“When you say politics is a dirty game are you not actually making it, forcing the politician to look for other ways of survival?”
Suave, sophisticated, charming and in deep waters off late, Shashi Tharoor talks about the life of a politician and why we should consider our own hypocrisy before pointing fingers
Politics. It’s a subject I don’t care much about save for cursing the magnitude of endless scams and revelling in the entertainment provided by regularly forwarded clips of politicians being grilled on the 9pm news. Do I want to be a politician? No. Do you want to be a politician? I suspect your answer is the same. Not that we don’t care for the limelight, that would be a lie, but we’d rather get into the papers by having Facebook or Google buy our start-up. Who wants to wear a white kurta and pyjama every morning and defend the indefensible at 9pm? Unless, of course, it’s your family business and you don’t have the degrees or chops to do anything else.
So why would somebody with a stellar reputation in international diplomacy, a suave gentleman who can talk the skirts off any woman, get into the world of politics? Shashi Tharoor, Thiruvananthapuram’s member of parliament, used to be one of us – or at least one we aspired to be. Way before Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella put Indian faces on the world map there was Shashi Tharoor, a brown man rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty. He was our man in the United Nations, among the first Indians to make international headlines (for the right reasons). And even though I say he was our man, in truth he was a UN guy, a UN employee, not a babu who’d wrangled a ‘phoren’ posting by mooching off the patronage of the ruling dispensation. Tharoor made it there on his own steam, no political fathers, no family connections, just a big brain, a passion for writing, and those trademark smooth, low and mellow tones.
Why politics? That’s the first and only question in my notebook as I sit down with Shashi Tharoor on the Sunday before the presidential elections. We have an hour before he has to drive down to the high command, a meeting that I can only assume is to prepare a manful statement admitting defeat in a very obviously one-sided contest for our next Rashtrapati. And since this is not a magazine that stands on ceremony, we dispense with the Dr Tharoor formalities and get right down to business. Why politics?
“There is absolutely no easy answer. The work is hard and a lot of it may not be intellectually satisfying work that professionals look for. Right now the political class is almost entirely full-time politicians and it’s people who have done nothing else. Their families are in this profession, either the descendants of the old freedom struggle or the extremely well off maharajas and landed gentry who have a captive vote in their areas. There’s also what the Marxist’s call the Lumpenproletariat, guys who got nothing and got nothing to lose, and saw politics as a means to their own advancement.”
Right then, here’s a straight-shooting politician! Family business? Lumpenproletariat? I didn’t know politicians could exercise candor to call a spade a spade. I’ll let Tharoor go on (and he can go on, trust me).
“The professional guys – their parents tell you to study hard, pass exams and get a proper job. If you can’t pass exams then you’re going to get into politics. As a result we’ve deprived our society of that entire group of people who are the mainstay of politics in western democracies. Most politicians in western democracies are from the educated middle and professional classes. I think twelve of the last sixteen presidential candidates in America have been from either Harvard or Yale, so you’re looking at the best people who are hardworking and bright enough to get to the best institutions. In our case, with the sole exception of Dr Manmohan Singh (say what you might but I do think our ex-PM has earned the Dr prefix), since Nehru’s time there’s been no one with any particular educational qualification. So what does this boil down to? It boils down to the fact that many of the middle class are abdicating their responsibility for the country’s future and country’s well-being. And they’re leaving politics to people they claim to be ashamed of or feel they’ve to make excuses for instead of being led by people they want to be proud of.”
Of course that’s not entirely true and there are exceptions to the rule. But Tharoor is a smart individual, of that there’s no doubt. We are fifteen minutes into our conversation and you might have noticed he hasn’t answered my question. Lots of quotable quotes that should get him scratched off Diwali party invites (or not, considering how hypocritical politics is) so I push again. Why did you join politics? “Because I wanted to make a difference.”
On hindsight what was I expecting? When was the last time you heard a politician say he’s in it to consolidate land holdings and make some cash? Anyway, Tharoor is only just getting warmed up. “I tried to become [UN] secretary general. I failed. I lost essentially by two votes and the US veto, and at the end of that I felt that the only thing that one could turn to was making a difference at home. I briefly tried out a consultancy where I was being extremely lavishly paid to try and promote investment into India and look for investment opportunities in India. [But] I found I had no particular interest in business, I don’t find money motivating. The idea that you would judge the worth of your day by how many dollars or rupees you could tot up in the balance sheet, that just didn’t turn me on.
