Shashi Tharoor en Mon Dec 30 14:50:46 IST 2019 the-lessons-we-can-learn-from-history <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The question raised by an American journalist on Twitter—“Why is the Indian Prime Minister spending so much time attacking a Mughal monarch who died more than 300 years ago?”—is a reminder of how the past retains a capacity to inflame political sentiments in the present. The role of history in our contemporary politics may seem inexplicable, but it is not without precedent in many other countries where divisive politics is encouraged.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In my years at the UN dealing with the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, I was struck by how often my interlocutors on all sides referred to events from the distant past: there were two battles of Kosovo, in 1389 and 1448, but Serbs spoke of them as if they had happened yesterday, and these justified their resentments today, and their belligerence tomorrow. To take an Indian example, when Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (later the father of ‘Hindutva’) was, in his youthful phase, an advocate for Hindu–Muslim unity, he declared the rebellion of 1857 to have been ‘India’s first war of Independence’, featuring as it did Indians across divides of religion, region, caste, and language, fighting under the flag of the Mughal sovereign. The appeal to a positive historical memory can also play a significant role in constructing the nationalism of the present.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, of course, can appealing to a negative historical memory—invasions, the destruction of temples, and their replacement by mosques. It is usually accompanied by an evocation of ancient civilisational memories that provides nationals with a sense of rootedness—the sense of belonging to a venerable and even timeless community. This in turn evokes both a sense of belonging to a common endeavour for the majority, and a sense of exclusion and alienness for a disfavoured minority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Scholars like Benedict Anderson have told us that a nation is an imagined political community that reflects a single national identity, built upon shared social characteristics such as culture, language, religion, ethnicity, and a common history. This constructed national community is linked to a specific territory, resulting in a certain sanctification of geography, in the worship of the ‘motherland’ as the natural home of the nation. And next, this sanctified geography is married to a holy history. The history of a nation is marked by a shared recollection of the nation’s victories and defeats—as well as, quite often, resentment and rejection of other “nations” or communities, especially foreign forces that have conquered or dominated them. In the process nationalism involves an act of purification: purifying the people of religious, social and cultural contaminations that have come in from outside, leaving, in the case of our country, only the “new Indian” as heir to this precious ancient legacy. That new Indian, in today’s politics, must be Hindu, preferably Hindi-speaking, and resent the same past.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The past is the essential element in [nationalistic] ideologies,” the historian Eric Hobsbawm has argued, “If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented…. The past legitimises. The past gives a more glorious background to a present that does not have much to show for itself.” Hobsbawm compares the role of history in nationalism with that of the poppy to the heroin addict. It is the source of the drug that both poisons and empowers the nationalist. Since the project of national unity, which is indispensable to the expression of this kind of nationalism, requires both a shared sense of cohesion and an identifiable territory, all nationalisms seek to create such fraternity. At the same time, to justify nationalistic zeal, both must be constructed on a long history—real or imagined. This is what makes history so important to the very idea of nationalism and so crucial to nation-building. And this is what the BJP has brought into our politics today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is not history, but the ways in which historical memories are used by nationalist ideologues, that have led to atrocities. Serbs and Croats lived together, in fact married each other, for decades, until the rise of the likes of Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic accentuated their sense of historical difference and drove them apart. The same occurred to India in 1947 with the creation of Pakistan. Can we not learn from history? Or are we, in the famous phrase, doomed to repeat it?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jun 18 12:12:06 IST 2022 this-time-muslims-of-india-will-resist-shashi-tharoor-on-varanasi <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The controversy over a court order authorising a video inspection of the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi is one more reminder that in India debates over history are not confined to the distant past alone. The assumption behind the request is that the mosque was built on a demolished temple; if this is confirmed, demands will inevitably arise for that temple to be restored, as with the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya. Whereas conservatives, in the famous phrase, are ‘standing athwart history, yelling stop’, our hindutva nationalists are yelling ‘turn back! Reverse!’ Their reinvention of history is not anchored in a reverence for the past, but in their desire to shape the present by resurrecting the past.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>History has often been contested terrain in India, but its revival in the context of 21st century politics is a sobering sign that the past continues to have a hold over the hindutva movement in the present. While the Mughals are being demonised as a way of delegitimising Indian Muslims (who are stigmatised as the sons of the invader Babur rather than of the Indian soil), hindutva fanatics want to rebuild the most prominent of the Hindu temples the Mughals allegedly destroyed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those who thought that victory in Ayodhya would be enough for the Hindu zealots are realising that they are like the sharks who have drawn first blood, like the taste, and thirst for more. As with the temple that is now being erected on the site of the old Babri Masjid, those who are raking up the Gyanvapi issue want to avenge history by undoing the alleged shame of nearly half a millennium ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When will it stop?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India is a land where history, myth, religion and legend often overlap; sometimes we, as a people, cannot tell the difference. The Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya ruled that a Ram Mandir should be built, and that the religious sentiments of the Hindus had to be respected—implying both that such sentiments were of greater weight than legal provisions, and that the religious sentiments of the minorities were of less consequence than that of the majority, even though the demolition of the Babri Masjid was illegal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To most Indian Muslims, the Ayodhya dispute was not about a specific mosque. Rather, it was about their place in Indian society. The destruction of the mosque felt like an utter betrayal of the compact that had sustained the Muslim community as a vital part of India’s pluralist democracy. Others, however, felt that the court’s decision restored constitutional processes after the vandalism and violence that had marked the dispute for a generation. Most concurred that it would buy peace for the community. Gyanvapi, now, suggests that hope was misplaced.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In fact, the zealots have been emboldened by the projection of Ayodhya as a triumph for a hindutva reinterpretation of the Indian national idea, and as a building block in the construction of a new hindutva version of India. The ideal of inter-faith co-existence in harmony has been jettisoned; the marginalisation of Muslims from the national narrative marches on. The prime minister conducted the puja at the site; the celebrations at Ayodhya, openly involving state machinery, were a significant step towards declaring an official state religion. “Hindu Rashtra” is being built before our eyes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is the process that ominously seems to have begun anew at Gyanvapi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Let us assume that indeed the mosque was built on the site of a destroyed temple; does that mean we should open a gaping wound now, provoking civil strife today in order to avenge the past? Is there no case for letting old wounds that have long healed stay undisturbed? To destroy the mosque and replace it with a temple would not right an old wrong but perpetrate a new one.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The alarm bells are ringing again in Varanasi. This time the Muslims of India will resist. Once again the violence will resume, spawning new hostages to history, ensuring that future generations would be taught new wrongs to set right. The BJP is happy to use history as cannon fodder; but in their obsession with undoing the past, it is our future they are placing in peril.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 20 12:00:31 IST 2022 our-globalised-world-is-less-able-to-cope-with-war-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Whatever you may think about India’s policy stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine—and I have dissented publicly about some aspects of it—one thing is clear: this is not just a conflict far away to which we can afford to remain indifferent. The war in Ukraine has affected us in India already, and most of the rest of the world besides.