‘Personally I would have had no difficulty with [major parties coming under the RTI]’

As part of Open’s monthly Breakfast Chat series, Minister of State for Human Resource Development Dr Shashi Tharoor spoke to Manu Joseph at Smoke House Deli

Video clips: Policy paralysis | Right to Information Act | Election spending limit | Role of Social media in elections

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Manu Joseph Good morning and thank you for being here. At Open we have very good-natured, unofficial ban on Bengalis writing about other Bengalis, for the practical reason that there are so many articles about Bengalis by Bengalis. So I feel a bit hypocritical being a Malayalee interviewing you, but of the two of us, I think one of us is authentic.

Shashi Tharoor One of us is?

Manu Joseph One of us is an authentic Malayalee—you?

Shashi Tharoor Oh, thank you. I can tell you my Malayalee-hood was never more useful and never more challenged then when I was handling the PCB operations in the former Yugoslavia and appointed a Malayalee general as the first commander of the forces. There was a general named Satish Nambiar. He had grown up in Bombay and Delhi; I had grown up in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi. So the two of us both spoke such bad Malayalam that in the absence of... We knew we would be eavesdropped upon by the secret services of at least five nations, so we would say whatever extremely sensitive things we had to say to each other in atrocious Malayalam, and he would always say that [even] if there was some Malayalam speaker eavesdropping on the conversation, they wouldn’t understand. So I wouldn’t pretend to any greater authenticity than you, Manu.

Manu Joseph But I am sure you can pronounce Thiruvananthapuram...

Shashi Tharoor Thiruvananthapuram, I can. Kozhikode is what you’ve got to pronounce to prove your authenticity…

Manu Joseph Kozikhode, I think, is the ultimate test.

Shashi Tharoor You just qualified.

Manu Joseph So Indian Parliament is meeting today and you usually don’t work on working days or weekdays…

Shashi Tharoor Oh thanks, we don’t work on working days. (laughs)

Manu Joseph So why are you meeting on a Saturday?

Shashi Tharoor What happened was that, when the disruptions happened over the last 10 days, there was a feeling that there was too much pending legislative business that would suffer. So the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs said that the only way we can make up for this is by scheduling a session on Saturday and by expelling these troublemakers earlier in the week, to get some work done.

To everyone’s surprise, two days ago, the BJP actually welched on the deal to expel the troublemakers. So we lost Thursday as well. So until Thursday, we effectively had no Parliament. Yesterday, the Rajya Sabha functioned perfectly. Today, the Lok Sabha is meeting. The contentious Food Security Bill is not being introduced, as far as I understand it. There are, however, five other bills that will be introduced and debated.

It is a pity, because when Parliament is disrupted in this petty and most unfortunate manner, what happens is that the rest of the legislative agenda gets so tightly squeezed that you don’t get a serious debate on any of the bills you are voting on. Often, bills are introduced in a speech or two and [there is] a quick vote, and that will be what will happen today. But today, the idea is to get some bills out.

Manu Joseph What are the five bills being introduced?

Shashi Tharoor Ah! I wish I knew. I am not the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs. I do know that none of my Ministry’s bills, unfortunately, have made to the head of the queue. So none of our education bills—there are 11 pending—are going to be there. But I have to be a good, diligent MP and go there and show my face. I am going to do that once we are done.

Manu Joseph I have to ask you the inevitable question about the perception of the Government, especially by what is called the middle class. What is the middle class? I am confused now, but the perception is that the government is not working and there’s a very popular alliteration called policy paralysis, which everybody loves. How do you react to this perception of the government?

Shashi Tharoor Well, it’s a bit unfair but, as with all these perceptions, it matters because in politics, very often, it is a game of perception. The reality is all too often shrouded by a sort of perceptual veil, which tends to delineate what exactly people are supposed to be thinking—the conventional wisdom, as it were, about a particular situation or government or policies.

