Home » Why Nations Should Pursue “Soft” Power: Shashi Tharoor (Transcript)

Why Nations Should Pursue “Soft” Power: Shashi Tharoor (Transcript)

But, today in Britain, for example, Indian restaurants in Britain employ more people than the coal mining, ship building and iron and steel industries combined. So the empire can strike back.

But, with this increasing awareness of India, with you and with I, and so on, with tales like Afghanistan, comes something vital in the information era, the sense that in today’s world it’s not the side of the bigger army that wins, it’s the country that tells a better story that prevails.

And India is, and must remain, in my view, the land of the better story. Stereotypes are changing. I mean, again, having gone to the U.S. as a student in the mid ’70s, I knew what the image of India was then, if there was an image at all.

Today, people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere speak of the IITs, the Indian Institutes of Technology with the same reverence they used to accord to MIT. This can sometimes have unintended consequences. OK.

I had a friend, a history major like me, who was accosted at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, by an anxiously perspiring European saying, “You’re Indian, you’re Indian! Can you help me fix my laptop?”

We’ve gone from the image of India as land of fakirs lying on beds of nails, and snake charmers with the Indian rope trick, to the image of India as a land of mathematical geniuses, computer wizards, software gurus. But that too is transforming the Indian story around the world.

But there is something more substantive to that. The story rests on a fundamental platform of political pluralism. It’s a civilizational story to begin with. Because India has been an open society for millennia. India gave refuge to the Jews, fleeing the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians, and said thereafter by the Romans.

In fact, legend has is that when Doubting Thomas, the Apostle, Saint Thomas, landed on the shores of Kerala, my home state, somewhere around 52 A.D., he was welcomed on shore by a flute-playing Jewish girl.

And to this day remains the only Jewish diaspora in the history of the Jewish people, which has never encountered a single incident of anti-semitism. That’s the Indian story.

Islam came peacefully to the south, slightly more differently complicated history in the north. But all of these religions have found a place and a welcome home in India. You know, we just celebrated, this year, our general elections, the biggest exercise in democratic franchise in human history.

And the next one will be even bigger, because our voting population keeps growing by 20 million a year. But the fact is that the last elections, five years ago, gave the world extraordinary phenomenon of an election being won by a woman political leader of Italian origin and Roman Catholic faith, Sonia Gandhi, who then made way for a Sikh, Mohan Singh, to be sworn in as Prime Minister by a Muslim, President Abdul Kalam, in a country 81% Hindu.

This is India, and of course it’s all the more striking because it was four years later that we all applauded the U.S., the oldest democracy in the modern world, more than 220 years of free and fair elections, which took till last year to elect a president or a vice president who wasn’t white, male or Christian.

So, maybe — oh sorry, he is Christian, I beg your pardon — and he is male, but he isn’t white. All the others have been all those three. All his predecessors have been all those three, and that’s the point I was trying to make.

But the issue is that when I talked about that example, it’s not just about talking about India, it’s not propaganda. Because ultimately, that electoral outcome had nothing to do with the rest of the world. It was essentially India being itself.

And ultimately, it seems to me, that always works better than propaganda. Governments aren’t very good at telling stories. But people see a society for what it is, and that, it seems to me, is what ultimately will make a difference in today’s information era, in today’s TED age.

So India now is no longer the nationalism of ethnicity or language or religion, because we have every ethnicity known to mankind, practically, we’ve every religion known to mankind, with the possible exception of Shintoism, though that has some Hindu elements somewhere.

We have 23 official languages that are recognized in our Constitution. And those of you who cashed your money here might be surprised to see how many scripts there are on the rupee note, spelling out the denominations.

We’ve got all of that. We don’t even have geography uniting us, because the natural geography of the subcontinent framed by the mountains and the sea was hacked by the partition with Pakistan in 1947.

In fact, you can’t even take the name of the country for granted, because the name “India” comes from the river Indus, which flows in Pakistan.

But the whole point is that India is the nationalism of an idea. It’s the idea of an ever-ever-land, emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history, but sustained, above all, by pluralist democracy.

That is a 21st-century story as well as an ancient one. And it’s the nationalism of an idea that essentially says you can endure differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, custom and costume, consonant, for that matter, and still rally around a consensus.

And the consensus is of a very simple principle, that in a diverse plural democracy like India you don’t really have to agree on everything all the time, so long as you agree on the ground rules of how you will disagree.

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