A Fireside Conversation at Vichaar Manthan’s Sustainable Narratives Conference 2020

With Dr Shashi Tharoor

by Dr Sachin Nandha

In July 2020 Dr Shashi Tharoor, the Indian Member of Parliament, famous author and ex-United Nations Diplomat gave his thoughts on themes ranging from the “Chinese model” vis-à-vis Liberal democracies, to his defence of multiculturalism, and the need for re-ordering global institutions such as the United Nations.

The three greatest challenges facing the planet right now, according to Tharoor are the challenges facing democracies — where even those living in democratic nations are beginning to become ‘impatient’ with the outcomes produced by the system; second is the rise of nationalism which brings with it a move away from globalisation and the ‘convergence we have seen over the last thirty years’, as well as an ‘abandonment of multilateralism’ making international institutions such as the United Nations ‘vulnerable as never before’; and finally the third challenge is that of the environment — the need to produce progress ‘sustainably’.

Tharoor opened by comparing the ramshackle nature of Indian democracy versus the ‘efficient autocracy’ of China. The cost of Chinese efficiency is that the people have no mechanism for dissent. Whereas India is built on dissent and competing interests. China’s suppression of democratic values may prove to be ‘unsustainable’ in the longer term, especially when ‘its populace becomes more educated, and begins to assert its rights’. According to Daniel Bell, the author of the China Model, which Tharoor referenced, the Chinese authoritarian model is better than the model of western democracies due to its greater meritocratic nature. Bell claims that one need not be democratic to best serve one’s people, as clearly shown by how efficiently China has dealt with malnutrition when contrasted against a democratic India.

Tharoor goes on to make the point that the rise of China poses an important philosophical question, ‘is the political instability created by political contention a luxury that developing nations can ill afford?’ To this question, Tharoor claims that over the longer term democracy offers a better system of governance, but more importantly it ensures that ‘human beings are the absolute object of government policies, which is not necessarily the case with authoritarian systems.’ The reason why, according to Tharoor, that democracies are currently throwing up ‘strong-men’ and leaders who themselves may not be so liberal, is the perception that democracies have both failed to increase the economic wellbeing of the individual and families, and, opened up too much to people (migrants) with whom the in-situ populous do not want to share their economic and political wellbeing. In other words not enough economic progress coupled with too much immigration has led to a cultural backlash. ‘Populists’, according to Tharoor, claim to be the ‘authentic’ voices who will ‘enshrine the prejudices’ of voters. This approach has led to many winning power in democracies all over the world.

Tharoor’s second great challenge confronting us was that of rising nationalism. Tharoor, somewhat facetiously remarks that ‘patriotism is about essentially loving your own country because it’s yours. It’s like loving your mother who may not be the best-looking or smartest, but you love her because she is your mother. Patriotism is fundamentally a benign non-threatening emotion.’ Tharoor then went onto explain that the best form of patriotism is of a ‘civic kind’, grounded in ‘a constitution granting everyone equal rights’, meaning that one does not have to belong to a specific culture or religion. He equates this to simply a feeling of belonging to the country. India, he says, is simply too plural with multitudes of every kind that the only viable source of patriotism is one that is constitutional. Contrasting the American notion of a ‘melting pot’ where people of all different backgrounds come together into one pot and become American first, in India, he says ‘we have a thali’ where people of different religions and backgrounds live side by side, without ever really mixing, but ‘they belong together on the same platter’ and when combined they produce the best outcomes. In essence Tharoor champions multiculturalism, something which David Cameron, the UK Prime minister in 2011 said ‘had failed’.

