James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Elephants, Tigers and Cell Phones, Oh My!

by James G. Beldock on November 4, 2007

Yesterday, I had the plea­sure of lis­ten­ing to Shashi Tharoor, for­mer Undersecretary General of the United Nations, give a chat on his new book, The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power, pub­lished this fall by Arcade. Shashi has taught sev­er­al sem­i­nars on glob­al­iza­tion at the Aspen Institute as part of the Socrates Society pro­grams, where I’ve had the plea­sure of get­ting to know him and re­spect his pro­found un­der­stand­ing of the chang­ing na­ture of the in­ter­na­tion­al ta­pes­try. Born in London but re­al­ly an Indian na­tive, Shashi got his Ph.D. at Tuft’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and has been a pro­lific writer, pro­duc­ing some five non­fic­tion books and a cou­ple of nov­els.

As its ti­tle sug­gests, Shashi’s newest book fo­cus­es on the on­go­ing trans­for­ma­tion of his home­land. (In an in­ter­est­ing aside, Shashi points out that the cov­er of his book in its US edi­tion, shown be­low, bears an al­most cliched il­lus­tra­tion of a Hindu God—which I take to be Ganesh—hold­ing a tiger in one hand and a cell phone in the oth­er, but the Indian edi­tion shows a re­al pho­tograph of a Hindu Sanyashi—a monk—sit­ting on his bi­cy­cle, mak­ing a cell phone call.) In par­tic­u­lar, Shashi re­lat­ed a cou­ple of anec­dotes which gave me some idea of just how pro­found the im­pact of moder­ni­ty has been on India. One is worth re-telling: as re­cent­ly as 1984, when the pop­u­la­tion of the coun­try was ap­prox­i­mate­ly 650 mil­lion (it is now in ex­cess of 1.1 bil­lion), there were a mere 8 mil­lion tele­phone land lines. In 2007, India set the world record by adding 8.4 mil­lion mo­bile phone lines in a sin­gle mon­th. In oth­er words, India is adding more mo­bile lines per mon­th than the en­tire coun­try had a mere quar­ter cen­tu­ry lat­er. Think that might change the dy­nam­ics of the so­ci­ety a bit?

Skilled diplo­mat that he is, Shashi deft­ly par­ried the in­evitable “China ver­sus India” ques­tion by an­swer­ing that the felt China had won the con­flict, such as it is, some thir­ty years pri­or. (He points out that China be­gan its eco­nom­ic ex­pan­sion long be­fore India’s 1991 lib­er­al­iza­tion.) One ob­ser­va­tion I wasn’t ex­pect­ing: Shashi re­layed that India is per­haps the on­ly coun­try in the world with any sig­nif­i­cant Jewish pop­u­la­tion which does not have a sin­gle record­ed episode of an­ti­se­mit­ic vi­o­lence. Religious tol­er­ance and plu­ral­ism, al­though cer­tain­ly not an ab­solute (think Hindu na­tion­al­ism), cer­tain­ly does seem more the rule than the ex­cep­tion in India. As Shashi points out, where else could a Roman Catholic, Italian born Indian (Sonia Ghandi) re­sign her man­date in fa­vor of a preter­nat­u­ral­ly well-ed­u­cat­ed Sikh (Manmohan Singh) who would then work with a wom­an President (Pratibha Patil), in or­der that he lead a coun­try which is 80% Hindu? We Americans, who in 225 years have not man­aged to elect any­one as our pres­i­dent who is not white, male and Christian, could per­haps learn a thing or two from the ex­am­ple.

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