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Shashi Tharoor
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This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, and Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development.

Project Syndicate: Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, it has been keeping a tight lid on the pressure cooker, to borrow your metaphor. What are the most immediate risks you foresee?

Shashi Tharoor: The abrogation of Section 370 and Jammu and Kashmir’s bifurcation into two union territories is already being mourned as a dark day for Indian democracy. As I’ve previously stated, it is the political equivalent of Modi’s 2016 demonetization: an idea that was poorly conceived, and implemented with little consultation with any stakeholder group. The removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status amounted to an assault on India’s democratic values, and almost two months later, the government has offered little in the way of a truthful accounting of the current condition of the state and our citizens who reside there.

India’s constitution rests on the idea of an inclusive country, on the spirit of cooperative federalism and democratic practices, and on guarantees of individual and group liberties. Jammu and Kashmir has, in many ways, benefited from these ideals. Now, in a constitutional sleight of hand, it has seen them indefinitely suspended – indeed, seemingly wiped out.

As I argued in Parliament, there is an immense risk that the short-term damage done by this decision will overshadow any of the hypothetical long-term gains. Consider the economy: Jammu and Kashmir has long depended on tourism. By bringing the Kashmir Valley suddenly to a standstill, upending any sense of normalcy there, India’s federal government has effectively discouraged tourists from visiting. Similarly, investors shun warzones; with the state unlikely to return to a state of normalcy anytime soon, the investment that is needed to fuel development is likely to stall.

The political risks are even larger. The federal government has placed popular leaders in Jammu and Kashmir – including some of my colleagues who have represented the state in Parliament – under house arrest. It should be working with them to find an amicable solution with regard to the abrogation of Article 370. With these democratically elected leaders’ voices excluded from the discussion, I wonder who will take their place. After all, when you render democratic opponents irrelevant, you create space for undemocratic forces. With the people of Kashmir feeling deeply betrayed, individuals who have previously resorted to violence and acts of terrorism, and who had been marginalized for some time, may once again find popular acceptance.

And finally, there is the risk posed to the very federal structure of our country, which has been organized as a “union of states” since independence. The fact remains that asymmetric federal relations (such as Article 370) have always existed within this union of states. Could the government use the same – until now, unprecedented – methods they have used against Kashmir against other states tomorrow?

PS: You suggested last month that the action in Kashmir has broader significance, because the Modi government “signaled to the world its abandonment of its previous emphasis on economic growth and foreign investment” in favor of national security and Hindu chauvinism. At this point, what would it take to reverse the Indian economy’s downward slide?

ST: The cracks caused by the present government’s five and a half years of economic and fiscal ineptitude are not just showing; they are weakening the economy’s foundations. Unemployment stands at a 45-year high – particularly worrying for a young population like India’s. Worse, agriculture is in such distress that farmer suicides have broken all records, production has fallen, and exports have stagnated.

The average Indian is genuinely hurting, with a fast-emptying wallet, and fears what will happen if the government upholds its wanton disregard for sound economic management. And while India’s finance minister recently announced a series of U-turns in her disastrous budget proposals and has slashed some key tax rates, many worry that it’s too little, too late.

Whenever the current administration feels politically cornered, it resorts to a hyper-nationalistic narrative, rather than taking stronger action to clean up the mess its own ineptitude created. What the economy needs is a major boost, in order to overcome the consequences of demonetization, which removed 86% of the country’s currency from circulation overnight, and the botched implementation of the new national Goods and Services Tax.

Demand is down because people don’t have money to spend, and investors aren’t producing things people can afford to buy, which also undermines job creation. We need to bring in experts to overhaul existing structures. Since trickle-down growth hasn’t happened, the needed change must be implemented from the ground up. We need more and better jobs, more productive investments, and less lofty rhetoric. This government has been great at selling dreams; but people will not continue buying the same empty package forever.

PS: And yet your latest PS commentary highlights the sharp discrepancy between Modi’s poor record and his enduring popularity. To many Indians, you observe, he comes across as a “decisive, no-nonsense leader, willing to break with tradition and attempt bold solutions” to “intractable problems.” The problem is that the tradition Modi would discard includes democracy itself. How serious is the authoritarian threat in India, and what sources of democratic resilience remain?

ST: I believe that the behavior of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party since returning to power represents a fundamental threat to the future of India’s democracy and the freedoms that we have taken for granted since our independence from colonial rule 73 years ago.

In its second term, the BJP has introduced and adopted far-reaching legislation – such as the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, legislation criminalizing talaq-e-biddah (the Muslim practice of “instant divorce”), the abrogation of Article 370, and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill – with breathtaking speed. With no parliamentary standing committees constituted, a record number of bills have been pushed through with only minimal parliamentary scrutiny.

Far more worrying, however, is the remarkable shift in the BJP’s political ambition. They have gone from whispering about changing the constitution to openly undermining it; from suggesting that some Indians rank higher than others to openly ensuring that, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the very experience of what it means to be an Indian is different; and from asserting control over independent national institutions to openly using them as instruments of their political agenda.

As a cautious optimist, I would argue that there are enough Indians, including young people, who are committed to resisting these recent chauvinistic trends and to ensuring that the BJP’s project to remake India in its distorted image does not succeed. They will continue to fight for a national discourse that is constructive, recognizes and respects our diversity of faith and conviction, and promotes inclusive politics.

Similarly, the opposition has largely been united and unanimous in their rejection of these forces, and challenged the one-size-fits-all “Hindi-Hindutva-Hindustan” agenda that the government seeks to impose on all Indians. Even if our numbers haven’t allowed us to do more than raise our voices, we have rejected this agenda passionately in parliament and will continue to do everything in our power to resist the dismemberment of democratic India that the BJP seems determined to carry out.

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Tharoor recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Tharoor's picks:

  • The Discovery of India

    The Discovery of India

    The book, written by India’s first prime minister while in prison, provides a profound vision of what has made India the country it is, and what shaped Nehru’s own nationalist worldview.

  • The Saga of Khasak

    The Saga of Khasak

    Originally written in Malayalam, this novel invented magical realism at the same time that Gabriel García Márquez attempted a similar feat. The translation can only hint at what a seminal achievement the original was.

From the PS Archive

From 2017
Tharoor exposed the weaknesses of India’s freewheeling multi-party democracy, which has become one of perennial plebiscites. Read the commentary.

From 2018
Tharoor worried that the National Register of Citizens would leave four million people in legal limbo, producing a version of ethnic cleansing. Read the commentary.

Around the web

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Tharoor considered the ways in which the Modi government has exacerbated India’s fraught relations with Pakistan. Watch the video.

On the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, Tharoor wrote that India is built on two bold ideas: acceptance of difference and agreement that disagreement is healthy. Read the article.

In an interview with the UN, Tharoor shared insights from his career in public service, including why he believes Indians make good international civil servants. Watch the video.

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