As far as our government is concerned, if you look back on the last nine years, it actually has some epochal achievements that have transformed this nation in ways that people have taken for granted.

When the UPA came to power there was no Right to Information Act. I cannot think of a single far-reaching piece of legislation... Forget paralysis, this has shaken up the entire bureaucracy and the political world. It has given, of course, a lot of work to activists and lawyers. But it has actually created a level of transparency that is probably unparalleled in the democratic world. Certainly, in the US you would not get a contemporary note from the Prime Minister’s office on the 3G affair being released openly. So we are really, as the result of the RTI, one of the most transparent governments in the world. It has happened and everyone has taken it for granted.

Similarly, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). We’ve transformed the nature of our country, in terms of rural India. We have managed to provide employment to millions of people who wouldn’t otherwise have it. Yes, some of these are make-work schemes but they are getting paid. Dignity of labour is there. In order to avoid the potential of corruption by middlemen, we’ve opened over 9 million new bank accounts so that people can be paid directly. This has changed the purchasing power of rural India. It has put money in the pockets and hands of the poor. It has changed [things] in many ways—to the effect that people are complaining that they are not getting cheap migrant labour to work on their fields anymore, because they are getting decent work in their own villages.

… Look at all of this and you’re looking at far-reaching changes. That a government has done all of this and has [been] paralysed in any way becomes laughable. And yet somehow this impression has run wild because, I am afraid, of certain people in our media who would like to see certain other things happening that might make life easier for them or their friends—[things] which have not been given priority by the UPA, which is focused on the masses and the aam aadmi. They are going after the Government for power policy paralysis.

Manu Joseph You’re saying that it is largely a media- ordained perception?

Shashi Tharoor It is a media perception and, very frankly, it’s an elite perception.

Manu Joseph You’re saying that one of the big tickets acts is the Right to Information Act. Why don’t the six major political parties want to be under the purview of this act?

Shashi Tharoor Personally, I would have had no difficulty with this, but my voice doesn’t count on that. Let’s just say that it’s a decision made by all the political parties. I have got questions, needless to say, because when I don’t like what my own party is doing, I ask some of the leaders.

What I was told is that the kinds of information that can legitimately be sought under the Right to Information Act can also be legitimately sought from the Election Commission. Your budgets, your money, your expenditure—you can file it with the Election Commission and you can tomorrow file an RTI application with the Election Commission and get it .

If you [allow people to] file an RTI application towards parties, they say you would be deluged with politically motivated—maliciously motivated—questions, and the examples they are giving [are of] questions about how you choose a particular candidate and not another candidate, questions about how you raise the money that was spent on a particular campaign, or whatever. Various things...

Manu Joseph That’s a reasonable question, isn’t it?

Shashi Tharoor They say that we get 20,000 contributions of Rs 100 [each]. Where are you going to keep account of it and give receipts below a certain figure (I forget what that figure is)? But they are saying that in practical terms, we would all be snowed under. Certainly, we are not only a litigious nation but an RTI-losing nation. And the worry is definitely that the parties would suffer in the process, so [this] seems to be something on which the parties are in unanimity.

Manu Joseph Are you convinced?

Shashi Tharoor Look, the problem with me on these questions is that I am a new boy in this game. I have been in politics for four years and a bit. These are all people who have multiples of that experience of the way the politics works in this country. They say, ‘You are still learning. We’ve been at it. We tell you how it is going to be.’ And I really don’t have the basis to question their judgment.

I think the only MP, to the best of my knowledge, who has questioned [the paries’ resistance to the RTI] is Jai Panda of the BJD. But frankly, the logic in the BJD is, ‘This thing is going to happen anyway so why not take the moral high ground?’ Because if it really—you know, in our position—would actually result in the change, then maybe we wouldn’t take the position... That seems to be what’s happening in these parties.

Manu Joseph What are some of the things in politics that surprised you as a new entrant?