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As I pointed out in the Lok Sabha, the rise in oil prices has already hurt us gravely. Whereas the government’s budget had been based on the assumption that global oil prices would average about $75 a barrel, they shot well above $100, touching $130-140 on occasion, and have thrown the finance minister’s numbers completely out of kilter, with immediate and medium-term repercussions for our economy and growth prospects. The war has also brought about a serious rise in commodity prices, since Ukraine and Russia were responsible, in good times, for some 30-40 per cent of global wheat exports. While India is not a wheat importer—and our farmers may even profit in the short term from being able to export some Indian wheat at prices higher than the guaranteed MSP announced by the government—other agricultural commodities have also risen in price. For instance, 70 per cent of the sunflower oil and seeds that India consumes used to come from Ukraine and we now need to look for substitute sources, which will be more expensive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s is perhaps a modest example: we have been weathering the storm so far, including through increasing our imports of Russian oil and fertilisers. But other countries have not been so lucky. Muslim countries observing Ramadan have found the daily iftar becoming more expensive, with items scarce in many countries. Countries like Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh and Iran buy more than 60 per cent of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia; the former was known as a breadbasket to the world, and bread itself has become unaffordable. Nor will Ukraine be able to plant its usual wheat crop as long as the war endures, prolonging global wheat shortages. The World Food Program estimates that 41 million people in west and central Africa face a food and nutrition crisis, as people are reeling from the highest-ever prices for essential commodities like grain, oil and fertiliser. Yet ironically, the wheat already in Ukraine’s granaries risks rotting uneaten because the war has made it impossible to ship it out.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ukraine’s European neighbours are the most directly affected, with some five million refugees crossing into neighbouring countries and the tough economic sanctions on Russia biting into their economies too. Rising oil and gas prices have affected every European country severely, as well as many farther afield.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the Bank for International Settlements, 60 per cent of the world’s advanced economies are suffering annual inflation rates above 5 per cent; in Britain, consumer price inflation reached its highest levels in three decades. Inflation has hit India, too; our inflation, like most emerging economies, is higher than anytime this century, with most of the developing world seeing inflation rates above 7 per cent. Countries that had just begun to recover from the devastating consequences of the pandemic and associated lockdowns have now been hit with a “double whammy”. In our own neighbourhood, Sri Lanka has been the worst affected, with its economy near collapse, forcing it to default on its debts. The crisis in Pakistan’s economy in turn played a part in the ouster of Imran Khan, by diluting the support he might have enjoyed had he been the steward of good times rather than presiding haplessly over economic failure. Now his successors have to look for means to service Islamabad’s huge external debt. Countries as far apart as Nepal, Tunisia, Sierra Leone and Bolivia are facing a debt crisis attributable directly to the war.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our globalised world is simply less able to cope with war and the resultant sanctions, supply-chain disruptions and restrictions of currency flows. For a few heady years we enjoyed the fruits of inter-dependence, as trade and currency flowed freely and prosperity transcended borders. Today, we are realising that even a local war in the 21st century can have a global impact. The bombs and bullets recognise no frontiers. The need for peace has never been greater.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Apr 22 11:17:35 IST 2022 how-about-virtual-museums-asks-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As Covid seems to be ebbing and large parts of the nation have begun to return to normal life, the question arises: will this mean more visitors to our museums? I have my doubts. It is striking that despite our immeasurably rich heritage, our museums have not been able to attract the levels of engagement of any of their western counterparts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For instance, it is a travesty that in the two years between 2016 and 2018, our National Museum had roughly 5.5 lakh visitors in total, whereas the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted 70 lakh visitors in 2017 alone.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are a number of factors responsible for the decline in our country’s museums and their ability to engage audiences, that have nothing to do with Covid. Official apathy is a key reason. Step into an Indian museum today and one is invariably taken aback by the state of affairs—be it exhibits falling apart, or anodyne captions that seldom convey the richness of the artefact one is observing, or even the availability of resources to guide visitors through what the museum has to offer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Besides lines of restless schoolchildren who are essentially compelled to tour dusty museums and look interested, for most Indians, a visit to the museum is a decidedly dreary proposition: there are artefacts, but do they speak to you? Do they tell you, beyond tedious plaques and cards, of what they represent or what their age witnessed?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Museums are homes to objects—but they must also serve as repositories of legacies, of tales of people and societies, manifesting also ideas and thought. We in India have failed at this. Indians will line up in Rome or London or Paris (or for that matter Abu Dhabi) outside iconic galleries, seeking to glimpse the Mona Lisa or unravel an Egyptian mummy, hoping to educate themselves in the history of distant lands. But they will not bother to queue outside the Indian Museum, Kolkata.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Of course there is much to appreciate around the world. When I launched the British edition of my book on British colonialism, under the blunt title Inglorious Empire, one of my events was at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in dialogue with its director—while on the floor beneath us stood the famous animated tiger of Tipu Sultan, mauling a British redcoat. That is one museum artefact that, even more than the Kohinoor, I would love to see back in India! But even without the treasures the British have looted, there is much in India itself. Yet the challenges facing museums are growing, and have not been helped by significant delays in appointments to key posts or successive budget cuts to the ministry of culture. But there are reasons beyond the government as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Access has always been an important barrier in our ability to enjoy the richness of our museums—not just physical access but also access in terms of language and comprehension, although efforts have been made to address this to some extent through audio guides in various Indian languages. This is where online museums come in.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Museums, after all, cannot just be buildings full of attractive things—they must also offer an education, and a live, dynamic space where new art is constantly created, even as the old is respectfully enshrined.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Putting museums online provides the answer. The marriage of art and technology may well hold the key not just for the future survivability of our nation’s museums, but could define the manner in which subsequent generations engage with and explore the cultural heritage that they have inherited. Interactivity, easy access, cultural education, all become easier as the ‘virtual museum’ brings the collections to your home. Art history comes alive with the integration of digital technology.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Conservators are using new age methods like laser technologies and 3D-imaging technologies for improved and accurate conservation and restoration techniques.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Technology like Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) makes exhibitions come alive. An NRI family based in the Gulf or the US can raise their children with access to meaningful resources on India’s rich traditions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Save our museums—take them online!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sun Mar 27 11:14:54 IST 2022 shashi-tharoor-on-the-rise-of-mandatory-hyper-nationalism <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The global rise of officially mandated nationalism is a surprising phenomenon of our times. The century began with globalisation seeming unstoppable, national boundaries appearing ever-more permeable and states surrendering more and more of their sovereignty to supra-national organisations like the European Union, to regional and global trade pacts refereed by the World Trade Organization and to international legal institutions like the International Criminal Court. Few could have foreseen such an abrupt reversal of this trend in the second decade of the century, spurred by a worldwide backlash against globalisation. An ugly byproduct of this is the rise of mandatory hyper-nationalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The backlash has taken on a nativist hue everywhere. In Europe and America, this has involved racist hostility to immigrants and minorities (whether ethnically or religiously defined). Since such negative messaging requires a positive counterpart, nationalism—from Trump’s “Make America Great Again” to Erdogan’s reviving Imperial Turkish glories—has filled the breach. A majoritarian narrative has sought to subsume each country’s diverse political tendencies into an artificial unity masquerading as patriotism. Globalisation had promised a world of dissolving differences and ever-expanding freedoms that would embrace everyone. Instead, today’s reactive nationalism heightens differences, emphasises singular virtues associated with a politically defined “people” and seeks to instil loyalty to the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the level of emblems like the flag, the national anthem, the lapel pin and reverence for the military’s sacrifices, I have no problem with this. But when symbols are used to promote a sense of duty rather than affection for the idea of the nation, and compliance with the prevailing governmental narrative, then I have a problem.