“How do I make a difference? In government! And how do you get to government? Through politics. For me it was the means to an end. I wanted to get elected in order to be ideally in government and through government make a difference. That was my entire logic.”
Of course the UN career, the hobnobbing with politicians making their annual ‘study tours’ to New York, would have made for an easy path into politics?
“I don’t have any political pedigree. Nobody in my family has been into politics. My father was a middle class professional executive for a newspaper media company, he would get his salary with his taxes deducted at source. I was not a natural. When I was first nominated for the Trivandrum seat (notice he doesn’t say Thiruvananthapuram, not that I have a problem with the colonial Trivandrum) the local politicians said ‘we have worked in politics for so long how can this guy from the outside come’ and I don’t blame them at all for their attitude. To that degree it wasn’t easy .
“But I suppose it was easy because I had some name recognition and because, as a senior Indian at the UN, I was every year being introduced to the prime minister, meeting the foreign minister usually over lunch or dinner, meeting the top political leaders when they came, so I was not a total unknown. The easier part was having the [political] access because of my past at the UN and the more difficult part was being accepted. Access is one thing, acceptance is another and acceptance took a very long time. I had to struggle the entire first term for acceptance even amongst my own party and fought a very, very tough election campaign.”
So much effort only to sit in the opposition! I ask Tharoor why he’s batting for the wrong team?
“I get that on Twitter at least once a day, this right man in the wrong party kind of thing. Yes, I was a critic of the Congress before ’91 and I was a critic of the Congress on very specific things, which by and large are no longer applicable. I’m a classic liberal, I oppose the Congress as a liberal and I oppose the BJP as a liberal. When I opposed the Congress they were doing illiberal things that they’re no longer doing whereas when I opposed the BJP they continued to stand for these illiberal things. So how am I in the wrong party?”
It’ll be interesting to hear what Tharoor thinks of our prime minister then. “Personally I admire his energy and his dynamism. I find that he has a very clear vision on the economic and social ills facing the country and I believe he’s a terrific speaker, probably amongst the finest orators in Indian politics. On the negative side, I find there is a big mismatch between his very progressive vision for the economy, for ease of doing business, Swachh Bharat and all of the things that he’s spoken about and the fact that he’s allowed so much of intolerance and bigotry to flourish under his leadership. The other thing I find troubling is the gap between intention and implementation.”
Writing is something Tharoor is passionate about. He has published 16 books and if not for the huge desk, his office in Lutyens Delhi could easily pass off as a library, stacked as it is from floor to ceiling with books. His personal quarter is overflowing with things, stuff that only a well travelled man of great taste would acquire, and pictures – lots of pictures – with presidents and prime ministers of every major country. And of course even more books. Clearly he’s a man of (many) words. His most recent book is a heavy critique of the British Raj, a criticism that sounds paradoxial coming from a man with a heavy British public school accent. “That’s the Parsi half of you speaking!” he jokes, quickly adding his apologies lest this journalist takes offence. I guess the journos of Lutyens Delhi don’t do jokes.
“So the life of a politician… I have to attend funerals, weddings, events, because my presence is a show of commitment to my constituents. I spend a lot of time addressing individual problems and grievances, which is not why an intellectual wants to go into politics. An intellectual is interested in ideas, policies, and so on, but to get elected you better be dealing with a guy who is looking for a job, a transfer, a promotion. We have no dearth of people who want to handle policy papers but when you have a guy from that background being told if you want to get elected you better go to a slum area, where some gundas have bashed up a poor dalit family and attend to it, these are the kinds of things many professional people don’t see themselves doing.”
For a sense of perspective let’s back the truck up here for a minute and contrast this with the life Tharoor had in his UN days.
“I spent 29 years on the global stage, very privileged with extraordinarily exciting assignments, seeing world leaders up close. During the years in refugee work, I could see what difference government makes to people’s lives. I was actually dealing with some of the most important human events of our time (including peace keeping operations in the former Yugoslavia) making headlines every single day. Then in (UN secretary general) Kofi Anan’s office I was having tea with Tony Blair in Downing Street or having vodka with Yelstin at the Kremlin or going to the meetings with Jiang Zemin, the Chinese leader.”
He came back to India to get shouted at in debates on the 9pm news. “I’ve been doing a little less of it. I prefer to go in a thoughtful format and not be in shouting matches which I find an utter waste of time. It’s literally a waste of time because you’ll be spending forty-five minutes, chained to a seat and you get five minutes worth of opportunity to speak. There’s no point doing it because your time should be worth more than that, mine certainly is.
