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Meeting Shashi Tharoor

Hot is the word for the man. If I had time I would have plotted to snare this latest heart throb of mine but as with all things academic and political, I had very little time with a man whose gift for the gab and drop dead good looks suggests his bounty could be as high as any Hollywood star.

Last week, the former United Nations big wig and now Member of Parliament from Kerala, Shashi Tharoor gave an oration on Indian Soft Power In a Globalising World at the Sidney Myers Bowl, University of Melbourne. It was the second annual oration of the Australia India Institute Conference. Last year, it was Kapil Sibal but he left little to talk home about.

At a packed auditorium, Tharoor charmed the audience. It was a subject Tharoor said, had him ‘thinking over. He was speaking about India’s soft power. Concerned about the proliferation of those who speak of India as a future world leader or even as the next superpower, Tharoor said, “I am not yet sure we can call ourselves one when we are super poor. Many speak about India as a great power of the 21st century when we are not yet able to feed, educate and employ all our people.” For a politician, he did hesitate to remind the world about the other side of India.

What makes a country a world leader? Tharoor said it is not economic growth, military strength or population numbers that he would underscore when talking of India's potential leadership role in the world but “a combination of all these, allied to something altogether more difficult to define -- the 'soft power”.

Quoting Joseph Nye who coined the term ‘soft power’ to describe the extraordinary strengths of the United States, Tharoor said, "Soft power has been pursued with success by other countries over the years and created partly by governments, and partly despite governments; partly by deliberate action, partly by accident.”

Tharoor said, “India's claims to a significant leadership role in the world of the 21st century lie in the aspects and products of Indian society and culture that the world finds attractive. These assets may not directly persuade others to support India, but they go a long way toward enhancing India's intangible standing in the world's eyes.”

It was a speech delivered with the panache of a raconteur, peppered with humour. From the export of Bollywood to bhangra dances, India has demonstrated that it is a player in globalization, not merely a subject of it, said Tharoor. “India benefits from the future and the past -- from the international appeal of its traditional practices (from ayurveda to yoga, both accelerating in popularity across the globe) and the transformed image of the country created by its thriving diaspora. Sometimes this has unintended consequences.” He cited the example of an Indian, a history major, who when transiting through Schiphol airport in Amsterdam was accosted by an anxious European crying out: "You're Indian! You're Indian! Can you help me fix my laptop?" The old stereotype of Indians of snake-charmers and fakirs is now replaced with every Indian must be a software guru or a computer geek.

Perhaps, said Tharoor, the most interesting asset for India in Afghanistan is the  Indian TV soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi . “It is reportedly the most popular television show in Afghan history (at least until the onset of Afghan Idol last year), considered directly responsible for a spike in the sale of generator sets, and even for absences from religious functions which clash with its broadcast times.”

There is no country like India, he said that proudly boasts, of being not a melting pot, “but a ‘thali’ of a diverse mix of ethnic groups, culture, religion, a profusion of incomprehensible languages and much more; and yet India is more than the sum of its contradictions, a land with its own distinctive place in the world”.

Summing up, Tharoor said, “The India that has entered its seventh decade as an independent country is one open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world, wedded to the democratic pluralism that is India's greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfil the creative energies of its people. Such an India truly enjoys soft power, and that may well be the most valuable way in which it can offer leadership to the 21st century world.”

Nye had argued that in an information age, it is often the side which has the better story that wins. Clearly, India must remain the 'land of the better story.' At Melbourne, Tharoor managed to do just that, tell a better India story.


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