Former UN Undersecretary-General Shashi Tharoor, is a Member of Parliament, from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala.
A best-selling author, Tharoor has authored insightful fiction and non-fiction, rooted in India’s rich cultural moorings.
As India turns 75, the former career diplomat shares his views on the nation’s evolution after Independence, the fresh dimensions acquired by freedom and the nation’s standing in the world.
It has been 75 years since India attained Independence. Has freedom acquired new dimensions in this time? What would be your definition of freedom at this critical juncture?
I believe that freedom has indeed acquired new dimensions, particularly since Independence was followed by the adoption of the Constitution, which moved India away from the British focus on communal identities to one of individual rights, empowered all citizens as voters rather than the mere 10 per cent whom the British had allowed to vote, and introduced new freedoms into the daily lives of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, minorities and women.
The notion of freedom has expanded significantly in a further series of Supreme Court judgements. This expanded notion of freedom has to be fought for and preserved.
After 75 years, what is the image India conveys to the world?
India has an image as the world’s fastest-growing free market democracy, which was underpinned by a global reputation for its successful management of diversity and pluralism. This latter reputation has unfortunately been circumscribed by today’s domestic environment of Islamophobia and assaults on minorities, which is getting BJP-ruled India a bad name in global media, whether in the Middle East or in the West. Our country’s economic performance has also raised some doubts and concerns, but it remains an indispensable partner of the democratic world in resisting the overweening ambitions of China, which is still a favourable factor contributing to the image of India abroad. However, for India to regain the admiration and trust of the global public, it will need to address anew its serious domestic deficiencies.
What is the future of democracy in the world's largest democracy? Has the altered political standards in any way questioned the relevance of the Indian National Congress and the values it had inherited from the Independence movement?
The values of the Indian National Congress are not only timeless ones, they are also the values that animated the freedom struggle and are reflected in the language and contents of the Constitution. For this reason, an India whose democracy is based on our Constitution and our institutions has a robust foundation. Unfortunately, the recent political practice has given the impression that the government prefers to hollow out the autonomy of our institutions, intimidate the opposition through selective investigations and prosecutions, and demonise the minorities. Unless these trends are reversed the image and substance of our democracy will be in peril.
Are you concerned that India is veering away from the path of federalism, an ideal that celebrates diversity? If so, what could be behind this unravelling of India's federal structure?
This is an extremely serious concern, which emerges from the manner in which the central government has, in recent years, ridden roughshod over the rights of the states and severely abridged the share of Central tax revenues that are given to the states. We are now looking at a further dangerous prospect with the lapsing of the 84th amendment* to the Constitution in 2026. It is likely that after this, there would be a dramatic expansion in the number of Lok Sabha seats accorded to the most populous states of India in the Hindi belt, thereby granting the north Indian Hindi-speaking states, where the BJP is strong, a two-third majority in Parliament, enough to amend the Constitution, declare Hindi the national language and even proclaim India as a Hindu Rashtra as the ruling party’s adherents desire. If this happens, not only will federalism be severely impaired, but even the unity of India could be threatened. I hope and pray that such shortsighted politics gives way to greater statesmanship that understands that India’s strength lies in ensuring the successful functioning of all its constituent states.
Do you feel we have reached a stage where a dangerous reshaping of our Constitution is imminent, a process that would strip the canon of some of the values that had made freedom priceless?
Yes. My concern is already reflected in the latter part of the previous answer. In addition, many of the laws introduced by the present government or altered significantly in their application, such as the UAPA**, the PMLA*** and others, have in many ways altered the spirit of the Constitution by severely abridging the rights of Indian citizens. I do fear that the glorious liberal democracy, resting on pillars of civic nationalism, that was established 75 years ago, is in danger of becoming something far less admirable in practice in the years to come.
* The 84th Amendment Act, 2001, froze the boundaries of the Lok Sabha constituencies till the first census after 2026, that is, at least until after 2031. The current number of Lok Sabha seats is based on the 1971 census.
** The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act
** The Prevention of Money Laundering Act