Shashi Tharoor They are both good and bad. I’d say the good that surprised me, I remember, are some experiences in Kerala. People like Rahul Gandhi have told me that Kerala is not typical at all, like say, UP is, for example. But in Kerala, I think there’s practically no distinction between politics and social service. The politicians I’ve come across in my last four and a half years are essentially people who are very much engaged with the real problems of real people. It is not the tokenism of visiting a bereaved home when somebody passes away or attending weddings, which of course politicians do in order to be seen. That, they like to think, is an act of compassion or celebration. But there’s a certain self-serving element to it as well.

Every one of us is dealing with literally hundreds of problems to solve. The Chief Minister of Kerala has done something extraordinary that has not been done by any chief executive in the world. He has stood for 18 hours a day, in each of the 18 district capitals receiving petitions from anyone and resolving 90 per cent of them on the spot with a swift instruction. The sense of [using] politics to actually help people change their lives has been so deeply ingrained. I was very impressed.

As you know from my earlier writing, I was one of those typical middle class people who was cynical about politics. To this day, my own mother is furious that I went into politics. The tendency is to believe that politics is all dirt and sleaze.

(Sunanda Pushkar, Tharoor’s wife, interjects from the audience: “My mother didn’t want me to marry a politician.”)
There you are, her mother did not want her to marry one. I’m sure we rank much below IAS officers and editors of magazines, and so on.

…One last thought, I probably wasn’t prepared for the extent of the demands of my constituency. It’s a very demanding and exhausting profession. I work five days a week in Parliament—this being sort of an exception for the Parliament session. Friday evening I am on a plane to Trivandrum. I have 16-17 hour days, all of Saturday and Sunday, and wake up at 4 am to catch a 6 am Monday morning flight back to Delhi.

Manu Joseph This is every week?

Shashi Tharoor Every Parliament week. It is an exhausting profession.

Manu Joseph Increasingly, is the MLA becoming more relevant than the MP?

Shashi Tharoor First of all, there’s a massive confusion in the minds of voters—not just [about] the MP and MLA, but going right down to the Ward Councillor or the Gram Panchayat Councillor—because from their point of view, if there’s a pothole on the road and somebody comes by looking for a vote, he better fix that pothole. And it doesn’t matter to them if it’s a councillor or an MLA or an MP or whatever—and this is something that is very difficult to explain.

I have actually found myself, in many of my speeches, especially when I have a councillor and an MLA onstage with me, [saying], ‘so he’s doing this or that for you, and I am representing your interest in Delhi,’ and I make a fairly successful joke out of saying that, you know, I hear all these people saying, ‘Why do we vote for this guy? We never see him run. He’s sitting in Delhi. Why should we vote for him?’ I say, ‘You want me to be in Delhi for you, and I am doing your work from Delhi.’ That sort of message.

But there’s a real connection to the needs of the constituency. They are not going to get impressed by how many Lok Sabha debates I speak in or what I do in the Ministry of HRD. They want to know how much money I have brought in for roads in Trivandrum, how many new trains are able to get into the stations, whether I was able to elbow my way past other MPs to get funds for my district [that] were being competed for by other districts, and so on. You need to do that.

…I am hesitating to generalise because I have seen some of my north Indian MP friends don’t seem to feel all these things as intensely as I have described them to you. But in Kerala, they matter. In Kerala they matter very seriously. I have a very close friend—I won’t name him—who was a minister in my government but who follows my work on Twitter and so on. They often require [that I] don’t go into the full details of all my 17 appointments, but they know when I am in Thiruvananthapuram or what I am doing. He says, ‘Are you sure you are not peaking to early?’

Manu Joseph The Indian business community claims it’s a victim and it’s been claiming this for a while, but I think they get away with a lot of rubbish. For example, who sponsors political corruption, and the corporate segments, and there are a lot of things...

Shashi Tharoor ‘Lot of things’ starts with the hypocrisy of the election limit, which is so ridiculously low that...

Manu Joseph What do you think the limit should be?

