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Dr Shashi Tharoor – August 15th, 2014

Dr Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament , Lok Sabha from the constituency of Thiruvananthapuram, India was in Singapore recently to address a forum. I happened to meet him and was fascinated by his charm and ability to attend to a number of people in a minute. One was asking for his autograph, a few others for his photograph, some congratulating him, some admiring his speech…all at one time…but with so much patience he could handle all to the best of their satisfaction!

Here is his interview

1. Everybody knows that Mr Shashi Tharoor is a prodigy. What sort of a boy were you? Very mischievous, stubborn, quiet, active…how would you describe yourself as a child?

I was most certainly a very active child, although not often in the outdoors manner one might expect. I loved playing cricket, but as an asthma sufferer throughout my childhood, I more often languished in bed, unable to breathe, while my friends played cricket in the streets below. But I followed the game closely from my windows, offering distant commentary from above, and to this day, if anything can compel me to delay even an urgent commitment, it is a heart racing game of cricket on the television – my one vice! I was not mischievous as such – was mostly content to be reading or writing, and since I was only inconveniently good at taking exams, I was one of those perennial top rankers at school and college, who always scored well and earned the universal resentment of his peers! I was also active in debate, drama, quizzing, campus journalism, and similar extracurricular activities. I must point out, though, that even then I always thought of exam marks as a very limited parameter to evaluate individuals, and I was always drawn more sincerely towards other challenging activities that offer more profound forms of fulfillment.

2. During your childhood, was there any trace of you springing as today’s multi-faceted Shashi Tharoor? Any interesting examples?

I was certainly highly motivated and very determined. If I set my mind on something, I had to accomplish it no matter what. I once issued myself a challenge to read a book a day when I was 12, and to the greatest surprise of my parents (and some alarm that I wasn’t sleeping at all), succeeded in finishing 365 books that year — something I am singularly (albeit perhaps childishly!) proud of even now! Due to my illness, books were my gateway to the world outside, and I read voraciously. And when I exhausted myself reading, I picked up a pen and wrote. I owe a great deal of any self-belief in my abilities to my father, Chandran Tharoor, who unstintingly encouraged me, took my scribbling seriously, got my stories typed up, and went out of his way to submit one of my first short stories for publication in a mainstream Sunday newspaper when I was just ten years old. And he was most definitely a multifaceted personality! I can only say I try to live up to his faith in my talent, which remains my greatest, abiding inspiration.

3. You were born in London; studied in many places; worked in many places and now living in India. Which place touches your heart the most and for what reason?

I was born in London, grew up in what was Bombay and Calcutta of the 1960s and 70s (minus a brief stint at boarding school in Yercaud), before going off to St Stephen’s in Delhi and then the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the United States. My career thereafter took me to Geneva, Singapore, and Geneva again, before New York became my base, for UN forays into the former Yugoslavia, and all around the world really. All through this, however, it was always India that endured closest to my heart, faraway but ever present within me. I never relinquished my passport, and throughout those decades wrote hundreds of columns consistently on our politics, culture, literature, civil society, and more, in publications across the globe. Even my fourteen books, from 1985 on, are practically all about India! My international career through the UN was one aspect of my life, but my connection with India was the overwhelming other, to which I remain devoted.

4. You got your Doctorate at a very young age. Your career at the United Nations, is your aspiration or the UN’s need for such a promising candidature?

I rushed my doctorate because I was terrified my scholarship would run out before my thesis did! I did indeed always aspire to an international career, but the UN seemed a distant dream until I actually joined it — and then my identification with it, its goals and values, became total. My candidature for the top job of Secretary-General was always a risk, but since I had had the privilege of serving the UN in pretty much every crucial area of its work — humanitarian, political, peacekeeping, public information, the Secretary-General’s office — and because as Under-Secretary-General I also had to achieve administrative and budgetary reforms, I thought I was almost uniquely qualified to succeed Kofi Annan. I came close — just two votes behind Ban Ki-Moon in the first ballot, and in every ballot came a strong second of the seven contenders (who included a sitting President, a Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Ministers and the now newly-elected President of Afghanistan). But good though that was, second wasn’t good enough. I have no regrets for trying, but once I had lost, I felt I had to leave and bring a gloriously satisfying 29-year career to an end.

5. What is the most satisfying and dissatisfying aspect of your career at the United Nations?

Satisfying: undoubtedly my stint heading the Singapore office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the peak of the Vietnamese boat people crisis, 1981-84. Negotiating the disembarkation of refugees, obtaining guarantees of their resettlement, persuading immigration officials to accept people who didn’t otherwise qualify, running the refugee camp — all these allowed me to put my head to the pillow at night knowing that things I had done during the day had made a great difference to real people’s lives, indeed transformed many for ever. I was also able to find creative solutions to many unprecedented problems, including handling the first Polish refugees in Asia and the first Acehnese refugees, all without ruffling political feathers. And I did it all while concealing my age, since I was only 25 when I took charge of the office, and all my interlocutors assumed I was at least a decade older!

Dissatisfying? During the Yugoslav civil war one often found oneself frustrated that one’s efforts, eighteen-hour days of unstinting work, didn’t stop the blood flowing. But even then there was the intangible satisfaction of playing a small but significant role in one of the momentous events of my time, and so leaving my smudgy thumbprints on the footnotes of the pages of history.

