Minister of State for HRD Shashi Tharoor ha said that a number of pending legislations pertaining to HRD ministry will be passed during the upcoming Winter Session of Parliament despite possible opposition from some Congress MPs.
Speaking to Karan Thapar on Devil's Advocate, he said a lot of persuasion will be required to convince Parliamentarians rather than pushing for enactment of the legislations. He also ruled out the possibility of "arm-twisting" to get the
MPs, especially from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, on board on these bills as they fear the reforms will affect institutes patronised by them.
Here is the full transcript of the interview:
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil’s Advocate. What does it mean to Shashi Tharoor to return to the government and how will he handle his responsibilities in the Human Resource Development Ministry? Those are the key issues, I’ll explore today with the new Minister of State for Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor. Congratulations on your return to government. I take it Mr Tharoor now you are a confirm believer in resurrection.
Shashi Tharoor: Thank you Karan. Well it’s good to be back, I must say and I feel deeply honoured that the Prime Minister and the party leader have entrusted in me with the opportunity to serve again in government. I know that this is an extremely challenging ministry. It’s an important time for the government with just a year and half life left in the life of this Parliament. I’m just very happy to be a part of the experience.
Karan Thapar: You know I will talk about the ministry that you have to look after in a moment’s time. But first I want to begin by talking about you. You left government in April 2010, you returned last Sunday. How difficult were the intervening two and half years?
Shashi Tharoor: Actually not very difficult Karan because I was given an awful lot to do. I was on five parliamentary committees, one of which I was the convener of and Ichaired the meetings of the parliamentary forum on disaster management. I was invited by the party to speak in pretty much everywhere in major debates in my time as a back bencher. Every thing from the Lokpal bill to the 60th anniversary of Parliament to the debate on foreign affairs where I responded to the Opposition all of these things - seven or eight major debates - the black money debate among other things, I got to speak in. So I was actually quite occupied, engaged and busy.
Karan Thapar: You kept yourself very busy, no doubt.
Shashi Tharoor: That’s true.
Karan Thapar: And all those you knew..
Shashi Tharoor:And I have been got to my constituency yet which I was able to devote much more time too as a result of not being a minister.
Karan Thapar: The problem in a sense that you had to content with this because all those in you knew in your heart you are innocent, you had been charged with corruption. Was that a difficult thing to have to live with?
Shashi Tharoor: That was but except that you know when I resigned I called for enquiry and one was conducted. I went through the expected grilling by the officials of the enforcement directorate and so on. And of course, I have come out with fine because there has never been a single paise involvement any of this. Corruption is supposed to be the misuse of public office for private gain and there was neither misuse of public office nor was there penny gained. And therefore the issue really was a very large storm in a very small tea cup during the Budget session. I thought it best out of the way at that time.
Karan Thapar: You know during the two and half years, you spent on the back benches, are there any lessons you learnt that now when you are back would help you ensure that your second stint is a smooth sailing?
Shashi Tharoor: There are ofcourse a lot of lessons. One is to really see myself would just assort of tunnel vision of tow specific things - my constituency and my ministry.
Karan Thapar: You may you are going to shy away from the press.
Shashi Tharoor:Well you know I have the occasion conversations with folks like you but as far as I’m concerned, I have no desire to be a sort of.. to be available for every person wanting a sound byte…
Karan Thapar: Did you have a fear that the celebrity status that the press gave you in a sense set you up to be knocked down by rivals and opponents.
Shashi Tharoor:I don’t know Karan, I mean in many ways, I think it all happened in such a blur that first year in politics - getting the ticket, being plunged head-long into the election campaign, the next day winning and winning by the majority that I did and then ending up a minister as soon as I won. All of that happened just very quickly. Perhaps, I didn’t have time to take a deep breath and take stock of where I had come and how I needed to run my new responsibilities at that time. I think this time around I will be a little more measured, a little slower at it.
Karan Thapar: Does it also suggest this time around you’ll deliberately try and be more low key as well.
Shashi Tharoor:Well, inevitably you know, one of the things about external affairs as you know is that everyday’s news brought some stories you were needed to respond to that’s simply not the case..
Karan Thapar: This ministry will ensure that things are different..
Shashi Tharoor:I think this is very much a marathon race and not a short sprint. We have a lot to do in the long-term, to build and shape the future of our young people of this country. And that really requires a lot of nose to the grindstone.
Karan Thapar: Now one of the sad things was that your return was greeted by a below-the-belt remark by Narendra Modi. But you responded a remarkable wit and aplomb. But as a politician, were you upset by the fact that a fellow politician had chosen to target your wife?
Shashi Tharoor: Karan, I really said everything I want to say on that subject. I think it’s time we moved on.
