Ambreen Zaidi speaks to Dr Shashi Tharoor, author, peace-keeper, refugee worker, human rights activist, a former Minister of State for External Affairs and now a member of the Indian Parliament from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala.
AZ: Is Congress the prisoners of Partition? There are no more dialogues, summits and meets with Pakistan, as they used to be during the NDA rule?
ST: The simple answer is 26/11. All the dialogues etc. were happening before 26/11. As a matter of fact when 26/11 happened, Foreign Minister of Pakistan was in Delhi seeking further relaxation of Visa services and conditions. Unfortunately the tragedy of that episode and the disappointing level of cooperation from Pakistan in bringing the perpetrators to justice has naturally led to certain slowing down. Even then we, the Congress led Govt took initiative and revived the talks in Thimpu. The spirit could also be seen in the Prime Minister of Pakistan attending the match in Mohali, trade talks have taken place in Pakistan and the Foreign Ministers of both the country will be meeting very soon. So, the dialogues are going to carry on.
AZ: But not as aggressively as they were before?
ST: Well, in many ways, we have been very much the party which advocated the concept of co-existence in the subcontinent. Our Prime Minister has frequently said, if they take one step we will go the extra mile. We have been quite magnanimous from our side but quite frankly, it becomes extremely difficult to cooperate in such conditions. You see it takes two hands to clap, I mean we just can?t have a one sided approach all the time.
AZ: Post Osama, there is a growing voice, that if US can do Op Geronimo, why can?t we do the same to get people like Hafeez Sayeed and Dawood Ibrahim out of Pakistan. Is that possible?
ST: No. Primarily because we stay right next door to Pakistan; we just can't fly away from there. Retaliation would be far easier, which will inevitably lead to escalation and in no time we?ll be into a full fledged war. We are not here to go at war, we are interested in peace. We are interested in creating an environment where in we can grow and develop; attend to the problems of poverty of our own people. For that we need good harmonious relations with all our neighbours; including Pakistan. If we get into some sort of military adventure, it will not solve anything for us, but would subsequently drive away potential investors, drive away economic gains of our country, distract us from the needs of poverty alleviation and development. That doesn?t serve any purpose. We will contemplate military action only when we genuinely feel that we have no other option. Right now, we have a choice and we exercise the choice by dealing these matters rather diplomatically and through negotiations. Any military action would only be momentarily gratifying, that's it!
AZ: Can we ever, at least for once, keep aside the talks of War and military action and have relations with Pakistan as a good younger brother?
ST: That is absolutely what our vision is!. India and Pakistan can always be like US and Canada. Similar cultures and societies, lots of interchange of people, economic opportunities, travel, tourism, trade. Close relationship but separate countries. That should be possible. But for it to be possible, Pakistan will have to overcome its complexes. I believe the root cause of the tensions in the sub-continent is not partition as you said, but is rather militarization of Pakistani state. In India the State has an Army; where as in Pakistan, the Army has a State.
AZ: Can you please throw some more light on this issue?
See, in Pakistan, the army there controls everything. Pakistani army has actually controlled the public of Pakistan for majority of years of its existence and on top of that it has also been involved in real estate, import export, petro stations and all sorts of economic intelligence. They don?t join the army to defend the country but to run the country. The Pakistani military commands a greater percentage of the national budget and the national GDP than any other army in the world does. And to preserve that special possession of their society, they will always need to keep the pot boiling on the both sides of the border. So tomorrow, if Kashmir issue disappears, their existence is over.
AZ: Coming back to India, do you what are the most pressing issues which need immediate attention?
It is painful to realize that we have not yet brought the benefits of growth to a third of our population living below the poverty line, perhaps 500 million of our people are not connected to the national electricity grid, despite our attempts at rural electrification. We have a thriving film industry but we have 15 million people who can't see a bollywood film, because they have gone blind, due to preventable illness and deficiency which could have been treated properly, there are perhaps 300 million people in our country who live, within ten kms walk of a health clinic. We surely need to focus more on this.
AZ: And then we talk about being a superpower, soon.
ST: Well, I always maintain, that we cannot be a super power when we still super poor. But on the other hand economic growth is a reality, it is wrong to suggest that because we have those internal problems yet to be fixed, that we can?t afford to do anything else. Because we have poverty, do you think we also must not have our space program, we must not have a strong military, we must not spend money on television and bollywood or show case Indian cuisine, culture and the work of our Fashion designers at international arena. This is a reality of many societies; I agree we cannot take satisfaction in one by neglecting the other, but we must do both simultaneously. Only then can we be truly successful.
AZ: What is your take on the wave of corruption which has gripped our nation gravely?
ST: Let me stress, that these big ticket items, the alleged 1.76 crores of Rs lost in 2G or the humongous amount of money being siphoned out during the Commonwealth Games, are headline making sensations which cater to the newspaper reading, television watching elite. The face of corruption to an average Indian is a corruption faced by a pregnant laboring class woman, who is entitled by law to have her child at a government hospital, but has to bribe an orderly to get a bed. Or the bribe that has to be paid by an elderly widow, to collect the insurance or the pension that is due to her. At that level corruption works in ways that truly affect the fundamental opportunities of life of human beings. Frankly, the big headline stories don?t change your life or mine very much. We can be angry about it, we can be ashamed of it and talk about it over a drink, but the real corruption we need to tackle is the one which affects the daily life of our people. I feel that for every corrupt act, there is a taker and a giver. It is because, most of us are willing to play by those corrupt people?s rules that corruption is thriving in our society. So, all of us will have to work collectively to wipe out corruption, firstly, from the places which affect us more.
AZ: You dedicated 29 years of your life to UN, almost reached the pinnacle, ran for Secretary General and then left everything and joined Indian Politics and the muck. Do you regret?
ST: Not at all. I enjoyed my career in UN thoroughly, loved doing what I did and went as far as possible; rather far farther than what I could have imagined when I had joined the organization. So that chapter has been of a great pride and satisfaction. But now I am in a different environment. I think I have been able to make a contribution in the world affairs and now I have a chance of making contribution in my own country. Though there have been ups and downs, ultimately I am back in my own country and that makes a whole lot of a difference.
AZ: During your almost three decades in UN you gave a lot of speeches, lectures, were a spokesperson and there not even once a trouble. But here even your single tweet makes headlines, what is your take on it?
ST: That is a very strange thing for me too! Obviously, I was considered rather good at what I was doing and I was actually asked to guide the other UN officials on how to deal with the media. But world media & Indian media are slightly different phenomenon and certainly there were number of elements in our media who were actually not looking into it with an honest spirit. All the while they were looking for something to stir up a controversy; there was this malicious smear campaign. But this is all a part of Indian politics.
AZ: Indian politics have always been a big 'Tamasha', do you think you were rightfully prepared?
ST: No, I was definitely not prepared for all that happened, but now I have learned and I think I'll be handling it in a much better way. Hopefully!!!