Shashi Tharoor | The diplomat-politician

The former international civil servant and three-time MP from Kerala is in a heavily one-sided battle for the post of the president of the Congress, the party that he joined in 13 years ago.

October 09, 2022 02:03 am | Updated 11:09 am IST

In an interview in May 2000 to University of California Television, Shashi Tharoor described his work in the UN peacekeeping mission as something that enabled him to “leave my own smudgy thumbprints on the pages of history”. Seven years later, in an interview to Al Jazeera, he repeated this very line in a similar context. One can’t help but ask: by wading into a heavily one-sided battle for the post of president of the Congress party, is he, once again, trying to leave his imprint on the Indian political history?

He has been a member of the Grand Old Party only for the past 13 years. And he has weathered many controversies in this short time — be it his expulsion from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government as a Minister of State for External Affairs in April 2010, less than a year after the appointment, for his alleged involvement in the Kochi IPL cricket franchise bid, or the controversies around the death of his third wife Sunanda Pushkar in January 2014, who was found dead at a high-end Delhi hotel. The Delhi Police booked Mr. Tharoor under sections 498A and 306 of the Indian Penal Code. A Delhi court gave him a clean chit in August 2021.

While already in the spotlight over Pushkar’s death, he kicked up another controversy in October 2014, when he accepted an invite from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be a brand ambassador of ‘Swachch Bharat’. The Congress party promptly removed him from the list of its spokespersons.

Mr. Tharoor finds himself uniquely placed, with critics at his elbow every time he takes a wrong turn or sometimes a ‘right’ turn. He was panned for his enunciations on Hinduism in his book Why I am a Hindu? by the very admirers who till then lapped up his every word. And to top this list is his overenthusiasm for witty social media posts that often lands him in a spot.

All through this dizzying roller coaster, those close to him claim that Mr. Tharoor has rarely lost his temper. His ‘chief of staff’ for five years, author Manu S. Pillai, said: “I have never seen him angry. If he raises his voice, it is only during cricket matches. In fact, his obsession with cricket can be baffling!” Talking about the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, Mr. Pillai recalls how he would sometimes stop in the middle of the campaign, if he saw a TV with the match on in a shop or some other place. “He would be glued for a few minutes, since we were always running late for rallies, this sometimes stressed the rest of us out.”

He has won three Lok Sabha elections from Thiruvananthapuram and yet he continues to wrestle with the “outsider” tag. In March 2009, on the eve of the general election notification, the Congress’s central leadership announced his candidacy from Kerala, much to the chagrin of the Kerala unit. “We weren’t opposed to him. Instead of Thiruvananthapuram, we wanted him to contest from Palakkad since his family came from there. But he insisted on Thiruvananthapuram because of its cosmopolitan populace,” Ramesh Chennithala, who was the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president, said.

Political entry

Notwithstanding his record victories in three consecutive Lok Sabha elections, his Kerala colleagues haven’t yet forgiven him for the disruption he caused with his audacious lateral entry. He ended his three-decade-long association with the UN in April 2007, after his failed bid to become the UN Secretary-General. To the surprise of many, instead of joining the academia, he joined as a consultant with a Dubai-based company, Afras Ventures, in May 2007.

Working for Afras Ventures, the frequency of his travels to India dramatically increased. He spent time both in Delhi and Kerala, interacting with the political class. All along, he continued to write extensively in national newspapers. “My presence was noticed,” he said. “In fact, I was asked by the CPI(M) government if I would be the brand Ambassador for Kerala. And I said I would do all that, without needing a formal title. And then, the Congress asked me whether I was willing to contest, and I said, yes, without realising what a challenge it was going to be. But I am very glad that I did it, because fighting and winning Lok Sabha polls gave me the legitimacy in Kerala politics that I truly value.”

Mr. Tharoor is simplifying the entire episode, insiders claim, that he was the first to ask for a ticket. Former National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan backed him and may have also chipped in with help. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also supported his name.

Initially, he was ridiculed for his rudimentary Malayalam and anglicised mannerisms. The 2009 Lok Sabha election was not just his first electoral battle, he was also voting for the first time in India. “I left India at 19 years when the voting age was 21 and had never even seen an election up close,” he said.

But he has also been a poster boy of the Indian middle class for surging ahead in life solely on the strength of his erudition. Talking about his childhood, Mr. Tharoor has often described himself as a “scrawny asthmatic child”, who read “eclectically and indiscriminately”.

When there was nothing left to read, he would write for self-amusement. On his 13th birthday, he set himself a challenge of reading 365 books in a year and he claims he has a list to prove that he met the target. His first short story was published at the age of 10. A compulsive writer, Mr. Tharoor till date, after a long day of Parliament, conferences, book launches, office meetings and so on, stays up till 2 a.m. to do his writing. He has just released his 24th book — a biography of the father of the Constitution B.R. Ambedkar titled, Ambedkar- A Life.

Student life

While writing is an inextricable part of his life, he always knew even as a child that it could not be his only profession. After high school at St. Xaviers in Kolkata, an honours degree in History at St. Stephens, he went to the U.S. for MA in International Relations at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and a Masters of Arts in Law and Diplomacy, capping it with a PhD on the “Indira Gandhi government’s foreign policy from 1967-1977” at the age of 22.

As part of his research for his thesis, he interviewed Indira Gandhi, who by then was out of power, after Congress was routed in the 1977 general elections.

That was perhaps his third meeting with Indira Gandhi. His first one was as the president of St. Stephen’s student body, along with a dozen student leaders of Delhi University who were called to have tea with the Prime Minister. He managed to use the opportunity to ask her for a formal interview for a Swiss Youth magazine for which he was freelancing.

Mr. Tharoor’s association with the Gandhi family would continue, in spite of his candid criticism of many of their shortcomings. In his PhD thesis which in 1982 was published as a book Reasons of State, he called out Indira Gandhi’s government for alienating the U.S. and excessively leaning on the then Soviet Union.

Mr. Tharoor has said several times that Indira Gandhi’s decision to impose Emergency was the only reason he did not sit for the civil services exam. He calls it a “profoundly disillusioning period”, when right at the beginning of Emergency his short story “Political Murder” was banned by the censor. To work for a government, he said, “that subverted personal freedoms and could perhaps repeat it once again was simply an anathema to me”. Needless to say, he has revised his opinion since then on the subject, though he still maintains that he did what was right for him at that time.

In his 1997 book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond, Mr. Tharoor once again turned a critical eye towards the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty. The book was updated in 2007, just two years before he got a Congress ticket to contest the 2009 general elections from Thiruvananthapuram.

He remains an eternal optimist, hardly discouraged by setbacks. A hope that he has transmitted to his supporters and friends, too. “I think he will do better than what many people assume,” Mr. Pillai said.

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