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Here “respect” for the anthem and the flag becomes a code for obedience to the state and the ruling party. Today, conformity has become the new badge of allegiance. The wave of rising right-wing populism that is engulfing Europe is illustrative of this trend. Support for anti-system populist parties in Europe, such as the National Front in France, Syriza in Greece and the Five-Star Movement in Italy are only the more extreme examples. The rise of such illiberal nationalisms is occurring when there seems to be the real risk of a power vacuum in Europe.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, as President Emmanuel Macron seeks re-election, France offers two principal alternatives to him, each more ultra-nationalist than the other: Marine LePen of the National Front outflanked by the acerbic provocateur Eric Zemmour. The recent performances of Austria’s far-right groups and Germany’s AfD suggest that the trend they exemplify is spreading. These are troubling and potentially dangerous developments. The idea of the nation as an inclusive community of all citizens, one that allows each individual to shelter under the constitutional carapace and to pursue his or her own ideas of happiness and national loyalty, free from the stipulations of rulers, is being tossed aside in the name of a higher patriotic duty to an officially sanctioned version of nationalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is reminiscent of the same slippery slope down which Italy and Germany slid into fascism and Nazism in the 1920s and 1930s. Such fears may be exaggerated in today’s democracies, with modern means of communication and thriving free media. But, as a glance at the toxic vituperation spread on social media confirms, complacency is no longer an option.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India is a country that has gained greatly since 1991 from abandoning its post-colonial autarky and lowering protectionist barriers that restricted foreign investment and reduced trade. Along with this greater openness to the world had come a broader receptivity to prevailing international norms in everything from business culture to permissive sexual behaviour—and to subsuming patriotism within a broader liberal and cosmopolitan internationalism. That is now grinding to a halt under our current dispensation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our prime minister tosses constitutional norms aside and performs puja at Ayodhya; his party openly asserts defiant Hindutva and condones the marginalisation of minorities, especially Muslims. Young girls in traditional dress are prevented from pursuing their education by fanatics and political opportunists. India has become illiberal, and in the process, allegedly more truly Indian. In the name of authenticity, we risk losing our decency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sun Feb 27 09:52:00 IST 2022 we-are-seeing-dramatic-technological-progress-in-five-areas-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It may be a cliche, but the speed of change has accelerated remarkably in the lifetimes of most people reading this column.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was not always this way. The India in which I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s was a largely unchanging place. Change was incremental and evolutionary, which is to say that it took its time to happen and one could barely notice it. People’s homes, means of transportation, the products they consumed, what they read, how they communicated, the equipment and instruments they used at home and at work, what they heard from public service broadcasters, and their social relations and business practices in, say, 1975 were not very different from those of 1950.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But between 1975 and 2000 there was a revolutionary change—and it did not stop. Change came to our country like a bullet train and kept on roaring past, taking us along with it. Though 1991 was the watershed in India, the preceding decade-and-a-half had already seen the expansion of TV and the advent of colour, the introduction of computers in the face of leftist resistance, and the advent of new technologies in the workplace, including word processors and fax machines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then, along with liberalisation, came foreign cars and consumer products, PCs and mobile phones, the Internet and email, business process outsourcing and international call centres. Companies were born in fields that most people did not know existed. Young graduates had opportunities unavailable to my generation, of new subjects to master and new professions to pursue.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then change picked up more speed. New businesses started and collapsed. What was a sunrise industry in 2005—say medical transcription, for instance—became obsolete by 2015 (in the case of medical transcription, it was thanks to the development of cheap and accurate voice-recognition software). Literacy is soaring, but people no longer write letters; they call their loved ones on the phone, or text and email them. Entertainment no longer comes from a government TV channel or a disc, but is delivered to your phone. Books can be read from hand-held screens; libraries are installing computer work-stations in order to stay relevant.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Work from home” has become not just possible but preferred, thanks to two years in the grip of the pandemic. Work itself has been transformed by video-conferencing, offices are turning increasingly paperless, innovations in telemedicine are soaring, and every week brings rumours of dramatic new breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence, robotics and other fields that will make our daily lives unrecognisable. It is no longer safe to assume that tomorrow will look like yesterday; indeed, you cannot even be sure that tomorrow will look like today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The era we are living in is as exciting as the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the telephone was invented, electricity was tapped and the automobile came of age, all at roughly the same time. Experts tell us that the period of disruption, reinvention and transformation that the world underwent because of the onset of these three technologies may well be mirrored in our own era.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As we gaze towards tomorrow, we are witnessing dramatic technological progress in five areas: robotics and the use of remote-controlled machines, energy (including new and more affordable forms of “green” energy and its storage), artificial intelligence and machine learning, blockchain technology, including the emergence of cryptocurrencies, and genomics and DNA sequencing. Each of these, evolving in parallel, holds the promise of bringing about dramatic transformations in our lives.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the American inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil observed, we will not experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century, but 20,000 years of progress. Every company and industry, every business and enterprise, can be certain of one thing: that it will either have to be a disrupter or be disrupted, or both, in the foreseeable future. Adjusting to change must be everyone’s mantra. Standing still will prove the best way of moving backward—and being left behind, as change whirls on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 27 15:42:53 IST 2022 high-time-for-a-global-pandemic-treaty-writes-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The global spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has everyone reacting with varying degrees of alarm. Is it, as a hopeful study from South Africa suggests, more transmissible but less lethal? Might it even mark the beginning of the end of the Covid pandemic, a sign that the dreaded virus is mutating into something no more harmful than the regular flu?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No one really knows—at least not yet. But the rise of Omicron has added renewed urgency to worldwide concerns about vaccine inequality and the global pandemic response. Soon after the new variant was reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa, leaders began discussing what to do if renewed pandemic outbreaks become a recurrent feature of human life. Is it not time, some asked, to prepare a new international agreement to better deal with these, in what one might call a “pandemic treaty”? In November, the issue has been debated at a special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s governing body, where 32 health ministers supported a treaty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fact that Omicron was first discovered in South Africa itself confirms why such a treaty is required. The arrival of a fast-spreading virus variant from an under-vaccinated country underscores the slogan we have heard ever since the pandemic first emerged: “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. We need an international legal instrument to establish a global structure that would identify threats of pandemics early on and help ensure the production of vaccines or other drugs at adequate levels and in a timely manner. That is what poorer countries want.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The reaction of rich and powerful governments to the idea, though, does not augur well for such a treaty. All governments prefer to look after their own people first.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A year ago, I argued in this space that Covid may well have heralded the dawn of a new age of de-globalisation. Even the outbreak of Omicron has confirmed the absence of any global spirit among nations. Immediately, governments responded with restrictions and even outright bans on entry into their countries of travellers coming from lands with confirmed cases.