The insider story
|Shashi Tharoor’s latest book is an authoritative take on Indian foreign policy, says Samita Bhatia|
It’s been a busy year for Shashi Tharoor. He’s been juggling politics with Parliament, jetting between Delhi and his constituency, Thiruvananthapuram, and burning the midnight oil to complete his newest book,Pax Indica, India and the World of the 21st Century.
Pax Indica’s power launch in Delhi was followed by another high-profile launch in Kerala. “Being a good MP, I launched it in Thiruvananthapuram,” he says, as he settles down for a chat in his sprawling MP’s bungalow in Delhi’s Lodhi Estate. The pace will only get hotter over the next few weeks as he takes the book — a clear-eyed view on India’s foreign policy and his 13th book — to Calcutta, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai.
The former United Nations diplomat isn’t a government minister any longer but he’s still a highly visible figure and receives about 400 invitations in a year to speak at universities, colleges and at functions. “I have invitations from practically every place — from Guwahati to Kanyakumari,” he says. But he can squeeze in just four or five such events annually.
A self-confessed workaholic, the parliamentarian, 56, doesn’t allow himself much rest. “I’m probably not spending enough time with my friends, going out, watching movies or enjoying myself,” he says flatly.
But he tweets — from the car, in-between appointments or while driving from Parliament to home. He was the first celebrity in India to notch up one lakh followers on Twitter and the number has swelled to over 14 lakh today. “Bollywood stars have overtaken me and I’m no longer at the top in India,” he says.
Stealing time from his schedule to write Pax Indica (Penguin India, Allen Lane) was a grind. A birthday present for his wife, Sunanda, it was written between January and June this year. “In January, Sunanda told me that she wanted it for her birthday on June 27,” he says. He was rushed to meet his deadline as he wrote only in the early mornings and late at night — sometimes till 3am. Add the fact that he does his own research rather than employ a researcher. But fortunately he writes “reasonably rapidly,” he says.
Tharoor has written on foreign policy before. His first book — written much before The Great Indian Novel (1989) —was Reasons of State (1982). A rehash of his PhD thesis, it talked about Indian foreign policy-making under Indira Gandhi. So, after he resigned as minister of state for external affairs in 2010, he thought of returning to the subject.
Egging him on was the fact that no substantive book on the subject existed for the general reader. “This is not a scholarly book on foreign policy matters but targets educated newspaper readers in India and can animate living room conversations,” he says.
Tharoor points out that there was a major change in our foreign policy in the early ’90s. The Look East policy, the opening up of the US and recognition of Israel — all happened then. “But no Indian author had done a book on the subject,” he says.
In Pax Indica he has surveyed India’s major international relationships, has evoked our soft power options and urged us to go from non-alignment to multi-alignment. He explains his coinage of the term, multi-alignment: “We can belong both to the non-aligned movement and the community of democracies. We can belong to the G-77 which has 120 countries, and the G-20. We can pursue different objectives with different allies and partners.”
He says that it’s important for India to have a foreign policy that also serves the ends of our development objectives. “Our neighbourhood too is our challenge in itself,” he says.
Tharoor always had a keen interest in international relations — even as a history student at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. He would have taken the IFS exams if it hadn’t been for the Emergency. “That completely disillusioned me,” he says.
He even wrote about it in his book India: From Midnight to the Millennium (1997). With the IFS ruled out, his says his next best option was to study at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the US from where he earned a PhD in 1978. His career at UN was a natural progression.
Tharoor may have spent a better part of his life abroad but he’s glad to be back. He doesn’t miss his UN days where he served for 29 years. He looks back at his tenure as under- secretary general with a pang of nostalgia but not in the sense of wanting to go back. “I prefer to go with the ‘been there, done that’ attitude,” he says.
After his career at the UN — he resigned after losing the 2007 election for Secretary-General — he returned to India for good the same year. Coming back he says has given him a satisfaction that he never got at UN — of speaking for his country. “One has a sense of relevance here, of being plugged into their own society,” he says.
As minister of state for external affairs in 2009, Tharoor was given supervision of relations with the Arab world, Latin America and Africa. He says that his prime contribution was transforming relationships with some African nations. And because he was a French-speaking minister, he was able to cultivate warm relations with Francophone countries (French-speaking countries). He also became the first Indian minister to set foot in Haiti.
Today, Tharoor divides his time equally between Thiruvananthapuram and Delhi. Occasionally, he accepts overseas invitations as he did recently for a function in New York because his twin sons are based there. “I accepted just to be able to see them,” he smiles. “One’s a journalist and the other a writer working on a novel,” he says with fatherly pride.
Tharoor’s first four books were fiction and last eight have been non- fiction and he hopes to redress that balance. “I’m going back to fiction in my next book,” he promises.
Ideas are bubbling away in his head but he has other priorities for now: he’s hands-on in Thiruvananthapuram attending functions, giving speeches and interacting with the public. He says firmly: “That’s my focus now and it has to be if I want to be re-elected — and I do.”
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