At a time of sharp polarization in Indian politics, the diplomat and politician Shashi Tharoor has come close to uniting the country with a call for Britain to pay reparations for two centuries of colonial rule.
‘Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India,’ Tharoor said during a debate at the Oxford Union in support of the motion, ‘This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies’.
His 25-minute speech has now been seen by more than two million people on YouTube and provoked a storm of comment in Indian media. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP which drove Tharoor’s Congress party from power at the 2014 elections, reached across the political divide in parliament to praise the speech as ‘brilliant’.
Tharoor, a former senior official of the United Nations who is now member of parliament for a southern India constituency and a successful author and commentator, claims to be taken aback by the effect of his speech, saying he was only repeating what Indian historians wrote in the 19th century.
To judge by the interest in his speech among the young, this view does not come across in Indian school books, for which the Congress party – in power for most of India’s post-independence history – must take responsibility.
India’s losses during the British colonial period have been estimated at up to $3 trillion, but Tharoor was careful to say that it was a moral issue, not one which could be quantified. ‘I would be happy for one pound a year for the next 200 years,’ he said.
A bizarre aspect of the Tharoor phenomenon is how long it took to gestate. The debate was held on 28 May and no one paid any attention to the speech while it was ‘in real life’, as digital natives say. The Oxford Union did not get around to posting it on YouTube until July 14. Again, not much reaction. Only when Tharoor tweeted it to his 3.2 million followers did it go viral, almost two months after the event.
Modi’s endorsement, combined with Tharoor’s well known problems with the Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi, who had stripped him of his title as party spokesman, prompted a dramatic reassessment of his career prospects.
The author and historian Pranay Gupte tipped him as a future prime minister, to succeed Modi, 64, who has no obvious heir. But Tharoor said he was not ‘turning my coat for any reason’.