Three cheers for Shashi

  By Vijay Darda | 27-07-2015

In so far as parliamentary sessions go, now for years we are accustomed to disruptions on one count or other. All of us prepare extensively to participate effectively in the proceedings, and do end up disappointed when the House does not function regularly. It is a sad commentary on the way we conduct our politics but then we are all experienced enough to understand the logic and compulsions for disruptions on both the sides. But the first week of the washed out monsoon session had a glorious silver lining. It was the atmosphere of non-partisan elation at an event that had happened in faraway London at the Oxford Union, and had reverberated all over the globe. For this, I say unreservedly – Three Cheers for Shashi!

True by the time it was registered in our political domain, Shashi Tharoor’s video of his brilliant and witty critique of the 200 years of British colonial rule in our country had already gone viral on the social media with millions of views at the youtube website. But it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fulsome praise for Dr Tharoor’s debating skills and contribution that really got the atmosphere electrified. “The Oxford debate has huge significance… It is good that Shashiji was there… What he said there reflected the sentiments of the citizens of India,” Modi said at a public function. It was then that even those who had not seen the video got talking about it, and the speech almost became a national event in a politically divided milieu. Now we all know that Modi’s silences and words are full of political connotations.

Then there was a political context too for Modi’s remarks. There had been media reports that Tharoor had come in for some criticism within the Congress party for arguing against the disruption of the session as a form of protest and had made case for exposing the government through discussion. But the idea was turned down and it was reported that the Congress president Sonia Gandhi had scolded him. Coupled with this there was suggestion that this being the second time that the prime minister had showered praise on him (the earlier occasion being when he named a brand ambassador of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan), Tharoor a Congress MP from Thiruvanthapuram in Kerala was warming up to the BJP. But like the good Congressman that he is Tharoor denied both these speculations and insisted that with his thinking and approach he could never imagine himself to be a part of the BJP. He has acknowledged that he has been personally congratulated by members of all political parties for his intervention in Oxford.

We are all aware of the debate that goes on about the nature of the British colonial rule in our country for the two hundred years from 1747 to 1947. There are some who have the gall to argue that it was a good thing for India at least in certain respects – they gave us English language, the game of cricket, Indian railways and above all democracy. But in a witty and rapier sharp intervention, Shashi demolished all such arguments with an ease that comes naturally to him, given his experience as a debater, writer and an international diplomat. The arguments that he made not only won him applause in the debating hall of Oxford Union but also with millions across the globe. 

The highlight of his intervention was that it was made without a trace of bitterness and in strict adherence to the Victorian norms of debating. He argued that India’s oppression by the British was actually funded by the Indian people. “India’s share of the global economy – 23% when the British first arrived – had dropped to 4% by the time the Union Jack was finally lowered. India had been governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India. In fact, Britain’s industrial revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialisation of India,” argued Shashi.

He silenced the argument that the British gave democracy to India as he countered it with brilliant irony, observing: “It’s a bit rich to oppress, enslave, kill, torture, maim people for 200 years and then celebrate the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.” Similarly on railways, he countered that “many countries have built railways and roads without having to be colonized in order to do so.”

However, going forward on the colonial debate, he made a significant point about the dark deeds of the empire and the British reparations for these acts. He made excellent use of the commonly used boast about the British Empire’s power that the sun never set on it. He said: “No wonder that the sun never set on the British Empire, because even God couldn’t trust the English in the dark.”

There have been several commentators who have spoken of the reparations demanding that Britain should pay back billions of pounds to India as some kind of compensation for the loot during the colonial years. But Shashi spun a moral argument around this issue: “To simply say sorry will go a far, far longer way than some percentage of GDP in the form of aid. What is required is the principle that reparations are owed. Personally, I’d be quite happy if it was one pound a year for the next two hundred years, after the last two hundred years of Britain in India.”

We can be sure that Shashi’s ‘one pound a year for 200 years’ from Britain will reverberate for quite some time particularly as Prime Minister Modi is expected to visit Britain some time later this year. Considering that he has already lauded Shashi and endorsed the idea of reparations, this is not an issue that is going to get away from the public gaze.

Before I conclude…

The Gondia-Bhandara local level politics is finding an echo in the corridors of power of the national capital. The manner in which the local Congress unit has struck deals with the BJP is the cause of acute unease, as it casts doubts on the intentions of the broader leadership. More so when the NCP leadership was willing to accommodate all the demands of the local Congress unit. The point at stake is simple and straightforward. Deals at local levels and inflexible hostility at the national and state level cannot go hand in hand. Such confusing signals do not help any cause.


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Three cheers for Shashi


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