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‘Indian and French sensibilities are not that far apart’

Text by Dhananjay KHADILKAR

Latest update : 2013-11-12

Minister for Human Resource Development, Shashi Tharoor, spoke to FRANCE24 ahead of the channel’s official launch in India about the forthcoming national election, international cooperation and France’s “original point of view”.

Shashi Tharoor has long been well known  on the international stage. He was not only with the United Nations for almost three decades but also contested the election for the post of UN Secretary General in 2007.

Following his UN stint, he made a successful debut in Indian politics and was elected to Parliament in 2009. Tharoor was first appointed minister of state for external affairs and is now a minister of state for Human Resource Development. During his visit to Paris last week, where he represented India at the 37th UNESCO General Conference, he spoke exclusively with

Here are the some of the highlights:

How was your visit to Paris for the UNESCO General Conference?

ST: It was good and very busy. It began with a meeting with education ministers of the BRICS countries. I was also the co-moderator of leaders’ forum, in which various heads of states and ministers gave their views on the developmental agenda beyond 2015, focusing on education as a principle concern. I also had bilateral meetings with education ministers of 14 countries. On my last day, I delivered the official statement on behalf of India to the General Conference. UNESCO is an organisation we want to see functioning effectively. It has had its share of troubles. But the issue it deals – education, science and culture are extremely important for the survival of humanity.
One interesting aspect of your visit was the meeting with education of the BRICS countries...

The BRICS are a very good example of cooperation. What’s interesting about BRICS is that the term was invented by a merchant bank in the context of emerging markets. But our cooperation has gone beyond economic issues. We are not only seeing ourselves as complimentary economies, but also as countries with tremendous potential to increase our presence in world affairs.

What can India gain from such cooperation?

ST: India doesn’t look at international affairs in terms of just what it can gain but also on what it can give. Certainly, India’s role at the UNESCO has been much more about giving than taking and that’s part of our sense of international responsibility. When it comes to BRICS, it’s mutual. There is a lot of potential in the BRICS forum which will be developed. The education ministers of all five countries are already involved in the Education for All” initiative. We have number of functioning mechanisms for cooperation. We can learn from each other’s mistakes and experiences. We can share material and methodologies. We can come up with joint solutions which can then be pushed in international forums.

Having served in the UN for 30 years, do you feel out of place being a part of the rough and tumble of politics in India?

FRANCE 24 speaks with India's Minister for Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor

ST: I don’t feel out of place. However, my critics certainly feel that way. The accusation is that I have an outsider’s view, that I have not come up from the grassroots of politics. Of course, I do not agree with this accusation. Even though I was living outside India, working for the UN, I never stopped being engaged with India. I have written 14 books, 13 of which are entirely about India. During this time, I have thought, written and spoken about India’s issues. So I didn’t come back as someone who was discovering India afresh.

What’s new was the rough and tumble of politics. I got a rough baptism. In my first year, every time I opened my mouth, I was attacked for allegedly making controversial statements. It was a strange thing to happen to someone who had spent three decades in the international arena, speaking to international media without any controversy. So I realised that it wasn’t so much about me, but the extent to which I was unwelcome to some people in the ‘system’. But today, I have now found my peace with all of that. At one point, I felt strongly enough to resign from my government position. But now a couple of years later, I am back in the government. I have good rapport with my constituency. I am determined to move forward in the next few years as a committed citizen living in India and seeing a better future for my people.

It looks like the 2014 general election in India is going to be one of the most bitterly fought ever. One of the reasons seems to be the projection of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. What are your objections about Modi?

ST: The Congress party stands for a certain set of values in politics. It has been very much the party of Indian pluralism and diversity. It’s a party which believes passionately that all Indians irrespective of caste, religion, creed, region, language, or ethnicity have the same rights and same stake in our society. Modi not only belongs to a party – the BJP – which has historically had a lot of trouble with the notion of non-Hindu minorities in the country, but he was the chief minister in Gujarat at a time of – to put it mildly – a massacre.

His conduct as chief minister at that time has been rightly condemned by many. It’s true, as his defenders point out, that he has not been convicted of any crime. But as chief minister there is a political responsibility. It’s hard to find a single example of constructive action undertaken by Modi during that time that would show him to be a humane leader of all Gujaratis and not just of one group of people defined by religion. To my mind, that is the principal challenge.

His disqualification as a political leader in India is because he has failed to stand for the idea of India, the idea of pluralistic democracy where everyone has an equal voice, equal right and equal stake. We will fight very hard but not only on that issue but also on the fact that we have done good work in India for the last 10 years, that the decisions, programmes, policies of the current government headed by the Congress have transformed India for the better. The right to food, the right to work, the right to information, the right to an education… all of these are unprecedented policies which have given Indians opportunities and benefits that they never had before.

What is your opinion about FRANCE 24 becoming accessible in India?

ST: I think it’s going to be very interesting. The Indian and French sensibilities are not that far apart. Secondly, France has the entire heritage of western democracy and western civilisation. But it also has an original point of view on a number of issues which are not the same as some of the other western powers that we in India know well, like the US and the UK. Because of the language barrier, many Indians are not exposed to the French point of view.

I think that having FRANCE 24 in English will certainly give the Indian elite access to the French point of view. I am confident that it will actually lead to wider appreciation of French ideas, culture and politics in the Indian educated section of the society.

Date created : 2013-11-11