Karan Thapar: What about this. The Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi have decided, that no doubt the past is over. They have allowed you to move on. But does it ever worry you that given the nature of Indian politics, your opponents perhaps the BJP in particular, will keep raking up the past and throwing back at you?
Shashi Tharoor: I really hope not. First of all, there is nothing in the past as I said that there is no money involved, no act of corruption. I am not sure what they can keep raking up except allegations that have already been dismissed..
Karan Thapar: But you know the nature of the Indian politics..
Shashi Tharoor: But at the same time, you know when this little business happened, I was gratified by the enormous number, a very very large number of BJP people including some of the former ministers who reached out to me to say how much they regretted the deplorable conduct of one of their own, which they would not say publicly ofcourse.
Karan Thapar: So you are saying apart from the façade of the viciousness which the outsiders see of the Indian politics, there are actually brotherly feelings and human feelings behind that you have got comfort from?
Shashi Tharoor: Oh yes, I have seen this happening in our politics all the time Karan. I have seen officials of both parties who have been slinging mud at each other earlier in the morning, being convivial over lunch or a cup of tea or even a party in the evening. There seems to be a powerful force in India and to some degree I find it a little difficult and certainly three years ago when I was being attacked, I found it very difficult to pardon those amongst the Opposition whom I had thought of as friends atleast socially, who had so behaved. But now I am realizing that they seem to be different norms for the public behaviour of politicians and their private conduct. I still fully have not internalised that but atleast it gives me some consolation.
Karan Thapar: Do you look upon this as two-facedness or do you look upon this as inevitable that opponents will be opponents in public and friends in private?
Shashi Tharoor: Well, there is still something two-faced about the extent of intupration (14:35:34) that is expressed in public, You know if in public you dueled over issues of policy and in private you behaved alright with each other it’s fine. But if in public you cast aspersions on a person’s character or integrity and morals and so on and then you are convivial with him later in the day I find that a bit odd..
Karan Thapar: So today three-and-a-half or four years later after you first became an MP, do you feel you are better equipped to handle the slings and the arrows of Indian politicians? Or even now you do you see yourself a little bit as an outsider – still learning, still feeling his way?
Shashi Tharoor: Oh I think one never stops learning in any field and certainly not in the extremely complicated world of Indian politics. So I am still a learner. I don’t in any way want to pretend that I have arrived, that I have got everything taped down that I know exactly to do and how to do in the weeks and months to come. But I keep learning and I go in with goodwill and I ofcourse go in a slightly sadder and wiser man for my ‘agnipariksha’.
Karan Thapar: And this time have you also got your fingers slightly crossed?
Shashi Tharoor: Look, we have got an year-and-a-half. There is plenty of do in that time and I am just focused on the work. I am not worried much about..
Karan Thapar: Let’s then come to the portfolio that you have to look after. the Human Resource Development ministry, or one of the new Ministers of State. Now that is actually an empire that comprises primary, secondary and higher education, it includes the UGC, it includes several international contracts as well as tricky issues such as censorship in school textbooks. Is all of that daunting or do you think new team under Pallam Raju can rise to this very incredible challange?
Shashi Tharoor: Both – I think it is daunting and I think the team can rise to it. Particularly with Pallam, with whom I have known and liked throughout my time in Delhi. He is a first-class person as well as I think a very experienced political hand. I mean, he was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1989, although he is a young man, he’s had 23 years in Parliament, he knows the lay of the land, he knows how to get things done politically and I think he will be an enormous asset at a time when so many of ours bills are pending for example in Parliament.
Karan Thapar: Clearly, the fact that your minister is Pallam Raju, gives you an enormous reassurance and comfort. Now at the very core of HRD, is ofcourse education. Here Pallam Raju, the man you so admire, took two days before he assumed charge, because he was waiting for an auspicious moment and then according to the Indian Express, spent the first few hours in his office, rearranging the furniture so that it would be in accord with vaastu. Is this a level of superstition acceptable in India’s Education Minister
Shashi Tharoor: Karan, first of all, in our culture, there are deeply engrained beliefs which are partly religious and partly cultural, that I think we must respect. I think every individual in our society has the right to live according to the values and principles that he or she considers correct.
Karan Thapar: But for the Education Minister to be superstitious. Isn’t it a bit irrational for the portfolio?
Shashi Tharoor: As you well imagine, some may call it superstition, many think vaastu is based on scientific principles. There are people inventing machines to actually measure the energy in a room and so on. See, there are alternative sciences, just as Western..
Karan Thapar: You call vaastu a science, do you?
Shashi Tharoor: Look, Karan I am not an expert. I am not going to sit here and pronounce judgement on something I don’t know enough about. But I do know enough about it to respect the fact that it is a belief system. And belief systems that government people’s personal lives need not have bearing specifically on the way in which they take decisions on their ministry.