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All this raises the obvious question: will the world once again descend into “every government for itself”? We have already seen countries hoarding vaccines, protecting manufacturing technology and reneging on contracts and commitments to supply vaccines to others. The rich nations have prioritised their own people, imposed the most severe travel restrictions and ignored the desperate calls of poor nations (and the WHO itself) for global cooperation to stem the pandemic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ironically, one of the casualties was the cancellation of a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Council which was supposed to discuss a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for coronavirus vaccines. A waiver could have allowed manufacturers to make cheaper, generic versions of highly efficient coronavirus vaccines and medicines. Rich countries, notably in Europe, have opposed the proposal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If a mere waiver could not get off the ground, is there any hope for a pandemic treaty? Its champions seek an international agreement that could commit governments to produce a certain number of vaccines, maintain a level of manufacturing infrastructure that would serve the world and not just their own people, and participate in global surveillance efforts to help identify new viruses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These all seem obvious priorities for a world reeling from the onslaught of Covid, but the response of governments has been disappointingly tepid. If we do not achieve a treaty, the next virus outbreak could see the world making the same mistakes all over again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jan 01 11:38:47 IST 2022 assault-on-our-institutions-will-weaken-the-very-pillars-of-democracy-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As Constitution Day on November 26 was marked by a boycott of Parliament by opposition parties, it is worth asking what has become of the free institutions whose existence underpins our constitutional democracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>They have atrophied. Financial regulators like the RBI; the judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court; the investigative agencies (notably the Central Bureau of Investigation); the Election Commission, which organises, conducts the country’s general and state elections; the armed forces; institutions of accountability like the Central Information Commission; the elected legislatures; and the free press have all come under a shadow.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Part of the reason behind this systemic onslaught stems from the Moditva doctrine of the ruling party and its inherently autocratic concentration of power. Moditva articulates a cultural nationalism anchored in the RSS political doctrine of Hindutva, on top of which it builds the idea of a strong leader, a man with a 56-inch chest, powerful and decisive, who embodies the nation and will lead it to triumph.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>‘Moditva’ depicts a fiery and articulate ideologue, projected as all-knowing and infallible, the hero on a white stallion who will gallop at the head of the nation’s massed forces with sword upraised, knowing all the answers, ready to cut the Gordian knots of the nation’s problems.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Autonomous public institutions threaten the dominance of the Moditva doctrine because they are independent institutions with specialised mandates that consequently challenge this oversized cult of personality. Naturally, the government has systematically sought to interfere with the independence that is a defining feature of these bodies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s Election Commission has enjoyed a proud record of independence and boasts decades-long experience of conducting free and fair elections, despite its members usually being retired civil servants appointed by the government of the day for fixed tenures. While in the past, election commissioners have largely enjoyed a reputation for integrity, this has taken a severe blow as the result of a number of decisions in recent years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The judicial system, traditionally above the cut-and-thrust of the political fray, has come under withering scrutiny, as has the repeated politicisation of the armed forces under the present government. The list goes on, from the Central Information Commission (which suffers a record number of unfilled vacancies, remains intentionally understaffed and whose salaries and terms of service can be altered by the government—a blow to the independence of the body), to the Central Statistical Organisation (which has been accused of manipulating data to make the government’s economic management appear less disastrous). A slew of governors have cast aside their constitutional mandate to sing to the tune of the ruling dispensation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As for the ‘temple of democracy’, our Parliament, it has declined considerably from the deliberative forum it is supposed to be, to a combination of rubber-stamp for government bills, notice-board for official pronouncements, and theatrical stage for dramatic disruptions. Serious work still goes on in the committees, but these have also been undermined by the government’s disinclination to refer most bills to committee scrutiny.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A process combining intimidation and co-optation has weakened the press, ensuring that very few critical voices in the so-called ‘mainstream’ media are raised against such behaviour. Instead, the press largely serves as a weapon of mass distraction, purveying sensationalist and voyeuristic stories to take attention away from the government’s failures.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This does not bode well for the future of our Indian democracy. Political parties and ruling powers will come and go, but these institutions are the enduring pillars of democracy, whose independence, integrity and professionalism are meant to inure them from political pressures. If the assault on our institutions persists, the confidence that people have in these bodies will erode steadily and, in doing so, weaken the very pillars of the democracy that we take for granted today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Dec 04 15:53:33 IST 2021 why-a-new-parliament-when-modi-does-not-respect-the-house-asks-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently launched a full-frontal assault on critics of his Central Vista scheme, accusing them of spreading “lies” and “misinformation” and being opposed to India’s progress. The Vista’s redevelopment, he argues, will represent New India after 75 years of independence, and cast off the colonial Lutyens “face” of New Delhi. “India is the mother of democracy. Therefore, the capital of India should be such that its central focus should be people,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is a curious argument since the imperial legacy of Lutyens Delhi was transformed decades ago by a new, democratic India. The area between India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan, which the government seeks to remake, has indeed been focused on the people. It is at present a grassy, pleasant place where, on any given day, families can be seen enjoying the lawns, eating ice cream, and strolling. It is a truly democratic space, freely accessible to the people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That will all change: a leading architectural magazine called the prime minister’s dream project “a retrograde and anti-ecological urban plan” which could “turn an entire stretch of the Rajpath, once so free and easy, into a surveyed security zone”. The government’s decision to push ahead with the construction of this project during the mismanaged Covid pandemic is an act of staggering arrogance, exposing its indifference to the interests of ordinary Indians. The project costs 020 lakh crore at a time when adequate oxygen supplies were unavailable during the nightmarish Covid “second wave” earlier this year, migrant labourers walked hundreds of kilometres after a disastrously implemented lockdown last year, and the people of India, reeling from the economic crisis, received the most meagre fiscal stimulus of any major economy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Changing the physical face of Lutyens’s Delhi is essentially a show of power, a desire to stamp the national capital with the seal of Moditva. The “edifice complex” of this government’s fantasies reeks of a Mussolinian air, a taste for the grandiose that has nothing to do with democracy in either substance or process. The BJP’s governance style is one of unilateral top-down decision-making, with not even the pretence of consulting the public, the opposition, or indeed even architects, environmentalists, or parliamentarians. The wholesale destruction of many much-admired buildings, including the National Museum and the recently completed Jawahar Bhawan, in favour of banal and repetitive cookie-cutter government offices, is deplorably wasteful. It is one more shameful attempt to dismantle the idea of democratic India itself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government also contends that a new Parliament building is needed as the old one is no longer fit for purpose. I myself had argued that the Parliament building was in desperate need of upgradation, but I had called for a renovation of the present structure, not its replacement. Replacing an iconic Parliament building is bad enough. But the irony of conducting a ground-breaking ceremony for the new Parliament while suspending the work that should have been taking place in the old—two of the regular parliamentary sessions were abandoned or truncated—was lost on the government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead of focusing its energies on building a new Parliament, perhaps the government should take stock of its shameful behaviour in the one we already have. When you have reduced Parliament to a notice-board for your unilateral decisions, disembowelled the standing committees by refusing to discuss legislation in them, and got your pliant majority to rubber-stamp all the bills you want to shovel through without debate, what difference will a new building make?