In Shashi Tharoor's rise and fall, a Congress attempt to woo middle class
New Delhi: The petit-bourgeois mind is superficial and fickle. It is awe struck by the accumulation and consumption that go on in the highest echelons of society, even if outside the borderlines of legality and good taste. But it is repulsed and outraged when forced to confront the tawdriness and venality on which the life it aspires to is built.
Framed by these two extremes, the long-shot and the close-up, the rise and fall of Shashi Tharoor is a cautionary tale about the dangers of entering public life through the constituency of the middle class. The ‘perils of political paratrooping' is how a former colleague of the erstwhile junior minister pithily described Mr. Tharoor's fate when asked for his assessment by The Hindu. What made his jump even more dangerous was that it was made without the safety net that grassroot experience or backroom goodwill provides. By the standards of Indian politics, his impropriety in the IPL affair was relatively minor; but unlike others whose warts catch the glare of the arclights from time to time, there was nobody willing to pad up for him when the media drew blood. Fatally injured, he stood his ground just a moment too long. Had he walked back to the pavilion unprompted, he might have survived to play a second innings. But he didn't do that. Which is why his political career is today at an end.
This was not the way things were meant to be. A month ago, Mr. Tharoor had successfully weathered the latest of several controversies triggered by his infelicitously timed or worded statements. But he had a charmed life. “Mark my words”, a former External Affairs Minister who knows a thing or two about the ways of the Congress party told this reporter over lunch in March. “When Rahul Gandhi becomes Prime Minister, Shashi will be his EAM. He just has to lie low, play a long innings.”
In the run-up to the 2009 elections, the Congress and Shashi Tharoor were happy to court each other. Mr. Tharoor had spent a lifetime as a highly visible and voluble international servant and the thought of toiling away in anonymity as a lobbyist for Afras Ventures in Dubai must have seemed pretty unappetising. He joined the Congress and, with the blessings of Sonia Gandhi, got the ticket for the prestigious Thiruvananthapuram seat. The fact that he chose to enter politics through the heat and dust of an actual election campaign, rather than through the Rajya Sabha, like most other middle class icons, further endeared him to his constituency.
On their part, Congress leaders, and particularly Ms. Gandhi, saw in the foppish and articulate former United Nations official a totem to woo back the middle class. For the Congress president, this goal had been a key element of her politics since at least 2000.
Beginning with the Narasimha Rao-Chandraswami link and the infamous hawala diary of 1995, the middle class, which had stuck with the Congress as the ‘natural party of governance' through most of the post-independence period, began to cast around for alternatives. The opportunism of the party in toppling the United Front government in 1998 and then trying to cobble together the magical figure of 272 in 1999 further sullied its reputation. Within five years of losing power at the Centre, the Congress managed to completely lose the mantle of being a party of stability and decency, ceding that space to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Improbable though it seems now, all of these qualities so dear to the middle class got neatly channelled around the personality of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The Congress won the 2004 elections for a variety of reasons but Ms. Gandhi was clear that it could stay in power only if it kept recharging its middle class credentials. The presence of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister was vital but the party saw in 2009 the need to go one step further, bringing in newer and younger faces, fresh and articulate. Within that overall strategy, Mr. Tharoor had an appeal that was irresistible. Globally connected but capable of acquiring local anchorage, he was seen as an excellent candidate for a party keen to project ‘merit', ‘talent' and civil debate over the usual din of caste, money power and goondaism.
Though Mr. Tharoor's entry into Parliament and government caused heartburn, few could grudge the positive energy he brought to the job. As a well-known face on the international circuit because of his long years at the UN secretariat, the junior minister invariably charmed all foreign leaders he interacted with. The fact that he could slip effortlessly into French while talking to Ivorien or Togolese ministers or journalists was a bonus for Indian diplomacy.
Shashi Tharoor's one failing as a minister was the need he felt for constant public articulation. The opposition and even his party colleagues — most of them humourless apparatchiks — misunderstood or even distorted his messages on Twitter. But his virtual constituents revelled in his irreverence. Such was his five-star appeal that the Indian and diasporic middle class forgave Shashi Tharoor for living in an expensive hotel for months on end, even when it emerged that he tried very hard to have the government pay for his stay there. Who paid his bills and why were questions they never really sought an answer to. In hindsight, that episode was an early pointer to the outsider's disdain for the rules of Indian politics. A disdain that ended in the controversy over the Rs. 70 crore worth of ‘sweat equity' given to his girlfriend, Sunanda Pushkar, for the IPL Kochi team. The Hindi channels are calling it ‘haseena ka paseena.' Mr. Tharoor has protested his innocence. Only a thorough investigation will reveal the truth. But for the Congress, matters had crossed a point of no return. It is one thing to be accused of speaking out of turn, another to be accused of corruption. Mr. Tharoor's indiscretions the Congress could live with, his impropriety it could not. The party which brought him into politics to propitiate the middle class now realised it had to throw him out in a final act of appeasement. But only if it moves to clean the wider rot that is the IPL will it emerge from this fiasco with its image intact.