Shashi Tharoor I must confess, maybe because I lived there for so many years, [that I am a] bigger fan of the American system, where there are no limits.

…But you declare every paisa you earn and raise for it; you account for how you spend it; if you have a surplus left, you can only spend it for electoral purposes, etcetera. There are very defined rules...but if you are the kind of person who has the talent to go out and host a Rs 10,000 a plate dinner for the business community and [can] get people to spend that money and you can raise that [money] legitimately, why shouldn’t you be allowed to?

See, when I fought the elections last time, the expense limit was Rs 25 lakh and I tell myself that, fine, I was in my very first election campaign. People came to me saying, ‘These are the expenses and here are the receipts you need to sign’ and I send them in good faith and we came within Rs 25 lakh. But what else was spent that I wasn’t shown the receipts [for]... I have no clue. And this is a case of ignorance being bliss. I would rather not know, because I don’t want to consciously feel that people, in my name, have spent more than the law allows. But then you have all these conversations with other politicians, and everyone seems to have basically taken in stride that these expense limits are to be scoffed at. If that is true, then the difference between what you can legally spend and what is being illegally spent for you is obviously coming from somewhere, and it has to be unaccounted black money. Where is that coming from? Essentially from the business community.

Manu Joseph In your opinion, how many times larger is the actual spending compared to the official...?

Shashi Tharoor Well, [I] can only go by rumours... The rumours range from something like 20 times as much to something like 40-50 times as much, and those are frightening figures, and of course they go up with every election. The rumours also inflate with every election.

Manu Joseph Why don’t we just do something about it? Everybody realises that this is unrealistic...

Shashi Tharoor Well, I know I have asked every time I am troubled by something. I go to the party leaders and I say, ‘What is this, why is this being done?’ and the answer I have been given is...

Manu Joseph ...that you are new to politics?

Shashi Tharoor No, not just that—well, that I get a lot, too. It’s simply, they say, that they cannot raise the expense limit because that would send the signal that elections are only for rich people to contest.

Manu Joseph What is going to be the role of social media in the 2014 elections?

Shashi Tharoor I think it’s going to be greater than the 2009 elections for a number of reasons.

First, though only about 10-12 per cent of the Indian electorate is on the internet, the fact remains that it’s not just the people who [you are] directly reaching through social media that you are reaching. What you put out on social media may be directly interacting with 10-12 per cent. But it is mined by media, gets out by newspaper or television. For example, Shakeel Ahmed’s controversy... Social media clearly helped put this issue on the agenda of the political class of that time.

The second reason it is important is... There’s a study by a group called Iris Media which has established that in 160 of our country’s 543 constituencies, there are more social media users than the gap [in votes] between the [candidates who came] first and second and the last election—the margin of victory is smaller than the number of social media users in that constituency. So in 160 constituencies, it is a politically relevant number. In some constituency you won by a lakh votes, there are more than a lakh social media users. In some other constituency we won by 10,000 votes, there are more than 10,000 social media users. So that becomes a very important factor.

You can’t use social media in India, as you can in the US, to organise a mass rally or a public political meeting. But you can use it in these ways—to help set the agenda and to get messages out that then get multiplied in the traditional media.

Final thought: you do need social media because you have to lay a foundation for the future. Right now we talk about 10-12 per cent of people having access to the Internet, but already today 70 per cent have access to mobile phones. In about 10 years’ time—maybe less, maybe by the time we’ve gone through 3G and 4G and so on—access to the internet on your mobile phone will be so fast, so cheap, so accessible, so easy that this 70-80 per cent, which may by then be 90 per cent, will certainly be on social media in various languages. And if you have been absent from that space, how on earth will you catch up? You need to lay that foundation.

Manu Joseph Social media stars somehow remind me of Narendra Modi. So what are your perceptions of Narendra Modi?

Shashi Tharoor I have to say, the pity of Narendra Modi is that he’s not interactive at all. He has a PR firm or somebody writing his tweets.