Shashi Tharoor at the Oxford Union address (Photo courtesy:The Guardian)
He has a gift of the gab, of that there is no question. Couple it with an Ox-Cam firangi sahib accent and he will, as he has so powerfully demonstrated on many occasions, bowl ordinary Indians over.
To the Indian literati, an Etonian English speaker is automatically more intelligent and logical. They close their eyes and see a suave British Lord of the Realm speaking, not an Indian brown sahib from Kerala. And the package is what they love – the boyish charm, the bashful attempts at sweeping aside that lock of unruly hair which keeps flopping over his eyes, the disarming grin and the urbane tone – all designed to rivet them in their seats and listen to him in rapt attention, his words – their holy grail.
Shashi Tharoor’s speaking engagements are especially coveted by women. They come in droves with an extra pair of panties in their handbags, since they invariably cream inside them when they hear him speak, as a lady friend in India had once confided in me, many decades back. Shashi Tharoor could bring her to a shattering orgasm simply by his voice. She insisted when we made love, that I intone like Shashi Tharoor, while she screamed,’ Sock it to me, Shashi!’ (It was fine with me as long as I got to doing her).
I won’t blame them all. When Shashi Tharoor speaks, you listen and Shashi Tharoor recently spoke – a talk that went viral on the net as his Oxford Union Debate. It was a debate on whether Britain owes India reparations (or at least an apology or acknowledgement) after two centuries of racism and often brutal colonization.
Of course, it must be noted that this was no UN General Assembly. This was just a hall in Oxford University where all sorts of issues are brought to debate, with no real political reverberations. It was just a gathering of a bunch of blowhards, blowing hard and it must be treated as such, without going overboard about it. I am sure that even the Oxford Union guys didn’t realize how viral this would go. But it did, so much so that even the Indian Prime Minister weighed in with his appreciation for Shashi Tharoor.
I was struck by Tharoor’s incredible recall, impromptu ability and spontaneity. It was like watching the current affairs version of a Robin Williams stand-up routine. Masterful. There was no teleprompter and no lengthy sheets of typewritten paper. All he had were little scribbled notes on points that he would drive home, taken from the speakers on both sides of the debate. He had effortlessly bookmarked in his head every little argument that he would make in rebuttal.
The mark of a good orator is the depth of substance that the audience imagines his words carry. The Americans call it ‘spin’ and it is quite independent of the actual verity of the words. It is the art of saying everything and at the same time, really saying nothing. Like the American President, George W Bush’s infamous update during the Hurricane Katrina crisis which made viewers believe that the government had things under control, when it was actually quite the opposite. Or the way that the Rajiv Gandhi government tried to handle the 1980s Bofors Scandal in front of the press, trying to portray a transparent government, when in fact it was riddled with deceit and avarice.
Shashi Tharoor brilliantly conjures up a pre-colonization India that seems like it used to be some kind of a utopia – a prosperous nation where there was no discrimination, no subjugation and no tyranny, a land of plenty – a super smart nation that had ‘23% of the total world trade’, making it sound as if globalization had already begun in India, centuries before the first attempts were actually made. He almost made me believe that Fed-Ex had already begun operations in India then.
The fact is that there was no such thing as ‘world trade’ back in those days, unless you wish to liken camel trains and horse-drawn carts trudging through hostile terrain at 10 miles an hour, besieged every now and then by murderous nomadic marauders trying to snatch-grab the goods, or even tiny 200-ton galleons being tossed around in the seas, taking six months to a year on a round trip, considering themselves extremely fortunate to get back alive and file their tour expense vouchers – if you wish to call that ‘international trade’, go ahead, be my guest.
Shashi Tharoor was brilliantly successful in taking listeners on a virtual roller-coaster ride – painting a picture of India as this happy land of plenty, on the very cusp of becoming the world’s greatest economic powerhouse, all on it’s strengths alone and then the big bad Englishmen come and snatch it all away – a stark Asian edition of Hernan Cortes’s subjugation of the Aztecs and the Mayans and Pizarro’s slaughter of the Incas.
Oh yes, Mr. Tharoor is eloquent. I could never beat him at his game. The way he twists statistics and history around on their heads, Donald Trump needs guys like him in his cabinet, if and when he gets to occupy the White House.
At one point, he mentions the great Bengal famine of the 1940s and the way Churchill had food stockpiles diverted to feed the ‘sturdy Tommies’ who were fighting the war and in the process deliberately left the poor Bengalis to die of disease and starvation. I am not going to argue with that. Churchill was a racist and his behavior was deplorable.
But what Tharoor has quite evidently forgotten to mention is what India, (more specifically the very political party that he belongs to), has ‘managed’ for seven decades since the Brits left – millions of tons of food grains rotting every year, rendered inedible, inside the Food Corporation of India’s silos, in spite of there being an equivalent of one sub-Saharan Africa in population, that is right now eating grass to subsist.
Oh yes, thanks to Shashi Tharoor’s masters, even after seven decades of being free, India has a per-capita GDP only slightly higher than Yemen. Income disparity has doubled in India over the past three decades, making it one of the worst performers among emerging economies.
India has the distinction of having the highest number of poor people on earth, some 42% of its 1.21 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day. The official Indian figure of folks living below the poverty line though is 37%, or 450 million people. Recently, the Indian government, imagining that the rest of the world is filled with dumbos, stated that an individual income of Rupees 25 (52 US cents) a day would help provide for ‘adequate private expenditure on food, education and health‘ in villages. In the cities, as per the Indian government, Rupees 32 would do just fine. So it is Rs25 in the countryside and Rs32 in the cities – that’s the poverty line. Below those figures, India grudgingly terms a guy as being ‘poor’. Frankly, I find that very hard to reconcile.
