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Aravind Adiga
January 11, 2010
There are, it must be conceded, legitimate grounds on which Shashi Tharoor may be attacked. The hair, for instance. It isn’t the 1980s, dude: get it cut. The ultra-posh accent. And I’m talking here of his English accent. One shudders to think what his Malayalam must sound like. And we haven’t yet started on the most sensitive issue — the novels. Has anyone managed to finish Riot?

Since the man has so many soft spots, it’s puzzling that his ill-wishers are attacking him in the one place where he is invulnerable: his attitude towards Pandit Nehru’s foreign policy. Some years ago, Penguin India issued a series of small, handsomely-bound biographies that re-introduced us to the nation’s founding fathers. The best of this series was the one on Pandit Nehru, and it was written by Shashi Tharoor. This book, Nehru: The Invention of India, deserves to be quoted in the context of the present controversy, because it is probably the finest short book written on Nehru’s legacy. (Among longer biographies, I prefer M.J. Akbar’s to Stanley Wolpert’s.)

In the course of analysing Nehru’s long and complex political life, Tharoor does point out a few areas where history has not judged the first prime minister well, noting, for instance, that the Nehruvian socialist “command-and-control” economy may have stifled some of the country’s entrepreneurial energies. Tharoor’s party, which initiated the process of dismantling the socialist corsetry in 1991, can have no complaint here. While Nehru’s economic record is mixed, Tharoor reminds us his record is exemplary in other, more important, areas. First, he created a democratic, secular India that has endured many crises. And secondly, at a time when foreigners saw India as a weak, impoverished place, Nehru, through his eloquence and moral vision, gave the nation a role in international affairs that far exceeded its then military or financial strength.

Tharoor’s admiration for Pandit Nehru’s foreign policy was in full evidence, on the only occasion when I have seen him live. A few years ago, when he was in the running for the Secretary-General’s position at the United Nations, he spoke to journalists at New Delhi’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The meeting was strictly “off the record”; but as I write in his defence, the minister will surely pardon my breaking the covenant. Any of the journalists gathered there will remember that Tharoor spoke glowingly of India’s influence at the UN during the Nehru years — how the country was a beacon in those years, how other nations routinely sought India’s assistance in drafting their own resolutions and policies.

Tharoor did not, of course, get the top job at the United Nations. Days before the voting began, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper — a liberal voice, and not one given to anti-Indian screeds — ran an op-ed column by a retired Pakistani diplomat urging the world not to support his candidacy. Tharoor was an Indian patriot who had secretly lobbied for India in all his years at the UN, this diplomat alleged: and were he elected Secretary-General, he would continue to do the same thing, to Pakistan’s detriment.

Perhaps this paranoid Pakistani diplomat was right: perhaps Tharoor has been using his genial powers for years to help his nation from behind the scenes. Now he has a chance to do so from centrestage. The challenges facing him and his boss, S.M. Krishna, are immense: terrorism, competition with China for influence, the security of Indians working and studying abroad.

Then there is the question of India’s international reputation, still recovering from Slumdog Millionaire and that scrofulous novel which won a major literary prize in 2008. A full-strength Shashi Tharoor, helping his ministry tackle these issues, can only aid in India’s ascent. Those who do not want him to succeed in his work can legitimately attack him on other fronts — hairstyle, accent, Riot — but not on his respect for, or deep love of, the foreign policy of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

Aravind Adiga is the author of the Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger.The views expressed by the author are personal.