Editor’s note: In 2011, while in India on assignment for The Globe and Mail, I had lunch with the former UN diplomat and Indian politician Shashi Tharoor. He now finds himself in the middle of a tragedy-cum-political scandal, after the discovery of his wife’s lifeless body in a high-end Delhi hotel. I previously published this piece here on the Toronto Review, which I founded and edit, but the story for some reason did not survive a major website redesign, and so I am republishing it now, in case it is of interest.

By Iain Marlow

As Shashi Tharoor strides into San Gimignano, an Italian restaurant nestled in the Raj-era grandeur of New Delhi’s Imperial Hotel, he politely makes a brief detour to another table. There, checking his BlackBerry, is the chief minister of India’s troubled Jammu and Kashmir state, and he is soon joined by Rahul Gandhi – scion of India’s most prominent political dynasty and heir apparent to the ruling National Congress party.

The restaurant’s waiters snap cellphone pictures, but my lunch guest simply shakes hands and apprises them of political gossip from his own state of Kerala. Mr. Tharoor, an inveterate charmer used to both diplomatic and political parties, moves effortlessly in such circles. He has become one of India’s most prominent politicians since abandoning a decades-long career at the United Nations, leaving only after a narrow loss to Ban Ki-moon in a bid to become Secretary General in 2006.


“It’s a job that I had spent an entire career preparing for,” he says, listing off the various positions he held – from heading peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia to being a senior adviser to Kofi Annan, the man he hoped to precede. “It’s not a job application where you pick the best resume. It’s much more about political calculations of governments and I fully respect the process. It worked out the way it did, and I’ve moved on.”

It is the only time in a lengthy conversation about terrorism, international politics, Indian democracy and China’s authoritarianism that he becomes a bit terse, dropping his fluid, graceful manner for a response that – though still frank and honest – seems rehearsed. I don’t blame him. It clearly still stings and being asked about it, again, 5 years on, can’t help. We move on.

Our lunch takes place in early May, while I’m in India on assignment for The Globe and Mail. It’s dusty outside, and Mr. Tharoor, the author of 12 books (most of them non-fiction), notes that it is too hot for soup. He has the pizza funghi and a vegetarian Caesar salad, which he will return because of its sheer size. I opt for an appetizer of grilled vegeteables, olives and cheese, with an eggplant parmesan, prompting him to ask me if I’m “Veg.” I am not (though, I used to be). The conversation moves on almost immediately to Osama bin Laden’s extremely recent assassination by a United States covert operation in neighbouring Pakistan, which that day was dominating the headlines of India’s vibrant newspapers. (One particularly irreverent headline read, “OBAMA BINS LADEN.”)

In Pakistan-loathing India, the general reaction is, “We told you so.” And though Mr. Tharoor is pleased that Pakistan’s duplicity has once again been revealed for all to see, he is worried bin Laden’s death will allow countries to abandon Afghanistan faster than they were already planning, and for the umpteenth time to boot. He was right: France was already using the news as a pretext to exit, practically before we had put down our forks; since, the United States has said it will begin drawing down troops there, and so has Canada.

“The whole logic of the American intervention was supposed to have been to ensure that Afghanistan didn’t again become the kind of country which could produce or harbour a future Osama bin Laden,” he says. “America, in a sense, would be in danger of forgetting what happened when it withdrew from Afghanistan after the Soviet collapse. Because into the resulting vacuum came the Taliban regime that harboured bin Laden and which led to 9/11. You withdraw again, and the same pattern could repeat.”

Mr. Tharoor, who started his UN career on the staff of the high commissioner for refugees, is intimately familiar with these patterns of underdevelopment, poverty and strife. Since leaving the U.N., where he obviously studied those issues globally, he has had to reacquaint himself with them in his own country (even as he uses our lunch to reacquaint himself with pizza, which he learned to love back in New York). His most recent book – The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone – is about the changing nature of India’s exuberant democracy, the political extremities of which can veer into the truly frightening; examples abound, from Hindu fascists burning Muslims in the streets to the cartoonish thugs associated with Mumbai’s Shiv Sena, a party that has opposed Valentine’s Day and is generally considered to have ties to organized crime in Bombay. Compared to more oppressive political environments in the region, such as in China, India’s politics looks chaotic, factional and in some cases closely and dangerously linked to race, religion or the Hindu caste system.

