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.