp of four of the most important debates facing the world at the start of the 21st century which ten years later remain as significant. 


Among the key issues were questions on whether a democracy could deliver the goods in a country of poverty and scarcity, could coalition governments succeed in taking care of the people, and what succeeds-decisions taken at state level, or can a central government transcend the challenges of governing an India where each state is literally an island unto itself?

Is the secularism established in the Indian constitution essential in a plural society or is it just a bad affectation taken from the west. Then there is the issue of globalization versus self reliance, the latter being a mantra India chanted for 4 decades. So should it stick to the old or continue to make way for the new way of life which is of course opening itself up freely to the world. While in America  people equate capitalism with freedom, in India said Tharoor it has been associated with slavery. Why? “Because the British East India company came to trade and stayed on to rule. So the nationalist leaders became suspicious of every foreigner with a briefcase.” For them, the freedom that they fought so hard for could only be retained if they became self reliant. That didn’t do too well for India and so said Tharoor, his tongue firmly in his cheek, the “ lessons to learn from history is that history can sometimes teach you the wrong lessons.” And indeed the worst financial crisis in 1991, was what made India, finally change its course. A strong reiteration of that came when Shashi Tharoor spoke in Calcutta a few weeks ago alongside the communist chief minister, Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, a stalwart of CPI(m). He said,’ some people say that globalization is bad for the poor. It must be resisted. I tell them it is not possible.” And then he added, “ Even if it was possible, it is not desirable.”  “So when a communist leader speaks that way about globalization one knows the debate is largely over” says Tharoor.


One discussion he avoided while he was a UN official says Tharoor was the gun versus butter or in the Indian context-the guns versus ghee debate that deals with spending on defense versus development-freedom based on military security versus freedom from hunger and poverty. While its difficult to deny that without adequate defense, a country cannot develop freely, said Tharoor, it is equally important to acknowledge that without these developments there won’t be a country worth defending. As a country with 1/6th of the world population, the decision India makes will resonate throughout the globe.


Tharoor pointed out that with the recent transformation taking place in India he has heard extravagant phrases describing India as  an emerging world leader and even the next super power. These statements are based on many things like India’s strategic advantage, its economic rise, political stability, its proven nuclear space, the country’s growing pool of young and skilled manpower to name a few. But what makes a country a world leader? Asked Tharoor.  If its population then India is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by 2034. Is it military strength? If yes, then India is already a world player and if it is economic development there too India has made tremendous strides, but a large number of people in India sill live in poverty and despair and economic reforms happen slowly. In fact said Tharoor a comment about Indian diplomacy could well be applied to its economic reforms. It is “ like the love making of an elephant, conducted at a high level, accompanied by much bellowing and the results are not known for two years.” That said Tharoor is very true of many economic reforms even today, amidst laughter.


Tharoor then talked briefly about his book, mentioning that Dr Jagdish Sheth, the eminent professor, author and community treasure taught us the value of the rule of three and therefore he too chose to have three- the elephant the tiger and the cell phone as part of his title. The elephant and tiger symbolize India’s transformation from a rumbling, bumbling elephant, covered with dust and flies starting to transform slowly into a sleek tiger in recent years acquiring strength and agility. And in that transformation the cell phone has come to play a very significant role.


Tharoor went back to the times in the early 60s and 70s when growing up in Calcutta he found that the word” wrong number” was more frequently used than “hello”. That just because you had a phone didn’t mean it would work and if you were ever to place a long distance call known as trunk call, you then sat by your phone forever waiting for that call to materialize, or pay 8 times the amount to place a “lightning call” that would happen in half an hour and even then be interrupted by an operator every 3 minutes to check if you wanted to continue talking. In spite of all the hassles, unless you were a VIP or a journalist, you had to wait 8 years before you could get a phone line. “When I left India in 1975 to go to the US for graduate studies, we had perhaps 600 million residents in the country and just two million land-line telephones…Now fast-forward to today. When I finished writing my book, I was able to report in it that in April 2007, India had just set a new world record by selling seven million cell phones that month, more than any country (including the US and  China) had ever done in one month in the history of telecommunications. Well, the book went off to the press, got printed and bound and arrived in your bookstores, and that figure is already out of date — because in each of the last three months, India has been breaking its own world record, and last month it sold 8.3 million cell phones. So, today in one month India sells four times as many phones as the entire country possessed three decades ago.”


And the cell phones have opened a whole new world to conquer for Indians. The cost is so cheap and incoming calls free that from the man who cuts coconuts from trees to feed you coconut water, to the man who has a little place on a street corner to iron your clothes, to the fishermen who can now tell which market their fish would find high sales, the cell phone, says Tharoor, “has empowered the Indian underclass in ways in which 45 years of talk about socialism singularly failed to do.”


Tharoor also talked about “soft power’, where a country made strides and was able to attract and persuade others through its culture, political ideas and  foreign policy, in contrast to  hard power which was used to coerce, growing out of the country’s economic and military dominance. Tharoor asked support for not necessarily persuading the world to support India “but to enhance India’s intangible standing in the world’s eyes.” It could be as simple as the celebration of the Tata Nano, which has demonstrated “India’s innovative and entrepreneurial skills and its ability to improvise on a shoe string budget”, with the Europeans now clamoring for India to make the same car for them.