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Nov 06 11:17:49 IST 2021 pluralism-is-in-very-nature-of-india-bjp-is-challenging-it-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The mounting unpleasantness of communal bigotry in our country prompts me to look back at the founding of the Indian Republic. Our nationalist movement did not divide over ideology or geography; it divided on the simple issue of whether religion should be the determinant of nationhood. Those who argued that their religion made them a nation left India and established Pakistan; the rest created a nation which, like the freedom struggle itself, sought to embrace all Indians.</p> <p>There was also a practical consideration here. In dealing with the vast and complex realities of a subcontinent of 330 million people, and in devising systems and rules to embrace all of them, the founders had to acknowledge the need to produce political unity out of ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic, and communal diversity.</p> <p>They realised that in the India they would rule, there was no single standard, no fixed stereotype, no “one way” of doing things. In an era when most developing countries chose authoritarian models of government, claiming these were needed to promote nation-building and steer economic development, India chose to be a multi-party democracy—flawed, but flourishing. India’s pluralism was acknowledged in its constitutional and political arrangements, which encouraged a bewildering variety of social groups, religious communities, sectional interests and far-fetched ideologies to flourish and contend. This approach—called, with some inexactitude, “secularism”—is now bitterly challenged by the ruling party.</p> <p>Many observers abroad have been astonished by India’s survival as a pluralist state. But pluralism is a reality that emerges from the very nature of the country; it is a choice made inevitable by India’s geography and reaffirmed by its history. India’s is a civilisation that, over millennia, has offered refuge and, more importantly, religious and cultural freedom, to Jews, Parsis, several denominations of Christians, and, of course, Muslims. Jews came to Kerala centuries before Christ, with the destruction by the Babylonians of their First Temple, and they knew no persecution on Indian soil until the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century to inflict it. Christianity arrived on Indian soil with St Thomas the Apostle, who came to the Kerala coast sometime before 52 CE and was welcomed on shore, if the legend is to be believed, by a flute-playing Jewish girl.</p> <p>Islam is portrayed by some in the north as a religion of invaders who pillaged and conquered, but in Kerala, where Islam came through traders, travellers and missionaries rather than by the sword, a south Indian king was so impressed by the message of the prophet that he travelled to Arabia to meet the great teacher himself. The king, Cheraman Perumal, perished in the attempt, but the coconuts he took with him have sprouted trees that flourish to this day on the southern coast of Oman.</p> <p>India’s heritage of diversity means that in the Kolkata neighbourhood where I lived during my high school years, the wail of the muezzin calling the Islamic faithful to prayer routinely blended with the chant of mantras and the tinkling of bells at the local Shiva temple, accompanied by the Sikh gurdwara’s reading of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, with St Paul’s Cathedral just around the corner. Today, in my constituency, Thiruvananthapuram, the gleaming white dome of the Palayam Juma Masjid stands diagonally across from the lofty spires of St Joseph’s Cathedral, and just around the corner from both, abutting the mosque, is one of the city’s oldest temples, consecrated to Lord Ganesh. My experiences in Thiruvananthapuram remind me daily that India is home to more Christians than Australia and nearly as many Muslims as Pakistan.</p> <p>That is the India I lay claim to.</p> <p><b></b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Oct 07 14:36:35 IST 2021 education-policy-makers-should-not-forget-digital-divide-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Some readers may recall a story from last year’s lockdown that is seared into my consciousness. A Class 10 student in Kerala, hailing from a dalit family, a young girl who was a class topper and under any other circumstances would have been set for a bright future, instead committed suicide. Why? Because as classes leapt online, her family, where the sole breadwinner was her father, a daily-wage worker now unemployed thanks to the lockdown, was unable to afford a smartphone or a data package which would have allowed this girl to follow the classes necessary to continue her education. Then the state government, in a great show of solidarity with the poor, announced that classes would also be telecast on Victers TV—a public broadcasting channel for those children who could not afford online facilities. But the family’s sole television set was broken and her father, barely able to feed his family, could not afford to repair it. Excluded and marginalised from the very field in which she had excelled, this bright student preferred not to live. She killed herself.</p> <p>This sobering and tragic event calls for a serious commitment on the part of education policy-makers to take stock of the barriers to access and inclusion that permeate all levels of our society. As classes rapidly go online in the Covid-19 era, we as a country have not sufficiently addressed a deep and pervasive digital divide that many families have to contend with. According to UNESCO, globally, only just over half of households (55 per cent) have an internet connection. In the developed world, 87 per cent are connected compared with 47 per cent in developing nations, and just 19 per cent in the least developed countries. These stark realities, along with other basic barriers like infrastructure deficiencies, have resulted in insuperable barriers for our weak and marginalised sections. This is the reality of the India we live in, reality that educationists cannot afford to forget while they sit protected by privilege and discuss the future of the New Education Policy. That is why I (and other MPs) have been organising digital-divide bridging donations of smartphones to poor students.</p> <p>And what about universities? Some have argued that, after the initial arduous period of adaptation, online education will become the new norm, and the university campus as we know it has become obsolete. I do not agree. Yes, poverty-stricken students can be equipped for online education. But that is not enough. Our current resort to online education overlooks the great value of campus interactions for students across social classes and regional or religious divides, and the comradeship that arises from shared experience and mutual learning.</p> <p>Above all, the university campus can be a place where people can be brought together, where the social barriers of class, religion and caste are left behind and young Indians are given the tools to lead an empowered life; a space that is confident enough to look at its wealth of differences as a strength and not so insecure as to look at diversity as a weakness that must be rooted out; a space where the administration is attuned to the aspirations of the students, the next generation of India’s leaders, and where these young minds, the engines of our democratic and pluralist society, are not subsumed only by personal ambition or the commercial rat-race, but are invested in the success of those around them. If we manage to create such spaces on our campuses, we can develop a new Indian university that remains open, inclusive and representative offline—an old idea reimagined for a new India.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 09 16:13:36 IST 2021 everyone-must-follow-international-rules-even-the-us-says-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On June 24, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the 29th time in a row to censure US sanctions on Cuba. A staggering 184 countries supported the resolution condemning the US economic embargo on the Communist-run Caribbean island-state, three abstained, and four did not vote at all; just two states voted against the resolution—the US and Israel. The US promptly made it clear that it will, yet again, disregard the overwhelming opinion of the “international community”. The sanctions will continue. So what makes the US the self-proclaimed defender of a “rules-based international order”?</p> <p>The question is increasingly relevant as the world seems to be dividing along a new binary—between an ominously resurgent China, bent on asserting itself through “wolf warrior diplomacy” as the new gorilla on the global beach, and a group of beleaguered democracies, led by the US, who seek, they claim, to uphold the rules-based liberal international order established since 1945.</p> <p>The idea of a rules-based system goes back to the founding of the UN 76 years ago. In 1945, the UN’s far-sighted founders—determined to make the second half of the twentieth century different from the much-troubled first—drew up rules to govern international behaviour, and founded institutions in which different nations could cooperate for the common good.</p> <p>Their idea—now called “global governance”—was to create an architecture that could foster international cooperation, elaborate consensual global norms and establish predictable, universally applicable rules, to the benefit of all. After 50 years in which the world had suffered two world wars, countless civil wars, brutal dictatorships, mass expulsions of populations, and the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, the world would be governed by international law. Everyone would follow the same rules.</p> <p>The new UN would stand for a world in which people of different nations and cultures would look on each other, not as subjects of fear and suspicion, but as potential partners, able to exchange goods and ideas to their mutual benefit. A place where small states and big would be able to work as sovereign equals, pursuing common objectives in a universal forum, observing common rules of engagement.