The Congress party’s censure of Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor over his “cattle class” tweet only seems to have increased his following on the social networking site Twitter. As a twitterer remarked: “Shashi Tharoor is now Twitter’s brand ambassador in India.”
On Thursday night Mr. Tharoor had a following of 1,69,096 on the site. By Saturday evening the numbers had gone up by over 16,000 and growing every minute, with the majority of twitterers showing no signs of being offended by the “unacceptable” remark. To the contrary, most thought it was the Congress that had come off poorly from the episode. “Grumpy idiots with no humour” was how one twitterer described “this needless problem on Shashi Tharoor tweets.” Others wondered why “people can’t even take a joke” and why “we Indians cannot afford to have witty politicians.”
Unsurprisingly, there was praise on the site for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “mature” handling of the affair. Dr. Singh had dismissed the whole thing as bantering (“ nok jhok toh hotee rahtee hai”) on Friday, which clearly was the “cool thing” to say with the twittering class. “The ruckus on Shashi Tharoor is created by lousy politicians. PM’s comment speaks of a mature politico, others should learn,” said a twitterer.
The Prime Minister’s genteel intervention also lowered tempers within the Congress. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who had asked for Mr. Tharoor’s resignation, indicated that the subject was closed.
Spokespersons, who had earlier said the “cattle class” comment was unacceptable, too refused to “add or subtract” to the official stand. Nonetheless, it was clear that it would be sometime before the controversy blew over.
Congresspersons, many of them clearly upset by the meteoric rise of the “rank outsider,” continued to attack Mr. Tharoor in private. There were also murmurs about the Prime Minister’s light-hearted quip being at variance with the stern view of the party.
Yet it was not all brickbats for Mr. Tharoor in the Congress. A senior Minister indulgently said, “Mr. Tharoor would learn the hard way to weigh his words.” Outside the political class, too, many are wondering what the fuss is all about. Indeed, by over-reacting, the Congress had shown itself to be “dour and humourless” which did not quite gel with its self-image of a party of Generation-next that was modern and forward-looking.
Congress watchers say that by flying off the handle at Mr. Tharoor’s supposed indiscretion, the party has missed a chance to show how different it was from the Bharatiya Janata Party whose intolerance was evident in the expulsion of Jaswant Singh. The Congress has proved itself to be nearly equal to the BJP in not allowing space for different and irreverent views. Had the Congress taken the “cattle class” and “holy cows” comments in its stride, who knows, it might have added the twittering class to its vote bank.
In any case, it is not clear who the Congress was addressing by taking the hard line. The twitterers are laughing, the middle class is indifferent to what has been mainly a media preoccupation, and the aam aadmi is battling too many survival problems to nitpick on tweets.