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'The triumph of Hindu resurgence would mark the end of India'

Shashi Tharoor With a long tenure at the United Nations, including his present position as executive assistant to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Shashi Tharoor has had an uniquely international vantage point. The acclaimed author of The Great Indian Novel and Show Business, returns to political and social analysis with India: Midnight to Millennium.

Advance praise for the book have already started coming in. Professor Amartya Sen of Harvard in the New York Review of Books, has called it "well-balanced, informative and highly readable." The Library Journal says it is "Superbly written, this book will be useful to anyone interested in modern India."

Tharoor's strong, and sometimes provocative views on the progress or lack thereof of the Indian enterprise make for an interesting read, especially for diaspora Indians. In a telephonic conversation from New York, he spoke to Rajeev Srinivasan on his assessment of India in its 50th year.

What prompted the writing of the book?

Quite literally, I was talked into it over lunch by David Davidar of Penguin India. He thought we needed a book that explored what Independence really meant, and he said he couldn't think of anyone better to do it. This was in January 1996. The challenge, the flattery (laughs) and the deadline -- it had to be completed by the end of 1996 -- helped me concentrate on the whole process of reflection and debate about the 50th anniversary of India's Independence.

But the book really is the outcome of almost a decade of thinking and writing. I have been reflecting constantly on these issues in columns, op-eds, interviews, and occasional addresses to groups of Indians, especially after Ayodhya. Several of my ideas here have appeared previously in a variety of publications in India and the US, but this book gave me the opportunity to develop my thoughts more fully. The book will appear both in India and the US on August 15th, 1997.

Who is your audience? As someone of the same generation as you, I find many of your thoughts in 'India' articulate my own feelings, as in The Great Indian Novel?

I wrote it for Indians like myself. In both my fiction and my nonfiction work, I am glad to note I seem to have struck a chord with Indians both in India and amongst those settled abroad. I am always pleasantly surprised at the amount of interest in India such people have, both those who grew up there, and those who grew up abroad. Of course, there is also a smaller audience of non-Indians who are interested in India, too.

But what I have written is not a guidebook to India: it assumes a level of interest and engagement. Of course, so you will find some explanations that Indian readers may think unnecessary, including a glossary. But this was in the interests of having a uniform text around the world.

You have structured the book around various major debates going on in India at this time: bread versus freedom, centralization versus federalism, pluralism versus fundamentalism, and globalization versus self-reliance. But isn't there another, that cuts to the core of the ills of society, that of morality versus hypocrisy?

Certainly, but I would argue that the issue of morality is not separate from these four debates, but that it underlies and influences all of them. The issues I have identified pose dilemmas for which the only solutions must have moral underpinnings. In discussing democracy, for instance, I raise my concerns about corruption and about the increasing criminalisation of politics in our country.

There is no doubt that India is undergoing a period of ferment in which profound challenges have arisen to the secular assumptions of Indian politics, to the caste structures underpinning society, and to the socialist consensus driving economic policy. Any one of these three changes would be significant enough to send political scientists scurrying to their keyboards; all three occurring simultaneously point to a dramatic transformation.

Many observers point to the bad news coming out of India -- riots, corruption, the rise and fall of governments, uncertainties on economic policies. Yet you seem quite upbeat about India.

Yes, there's a lot of bad news, and my book doesn't gloss over it. But, at the same time, the bad news is offset by ample evidence of good. There are the remarkable levels of food production and distribution that enabled the country to withstand a drought in 1987 which would have cast a spectre of famine across any other developing country.

Ten years later, India boasts a record harvest, exceeding its own targets; India has conquered starvation (though not yet hunger). There is the profusion of skilled workers, talented professionals, inventive technicians and able managers at all levels of Indian industry.

There is the entrepreneurial spirit which, when unshackled at last, has begun to prove a remarkable engine of growth. There is the very stability of the economy -- for decades a vehicle of slow but steady growth -- which suggests a capacity to absorb and transcend the problems that now beset it.

Sitaram Kesri There is even the immense size of the country, which has converted serious insurgencies into "local" problems, leaving most of the rest of India unaffected and ensuring that the centre holds even when things fall apart on the periphery. Corruption is being tackled by an activist judiciary and by energetic investigative agencies that have not hesitated to indict the most powerful Indian politicians. The press is free, lively, irreverent, disdainful of sacred cows. Non-governmental organisations are active in defending human rights, promoting conservation, fighting caste injustice.

Above all, there is the flawed miracle of Indian democracy itself. At a time when most developing countries opted for authoritarian models of government to promote nation-building and to direct development, India chose to be a multi-party democracy. And despite many trials and tribulations, including twenty-two months of autocratic rule during a state of Emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, a multi-party democracy -- freewheeling, rumbustious, often corrupt and sometimes inefficient, perhaps, but nonetheless flourishing -- India has remained.

The system has successfully allowed the expression of the competing claims of the various forces in Indian society, with several peaceful changes of government through the ballot box. India's democracy helps to acknowledge and accommodate the various identities of its multifaceted population. Indians are comfortable with multiple identities and multiple loyalties, all coming together in allegiance to a larger idea of India -- an India which safeguards the common space available to each identity, an India that remains safe for diversity.


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