Shashi Tharoor is back with a book where he seeks greater engagement with neighbouring countries

Ah! To be Shashi Tharoor! Career bureaucrat. Office of the Under Secretary-General at the UN. Member of Parliament. Union Minister. Each little stopover has actually proved to be a milestone in the career of the man who charms with the spoken word and craves for attention for the one he writes.

His craving is fulfilled too. After all, a few years ago when he walked down memory lane he came up with a pearl called Nehru: The Invention of India. And when he did please the fiction writer in him, he pleased the booklovers too with the highly applauded The Great Indian Novel. Now, a summer or two after moving away from the stifling responsibilities of being in the External Affairs Ministry, he is his own man, books, twitter and all. He has, of course, made good use of his time. Result? A 440-odd page book, —Pax Indica – launched by M. Hamid Ansari, Vice-President, in New Delhi this Wednesday followed by a discussion on it between Karan Singh, Jaswant Singh, Salman Khurshid, C.Raja Mohan and Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor, The Hindu. “It is a result of two years of research and writing. And in recent times of short nights and long writing,” says Tharoor, then on second thoughts, he adds, “Actually, it is a result of a lifetime of engagement with the issues that the book covers.” Allowing himself to drop the guard ever so little, he regales with the story of a Chinese painter who came up with a work in three minutes and charged $25,000! Asked about the steep amount for a work that took such little time, the painter replied, “It has taken me 45 years!” In his own case, Tharoor decides to be modest. “You could call it 35 years,” he offers.

Opening the windows

Opening new vistas to the world opening around us, Tharoor’s book, in some strange way, reminds you of that famous Kishore Kumar song, “Pal bhar ke liye koi humein pyar kar le….” In the song, the heroine, inhabiting a house with a thousand windows, keeps closing them and the hero keeps popping in by opening them. Throughout the book, Tharoor sits at the centre of a house (India) with a thousand windows and opens them one by one to his interested readers. If one window takes us to China, whose rise he hails, another opens to Sri Lanka where he recalls a 600-year-old quote from Zheng He who erected a stone tablet with a message to the world. He invoked Indian gods therein.

Considering such ideological symmetry, isn’t it time India behaved more like an elder brother than a big brother in the subcontinent? And uses all its values to good effect?

“I consider it part of fraternal responsibilities. We need to be asymmetrical, that is, we need to give more than we expect back. As a result of this approach we have come far away from the times when the only ally we could count upon in the region was Bhutan. Today, we have different levels of engagement with all our neighbours” — he calls it ‘tough neighbourhood’ in the book — “with more progress with all of them.”

But isn’t the elder brother approach fraught with danger with respect to Pakistan, more so post-26/11?

“With Pakistan there has been a problem but we are getting better. In the past, every time we have attempted a way forward, forces inimical to India have been unleashed. For example, Vajpayee’s bus yatra was followed by Kargil. At the time of 26/11, we were at an advanced stage of dialogue towards expanded trade relationship, easier visa, etc. And not enough has been done to bring to book those issuing instructions to kill the victims of 26/11. So, there is healthy scepticism here.” But haven’t our efforts at a better dialogue with Pakistan been impeded by a lack of stable government there?

“No, Pakistan civilian government has completed a full term. So, let’s hope this one does.”

If Pakistan needs constant vigil in the North and West, so does Myanmar in the East?

“I don’t agree there. The Junta has loosened its hold, it is more liberal. I agree there are people in distress there, including the Rohingyas. But there is a thaw, an opening in our relationship,” says Tharoor, who then goes on to expand on the “excellent” relationship India is beginning to share with its neighbours, including now Bangladesh, not too long ago an emerging point of concern. “There is great rapport with Bangladesh. Significant progress made in transit and trade though Teesta remains a matter of concern. Similarly, our relationship with Nepal and Sri Lanka is on a stable footing. In Nepal, we are unaffected by the country’s internal developments. In Sri Lanka, we have played a very pro-active role with economic assistance, help in demining, etc. We enjoy an extensive level of political engagement.”

Reality check

It all seems so hunky-dory, almost too good to be true. The reality check comes from the Arab world. Bringing on display the quiet persuasive powers of a seasoned bureaucrat, Tharoor initially points out that the Arab world provides jobs to some six million Indians. Then adds, “By all indicators, we are getting positive results there. India is treated with love and affection.” Why then has the Arab world not supported India on the Kashmir issue? “Not every thing can be perfect. If there were no such challenges, what will our bureaucrats do? There is room for greater constructive dialogue.”

Talking of the Arab world, Tharoor was once quoted saying Saudi Arabia could be an interlocutor between India and Pakistan. He is quick to dismiss the talk. “That was deliberate misreporting by the media. It was malicious. I did not suggest Saudi Arabia as a mediator. I meant interlocutor. And an interlocutor is someone you talk to, converse with. For instance, at the moment you are my interlocutor.” For the moment, you need no interlocutor. Shashi Tharoor with a pen in hand is worth a million words.

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