Clueless in Kochi
As the volcanic ash-eclipsing dust finally settles on the Modi-Tharoor brouhaha, perhaps it is time for a reassessment of what was won and what was lost. Clearly, this was the theatre of the absurd, and India and its media nearly reduced to a laughing stock: a somewhat sleazy sports czar took a potshot at an international bureaucrat-turned-politician, they sniped at each other on a micro-blogging site, and instead of seeing the fracas for what it was — a childish ruffling of each other’s hairdos — all other news was swamped out.
The game turned into something else altogether when the Congress sacked Tharoor. This sent out a message, and unfortunately it was quite the wrong one. What exactly was Tharoor accused of having done? The worst that could be said of him is that he turned out to be a political novice. But we already knew that, and he was frequently lampooned for being a congenital tweeter.
Consider, though, what he said on those tweets. In one, he talked about flying cattle-class “out of solidarity with our holy cows.” Cattle-class is a phrase everyone uses, and with good reason. Passengers in coach are herded into cramped seats designed to deform any normal human being, not unlike cattle in a train wagon. And the reference to holy cows shouldn’t shock anyone. In a supposedly vibrant democracy where the party in power is referred to not as the ‘governing’ party but as the ‘ruling’ party, and where the present dominant political group sees nothing wrong with dynastic succession, happily equating bloodlines with capability, a reference to a holy cow is to be commended for its accuracy if not its discretion; the more so in the context of the de facto party leader who, by the sheerest coincidence, was at about that time travelling coach.
Less amusing, and far more trenchant, was Tharoor’s comment on the tightened visa regulations. His tweet said that the new regulations raised complex questions, but also emphasized the importance of not allowing the bogie of ‘security’ to alter the face of the country. Tharoor was right. The spectre of terrorism cannot be allowed to hinder the country’s business and economic interests. To do so is to surrender to terrorism, and the Home Ministry’s overenthusiastic scorched-earth approach was just mutton-headed.
Tharoor’s summation of Lord Bhiku Parekh’s address at the Indian Council of World Affairs in January this year obviously stuck in the Congress gullet. There you have it: one simply cannot criticize Gandhi or, God forbid, Nehru, or their policies, for any reason, at any time, ever. Here is another divine bovine. The Nehruvian vision of foreign policy frequently took the high moral ground when dealing with world affairs. That reputation for preachiness continued well after Nehru’s time; his daughter was no stranger to sanctimonious posturing in the international arena.
Then we have this problem called Pakistan, something that’s been around since the country was butchered during Partition. When Tharoor suggests that Riyadh could be a “valuable interlocutor” all he is saying is that it might not be such a bad idea to involve the Saudis in a bilateral dialogue, given that they share much with Pakistan, but also understand the importance of not allowing economic development to be occluded by narrower concerns. An interlocutor is merely someone invited to participate in a conversation. When two parties are at daggers drawn, this is hardly an unreasonable suggestion. Only the extremely dim would take umbrage at this, especially when faced with a problem of some six decades of intractability.
Tharoor’s fault, it seems, is not so much in what he said, but in that he said it all, and said it publicly, in open forums. Received wisdom has it that ministers, particularly in sensitive areas like External Affairs, and especially minor-league ministers of state, should keep mum at all times on all issues. But External Affairs is not some rarefied, esoteric thing that has no impact on our lives. The Pakistan issue affects us all. So does a view of the history of our foreign policy. And a noxious visa regime has even more immediate repercussions.
The problem is not with the content of Mr Tharoor’s utterances. But for voicing those views, he had to be burned at the stake. Therefore, the Grand Inquisition, 21st century Indian style.
The picture that emerged of Tharoor in the IPL imbroglio was that of an innocent abroad, politically inept, his naïveté visible in every public appearance on television. To this day, no one has been able to find a hint of financial or other corruption against him. He made no attempt to hide his relationship with Sunanda Pushkar — if a more hirsute metaphor is needed, quite possibly Delilah to Tharoor’s Samson. To the contrary: Through it all, he stood by this baffling creature, and then made the cardinal mistake in his interview with Barkha Dutt on NDTV of taking the high road and accusing the media of sexism (“our media can’t accept the notion of an attractive woman being a capable professional in her own right”).
If there was ever an instance of poor shot selection, it is this. Who is Sunanda Pushkar? Tharoor claims she is a capable professional. But no one knows of her, here or anywhere else. No one has ever heard of her, and now she has all but faded from public memory. All we were told is that she is a “capable professional”. No credentials are offered, no evidence of capability or professionalism produced. To make a remark as he did to Dutt isn’t just ill-advised. It’s plainly wrong, and it does a huge disservice to the many women who do fit that description. Bankers, lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers, NGO heads, and yes, even politicians, right in Tharoor’s own backyard — there’s just no shortage of successful women all accepted in their own right by the media.
Pushkar remained unknown and unknowable. A newspaper found her on Facebook and quoted from her page there. It made her sound thoroughly illiterate: “I am not interested to this bussiness”; “its already cross the limit”; “What is the reality in between Cricket and Bussiness” (that “bussiness” again); “be cool someones head will rolled on the street”. And this is said to be the public voice of the companion of Shashi Tharoor, that most urbane and suave man of letters, the author of many books, the winner of a literary prize.
Something is not quite right. Either the Facebook page isn’t kosher or Tharoor is simply besotted. There can be no other explanation. How else could this otherwise intelligent man have failed to see the consequences of his ‘mentoring’ a franchise from his constituency in which his own companion inexplicably acquired an enormous, permanently undilutable, equity stake only on the basis of an unproved and undocumented track record of professionalism? In all probability, Tharoor was unwittingly used by people far cannier. Absent any data about her professed track record and capability, the inference that this could even include Pushkar herself is not one easily dislodged.
But this is a very far cry from accusing Tharoor himself of wrongdoing. For one thing, it just doesn’t add up. One may accuse Tharoor of many things, but being crass is not among them; and there is not only an undeniable stench about the Kochi deal but a ham-fisted boorishness as well. That Tharoor is transparently honest is evident from his refusal to budge from his position even when it was clear that he was only going to blow himself into political oblivion. Tharoor simply does not have it in him to be corrupt. He probably wouldn’t know how to go about it. If anything, he is guilty only of gross misjudgement. There was a time when he was Bookless in Baghdad. Now he’s merely Clueless in Kochi.
In asking for his resignation, the Congress has not only made a huge mistake but also lost an invaluable opportunity. Here was a real chance to bring forward an honest, if guileless, politician, and to show that honesty and integrity are valued by the Congress, not just bored inanities trotted out at political rallies. The PM and whoever moves and shakes him ought to have seen that bad line-calls do not amount to cheating. Instead, they’ve yet again shown us that what the Congress really values are glossy appearances, no matter that they conceal a hideous countenance. Between someone outspoken, even to the point of seeming maladroit, and a politician of garden-variety venality, I know who gets my vote.
We need more Tharoors, not less.