Cameron’s critique of multiculturalism was that Tharoor’s thali essentially ‘led to the weakening of the country’s collective identity by allowing different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.’ When Tharoor was further challenged that how does this thali-multiculturalism cope with those ideologies that are universalist and supremacist in nature — such as radical Islam, his answer was ‘through liberal constitutions’. Tharoor explained that essentially if every group is made to feel secure under a constitution then people are less prone to extremist ideologies. He cites the example of Nazi Germany where an ethno-nationalism led to fascism and the persecution of millions. For Tharoor, the thali-multiculturalism is a safeguard against this kind nationalism — essentially a nationalism which mission creeps into fascism. It becomes apparent that Tharoor has a subtle distrust of culture to bind a society together under a set of common values. He opts for a constitutional solution. He further elucidates and directly compares the rising wave of ethno-nationalism in Germany with Alternative fur Deutschland becoming the second largest party in the Bundestag, with the rise of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in India which has a significant majority in the Lok Sabha. To what extent Tharoor’s direct comparison is legitimate is questionable. His thrust remains that the nature of nationalism across liberal democracies is moving away from constitutions and into cultural or ethnic forms. When pressed if this was because the multiculturalism Tharoor advocates has failed, he simply said ‘we have a debate going on, and so long as it is taking place in democracy operating under the rule of law’, then people have the opportunity to ‘self-correct’.

When it came to a new global order, Tharoor’s view was that the United States has not been eclipsed as it still maintains a military power second to none, and ‘spends as much on its military as the rest of the world put together’. Despite the United States being the most innovative and entrepreneurial country in the world, it ‘looks as if it will be overtaken by China’ in terms of overall size of economy. One thing he was certain about was that the days of a unipolar world are truly over. The United States can no longer act as it wishes without significant repercussions from other rising powers. Tony Blair, the former Prime minister of the United Kingdom has repeatedly made the point when defending Great Britain’s case to remain in the European Union, that by 2050 the world will most probably be tripolar where power will reside in the United States, China and (probably) India. Tharoor’s response to India rising to become the third leg of a tri-polar world, was intermittent at best. ‘India’ he said, ‘has to get its act together internally before it can aspire to become the third leg’. The internal challenges according to Tharoor were somewhat surprising. His first cause for concern to India’s international rise was ‘bigotry from the top’, seemingly a cheap swipe at the incumbent Prime minister; second was the general atmosphere of healthy debate being corroded away, where anyone who argues (against the government) is labelled as ‘anti-national’; and finally he believes, ‘the dis-crediting of diversity’ will hold India back. Economically, he also claimed that India at best had become stagnant, and the reforms that are needed have not been forthcoming, and therefore international capital struggles to find a home in India.

On China, Tharoor was also lukewarm and claimed that Chinese ‘cheque book’ policies coupled with ‘strong arming’ its neighbours, whilst eliminating all internal descent spelt bad news over the longer term. China has alienated its neighbourhood to the point where Japan has launched a $2.5 billion fund to support its companies to pull out of China and relocate back to Japan. China, on the whole, has ‘not done itself any favours’ in winning friends and influence around the world.

His concluding remarks began with a clear statement, ‘the United Nations is in peril’. Having said that he also suggested that it is not only worth ‘preserving but also reforming’. The United Nations as the ‘cornerstone of global institutions’ suffers due to ‘politicisation as well as manipulation’ by the more powerful states. It needs to be made ‘fit for purpose’ so that it can serve in the twenty-first century as well as it did in the twentieth century. The United Nations is an indispensable organisation to maintain a rule-based order where nations can debate and legislate: rules of trade, communication, human connectivity, human rights, refugee movements, and so on. A retreat from the forum by the powerful would spell a grave future for the entire world. ‘We cannot do without it’ ended Tharoor.

‘The future has to be fought for’, he said, in relation to his message for liberal democracies against the insipid power of totalitarian regimes. The fight back for liberal democracies has to be two-pronged: emotion and reason. Liberal democracies have to win the argument with its citizens that the rule-based order where power can be transferred, where people are held accountable, and pluralism reigns will produce a better life for the majority over the longer term.

An independent voluntary organisation which engages in open dialogue, exploring issues facing modern British society through a Hindu civilisational lens.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store