“In India, we have largely, wisely, decided that no kind of political opinion should be infamous, which is by no means an uncontested argument. There were many who argued, after the bitter partition that accompanied our independence, that any party espousing the views of a particular religion or religious community should be banned, for example. But the government decided not to do that, they didn’t want to delegitimize any sort of opinion and drive it underground. So the Muslim League – which fought for Pakistan, the party of Jinnah – continues in India, and is a coalition ally of the Congress Party in Kerala,” he says. “We have a Sikh party ruling in Punjab. We have other parties that claim to represent specific belief systems and tendencies – caste and so on. So the overt bigotry expressed by a party like the Shiv Sena, or the MNS which is an offshoot of the Shiv Sena, is nonetheless tolerated in the hope that the voting public will see how bad they are and reject them at the polls, rather than banning them and driving their opinions to other extremer forms of expression… The mere existence of these parties … is more a testament to the breadth of India’s democracy and the permissability of diverse opinion, than it is a reflect of anything wrong… The hope is that identity politics are sort of an infantile stage of politics that is necessary in a democracy finding its feet but that will eventually be outgrown.”

India’s flourishing democracy, with an increasingly empowered media and institutions trying to slough off endemic corruption, have not always been kind to Mr. Tharoor: His party forced him to resign as junior foreign minister after allegations of irregularities in a city’s bid for a Twenty20 cricket team. Mr. Tharoor, a flamboyant personality who has more than one million followers on Twitter, denied that he did anything wrong at the time, that he was only trying to help Kochi (which is in Kerala) get a team, and he remains the Congress party’s star candidate in the state of Kerala. He later got into more trouble after he Tweeted that he was going to travel “cattle class” on India’s trains in solidarity with the country’s “holy cows.” In India, these types of shenanigans shouldn’t merit much ink in the national dailies – given the surplus of actual corruption, like the $40-billion telecommunications scandal engulfing Delhi (the reason I was there) – but Mr. Tharoor’s life, and that of his family, is still regularly dissected in fine detail. Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of J&K that Mr. Tharoor greeted at the other table, would later have his own divorce examined in the broadsheets.

All this considered, it is intriguing to hear Mr. Tharoor weigh India’s technicolour democracy against China’s comparatively grim, development-first, democracy-be-damned agenda. He points out that China has cut the number of people living under the poverty line dramatically in the past 30 years, albeit under a stifling political climate, while India’s own figure remains mired around 260 million people – citizens who can vote, perhaps, but may not be able to eat. Both countries stand as beacons to developing country peers, but it’s vividly apparent that China’s domestic stability and global economic clout have made it shine a bit brighter. China’s thirst for resources in Africa and elsewhere have also put the country on an obvious diplomatic offensive, one that can be launched far more securely and confidently from Beijing than from New Delhi.

“Everyone can admire the results of the Chinese, but I don’t know that too many countries in the world who look up to the way in which they’ve accomplished them. I feel that we have been a good deal less efficient than China – we’ve come up with much less in terms of dramatic transformations, but we have brought our people along with us with every change that has happened and voters have decided each time on the policies and the people who will execute those policies,” he says. “We still have a long way to go before we can claim to have accomplished what China’s accomplished, but having said that I think that most people have a sense of what kind of system they’d rather live under and what kind of system they aspire to. Many countries are happy to trade with China, learn from China, buy from China, invest in China and so on, who don’t necessarily think that the Chinese system works as a system. Certainly, in my dealings with African countries, I’ve often found that african leaders, who are very often in awe of china, but never really wanted to replicate china at home. whereas when they looked at India, they saw a country that in many ways was familar to them, that seemed to have the same sorts of problems, divisions, challenges as they were suffering in africa, but seem to have overcome many of them – or at least have done a far better job of overcoming them than african countries may have thought possible.”

Indeed, but people power and democratic change in India are capricious things. At the moment, they are not exactly favouring Mr. Tharoor’s ruling party. There has been a huge government bribery scandal bubbling over in the telecommunications sector, and a cabinet minister and his adviser are already in jail. More are likely to follow, and all this came shortly after a bungling of the Commonwealth Games – a bungling which came replete with yet another scandal, where games contracts were awarded to friendly firms. But the reaction to these scandals has been remarkable: Street protests, Facebook groups, politicians being sent to jail, talk of independent anti-corruption commissioners. As we speak Anna Hazare, an anti-corruption campaigner, is gaining fame. After I leave India, Mr. Hazare becomes a Gandhi-like figure among the throngs at his Delhi protests. Mr. Tharoor thinks this shows the resilience of Indian democracy, rather than its underbelly.

“There is a sense of a miasma of corruption,” he says. “But at the bottom, it’s a country engaged in a great adventure – of pulling literally a quarter of a billion people out of poverty and misery into decent lives, and bringing all of us into the twenty first century on a platform in which India can really make a difference around the world.”