Tharoor, his Twitter – and the humourless Indian political discourse

By Mayank Chhaya, IANS,

In the realm of bogus controversies what India’s junior Foreign Minister Shashi Tharoor is in the midst of is laughably unserious. Someone needs to flush the sanctimony that clogs India’s political discourse.

Support TwoCircles

It is extraordinary that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to throw Tharoor a lifeline as political waters swirled around him, threatening to drown his nascent career. And all this for an unoriginal quip on a networking site that abounds in unoriginal quips. Twitter could not have bought itself the kind of publicity it is getting thanks to Tharoor’s off-the-comment expressing solidarity with “holy cows” that travel the “cattle class” on Indian airlines and the frenzied reactions of political parties.

The Congress Party, of which Tharoor appears to be a marginal member, went into a self-righteous tizzy over the Twitter exchange. It seemed as if the former U.N. diplomat’s trifling indiscretion had brought out some deep-seated resentment against him. While the Congress saw the remark as insulting India’s ordinary people who travel the economy class, there was no one to explain how many really ordinary people that the party professes to work for can actually afford to travel by air.

The Bharatiya Janata Party had a different if predictable take on the matter. In their political algorithm the keywords “holy cows” sent off alarm bells ringing. “Equating it (cattle class) with the holy cow is equally offensive against India’s traditions,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, a BJP spokesman, on CNN-IBN’s ‘Face the Nation.’ The formulation that any satirical bovine reference is an affront against India’s tradition could have only come from the BJP. If cows are holy and they are also cattle, why is cattle class an offensive term? This bogus controversy is partly manufactured by the slobbering broadcast media which have anchors and reporters waiting to latch on to any trivialities that might have some ratings potential.

In a sense Tharoor is discovering the limits of independence that India’s politics imposes on its practitioners. As a senior UN diplomat, who very nearly became a secretary-general, he could not have been untutored in the art of discretion. He can blame it on Twitter whose 140-character limit forces its users to be pithy often at the cost of discretion, and even grammar. To be sure, there was absolutely nothing even remotely controversial or offensive about what he said. The problem is the context within which he operates comes with an inherent lock on freewheeling articulation.

It is possible that Tharoor may have forgotten momentarily that he was no longer on the Colbert Report, one of America’s top rated political satire shows where he had been a guest a couple of times while he was in New York. As a political lightweight within the Congress Party, Tharoor constitutes a soft target, especially among his compatriots from Kerala who may not be ecstatic that in his very first election, not only did he win handsomely but was even picked to be a minister.

At some level the negative reactions to Tharoor’s comment also underscore the divide between young, new age political leaders who are coming into various parties and outdated ones still clinging to archaic ideas. With the infusion of tech savvy young leaders with successful non-political professional backgrounds there is bound to be a major change in the idiom and medium employed by politicians to communicate. This is a transitional phase where the old is still trying to exercise control even as the new is dismantling it.

(20-09-2009-Mayank Chhaya is the editor of South Asia Daily in the US. He can be contacted at [email protected])