Author, politician and former international civil servant – Shashi Tharoor is a recognised speaker on various aspects of India, especially its recent economic transformation and future prospects. He was among the first Indian politicians to use social media for public interaction and reach a follower count of 100,000.
Currently serving his second term in the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram constituency, Tharoor has previously served as minister of state for human resource development and as minister of state for external affairs. And in a nearly 30-year career with the United Nations (UN), he served as peacekeeper, refugee worker and administrator at the highest levels.
He has authored award-winning books, fiction as well as non-fiction, and his 15th – “India Shastra” – was recently released. Education is a subject close to his heart, and he strongly supports the idea of changing India through teaching. Read on to find out more about what the veteran public servant believes in.
Tell us about your work with and support for Teach for Change.
It encourages volunteerism to teach underprivileged children. For somebody who served as a minister for human resource development, I have a soft corner for people who support the comprehensive idea of teaching to change India for the better.
How do you see education taking India to next level?
Education is indispensable in achieving this. Very frankly, our biggest advantage over the next 25 years will be our population. We have a bright, young demographic cohort. Essentially the majority of our population is under the age of 25, while 65% are younger than 35. In 2020, we will have 116 million people starting work between the ages of 19 and 22, according to the International Labour Organisation. In comparison, China will have only 93 million people at the same time. We are way ahead in terms of being able to serve as the workhorse and engine for the world.
Are we equipped to take advantage of that?
Only if young people are trained or educated will we be able to take advantage of the opportunities the 21st century will offer. Right now, we have 225 million children between at the ages of 10 and 19 who are in the process of gaining education, about to move into high school and college. These students have to be given skills, as not everyone will become a manager or clerk. It’s shocking to know that with a population of 1.2 billion, we have a national shortage of trained masons, of certified electricians and plumbers. A lot of them are doing these jobs without certification and training, so the product often doesn’t meet standards. We need to step up dramatically and grab this opportunity.
Are education and training more than just socioeconomic issues?
What we have from the United Progressive Alliance, who started calling it skill development, is not just a socioeconomic issue, but one of national security. If we don’t train these people, not only do we miss out on a great opportunity, but we will end up providing recruits to the extremist movements who have affected law and order in 165 of our 625 districts. It’s of national priority to do anything and everything to strengthen and broaden education in the country.
But teaching is not an attractive profession. How do we fix that?
We need to glamorise the profession. I have encouraged people to give awards to good teachers, and a TV channel televised this. But we must do much more with it and make people feel that teaching is a worthwhile, attractive and valuable profession; that some of our best students can come out of the best colleges to become teachers. Teacher training has to be given importance, and the standards have to be high to make sure that educators are up to date.
You have essays about education in “India Shastra”.
It’s a collection of 100 essays on contemporary India – politics, society, culture and many other things. I’m proud of it because it’s a substantial book, at the same time easy and readable. No individual essay is too long, except for possibly the one on education. Some of these are the products of things I’ve done at work, and some of them are based on the columns I’ve written in newspapers.
Tell us more about your new book.
It’s somewhat a completion of the trilogy of books about India. My first tried to trace the contemporary nation, “India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond”. It was published on the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, in 1997. Ten years later, I did an update of sorts for the 60th anniversary with “The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone”. I probably should have waited for our 75th anniversary for “India Shastra”, but my publisher felt that with the change that has been brought about by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election victory, now was the right time for us to take stock.
Almost all your books have been best-sellers.
I don’t want to exaggerate this, because the term ‘best-seller’ in India is devoid of much meaning. Even a few thousand copies sold make you a best-seller. It’s not the quantity of copies people buy. I want it to be read by people who care about these issues.
Diplomat, politician and writer – how has it been having different careers at different times?
They were just different ways of reacting to the world I see around me. Some of them come from my writing and my reflections, some from my actions with the UN or in politics, and some with the refugee work I’ve done. It was the same human reaction to the world.
Was your career graph established ahead of time?
Not at all! At no stage in my life have I known what I’d be doing two years down the road, or even where I would be doing it. I’ve always wanted to write. At six years old, I started writing. By the age of ten, I was publishing and saw something in print. It became addictive.
How did you get involved with the United Nations?
I planned to sit for the Foreign Service examination. I was incontinently good at exams and kept coming first. I assumed that it was something else that I could ace, but it so happened that the Emergency came along. That was a rather disillusioning period for someone like me, who had certain ideals about and commitments to Indian democracy. Suddenly, I didn’t want to take the exams.
One of the UN organisations during that time that had no national quota was the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I worked for them for 11 years, including a time when refugee crises were exploding around the world, especially Vietnam. I still remember the astonishment with which many of my senior colleagues (who were used to the UN being quite an unobtrusive organisation) reacted when they discovered that five of the top six stories in BBC World News mentioned us. It was a fascinating, stimulating and educative time.
After 11 years, I moved to the peacekeeping side, where I was entrusted with overseeing operations in what was then Yugoslavia.
How different was your work with refugees from peacekeeping?
With refugees, you felt that you could make a difference to real human lives. With the things I’d done, the decisions I’d made, and the interventions I’d conducted, I knew that I had changed the lives of generations yet to be born. But at peacekeeping, I often felt like I was working 18 hours a day, and yet the blood continued to flow. With both, there was a sense of challenge and a satisfactory feeling that I was leaving my thumbprint on the footnotes of history. These were important events of my time.
How did you find time to write even after being elected to the Lok Sabha?
I still try to squeeze out enough time to write. As far as politics, it is a very demanding profession, but I’ve never given up writing. I’m already a former minister, and one day I’ll be a former MP, but I hope never to be a former writer.
What changes do you see in politics at home?
I think there’s been some change, but it’s not enough. For the last 20 years or so, I’ve been trying to discern a change in the politics of identity that has dominated the Indian scenario, particularly after the rise of the Hindutva movement in 1980 and the Mandal caste moment in the early 90s.
In the politics of identity, people were winning elections not by saying what they could and would do, but by appealing on the basis of who they are to voters like them; voters who wanted people like them to be in power. That was a regressive development, one that would horrify people such as Jawaharlal Nehru.
But after the economic liberalisation from the mid-90s onward, I thought we would head back to the politics of performance. We are not fully there yet. Certainly, the current government victory combines strong elements of both. We haven’t completely come over the hump between the politics of identity and of performance. The latter is where we should be.
How do you deal with controversy?
I don’t think that any of the controversies of which I’ve been part would be considered such in any mature democracy. I spent 29 years in the UN and have been asked by the organisation to speak for it on some of the most difficult and hostile channels around. I was on BBC Hardtalk twice and on FOX News more often than any other UN official.
Eventually, I was entrusted with determining the UN public communication line for the entire system around the world. No one in the UN or in international media thought that I had put a foot wrong. I was in demand for knowing the right things to say, but it all changed when I came to India. Things I said that were in fact not meant to be offensive were considered so.
..... as told to Rahul