Karan Thapar: Let me ask you this – are you, yourself superstitious?
Shashi Tharoor: Yes, in some respects perhaps, in some respects perhaps not. I mean, I find amusingly enough, the other day I was passing a construction site with a huge ladder and I did not walk under it. At home, I said it wasn’t because I was superstitious but because the ladder could fall on my head.
Karan Thapar: Or you did not want to tempt fate and fortune.. Particularly now when you are returning to a ministry having been away for so long.
Shashi Tharoor: There you are. But there is also the rational argument that I..
Karan Thapar: Let me put this to you. You became a minister on Sunday, your portfolio was announced that same evening and you yourself waited five days before you took charge. Why?
Shashi Tharoor: Well, that’s because the President of India was in my constituency the very next day. So after I was appointed on Sunday, I was on a 6 am flight to Thiruvanathapuram on Monday morning.
Karan Thapar: So that was the explanation and not vaastu or other concerns of superstition?
Shashi Tharoor: Not at all. Infact, I came back late Wednesday night after 11 o’ clock on Wednesday night and on Thursday at 9 am I was alongside Pallam Raju launching the values education kits that our ministry has just put out.
Karan Thapar: Let’s then come to the challenges you face. Now the first is that several bills of your ministry are stuck in Parliament. Kapil Sibal attempted but failed to get them cleared. Can you succeed, where he failed?
Shashi Tharoor: I think Pallam Raju can succeed. I think Pallam, as I have said, is an experienced political hand. Look, there are..
Karan Thapar: So is Kapil Sibal..
Shashi Tharoor: No, well, Kapil is actually an extremely impressive and competent minister..
Karan Thapar: But failed to get the bills cleared..
Shashi Tharoor: Pallam has been in the Lok Sabha for 23 years, which Kapil hasn’t. And that’s important to understand. I think we have 20 bills pending – 11 on higher education and 9 on schools..
Karan Thapar: That’s an enormous number..
Shashi Tharoor: And I don’t think it may be realistic to get them all through, but we will certainly want to try and get as many through as possible in the next couple of sessions.
Karan Thapar: Let me tell you where one of your problems begins. Several Congress MPs from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have interest in educational institutes in their state and they believe that the reforms these stored bills seek to implement would critically inadversely affect their institutions. Now if Kapil Sibal couldn’t bring those MPs around, can Pallam Raju?
Shashi Tharoor: I think he will have to see. We all will have to see. We are working very much as a team already and seeing in doing things together. And I have the impression that there will have to be an exercise of choosing which bills can be pushed through more quickly and which bills require further work. There certainly will be a lot of reaching out but I genuinely believe our HRD Minister who is going to be the best person to reach out to pursue this agenda.
Karan Thapar: You know, he is also going to have arm-twist people. And some of the people he has to arm-twist are fellow MPs from Andhra. And at a time, when Congress is in fact very vulnerable in Andhra, not just because of the Telangana mishandling but also because of Jagan Mohan Reddy’s growing popularity. So will Pallam Raju be able to arm-twist his Andhra MPs at a time when perhaps for other reasons he needs to be soft and gentle?
Shashi Tharoor: So first of all I think you will have to ask him because this is something you know he can speak for. I am not sure I share the presumption that there is arm-twisting required. I think there is active persuasion required. And it won’t be the first time an MP from a state who is a minister, persuades another set of MPs from his state. That’s happened throughout our history and it will happen again.
Karan Thapar: Let me tell you about the second challenge you face here. And this time it is the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill which has meet with certain reservations, not just from the Opposition, but from within your own UPA. Now does the new team at the HRD believe that this is a bill worth pushing, or are you going to have second thoughts about it?
Shashi Tharoor: No look, on specific bills, I am simply not prepared to enter into substance yet Karan because I have just literally just started this week. And as you pointed out that I started rather late this week, so there is still a whole number of briefings I am expecting. I have had a few already, there are more to come. there are discussions, where the minister will have to take lead at some point of time, I can’t really tell you which ones will we push first and which ones will we push later, which ones may have to be on the backburner for a while – all of this, these are the decisions to be made in the fullness of time.
Karan Thapar: One last challenge before I take a break. And that is the fact that Right to Education Bill has a deadline of March 31, 2013 for the implementation of its parameters and norms. The problem is that many, if not most schools, are simply not ready to comply. Both because they haven’t go the infrastructure ready and because they haven’t got their teaching staff properly trained. What are you going to do about that?
Shashi Tharoor: I just don’t know. What I can tell you is that the Right to Education Bill is a major, major act of this government and we are very serious about implementing this properly and we will have to take into account the views of those who are affected obviously and whatever decision is made, when it’s made you will know. It is too early.
