New Delhi: Controversies have oveshadowed Shashi Tharoor’s contributions as minister of state for external affairs. The former United Nations under-secretary general, now in charge of Africa, West Asia and Latin America at India’s foreign ministry, spoke in an interview about his plans to improve ties with these nations. He has visited Africa five times in the past six months. Tharoor also reiterated his commitment to Twitter, the microblogging site where his posts have triggered controversy. Edited excerpts:
You have been travelling to Africa quite often since you took over as minister. What is the tangible progress in the relations between India and African countries?
I have actually made five separate visits to Africa in the last six months. Africa has huge mineral potential and many African countries are really significant. We are doing everything to get India special access to the huge amount of wealth under the ground. Also, agriculture is a very important issue. Agricultural land owned by Indians in a foreign country with captive markets locally, and as an opportunity to export to India, is of interest to us. That’s one thing I want to pursue in Latin America also. But we should not ignore the intangible benefits too; we are trying to get a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.
How does India plan to catch up with the inroads China has made in Africa?
We do not want to see it as competition. We see a lot of opportunities, such as opening doors for the private sector. There are specific areas where we have strengths, in which we do not have competitors. Railways is one and IT (information technology) is an area in which the Africans are truly admiring our contribution. Africa’s needs are great enough for both India and China to be there. All of us, including the West, can play a role. But I think we still need to increase the level of interactions, including among the leaders.
On guard: Shashi Tharoor at the ministry of external affairs in New Delhi. Tharoor says he has to “adjust” his style with the realities of India and that process has taken a few blows. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Was attracting investment also part of your trips?
Yes. In Latin America, we have to make up for decades of negligence. We are doing that. I finally made a visit to four countries recently and there will be more to come. We have the same challenges and opportunities (as in Africa). Latin America has very similar opportunities in mining and agriculture.
I’m going to see (commerce and industry minister) Anand Sharma; in fact we really have to lot in sync and in tandem. Each of us has a complimentary message. Of course, he is focused essentially on trade. The fact is that when he goes to the countries, he is selling the country’s (India’s) growth as well. And if I can sell from that angle plus with the political and foreign policy dimensions, mutual door opening can take place.
After India signed the nuclear deal with the US, many thought it would impact our traditional rapport with Arab and Islamic countries. How are India’s ties with these countries now?
India has a very long track record of having an independent voice in the international scene. I don’t think any country in the world seriously thinks that we have mortgaged our independent thought to any third country. That simply is not there. We genuinely believe that our relationship with each of these West Asian countries is driven by a logic of its own. And that logic is usually bilateral.
In any case, every country in West Asia has its own complicated relationship with the US. Nothing is simply in black and white. Because they themselves are aware of the nuances and complications they have in their relationships, they will have the imagination to realise that our relationship also has them. So I don’t think that they would look into this country as a US ally or something.
Have you changed your approach to Twitter after the controversies?
In the first controversy, anyone who knows the English expression understands that “cattle class” was not meant to hurt sensitivities. It was deliberately taken out of context. But I learnt from that. Humour in a multilingual context is different from humour in a unilingual context. Yes, I changed thereafter and refrained from things that could be misinterpreted. On the visa issue, I got a question and answered it. Perhaps there were other ways to put it across...
Twitter is a convenient label for people to attack me and unfortunately the name sounds so silly, giving a chance to make me sound silly. Twitter is an extraordinarily interactive broadcast (medium). I have had a very long experience in pushing transparency in the UN and I’m very proud of what I accomplished. That is very much in the Western media culture. The lesson I learnt is that it is a different media and political environment (in India); I will have to act accordingly. I am not trying to commit political suicide. I am trying to be open and transparent. I have to adjust my existing style of experience with the realities of India. That adjustment has perhaps taken a few blows in the process.
Did you feel that the Congress party, except the top leaders, did not back you?
(The) Congress is a large party. It’s like what Americans say a “big tent” party and there are various interests accommodated under this big tent and not all of them are going to be supportive of me on any issue or on all issues. I do know on a number of issues a wide variety of people have been very supportive. And I know others have spoken negatively behind my back. That is the reality of politics. As far as I am concerned, I don't expect unity on anything. We are a diverse democracy and we are a diverse party. I just have to do what I think is right as long as it is good for the country.