“Too much of our public discourse is cheap, is violent in terms of words, is rude, insults the intelligence of the viewer. Some of this kind of outrageous shouting and screaming that goes on is a disservice to our democracy because democracy ought to be about serious public conversation and reasoned argument. We are, as Amartya Sen famously said, argumentative Indians, but it must be reasoned public discussion.”
Tharoor has been in the public eye for so long I wonder whether I should waste time and ask if he misses the anonymity, the privacy that we take for granted. Does Tharoor go for a boy’s night out?
“It’s been decades! I got married at 21, so literally for four decades I haven’t had a boy’s night out. As one grows older the time available for one’s own distractions became less and less. The price you pay for politics is a lack of privacy, lack of space, lack of individual time. There’s a certain paradox for a politician seeking anonymity because a politician is looking for votes, and votes often require name recognition and performance recognition. I never had the luxury of being a full-time writer and I think one day that will be my ultimate fantasy, not the boy’s night out.” Okay then, no boy’s nights out. Before we run out of time let’s get down to brass tacks. Let’s talk money.
“The fund raising and fund spending part of politics is very difficult for clean-minded honest people to live with. I have to say that I have been shocked by what I have either seen myself or heard about, and part of the reason is our own social hypocrisy. I remember when I came into politics, having earned a western salary, I couldn’t believe that my monthly salary was sixteen thousand rupees. That girl who typed my letters in the ministry was earning sixty-five. I said so how do you expect me to live on that and there’s a conspiracy of silence about it. The assumption is for basics we’re giving you perks, we’re giving you accommodation, we’re giving you a government car and driver and staff to do your work. Thereafter how you fend for yourself is up to you. Now if you’re a lawyer like a Kapil Sibal or a Chidambaram charging large fees you have your own thing. If you have, as in my case, both earnings from writing and savings from having lived abroad that’s fine. What happens when a genuinely aam aadmi politician come up the ranks? How are you going to, on that salary, maintain an office in Delhi, maintain an office in your constituency? How could you live on what the government legally gives you? It’s actually impossible and the implication appears to be go and be corrupt, find your own donors.
“Now there was such outrage when the government raised the salary from sixteen to fifty. You ask yourself at today’s expenses even with fifty thousand can you do all of it? When you say politics is a dirty game are you not actually making it, or forcing the politicians to look for other ways of survival? I obviously don’t know where to draw the line between the politician who takes money in order to do their real work or the politician that takes more money in order to grow his nest, get himself a nice place, get a flat in Dubai or have a Swiss bank account. That’s where you have to draw the line and corruption comes in. The people that read your magazine have to ask themselves, are they really entitled to call politics a dirty business if they’re forcing politicians to be dirty?”
It’s a remarkably candid admission and when you think about it, why do politicians need only be the jhola-carrying, socialist types? Shouldn’t politicians be paid as well as us in the private sector so that they can actually focus on doing a good job and not worry about extorting everybody in sight to prepare a war chest to fight the next election? No wonder Tharoor is a rare breed; a well-bred, well-educated, well-spoken politician.
Five minutes to two. I shoot my last question. His pet projects. “One of my pet issues is abolishing the board of film censors and turning them into a purely certification body where they have no right to order any cuts and bleeps or leaving out of any words. They have the right to say this film will be only certified for viewing by people above 18. Censorship is an absurdity in a world where everybody is seeing god knows what on their mobile phones. Internet is there, YouTube, YouPorn, You-whatever-else. As far as I’m concerned the thing has become a joke. A democracy like India should not have censorship issues.
“I feel the government has no place in the kitchen, the government has no place in the bedroom and ours seem to have great interest in being in the bedroom and the kitchen instead of doing their job to give us better infrastructure, ports, airports, railways, roads, lights, internet, broadband. Those are the things that government should make sure every Indian has, instead of going around and seeing who are you making love to or what kind of meat are you eating. I’m a vegetarian myself and I’m not gay, but for me these are principles, these are absolute fundamental principles that are embedded in our constitution, and that we should cherish and uphold.”
And with that we finish off our tea, shake hands and fire off the mandatory pictures for social media. Over lunch at the Lodhi Gardens, down the road from Tharoor’s home, I ask my publisher if he’d consider a life in politics, complete with the bungalow in Lutyens Delhi and all the assorted perks. Convincing as Tharoor might be, the answer remains unchanged.