Shashi Tharoor, former UN official, author, human rights activist, and now, the Congress candidate from Thiruvananthapuram for the Lok Sabha elections, chatted with Sify.com users on May 7, 2009. Excerpts:
Do you think your experience in UN will help you in the polls? How will you identify yourself with the rural voters of your constituency?
UN experience will not help me win the polls -- but will help me be more effective if I win!
I may not be able to `identify` with the rural voters as one of them, but I can `identify` their problems and work to solve them. That's what matters.
What would be your top priorities for Trivandrum?
There`s a lot to be done in and for the development of Trivandrum, from the infrastructure of the city to the development of Vizhinjam port. I have plans to twin Trivandrum with a foreign city and to make it a centre of excellence for education and research. The rural and coastal areas have their own special needs, from basic drinking water to agro-industries. Trivandrum and Kerala cannot be the forgotten backwaters of Indian development. We also need to do a lot more to attract investment to Kerala to create more jobs.
Do you think the world is in a cold war situation between Islam and Non Islam followers?
No, and it should not be allowed to become that way. There are extremists and fanatics of all faiths and ideologies, and the real divide is between those who are "uniters" -- those who believe in co-existence, pluralism and tolerance -- and the "dividers".
What is the reason behind you deciding to enter Lok Sabha elections?
A desire to make a difference. That has animated everything I've done in my UN career and in my writing.
What is your reaction to some comments -- even from Congressmen from Kerala -- that you don't know the problems of the common man?
The answer has been provided by the people of Thiruvananthapuram. I have been overwhelmed by the warmth of their welcome. I speak Malayalam in all my public and private meetings and the response has been terrific. The people of Thiruvananthapuram are less insular than they are given credit for. And I have been out in the streets, the fields, the slums, the "colonies", the adivasi settlements and seen the problems for myself.
Why did you choose the Congress party ... any special reason?
The country has benefited from five years of stable, responsible, mature and effective leadership at a turbulent time in the region's, and the world's, history. The Government's stewardship of the economy through a 5-year period marked by a serious global economic downturn, record fuel prices, a worldwide food crisis and a near-collapse of the Western financial system has been exemplary. Indians have been successfully buffered against the worst of the shocks, and there is no danger of a recession.
The Congress' focus on development has paid significant dividends. The Government has managed 8 to 9 percent growth for most of its tenure while never forgetting the bottom 25 percent of the population. About one crore people have been pulled above the poverty line each year despite global economic constraints.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has measurably changed the lives of millions.
The Congress has proved to be a trusted guardian of India's democracy. The Right to Information Act, the scrapping of POTA, the protection given to minority voices, and the safeguarding of citizens' rights through a number of government policies in such areas as women's empowerment and Panchayati Raj make the Congress the best bulwark of pluralist democracy against the forces of intolerance, bigotry against minorities and oppression of women.
The Government has held India's head high in the world by conducting a courageous, independent and realistic foreign policy. The Indo-US nuclear deal was a stunning accomplishment, which ended decades of nuclear apartheid against India. The transformation of our relations with the US has brought the Indian people concrete economic benefits.
The burgeoning trade with China shows that we have been able to prevent any serious conflict with our powerful northern neighbour. We have managed a difficult situation in our neighbourhood despite serious internal problems for all our neighbours.
Our measured and restrained response to the Mumbai attacks in November, resisting calls for military action, have begun delivering results.
The Congress is better at managing India's place in the world than any other party would be.
The Congress successfully held a coalition government together for a full five-year term, while ruling with effectiveness. It can be trusted to do so again, whereas any other combination will guarantee short-lived, opportunistic and weak governance, which the country can ill afford.
Special: Poll debates
What was your primary motivation for joining politics?
As I said earlier, a desire to make a difference. That has animated everything I've done in my UN career and in my writing.
How do you perceive the future of Indian politics?
The future of Indian politics is bright -- more consciousness of political accountability, more educated professionals entering the political space, more young people coming of age who are impatient for change.
Everyone is predicting your defeat in Thiruvananthapuram, but why do you think people will elect you and your vision for Thiruvananthapuram?
I am yet to meet anyone who expects my defeat, but I hope to surprise them on May 16. At least I do have a vision for Thiruvananthapuram (www.shashitharoor.in) -- that is more than any of opponents seem to have!
Why is the UN hiding the truth of civilian killings in Sri Lanka? Why is China blocking a formal briefing on Sri Lanka?
The UN Secretariat's humanitarian staff have been quite outspoken about the situation of humanitarian workers. As to China's position, it is clearly a case of national interest triumphing over humanitarian concerns.
The Great Indian Poll Tamasha
If you think, corruption is one of the main problems in India, then how are you going to face them if you become the authority concerned?
Corruption is a national malaise and it is a social ill, not just one that a "concerned authority" can solve. We are all complicit -- those who demand bribes and those who give them.
What made you decide to join the Congress, and not any other party? Did you go to them, or did they come to you?
For some years now the Congress has been, and is, right on the big issues facing the country -- the nature of our democracy and the protection of our plural society, an economic policy that combines growth with attentiveness to the needs of the poor and marginalized, and a foreign policy that's at once independent and realistic, focused on the well-being of the Indian people. No other national party combines these "big picture" elements accurately.
From bureaucrat to political animal ... what next?
What next? The voters will decide!
Images: Lok Sabha elections
What are your plans to bridge the digital divide that is prevalent in our country now?
I'd like to see much more extensive penetration of IT across the country -- computers in every panchayat, and ideally in every school. There are resource implications and technological challenges, but if the information revolution is going to benefit our country, it can't be like today where it's unlike the French revolution -- lots of liberty, some fraternity and no equality.
What is your reading of the post-election scenario?
I think Congress will be the largest single party and will be invited to form the Govt. but I'm not an astrologer to predict how the coalition-making will go.
(We regret the abrupt termination of Dr Tharoor's chat owing to a technical glitch.)