The Curious Case of Shashi Tharoor
....... AND THE "NEW-AGE" POLITICS TAKING ROOTS IN INDIA, COMMENTS JUNAID AZIM MATTU
Did Shashi Tharoor fail as a "new-age" politician? The question is anything but simple. Our gung-ho approach to confront political insanity has yet again, inevitably taken us to the world of Moral Relativism. An Ex-Stephanian and Fletcher Alumnus stands trial in front of a an emerging middle class that is most often than not hypocritically hungry for ethical assertion. Tharoor is gone now, much to the dismay of a lot of people who perceived him to be synonymous with change and clean politics. And although Mr. Tharoor did himself in because of a serious lapse in judgment, the loss is significant - the spirit stands dampened - for you, me and millions like us.
Why was Shashi Tharoor this omnipresent poster-boy for "New-Age" politics? What exactly does this concept and perception mean? Shashi Tharoor is 54. Tony Blair retired from politics when he was 58. So it's clearly not the generation that he belongs to and neither his age [Although given that Indian politicians take their thrones to their graves, that might be debatable]. But viewing Shashi Tharoor's "rise" and departure from the eyes of the demographic that overwhelmingly constituted his following - young, educated middle class people - one cannot overlook the fact that he wasn't a generational representative for them. He didn't share their struggles, he was never a victim of our defunct judicial system, he was never harassed by the pot-bellied, belching policeman at the street-corner and he was never sent from pillar to post and post to pillar for chores as mundane as paying a phone bill. So, Shashi Tharoor, is clearly NOT an unsuccessful bid by the middle class to reclaim governance, polity and administration from an overwhelmingly unscrupulous and incompetent corpus of politicians, as is being projected. Shashi Tharoor was a political import that was sold and purchased as an alibi for natural political evolution.
A dynamic, young Member of Indian Parliament brings in a very interesting perspective into this whole "new-age" discourse. He emphasizes on the fact that all political entrants, lateral or mesial, are "new-age-politicians" since the issues they represent and the electorate that puts them on the stage of political representation is "new-age". So, regardless of the mode of your entry, you are a "new-age" politician as long as you debut in this age. That concept finds support from various quarters in general and a number of young Indian politicians to be specific. The discounting factor in this assertion is the irony that this young Indian politician, who harks for change, empowerment and transparency, is himself a third-generation political scion from one of Orissa's royal families. So are most of those who support this view.
Tharoor had a relatively different style when it came to both his personality as well as his politics. He looked different, dressed sharply and defied this stereotypical image of an incoherent, rhetorical Indian politician who shrieked, shook and smiled impulsively in political rallies and tv-studios alike. His background was different - a world-class education from the US and an envious career as a UN diplomat. And he had good hair [a rarity for politicians in this part of the world for some weird reason]. Yet, the "new-age" title was a forced connection in my opinion. Perhaps understandably so? The nation has a middle class that finds all routes to political participation guarded by codes of descent and wealth. An unconventional, prudent and articulate gentleman from the United Nations lands up and changes into a Kurta and all of a sudden our herd-mentality proclaims him to be the messiah of change.
The "new-age" electorate does not hinge on inflexible ideals. The "new-age" electorate understands the gravity of political compulsions in a multi-party democratic system that is fragmented into caste and regional vote-banks. When was the last time India had a single-party government in New Delhi? The last two and a half decades have seen the indispensability of the 'coalition system', if I may, hence propounding both the significance and seriousness of political compulsions. And, inherently, there is nothing wrong if a reformer has a conscious awareness of the compulsions he works under. In order to change a system and the manifestations of incompetence and corruption that are it's perennial constituents, it's imperative to recognize that Indian politics stand at the slightly-right-at-center mark when it comes to liberal outlooks, opinions and a ubiquitous modus operandi, as was put forth by Mr. Tharoor.
