BY MUBASHRA SIDDIQUI
Photo by Mubashra Siddiqui
One of the most recognized and respected Indians globally,
Dr. Shashi Tharoor does not appear to have deliberately set
out to charm audiences but nonetheless seems to effortlessly
This was clearly visible when Dr. Tharoor recently spoke at
the annual Sheth Lecture in Indian Studies at Emory
University. Laced with wit and elegant prose, the lecture
received a standing ovation. Indeed, fans continued to crowd
him long after the event.
For those who have been following Dr. Tharoor’s long
distinguished career, this may come as no surprise.
Dr. Tharoor was the official candidate of India for the
succession to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2006, and
came a close second out of seven contenders in the race. He
is also the award-winning author of nine books, as well as
hundreds of articles, op-eds and book reviews in a wide
range of publications, including the New York Times, the
Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the International
Herald Tribune, Time, Newsweek and The Times of India.
At the Sheth Lecture, Dr. Tharoor also introduced his latest
book “The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone: The
Transformation of India in the 21st century,” one that has
already received impressive reviews from The Washington
Post, Publishers Weekly, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution,
In an exclusive interview with NRI Pulse Dr.
Tharoor spoke about the Indian economy, its strengths and
weaknesses, his hopes for the country and finally, what the
term “NRI” is all about!
According to the UNs Human Development Index - which
looks beyond GDP to a broader definition of well-being to
include health and education, India ranked pretty low at 128
in 2007. But at the same time, the GDP growth rate is
increasing - at a steady rate of 8.5% per cent per year. The
two numbers seem quite ironic and in essence mean - as
stated in a prominent Indian newspaper - we are seeing high
growth but low development. What do you think this mean in
real terms when we talk about India's emergence?
That’s not quite the whole story. Progress is being made in
pulling people out of poverty – about 1 percent a year,
which is still 10 million people, but it’s clearly not
enough. I have been arguing for some time that India needs
to invest much more in education and basic health care so
that we can equip our population to take advantage of the
new opportunities available to Indians in the emerging
What do you think are the main factors that are bogging
down India's economy at this stage? What are the problems
that need immediate attention?
We need to work urgently on both the “hardware” and the
“software” of development. The “hardware” is notably our
woeful infrastructure – roads, ports, airports, power,
water, sanitation facilities. The “software” is what it
takes to build India’s human capital – notably education and
health care – but also long-pending reforms in our legal
system (to end the humungous backlog of cases tying down our
courts), our labour laws (which are designed to protect the
jobs of those who have them rather than create more jobs for
the rest of Indians), and in agriculture (where crushing
indebtedness has led us to a world record in farmer
What do you think is India's greatest resource - that is
fundamentally going to boost its economic growth?
Our people – bright, innovative, hard-working, capable of
achieving extraordinary things with limited means. We need
to give them the education and the tools, remove the
artificial constraints on their creative energies, and they
will do almost anything. They have repeatedly proved this.
From what I understand, the title of your book mentions
cell-phones as a symbol of this expanding growth - the
transformation of India from a slow elephant to an agile
tiger. Almost everybody today in India carries a cell phone.
It’s cheap and affordable and now we are expecting to see a
new car – again, more affordable than ever before at $ 2,500
by Tata Motors. What do you think the impact of this is
going to be?
The most important impact is that it will enable families
that are currently perching themselves four at a time on a
scooter or motorcycle to travel more safely and in greater
dignity and comfort. Of course the secondary impact is that
it will clog our existing roads with more vehicles and our
air with more emissions. The answer to that is to build
more, better and wider roads, and to develop and implement
environmental policies that will help all of us to breathe
Recently, many leading Indian companies have started
making overseas acquisitions - Hindalco and Tata among them.
Clearly, this shows that India is making its presence felt
in the global economy. But what other impact do you think
these acquisitions have - keeping in mind that in essence
many of these companies are private? Any impact on the lay
person and what does it mean for India's growth, i.e. are
overseas acquisitions a right step forward?
They are certainly an indication of India’s global footprint
and of the world-class quality of India’s managerial and
entrepreneurial talent. They will also provide a larger
stage for Indians to perform upon. But I do not see much
direct impact within India itself, unless some of these
newly-acquired foreign companies transfer their operations
and therefore their jobs to Indian soil.
The H1B applications this year hit the legal cap – as
usual pretty quickly. An increasing number of Indians keep
applying. With the Indian economy being fairly steady and
growing - and if in fact, an emerging power, why do you
think people in fact want to move out of India? And how do
you think this so called 'brain-drain' is going to impact
The trend is matched by an opposite trend – of people
returning to India from the US. I don’t think that
individuals’ natural desire to improve their fortunes by
coming to the US constitutes a net loss to India. If
anything, many of the most successful Indians here have
given back to India in terms of remittances, investments,
time and expertise, and several are setting up companies at
home, endowing educational institutions and supporting NGOs
doing vital work in India. I would suggest that the brain
drain is now much more a brain gain.
Referring back to the book again, it apparently also
covers a variety of other smaller topics - important
figures, an A-to-Z Indian index and from what I understand
your rant about Indian cities and their name changing, i.e.
Bombay to Mumbai and Bangalore to Bengaluru. Can you tell us
a little bit about this? Why the rant?
Many of these essays began life as op-ed columns in the
Indian press. The purpose of a columnist is to provoke
thought and discussion, so sometimes one is tempted to state
a point trenchantly in order to get a rise out of one’s
readers. But I’m not sure any of my writing really qualifies
as a rant!
Lastly, we are all curious to know - What are your
current plans? What can we expect next from you?
I’m busy with my own work in the private sector, which is
what pays the rent, my columns in the Times of India and the
Hindu, and my charitable work – I’m on nearly 20 different
boards, in the fields of education, culture, human rights
and humanitarian action. I’m also struggling to find the
time to write my share of a book I’ve agreed to co-author
with Shahryar Khan of Pakistan on Indo-Pakistani cricket
Is there anything I am missing? Anything you would like
readers to be aware of - especially NRIs?
In my book India: from Midnight to the Millennium I asked
whether “NRI” should stand for “Not Really Indian” or “Never
Relinquished India” – because there’s a little bit of both
in all of us Indians who live abroad. But today they have
also become the “Now Required Indians”, actively sought
after by the mother country for their expertise, resources
and initiative. And because India itself is advancing and
winning a great deal of attention from so many countries,
these “global Indians” are basking in some of their
homeland’s reflected glory as well.
Finally, I have a passionate desire to see India, in my
lifetime, become a country that sets an example to the world
in how to manage diversity and how to use democracy to the
benefit of the teeming multitudes in our country who are
still struggling to survive and fulfill their potential.