The Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre housed an audience of almost 600 in a sold out event, which witnessed eminent journalist for the Straits Times, Vikram Khanna in conversation with Dr. Shashi Tharoor, via a Q & A session.

Shashi Tharoor is an Indian politician and a former diplomat who is currently serving as Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, since 2009. He also currently serves as Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs and All India Professionals Congress of the Indian National Congress.
Vikram Khanna is Associate Editor of Singapore’s financial daily, The Business Times, where he has worked since 1993.Over the last 22 years, he has personally conducted more than 200 full length interviews with heads of government, global CEOs, Nobel laureates and other thought leaders.

The conversation started with memories of the Cricket World Cup of 1983, when India lifted the World Cup, which Dr. Shashi Tharoor watched in Singapore during his stay here from 1981 to 1984. He reiterated that Singapore is his favourite place in the world.

Born in March 1956 in London, Dr. Tharoor has witnessed 6 decades of change and progress in India. From a protectionist economy with limited possibilities for a graduate in Humanities like him, in 1975, to a booming economy with infinite possibilities for a graduating student in 2018; he noted that Indians today are global citizens, for many of whom ‘foreign holidays’ are no longer an exception but a norm.

This being a diaspora event, it was inevitable that he was questioned on how it felt to return to India and enter into the political arena. Having lived 34 years of his life as a Non Resident Indian (NRI), he will need to live another 6 years in India to equalise the numbers, said Dr. Tharoor.  He added that from MK Gandhi to JP Narayan, Indian politics is replete with NRI’s who returned and settled in India and embroiled themselves totally into political and national causes in the country. He was seen as an interloper parachuting into an arena of ‘career politicians’ when he first stood for elections he said.

Unlike the Chinese Government, the Indian Government was neither supportive nor responsive to the plight of their citizens abroad until recent times, Dr. Tharoor noted.

He drew much laughter when he changed the acronym NRI from ‘Not Really Indians’ to ‘Not Relinquished India’ to ‘National Reserves of India’.  

Dr. Tharoor is the author of “An Era Of Darkness”, published in the UK as “Inglorious Empire” What the British Did to India, it rose to Number 1 in the London Evening Standard bestseller lists. Copies of the book on sale at the event yesterday, were snatched up by fans of this prolific writer. The book was inspired by an 8 minute speech delivered at the Oxford Union in 2015 by Dr. Tharoor. When it went viral and was viewed over 4 million times on YouTube, he decided to substantiate it with research and make it into a book.

Why rake up what the British did to India after 70 years Mr. Khanna queried.

To this Dr. Tharoor replied, “If you don’t know where you are coming from how will you know where you are going. The British came to one of the richest countries in the world and over 200 years of exploitation, loot and destruction, reduced it to third world poverty.”

Lets forgive but not forget he exhorted. Britain owes a moral debt to India if not repatriation he emphasised. If not for anything else but at least symbolically, they ought to pay a pound a year for the next 200 years, so that Brits like Lionel James don’t get away with statements like “ British empire is the the greatest example of altruism in the world”, Dr. Tharoor said.

Denouncing Winston Churchill who has been hailed as a hero in Britain, Dr. Tharoor told the audience Churchill was responsible for millions of deaths in India. As prime minister, he ordered Australian ships to not offload its cargo of wheat in India, where millions were dying in famine, but bring that food to England as a stockpile for future.“He has as much blood on his hands as some of the worst genocidal dictators of the 20th century”.

When Mr. Khanna said that Singapore’s experience with the British rule was not as negative, Dr. Tharoor reminded him,  to loud applause from the audience, that the British had turned tail and fled, leaving Singapore largely defenceless, when the Japanese had attacked.

When reminded that the British were not the only villains in India’s Colonial past, in-fighting within Indians was also a major cause of India’s centuries of subjugation,  Dr. Tharoor concurred. For every hero who fought for Independence there were three who were serving the Raj he noted. Selfishness and lack of civic and communal responsibility is a national defect he proclaimed. Giving examples of Tipu Sultan and Rani Laxmibai, he said Indian history was replete with such instances, which however doesn’t take away from the fact that the British pillaged and ransacked its colonies for more than 400 years!

Dr. Tharoor encourages the embrace of English which can unite diverse India and knowledge of English can give access to more jobs he added.  

What will it take to revive the Congress Party, Mr. Khanna questioned. It evoked laughter when Dr. Tharoor seemed to gulp down some tea before responding. He answered that the Congress Party will have to collaborate with other parties because there has been some fragmentation.

When asked about his opinion on the Gandhi family, he said that unlike Modi who claims to know all the answers, Rahul Gandhi doesn’t. In fact maybe he will admit that he doesn’t even know all the questions, he said to much laughter. But he later added that Rahul is not ignorant, he is well-read and will ask, discuss and work in consensus to find an answer, rather than claiming to know all answers.

Why the need to reclaim hinduism, Mr. Khanna asked, referring to Dr. Tharoor’s book, “Why I am a Hindu”. Hinduism as Swami Vivekananda said is not just about tolerance but also acceptance. Hinduism lends itself to many interpretations, thus most people who see something as anti-Hindu are saying so because it is ‘anti their idea of hinduism’, he noted.

Dr. Tharoor later took questions from the audience. It ranged from his opinion on the right candidate to lead the Congress, which he said was still Rahul Gandhi; to independence of judiciary, which he answered cautiously and privatising PSU’s to make them profitable which needs to be scaled up to India’s level.   

Further on India’s relationship with Pakistan, he said it will not improve until the terrorist attacks on India stop. Though they don’t have the gumption to get into an outright war with India which they are sure to lose, they continue insurgent attacks. Unless there is a social awakening amongst the masses against the military – which overtly and covertly is running the country – there can be no improvement on that front he added.

On Soft Power Ranking and Hard Power Ranking he noted that while the former is evoked and the latter is exercised, India is lagging behind in both these fronts.

Can civic sense and responsibility be inculcated in India by following models such as that of Singapore, was a question raised by the audience. In response, Dr. Tharoor explained that the biggest challenge in copying available models of development from other countries to India, is the scalability. If you can recommend a model and share how it can be implemented at an Indian scale, do email me your suggestions at [email protected] he said.

This then brought us to the conclusion of the event. Subsequently, hundreds of fans of Dr. Tharoor’s writing style and books lined up to get his autograph at this well organised maiden event, in the Global Leadership series by Himanshu Verma and the Connected to India team. We avidly look forward to the next guest in this series.