That mention of new and unconventional media of communication takes us back to the question of Twitter being Mr. Tharoor's sweet nemesis, an opinion that I completely and strongly disagree with. There is absolutely no ground to hold Twitter remotely responsible for Tharoor's exit. To the contrary, Twitter - in ways more than one - made Tharoor who he was - an unconventional, passionate and communicative politician who kept his constituents informed about his work. The freshness of that appeal should not be dampened by a myopic analysis that Indian politicians are inherently habitual of. The medium of communication was never the problem, neither was the frequency of communication. As stated by Mr. Pranonjoy Guhathakurta [Dean, School of Convergence and my first nation-level lecture co-panelist], The content of Tharoor's communications, including the shocking lack of sensibility while referring to "Cattle-Class" travelers as "Holy Cows" in a country where the majority would predictably and understandably take a strong objection to any such mention, comes into question. The way our media is traversing boundaries of technology and becoming faceless by the day, such a remark could have been broadcast on a different medium of communication for that matter. So let's focus on the lack of judgment and political maturity, not the vehicle of communication. Shashi Tharoor's appeal in a way led him closer to the prospects of political doom. Infused by an unnatural and disproportionate public support that was based on a forced premature connection, Shashi Tharoor became a risky political investment by each passing day, both for himself and for the Congress party. Here is a person who is not a political giant, doesn't have a hijacked vote-bank under his hood and has virtually no executive experience in Indian politics. The bigger he grew, the more imminent was his fall - a fall he might never recover from. Had he suffered this fall from a lower platform, one that he naturally scaled [which he owing to his competence and sharp mind could have], the chances of full-recovery would have been much much higher. There is this Machiavellian political instrument of making your political opponent unnaturally and disproportionately popular and covertly encouraging the people to have tons of expectations from him. Eventually, as and when a situation of the Modi-Tharoor-Rift sorts arises, the asymmetry will take it's toll. In this case, the fall came much sooner than expected. What is also ironic is that the Congress party and Tharoor to a certain extent did the Machiavellian job on their own and gave a crumbling, leaderless and passionless opposition an undeserved chance to claim the podium of ethical pontification.
My point is vindicated by the in-your-face fact that Digvijay Singh leaped across the boundary that Tharoor often stepped across by publicly criticizing the most strategic policy of his own government and going to the extent of calling his colleague in the Home Ministry an "intellectually arrogant" person. Yet, almost nobody asked for Singh's head. There was little commotion within the party ranks. The only significant reaction came from Arun Jaitley, accusing the government of paralyzing it's own Home Minister. A Congress MP went on to portray the development as a "positive sign" of a collective, opinionated, critiqued and informed decision making process within the Congress party where people have the freedom to differ. When Shashi Tharoor was standing the moral trial of impropriety just a few weeks later, the same MP from Congress strongly asserted the need to for senior politicians of the Congress to appear cohesive in public even if there are conflicts of opinion on certain important issues. Those disagreements, he suggested, should be put forth in party meetings and not leaked at any cost. As, Kanchan Gupta, Associate Editor at The Pioneer, states - "Politics is about expediency. If it's expedient for a party to use and dump, it will." And Shashi Tharoor, all heartbreak aside, has been dumped.
"New-age" Indian politicians should also realize that the electorate in India is a classic example of the French phrase - "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" [The more things change, the more they remain the same]. Our politics is still more feudal than liberal. Elections are still more about brand-equities, vote-banks, lineages and families than issues and performance. There have been tremendous positive changes too and the society is evolving at a natural, gradual pace. So, any comparisons with western democracies are dangerous for politicians who aspire to stick around long enough to bring about some amount of change. Long-term campaigns are still based on party-politics first and personal-politics second, unlike the United States Senate for example. Constituencies of ideology are eventually more important than constituencies of personal credibility, competence and vision. That is something that Tharoor might have realized too late and where's the surprise there? How long did he spend un-learning the political nuances and idioms of the western system before he could recalibrate himself as a "new-age" politically viable leader for the Indian democratic setup? In that question lies the succulent answer to the curious case of Shashi Tharoor and "New-Age" politics in India - in all it's heartbreaking irony and complexity.
(Junaid Azim Mattu is a financial and budget analyst and a regular blogger on socio-economic and political issues in the sub-continent and can be reached at - email@example.com. )
Lastupdate on : Sun, 25 Apr 2010 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sun, 25 Apr 2010 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Mon, 26 Apr 2010 00:00:00 IST
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