</p> <p>As US President Harry Truman, addressing the San Francisco Conference that founded the UN, observed: “We all have to recognise, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please. No one nation... can or should expect any special privilege which harms any other nation.... Unless we are all willing to pay that price, no organisation for world peace can accomplish its purpose. And what a reasonable price that is!”</p> <p>But in the decades since, the biggest defenders of the established world order have let it down the most. USA’s behaviour in sanctioning Cuba, despite the disapproval of the rest of the world, is often seen as a typical example of its attitude. If the rest of the world disagrees, the US, instead of abiding by the rules and heeding the majority, does its own thing anyway.</p> <p>Examples like these abound. The US condemns China for its expansionist behaviour in the South China Sea, and asserts the principle of freedom of navigation—but it refuses to sign or ratify the very Law of the Sea that it excoriates the Chinese for violating. Washington waxes indignant, often selectively, about human rights violations in an assortment of countries—but it not only has not ratified the establishment of the International Criminal Court, but also passed a law authorising its armed forces to use violence to extricate any American citizens who might one day be arraigned by the Court.</p> <p>In other words, critics of the US assert, its advocacy of a “rules-based international order” is not about the rules, or the order, that the rest of the world wants, supports and votes for. It only stands up for the rules that suit it.</p> <p>When Truman waxed eloquent about the importance of international law that would bind big and small, strong and weak, equally, he was making a simple point that is essential to any democracy. If you want to uphold a rules-based system, everyone must follow the same rules. Even the world’s biggest superpower.</p> Thu Aug 12 15:23:51 IST 2021 free-our-universities-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The recent suspension of a professor at the Central University of Kerala for mentioning the RSS while talking about proto-fascism in his classes, highlights the ongoing persecution of India’s more liberal universities and academicians. The government seems entirely unconscious of the classic prescription that the supreme purpose of a university in any democracy is to create well-formed minds who can participate in our system, whose future depends on citizens’ capacity to scrutinise their elected officials.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One purpose of the university is to help us expand our minds in service of our democracy. In a deliberative democracy, universities are meant to be hotbeds of argument, debate and dissent rather than centres of conformity. Universities are where young people find themselves in causes larger than their own academic careers. Many—perhaps most—students grow up in the process and outgrow the more extreme views they adopted out of youthful zeal. Two of my extreme-leftist classmates at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, for instance, are now conservative pundits associated (in one case, till recently) with the BJP. They would undoubtedly be embarrassed to be reminded of the fervour with which they espoused positions that they dismiss with scorn today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perhaps more important, the Indian state is not so feeble that a few irresponsible slogans shouted by misguided students can destroy it. By branding dissent as “anti-national”, our BJP rulers are betraying the founding idea of an India “where the mind”, in Tagore’s immortal phrase, “is without fear”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP’s attack on universities is planned, deliberate, and dangerous to India’s democracy. The slapping of sedition charges on Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and the suicide in January 2016, as a result of harassment, by a dalit student in Hyderabad, Rohit Vemula, are evidence that we have failed to protect our students and scholars from political interference by individuals and organisations that used arbitrary processes to uproot academic freedom. From Dinanath Batra’s RSS-supported curriculum in Haryana and Gujarat on “moral science” to the politically driven harassment of Vemula and the sacking of social activist and Magsaysay awardee professor Sandeep Pandey for his dissenting views at Banaras Hindu University, a deeply disturbing pattern emerges that points to an ominous political project, to exact conformity by striking at the intellectual fount of challenges to it, the universities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The filing of an FIR in October 2019 under Section 124A (the sedition law) against 49 intellectuals who wrote a letter to the prime minister deploring mob-lynching, though since dropped, remains an egregious example of the misuse of this law against freedom of speech. It is essential to clarify and restrict its application to instances in which there is a direct and immediate incitement to violence, as has been interpreted by the Supreme Court of India. This will free students as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It should not need saying, but in today’s India, it does: One can criticise the government of the day and be loyal to the nation. We must celebrate a robust and pluralistic Indian democracy, not the fearful brand of governance espoused by the current government, which sees treason in every tweet and a traitor under every desk.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP seems to believe that India’s freedom is so frail that it will collapse in the face of dissent—which characterises the spirit of the nation in the first place. They have parked a tank on the JNU campus. But the flag that our soldiers have died for, even as the JNU disturbances were going on, stands for a larger idea of freedom than the intolerance of our present authorities. It is time for the government to live up to the ideals embodied in our flag.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jul 17 21:00:28 IST 2021 indo-pacific-will-remain-hub-for-maritime-economic-cooperation-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It is fascinating for old hands of global diplomacy when new terms of art emerge and find widespread acceptance. This has happened to the “Indo-Pacific”, an expression that comes up often in my conversations with foreigners—sometimes self-consciously, sometimes automatically, and sometimes with the slight tone of deference that is used by those who are striving to be politically correct.</p> <p>Whatever the case may be, the idea of the Indo-Pacific breaks down the separation of East Asia conceptually from South Asia and links the two geopolitically. At the same time, the term reflects three interrelated developments. The first is China’s declared intention of developing a blue water navy and becoming a transcontinental economic giant. The second is India’s emergence as a regional power and a possible counterbalance to China. And the third is the role which the US will play in shaping the contours of the seemingly irresistible shift in power from west to east, and from the Atlantic to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Taken together, the ideation of the ‘Indo-Pacific region’ captures the growing might, geopolitical interests, and normative visions of these powers in a dynamic region.</p> <p>Within the confluence of these complex developments, India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific is one that strives to ensure a free, open and rules-based maritime space that respects each nation’s strategic autonomy and where no individual player or alliance seeks to undermine this in the quest for greater influence in this region.</p> <p>But Beijing and Moscow object to the conceptualisation of the Indo-Pacific as a strategy to contain China, which remains Russia’s largest trading partner, and with whose geo-strategic interests Moscow is increasingly aligned. India cannot afford to completely disregard consistent criticism from Russia, which continues to provide the majority of our defence imports.</p> <p>And, yet, Russia’s objections point to how far Russia and India have travelled from each other in recent years. So far, India has been equidistant from the US and China, a position Russia prefers us to maintain. But it is difficult to be equidistant between a country that has killed 20 of your soldiers and transgressed your border, and another that you have no quarrel with and that tries to be supportive.</p> <p>Our foreign policy is not determined by one violent standoff and the violation of our territorial sovereignty alone, but such incidents cannot be lightly brushed aside. Beyond its belligerence on the LAC, China has increased its support for Pakistan, spending more than $90 billion on a highway to the Chinese-run port of Gwadar. The importance of Pakistan to China’s Belt and Road Initiative binds the two countries closer together than before.</p> <p>So India has deliberately embraced the US concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and is gradually abandoning its reluctance to participate in the US-led “Quad”, focused on countering China’s regional ambitions. The last Quad summit called for the Indo-Pacific to remain ‘free and open … anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion’.&nbsp;</p> <p>But whether these lofty ideals will translate to mutually agreeable outcomes remains to be seen. For instance, the recent military exercise by the US navy in India’s backyard, without prior notification too, let alone an official nod, has not gone down well in New Delhi. Similarly, while the joint statement talked about greater cooperation on vaccine production and distribution, in recent weeks Indian media has placed a growing spotlight on the US embargo on certain vital raw material that is required for vaccine manufacturing by Indian producers.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Quad is therefore not an incipient Indo-Pacific NATO. The Indo-Pacific will remain a centre for maritime and economic cooperation and a facilitator of the huge volume of global trade that flows through this region. Our ultimate objective in the region has to remain the peace, security and development of all. At a time when all of us are threatened by a deadly virus, climate change and rising levels of poverty and income inequality, that is all that geopolitics ought to be about. Even in the Indo-Pacific.