Karan Thapar: But you may have to consider postponing the deadline and pushing it back further by a year or two. Because if schools are not ready to comply, then only other alternative you have is to de-register them.
Shashi Tharoor: Look, if that’s an option, that will be an option considered but I am simply not ready to talk about it just yet.
Karan Thapar: Let's then come to an issue that was a corsa liberal in summer. The question whether cartoons in school textbooks are useful or a misleading paragogic tool? Now the position taken by Kapil Sibal last year in summer alienated many academics because it led to schoolbooks dropping cartoons. Where do you, I suppose as an individual as a minister, stand on this?
Shashi Tharoor: Well, I think the whole controversy was unfortunate. The cartoon that most excited the ire of many people of the Parliament was actually drawn by Shankar who not only was extremely eminent cartoonist and Nehru ji's favourite cartoonist, and actually has been awarded Padmashree, the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan in successive grants of honours of the government of India. So I think this is giant and for anyone to assume wrongly that he intended to denigrate the Dalit community was most unfortunate. However, as you know in our country and in our politics perception is al that matters. And it even if seemed to some Dalits that this cartoon was denigrating them then the cartoon had to go, Particularly since it is a school textbook, it would reach impressionable minds that..
Karan Thapar: You are saying two things.. At one time you are saying that clearly Shankar's cartoon had been misunderstood and misperceived and yet again you are saying despite the fact that it was misunderstood, it clearly had to go.
Shashi Tharoor: Yeah.
Karan Thapar: Why could one not have explained to people, that you misunderstood the cartoon and then be able to retain it?
Shashi Tharoor: Karan that's the irony of our politics. Perception often very much matters more than reality.
Karan Thapar: Even if the misperceptions are the wrong perceptions?
Shashi Tharoor: If Nehru were alive, if Dr Ambedkar were alive, they may have laughed off the cartoon at that time. But this was a 1949 cartoon. In 2012, there was rage, there was outrage and the fact is that if the visual was capable of misinterpretation by a later generation then its standing was affected by the perceptions of the later generations.
Karan Thapar: Shouldn't the Education Minister of today, or let me rephrase the question. If the same were to happen again in 2013, would the new Education Ministers be able to stand up and explain to people this is a cartoon and b you are misunderstanding it and c dropping it from school textbooks seems to many tantamounts to censorship. Would you have the capacity as a new team to do that?
Shashi Tharoor: Karan I think you have to understand that the reality is about politics will sometimes dictates that you will not be able to convince people with an explanation like that. Certainly, I do know that there was a committee constituted to go into all of these and they themselves suggested the removal of the offending cartoon only because the incident had proved that it was liable to be misinterpretation.
Karan Thapar: You know even the fact that it went to a political committee..
Shashi Tharoor: An academic committee, not a political committee..
Karan Thapar: Except that the pressure on that academic committee came from the fact that MPs on the floor of the House were creating trouble. Surely, you would agree as an educational minister that the decision whether such cartoons have a relevant and acceptable role should be taken by academic committees without pressure from politicians?
Shashi Tharoor: But the only reason the committee was set up was the pressure from the politicians.
Karan Thapar: Precisely.
Shashi Tharoor: So, you are talking in Utopian language Karan. We live in political environment in which political considerations are important. The political uproar demonstrated that the cartoon was liable to be misinterpreted and that was enough to have it removed. Just as simple as that.
Karan Thapar: In other words, political pressure won, regardless of the fact that academics thought otherwise.
Shashi Tharoor: Well, you know in a democracy, politicians do, very often, determine what sorts of policies..
Karan Thapar: Shouldn't they not have the last word on an academic issue where they don't have knowledge and experience?
Shashi Tharoor: Well, I think we saw the extent to which passions can be inflamed.
Karan Thapar: Only inside the Parliament..
Shashi Tharoor: Well, that's happened on earlier occasions..
Karan Thapar: Can I end by quoting this to you, this conversation is leading in a sense to this question - does the new team at HRD believe that institutions like the IITs, IIMs and foreign universities perhaps the UGC have greater autonomy so that they can function freely off government interference?
Shashi Tharoor: Well, look in many ways, the challenge for us so far, in our policies over the last six decades, has been to improve access to education, universalisation of education, equity of the underprivileged classes. We have simply not spent enough time and effort on the quality of the education quality of our institutions. Which is why we have some islands of excellence - the IITs and the IIMs and some others - floating in a sea of mediocrity. And the time to focus on quality is now. If autonomy is one of the ways of ensuring quality, I am sure we will be looking at it. But the issue of quality is something no one can get away from anymore.
Karan Thapar: Let's hope you succeed. Shashi Tharoor, a pleasure talking to you.
Shashi Tharoor: Thanks Karan.