6. How and why was the transformation from the United Nations to the Indian Parliament?

As I said before, even during my decades abroad, India was always my greatest passion and I expressed this through literature. With the conclusion of my nearly thirty-year career of service to the world at large at the United Nations, by which time I already had a number of bestselling books to my credit, I wanted to do something more concrete for our nation; something that could make a lasting difference in the lives of as many people as possible in my own country. I first ventured into entrepreneurship to help the Malayali youth by setting up a skills development enterprise in Thiruvananthapuram. But the idea of joining politics was more compelling than working in the private sector, partly because of the reasons mentioned above and also because all my life had been spent in the public sector, honing skills that I could most effectively apply there. I had given so many years to the UN and now, I thought, it was time to discharge my duties to my homeland and country. That is why when the Congress party offered me the Thiruvananthapuram seat during the 2009 elections I was thrilled to accept.

7. Are you happy serving a Member of Parliament, Minister of India or you miss your role at the United Nations?

Each role has been vastly different from the last. I loved being at the UN but I don’t believe in looking back; that train has truly left the station! So for me today, it is serving as a Member of Parliament that is most compelling. In that position I daily interact with hundreds of people from across the board: party workers with a variety of development proposals; students seeking career advice; the sick looking for medical attention; the poor wanting information on government schemes that could assist them; the middle classes wanting a vibrant, modern city and amenities; and so on. I have to deal with enabling IT projects to chasing bureaucrats for clearing critical infrastructure works to working on developing ports, and so much more. I have to be on my toes all day, every day, and no one matter is less vital or pressing than the other. It challenges me constructively. There are, of course, political frustrations when, for instance, adherents of an opposition party obstruct schemes merely to satisfy narrow ideological agendas, or rivals engage in uninhibited and ruthless mudslinging. But the electric energy one feels each time a public initiative or scheme is successfully accomplished negates much of this petty political antagonism and fuels my determination to carry on with the tasks my constituents voted me to fulfill.

8. Indian Politics is a bumpy road with unwarranted criticisms. How does a man of your stature face those unwarranted criticisms? Or do you see yourself fitting in well in the scenario of today’s Indian Politics?

The amusing thing about Indian politics is that where there is no room for legitimate, constructive criticism, there are always those to invent stories and scandals just to feed an incessant desire for controversy. I must admit that when I first encountered this I was somewhat stunned; I was accused of saying the wrong things in public, when for years I was the face of the UN and never once put a foot, or a word, wrong. I did misjudge the nature of politics and public discourse here, but I cannot take all the blame. Much of the criticism was plainly unwarranted and without an iota of justification, except in that I was something of an easy target. I have now learned to be more cautious, even when it should be others who ought to be fairer and acquire the bare minimum of common decency and standards. And I do not think I try to ‘fit in’. I speak out somewhat more judiciously because the environment is hostile, but my working style remains the same and I think I have the courage of my convictions to stick to them no matter what others may say.

9. What are the ups and downs while leading a public life?

I think incessant scrutiny is a double-edged sword that those in public life must invariably grapple with: it offers publicity but also distortion and character assassination. In recent years it is this phenomenon of “trolling” on social media that is a considerable downer when it comes to politics. I took to Twitter to communicate with my voters and others in our country, who do not normally have channels to access politicians, only to now find anything I say drowned out by trolls. There are also unhealthy elements in the media always out sniffing for a scandal and one is compelled to be unduly careful because everything is blown out of proportion. The ups, as I mentioned before, are not something cameras spot or reporters record (even though they should!). When a woman I helped repatriate from a hostile work environment in the Gulf comes to thank me, or when a school shelter from my MPLADS funds is complete, I find myself very happy. If I owe anything to anyone, it is not to gossipmongers and peddlers of invented scandals, but to the people of Thiruvananthapuram. And the latter job I am doing to their satisfaction, as evinced by their renewed mandate to me this year to serve again as their representative in Parliament.

10. How did you bolster strength while going through the tragedy this year?

The tragedy was a difficult one and it is something I shall bear for the rest of my life. It cannot be explained in a few words what it is to lose a loved one so suddenly. But before I could mourn with family, there was yet another manufactured scandal to engulf us again. It was one of the most challenging times of my life, but I refuse to speak about it or to offer Sunanda as fodder to a base controversy machine. It took all my inner strength to get up and resume work again, along with the courage my sons, sisters, mother, along with my stepson Shiv and Sunanda’s brothers and father offered. We grieved together and we continue to grieve her as a pained family. Many have tried to take advantage of this, but I shall maintain my silence in the hope that in due course, when sensationalism has died down, and sobriety makes its return, those who have attacked me will realise the errors of their way.

11. Will you describe yourself religious or a free thinker?

I wouldn’t say I am overtly religious but I do have faith in the almighty. I also do not think being a free thinker and being religious are contrary to one another. One cannot be a fanatic and a free thinker, but one could certainly absorb the values of the faith one is born into, or adopts by choice, and yet maintain intellectual freedom and objectivity. I think freely but my heart has faith in God. They occupy perhaps different spheres of my life. Where society and the public is concerned, I do not impose my beliefs and faith on them, and serve as a free thinker. But in private I have the principles by which I lead my life and upon which I have based my work.

12.Finally, if I ask you to describe yourself in ‘one word’ how will you describe yourself?

“Overstretched” and “multivalent” come to mind, but at the risk of sounding immodest, I think ‘workaholic’ would be appropriate!

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