“ No great civilization can afford to ignore the way it is perceived by others.” But, “ soft power is not only what we can definitively and consciously put on display. It is rather how others see what we are whether or not we are trying to show it to the world.” One such event that brought the world’s unanimous respect was when Sonia Gandhi, a Roman Catholic of Italian descent won the elections and chose to put a Sikh at the helm, who was in turn sworn in by a Muslim President in a country 81 percent Hindu. Compare that, Tharoor said to America the oldest democracy in the world. In 220 years, it has chosen Presidents and Vice Presidents that were white, male and Christian. Obviously India can teach others a thing or two. And yet it is not just material accomplishments that we need to celebrate in the transformation of India. It is more important that we celebrate the values and principles that India stands for.


India’s culture has put India on the global map. Be it music or Bollywood or even the tele-serial Kyun ke saas bhi kabhi bahu thi that brings everything to a standstill in places like strife torn Afghanistan-even marriage ceremonies are halted as the guests cluster around to watch the episode before resuming the festivities, and thieves steal and write “ Tulsi Zindabad” hailing the serial’s heroine for making their work easier because all the watchmen are busy watching the serial, said Tharoor amidst laughter. 


And yet, cautions Tharoor, we have a long way to go, because India remains a land of paradoxes and for every thing one can tell about India’s accomplishments, there are many things on the flip side as well.


On one hand you have the Tata Nano, a car that has revolutionized the automobile industry, and on the other bullock carts still remain an indispensable mode of transportation for millions.  The pride of India being a nuclear powerhouse is offset by the fact that 600 million people in the nation are without electricity. India is the leading manufacturer of generic drugs yet millions cannot afford the cheapest medicine to treat diseases like HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis. One hundred and fifty million people are blind in spite of their disease being preventable and curable, thousands of farmers are committing suicide because they can’t make ends meet. Four Indians have made it to the Forbes billionaires list their combined net worth being 180 billion dollars and yet there  are 260 million that are under the poverty line surviving on 360 rupees a month. Millions of children have not seen the inside of a school.


There are violent communal tragedies, young boys and girls face persecution for celebrating Valentine’s day, India’s Picasso MF Hussain lives in self exile in Dubai because some self appointed detractors didn’t like the depiction of nudity in his work. Bangladeshi writer Tasleema Nasreen has to leave India after being granted asylum because the state and the central government don’t have the courage to stand up against the Muslim fundamentalists threatening her life. It is also shameful when a minister asks a French channel to change their  fashion programming because their model’s outfit was “allegedly contrary to Indian sensibilities.” Where does that put the Khajuraho temples, the Kamasutra, the Krishna lilas then? Asked Tharoor  Where does it leave treasured erotic verses that are a part of India’s rich cultural heritage and inspire foreign literature? What do we tell India’s admirers?  “That Mahabharata on Doordarshan is Bharatiya sanskriti but the erotic longings of Gopis for lord Krishna is not?”


Tharoor said emphatically that self appointed arbitrators should not be allowed to inflict their narrow mindedness or “to define Indianness down till it ceases to be Indian.” The real India is one which safe guards the common space available to each identity, “an India that can endure differences of caste, creed, culture, custom and costume and still find consensus of the simple democratic principle that in a larger and diverse democracy like ours you don’t really need to agree all the time so long as you agree on the ground rules of how you will disagree.” And in the 60 years of freedom India has learnt to manage without consensus very well. 


Tharoor also wants to see India as a continuous soft power but backed by hard power, and not make the mistake Nehru made as was evident in the war with China in 1962, However soft power is to be used  not just to win over enemies but to also keep our people protected not just from terrorism but from the terrible malady of poverty, hunger and ill health. Progress is being made, he said with the success of the green revolution, the white revolution in milk production and the blue revolution in the development of our fisheries but a lot remains to be done in all these areas because the fruits of all the three revolutions are yet to reach the majority of the underprivileged.


Perhaps what is most exciting about India is its pluralism. It has drawn its influences from Islam, Christianity and Sikhism, and two centuries of British rule. Said Tharoor humorously that he also wishes he had written the lines credited to Indian sociologist Ashish Nandy, “ Cricket is really an Indian game accidentally invented by the British.” Tharoor said he still had great hope for the survival and success of Indian pluralism. ‘I don’t believe India will allow the specter of religious intolerance, political opportunism to undermine its soft power which is India’s greatest asset in the world in the 21st century,” and that is why he feels “India’s 60th anniversary is well worth celebrating,” that evening.


For Dr Jagdish Sheth who along with his wife Madhu and his children and their families has sponsored the Sheth Lecture series via the Sheth foundation, it was a matter of great satisfaction, to see a full house yet again at the annual event.


“What began as a project to educate the local community about Emory university and to give Emory an appreciation of how much local communities are hungry for knowledge about India and Indian studies, seems to have evolved into an event with world class celebrity speakers who come in and educate us on so much.” Dr. Sheth says he found the lecture to be informative and he was not just impressed by Shashi Tharoor’s insight but the humor and wit with which he spoke. “ Personally for me two things stood out. The significance of soft power and how we are a thali and not a melting pot. I have used the word salad in my presentations where a dressing can bind us but I think the thali analogy is even better. Madhu and I hope to see this event evolve into a really large platform where hundreds of thousands from all ethnic groups can listen in and develop a better understanding of our country and its rich heritage. I must thank Paul Cartwright, Laurie Patton and Joyce Flueckiger who have been the key people from Emory behind this effort.”

* Kavita Chhibber is an accomplished freelance writer and media personality. She  writes for Dr Deepak Chopra's website www.intentblog.com. She is well-known for her interviews of celebrities, authors and public officials. But she also writes hard-hitting news articles and cover stories for publications.


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