India poised for future success

With its fractious politics and ethnic and religious strife, it seems India is constantly on the verge of falling apart. Yet noted Indian author and United Nations Undersecretary-General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor argued in a March 3 talk that the country is poised for success in the 21st century.

The Center for Advanced Study of India invited Tharoor to deliver its annual Fellows Lecture on modern India, giving him an opportunity to update some of the insights in his 1997 book “India: From Midnight to the Millennium.”

Speaking in Houston Hall, Tharoor began by noting that India is a bundle of contradictions. “Forty percent of the country is illiterate, but it has educated the world’s second-largest pool of highly skilled engineers. It has 18 languages with 22,000 dialects.

“What else can you say about a country with 85 political parties, 23 of which are in the government, and 500 ways of cooking the potato? Any truism about India can be immediately contradicted by another.”

Democracy, openness praised

The India Tharoor described in his talk is a country that celebrates what he called “the commonality of major differences.”

Indian democracy, said Tharoor, has helped ameliorate the injustices of the caste system and tempered nationalist passions. After disparaging Hindu fundamentalism and nationalism as alien to the traditions of the religion, he noted that in order to govern, the Hindu nationalist party that is the single largest member of the governing coalition has had to reach out to other groups.

Tharoor also defended the ongoing opening of India’s once heavily protected economy. After noting that the success of India’s film industry on the world stage should put to rest fears of Western cultural domination, he said, “An India that is open to the world is one that can stand tall in the 21st century.”

He ended his talk with a ringing defense of pluralism as essential to the country’s stability and concluded that India “can face the future with, if not confidence, at least optimism.”

Originally published on March 18, 2004