</p> Thu Jun 17 15:33:47 IST 2021 moditva-doctrine-is-all-about-autocratic-concentration-of-power-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Is democracy under threat in India? Indeed, has India already ceased to be democratic?</p> <p>This may seem an odd question to ask in the aftermath of five successful state elections, conducted largely freely and fairly and only one of which the BJP won. Yet, if one were to read the annual reports of Freedom House, the American think-tank, which downgraded India this year from “free” to only “partly free”, or the prestigious V-Dem Institute in Sweden, which described India as an “electoral autocracy”, then we have indeed slipped out of the ranks of the world’s democracies. Elections can be democratic, but true democracy is about what happens between elections.</p> <p>It has not helped that since this government came to office in 2014, we have witnessed a striking dilution of independence at the highest levels of our autonomous institutions, from financial regulators like the Reserve Bank to institutions of accountability like the Central Information Commission; that questions have been raised about even hitherto sacrosanct bodies like the Election Commission and the upper echelons of the armed forces; and that Parliament, the judiciary and even the free press are widely perceived as insufficiently free of the government’s influence.</p> <p>Part of the reason behind this systemic crumbling stems from the Moditva doctrine and its inherently autocratic concentration of power. Moditva articulates a cultural nationalism anchored in the RSS political doctrine of hindutva, but building upon it the idea of a strong leader, powerful and decisive, who embodies the nation. Autonomous public institutions threaten the Moditva doctrine because, by design, they are independent. This is why their authority must be undermined, and the “nationalist” argument advanced that opposition and dissent are by definition anti-national. The fear is that ethno-nationalism is taking India towards a peculiar hybrid, a ‘dictatocracy’ which preserves the forms of democracy while brooking no dissent against its dictates.</p> <p>If the de-institutionalisation of Indian governance proceeds like this, the greatest danger facing India will be that of the public losing faith in the system altogether. This is already taking place in many other parts of the world. In a widely discussed paper, Harvard scholars Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa argue that the health of liberal democracies across the world is degenerating (the term of art being ‘democratic deconsolidation’). Drawing on global data, they show that there has been a considerable dilution of support for democracy and a growing impatience with the democratic process, especially among the so-called ‘millennial’ generations (those born after the 1980s), and that we can no longer assume that the future of democracy is secure.</p> <p>Indeed, support for non-democratic or authoritarian models of governance is rising in many democracies. India is among the worst in the Mounk–Foa data. More than 70 per cent of Indian respondents felt that “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections is a ‘good’ way to run this country”, higher than even Pakistan, with 62 per cent. In a recent CSDS–Azim Premji University survey, over 50 per cent of respondents in four large states expressed a preference for an authoritarian alternative to our existing democracy.</p> <p>While for many apologists of India’s government, the mere conduct of reasonably free and fair elections is defence enough, democracy can only flourish if the system maintains checks and balances, promotes consensus, and ensures institutional autonomy. Otherwise we become another “illiberal democracy”.</p> <p>The immortal JP argued that democracy should not be reduced to a crowd of sheep electing their shepherd every five years. The confidence that the people of India have in our system rests in the belief that it will work fairly. If their faith erodes, it will weaken the very foundations of the democracy that we take for granted. Political parties and the ruling powers of the day will come and go, but free institutions are the enduring pillars of any democracy. Their independence, integrity and professionalism are meant to inure them from the political pressures of the day. We must not let Moditva destroy them.</p> Thu May 20 16:19:49 IST 2021 shashi-tharoor-on-the-need-to-avoid-a-cold-war-between-us-and-china <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even as the world continues to grapple with the ravages of the Covid pandemic, strategists with an eye on the long term are contemplating a potentially equally crippling prospect: the onset of a “new Cold War”, this time between the US and China.</p> <p>US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has dubbed Beijing a “threat to global stability” and denounced its record on human rights and trade. China has been equally harsh in its condemnation of US “imperialism” and domestic problems, including racism. Beijing has made no secret of its disdainful view that the US is a country in terminal decline.</p> <p>The Biden administration appears to be embarking on establishing a network of alliances against China. Likely areas of competition with China go beyond the conventional geopolitical issues to challenges in cyberspace and the risks of technological conflict. American thinkers have called for policymakers to evolve a comprehensive strategy to counter China, much as George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow in 1946 led to the birth of the “containment strategy” that hemmed in the Soviet Union.</p> <p>Ideology is seen as key to the division of the world into duelling camps. President Biden wants to forge an “alliance of democracies” against the world’s “autocracies”. The Quad is seen by some as the nucleus of a future such alliance. Democracy and liberal values are essential to keeping such an alliance together and to demonstrate that this is not just another amoral contest for military or geopolitical supremacy. This is why Washington prefers to couch its vision as being about principles, democratic governance and the maintenance of international order.</p> <p>But “Cold War 2.0” is not inevitable. The Biden administration does seem to be more nuanced than its predecessor in its approach to China. Blinken has acknowledged that the relationship with China has adversarial, competitive and cooperative aspects. This was not true of the US-Soviet Cold War, where there was simply no economic interpenetration between the two blocs and almost no examples of cooperation, let alone investment or significant trade.</p> <p>The countries that the US might hope to rope into its project also have complex concerns. Countries in southeast Asia would welcome the US or the Quad offering a counterweight to Chinese hegemony, but they are too conscious of their economic dependence on Beijing to espouse any overt hostility.</p> <p>Even the Quad countries have too much at stake in their economic relations with China to simply write off the relationship. China is not known for its ideological zeal to convert the world to communism; it is far more interested in finding itself a dominant place in the current world order than to overthrow the international system.</p> <p>Nor are there any proxy wars littering the landscape as in the original Cold War, nor much of an appetite for any in either Beijing or Washington. Positing another Cold War, therefore, overstates both the current situation and the risk of any threat from China to the global order.</p> <p>It is also inescapable today that current global crises like the coronavirus pandemic and environmental disasters oblige the US and China to confront the same problems, face the same threats and seize the same opportunities. What we used to call, in my UN days, “problems without passports”, require blueprints beyond borders to resolve. Global cooperation would serve the world better than intensified rivalry.</p> <p>As the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra put it recently in a piece for Bloomberg: “The urgent question today is not whether there will be a new cold war. It is whether modes of thought developed during the previous one… will again dominate political and intellectual life…. The crude division between democracy and autocracy won’t help us grasp such a topsy-turvy world. Though comfortingly simple, such cold war ideologies can never truly replace our messy reality.”</p> <p>The ideological battle lines are not yet joined. Perhaps, with enough imagination, they will not need to be.</p> Thu Apr 22 15:11:07 IST 2021 kerala-should-end-over-dependence-on-remittances-shashi-tharoor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As I write these words, my state is riven in a bitter election campaign, with harsh words being flung at and by the ruling party. And yet, though much criticism of the government is justified, the ‘Kerala Model’ itself cannot be disputed.</p> <p>The phrase was revived last year to praise the state’s success in initially suppressing the spread of Covid-19 and ‘flattening the curve’ till October, when cases re-escalated. But the government’s failures to maintain its performance do not discredit the Kerala model itself. For its Covid-19 response has emerged from a template that long preceded the current crisis. Among Indian states, it is unique for having allocated significant resources to public health, devolved power and funding to village-level bodies, and established a system that promotes community participation and public cooperation.</p> <p>In addition to having the highest literacy rate in India (94 per cent), Kerala also boasts a declining birth rate, higher life expectancy, more empowered women, and stronger welfare support for the marginalised. People do not beg or starve in Kerala.</p> <p>The state offers universal access to health care, and respects all residents as rights-bearing citizens. Throughout the current crisis, Kerala’s educated populace has behaved responsibly, limiting community transmission, cooperating with authorities, and seeking prompt treatment. This institutional and political culture is not the result of some one-off policy. Kerala has spent generations creating the infrastructure to support social development, placing it far ahead of the rest of India on many key indicators.