In the video, Tharoor mentions all those Indian soldiers who fought and died for the Allies in the two great wars – that they were exploited and then discarded by the British. Great, but were they forced to draft? I do not think so – they made the choice to fight – they fought on the side of the good guys – they fought (at least in the Second World War) because the alternative – defeat – would be too horrendous to imagine, with a power-hungry Nazi stooge named Subhas Chandra Bose as their head of state. Besides, they signed up for the same reasons that impoverished and barely literate young men from even affluent countries join their armed forces – for cash, food, shelter and a feeling being a part of something. And they got that.
But Shashi Tharoor makes it look as if the Indian soldiers were treated like slaves, forcibly driven against their will, to fight. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have personally met one man, an assistant who worked for some years in a neighbor’s father’s medical practice, who had fought with the Brits in the Second World War, as a foot soldier. I remember him speaking of his years in North Africa with great pride, specifically mentioning the exemplary treatment that he and his other Indian comrades in arms, received from their British commanding officer.
Now about inequality in the Indian context – Mr. Tharoor lays the problems of ethnic tensions and racial divides on the doorstep of the British. He makes the caste-system and the practice of branding certain low-caste folks as ‘untouchables’, seem like something that the British invented and instituted. Funny, I always thought that these cultures were milennia-old, cemented into the very bedrock of the Hindu religion itself, thousands of years before the British were even aware there was a land named India.
But Tharoor has managed to turn the whole issue of caste and communal divide around. He states, in that annoyingly supercilious Oxford accent of his, that the British were responsible for all that. Brilliant. As per my understanding, the British actually put an end to those atrocious Indian customs. If it hadn’t been for them, young widows would be getting bar-b-qued well into the 20th Century.
The British merely saw an opportunity in creating a rift between the religious fanatics of this country. And chose to exploit it. Why, India itself similarly attempted to break nations up, in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, decades after the Brits had left. That is simply aggressive foreign policy, something all nations practice, given half a chance.
In any case, it is now seven decades since the Brits left. Is India – the real India that lives in it’s villages, the real 600-million strong India – is that India any better off today? Even supposing that Mr. Tharoor’s claims were true, what stopped India from picking itself up, rebuilding and moving on – just the way, China and Korea did after the Second World War? What exactly have your political masters, the Gandhi family, done except to fill their coffers, Mr Tharoor?
The fact is that the unconscious belief and subscription to inequality and the serf-like mindset, is within us Indians, deeply ingrained over millennia. The British were but a tiny chapter on depredation in our tumultuous history.
Mr Tharoor now wants the British to say they were sorry for colonizing India, sorry for having railroads built. Whether or not the Indian Railways were built to serve British commerce, it has been ferrying millions of Indians daily since. What would Mr Tharoor rather have begun with – Mahatma Gandhi copyrighted bullock carts?
Finally, I am amazed at his chest-thumping over how ‘we snatched democracy from the British’. Has he ever tried to get off his high horse and venture into the Indian heartland for a fact check on how Indian ‘democracy’ is really working?
I did. The last time I visited India, in 2010, I took one of those pull-rickshaws in Kolkata. The poor man huffed and puffed all the way in the August heat and stood half-naked and perspiring, looking incredulously at the Rs20 bill I had just handed to him and told him to keep the change. To him, it was a fortune and to me – the equivalent of 30ȼ. (He was expecting Rs5, a fare that hadn’t changed much in ten years, while food prices had : ten-folds).
Democracy in India is for the rich and the connected. For the rest – the remaining 75% – democracy, GDP, IT and all those other high-faluting acronyms mean absolutely nothing. Seeking reparations and apologies from the British won’t make any difference to the great multitudes who cling on to life, mutely, from day to day.
Receiving reparations and apologies from the Indian elite – members of India’s own establishment, for all the wastage, the nepotism, the entitlement, the thuggery and the morally corrupt mindset that followed British rule – that is the need of the day, Mr Tharoor.
The British might have subjugated us but they left behind institutions like the education system, the courts, the military, the heavy industry, fiscal management tools and finally the English language (without which, the Indian IT industry would be non-existent). It was up to us to carry all that on forward after independence, but we screwed it all up. The Chinese and the Koreans didn’t. It is pretentious to blame the British for our goof-ups.
Most importantly, they left behind a united India forged from little kingdoms, without which we would have had a Tamil kingdom, a Sikh kingdom, a Muslim kingdom and a Bengali kingdom and many many other tiny sultanates and kingdoms dotting the peninsula. And as the world modernized, they would turn into tin-pot dictatorships who would do deals with foreign multinational mining giants to exploit their natural resources and pad the despotic warlords’ Swiss bank accounts, in much the same way that Western Africa has gone, while the common folk look on, mute and hungry.
I suppose Shashi Tharoor will be blaming the Mongolian government next – for our communal tensions and demand an apology. After all, Babar, the first Mughal Emperor, was a Turco-Mongol, directly descended from Genghiz Khan.
Why don’t you go even further back, oh great firangi-Malayali sahib – to the 4th Century BC. Yeah, why not? Alexander the Great took 500,000 slaves, while he pillaged and plundered his way through most of northern India, didn’t he? Sever diplomatic ties with Macedonia, Sir, Mr. Tharoor, unless they pay us restitution.
No, wait, maybe Mr. Shashi wants to take it back even further – to the Neanderthals. Come on, Mr. Tharoor, demand reparations from the Tanzanian government, maybe the Somalis even, for bringing humans to India, to subjugate the poor sabre-toothed Bengal tigers.
Listen, I have no time for this windbag. He is just plain lucky to be in a nation of severely misled literati who will clap at anything with an Oxford accent.