</p> <p>Kerala has a vibrant civil society, free media, and a competitive political system. Its robust form of social democracy reflects the contributions of alternating coalitions of communist and Congress-led governments over time.</p> <p>Kerala has built on its tradition of decentralised governance, transparency, public trust and governmental accountability. While these must not be seen as a reason to underplay the current challenges the state faces, it offers a timely reminder that with greater sensitivity to the crisis at hand, more public willingness to continue to adopt counter measures like social distancing, wearing of masks and sanitisation measures, we can bounce back.</p> <p>Malayalis are a people of incredible resilience and fortitude. Whether it was during Cyclone Ockhi, the devastating floods in 2018 and 2019 or even in the face of similar virus outbreaks like Nipah, the people of the state have found a way to face these serious challenges head on.</p> <p>When sources for conflict have arisen, the people have found a way to remind the rest of the country that we are proud flagbearers of a phenomenon I call the ‘Malayali miracle’. No politician can claim credit for this, the “real Kerala model”—a community that has practised openness and tolerance from time immemorial; which has made religious and ethnic diversity a part of its daily life rather than a source of division; which has overcome caste discrimination and class oppression through education, land reforms, and political democracy; which has given its working men and women greater rights and a higher minimum wage than anywhere else in India; and which has honoured its women and enabled them to lead productive, fulfilling and empowered lives.</p> <p>And, yet, this election has again confirmed the need to update the Kerala model while preserving it. We must sustain our human development not by borrowings but by attracting investment. Instead of exporting our unemployment, we must generate jobs and support entrepreneurs. Instead of relying on remittances we must develop our home-grown strengths. The red-flag culture of repeated hartals must end with an acceptance of social responsibility for the common good.</p> <p>As a Malayali and an Indian, I look forward to the day when Kerala will no longer be the exception in tales of Indian development, but again the trailblazer.</p> Thu Mar 25 13:57:08 IST 2021 hate-machinerys-new-target <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>During the unpleasantness surrounding the arrest of 22-year-old activist Disha Ravi, the most unsavoury of the many disagreeable elements in the controversy was the attempt of hindutva social media warriors to disparage her by claiming she is Christian. She is not, but what if she were? In the BJP’s “New India”, is merely being Christian enough to qualify for the epithet “anti-national”?</p> <p>The irony is that Christians have long been among the builders of modern India, and many are the BJP leaders who, like L.K. Advani, had their intellect first shaped by Christian education. My first substantial interaction with Christian teachers took place when, as a rather nervous young boy, not yet six years old, I was admitted to the Montfort Boys’ Boarding School in Yercaud, Tamil Nadu. A year later I joined the prestigious Campion School, Bombay, where a majority of the teaching staff was Christian, and finished high school at the St Xavier’s Collegiate School in Calcutta, where I encountered a few more teachers of that persuasion.</p> <p>I should mention that the three schools I went to from ages six to 16 had an interesting detail in common: they were all Catholic schools, two of them Jesuit. It is remarkable how much this one order has done to educate and train millions of Indian children to make successes in their lives.</p> <p>A number of the priests at these schools were remarkably well-trained. At St Xavier’s I remember several brilliant young Jesuit fathers. The late Father Remedios, a superb guide to Shakespeare as well as “Values of Life” (Biblical ethics without the Bible!), was an excellent class teacher who, after instilling in us his profound knowledge of Julius Caesar, cycled regularly to jail, visiting prisoners to minister to their moral and spiritual needs.</p> <p>The now-eminent theologian Cyril Desbruslais, then in his 20s, took my class through an epistemological argument for the existence of God, which certainly impressed my fourteen-year-old imagination at a time when I was beginning to flirt with the idea of atheism. When you discover rationality, the idea of religion does not seem so appealing, until you discover the limits of rationalism in a world whose wonders surpass the explanations of reason. But in between I benefited from a very rational, structured philosophical argument from this Jesuit priest who lectured teenagers on why God existed, citing Kant and Thomas Aquinas in the process.</p> <p>I remember playing during the recess in our wonderful ‘big field’ with some of the outstanding Anglo-Indian students of the school, who consistently excelled at hockey in particular, and won every possible song and music competition. My debate and speech teacher at St Xavier’s, who also directed the high school’s annual play, was another sparklingly gifted exemplar of the cultural strengths of the Christian community.</p> <p>It was particularly striking to me that in our interactions with these teachers, we were absolutely free to express our beliefs and views. Elsewhere, you learn to answer the questions. The teachers I was privileged to have taught me to question the answers—and later I went on to question the questions, too.</p> <p>Thanks to them, at an impressionable age, I was given an education that combined a well-rounded tutelage with a pan-Indian outlook that made me deeply appreciative of eclectic social interests, the importance of a questioning spirit, and, above all, humanitarian regard for the well-being of others.</p> <p>The next time a hindutvavadi tries to turn “Christian” into a term of abuse, I urge my fellow citizens of that faith to wear the badge with pride. There is much that millions of Indians should remain grateful to Christians for.</p> Thu Feb 25 13:52:48 IST 2021 the-battle-to-belong <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When these words appear, our 71st Republic Day will just be behind us. Our national celebrations of this anniversary of the entry into force of our Constitution have been tempered by the raging coronavirus pandemic, which already claimed the event’s chief guest, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who cancelled his visit because of the emergence of a new mutant strain of Covid-19 in his country. But for many of us, the mood of celebration was also dampened by the realisation that never before has the Constitution we are celebrating seemed under such threat, with some scholars even writing of the dawn of a second republic that may have already supplanted the one established on January 26, 1950.</p> <p>I have tried to deal with this challenge in my new non-fiction magnum opus, <i>The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism and What It Means to Be Indian</i>, which seeks to expand our current political mudslinging into a serious debate on the concept of nationalism and Indian nationhood. These are themes that have increasingly become relevant around the world and are contested in contemporary India today, since some have been promoting a version of nationalism that foments division and fragmentation within our society.</p> <p>My book seeks, first, to outline the evolution of nationalism across the world, its manifestations globally and the various kinds of nationalism that have shaped the concept. This serves as a framework through which I introduce the contemporary challenges of nationalism and nationhood across the world and in India, particularly the clash we are witnessing today between ethno-religious nationalism (based on immutable identities) and civic nationalism (based on constitutions and institutions).</p> <p>The second theme is the evolution of Indian nationalism from the anti-colonial days to the civic nationalism enshrined in the Constitution. The nationalism that inspired the long struggle for independence was rooted in India’s time-honoured civilisational traditions of inclusivity, social justice, religious tolerance, and the desire to forge a society that allowed individuals to flourish, irrespective of their religion, caste, language or place of birth. This constitutional idea of India is being challenged by a new dominant narrative that thrives on an exclusionary, aggressive, communal nationalism based on cultural identity and the notion that India is a Hindu Rashtra.</p> <p>In the process, as I explain in the final third of the book, the idea of “patriotism” has been redefined by the majoritarians. In my view, “patriotism” is about loving your country because it is yours, because you belong to it and it belongs to you. It excludes no Indian. Whereas the nationalism being promoted in India today is a totalising vision that omits those who do not subscribe to it.</p> <p>In today’s India, the question of what it means to be Indian has attained paramount importance. Our liberal constitutionalism and democratic traditions are fundamentally questioned by rising intolerance, in which the forces unleashed by our rulers tell Indians what they cannot eat, who they cannot love, what thoughts they cannot hold, what words they must not say (and jokes they must not crack). Their political attack on opponents as “anti-national” conceals authoritarian instincts.</p> <p>In the concluding section of the book, I share my vision for India’s future, of reclaiming a nationalism that reaffirms the Constitution’s liberal and inclusive idea of India and proudly proclaims that our patriotism celebrates pluralism.</p> <p>Though I have written a lot in the past on the havoc wreaked on the social, cultural, and political values of India by intolerant and nativist forces, this Republic Day is the time to re-examine the issues revolving around the idea of India, nationalism, patriotism, and the struggle between those who believe in the ideals bequeathed to the nation by the founding fathers and those who would destroy everything valuable about our country. My book is my contribution to this vital national conversation.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 28 14:11:25 IST 2021