Siddharth Varadarajan

Latest Tharoor controversy is storm in v-cup

A storm in a v-cup — v for vocabulary — is how the latest controversy over Shashi Tharoor’s remarks ought to be described. For only someone with a very modest collection of words at his disposal, or a very large hatchet, or both, could possibly interpret the junior minister’s reference to Saudi Arabia being a “valuable interlocutor for [India]” as assigning Riyadh a mediatory role between New Delhi and Islamabad.

‘Interlocutor’ means a person or entity or country involved in a conversation. And the Minister of State for External Affairs was clearly talking about the value of Saudi Arabia as a dialogue partner for India on the subject of Pakistan. He wasn’t even suggesting the Saudis use their good offices to counsel the Pakistani authorities to get serious about terrorism. Over the past decade, that is something every Indian leader has been asking of pretty much any country with clout over Islamabad. On Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters he had made a similar request to King Abdullah during his just-concluded visit to the Kingdom.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the word interlocutor could also be used for “someone who is involved in a conversation and who is representing someone else.” Thus, by way of illustration, R.S. Pandey is the Government of India’s interlocutor for talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim. But that makes him a designated representative of the Centre rather than a mediator between the Centre and the NSCN. Thus, even if someone were to claim they had this second dictionary meaning in mind in questioning Mr. Tharoor, the correct accusation would be not that the Minister was advocating Saudi mediation but that he wanted the dialogue with Pakistan to be outsourced to the Saudis, an even bigger absurdity.

A simple reading of Mr. Tharoor’s quote would make it obvious that both constructions are completely unwarranted. In response to a question about Saudi Arabia’s close relations with Pakistan, this is what the Minister actually said: “We feel that Saudi Arabia, of course, has a long and close relationship with Pakistan, but that makes Saudi Arabia all the more valuable an interlocutor for us. When we tell them about our experience, Saudi Arabia listens as somebody who is not in anyway an enemy of Pakistan but a friend of Pakistan and, therefore, I am sure will listen with sympathy and concern to a matter of this nature.”

There is no way these words can be taken as suggesting mediation. If, nevertheless, Mr. Tharoor felt compelled to issue a clarification, this was not for lack of clarity in what he said but for the media’s inability to understand.

That the roots of this controversy lie in poor vocabulary becomes obvious when one traces the development of the story as it unfolded on Sunday. The first media outlets to claim that Mr. Tharoor had asked for Saudi mediation were Urdu language news channels in Pakistan.

Indian channels, which monitor Pakistani channels like hawks, started flashing this claim as ‘breaking news’ by the afternoon. Opposition politicians were then trotted out to give Pavlovian responses and the whole story was padded with references to earlier controversies Mr. Tharoor had been caught up in.


What is surprising is that well after the Minister clarified what he meant and reporters and editors had the chance of consulting their dictionaries, at least three national dailies unfairly accused Mr. Tharoor of seeking Saudi mediation.

Some TV channels also ran breaking news on Monday citing the supposed failure of the Congress party to defend the Minister as proof that the “high command” was indeed very angry with his “interlocutor” reference.

Of course, no actual evidence of such anger was produced.

Mr. Tharoor, who spent his entire working life in the United Nations, is learning the hard way just how vicious and irrational politics can be.

While he must share part of the blame for some earlier controversies, his only fault this time was to use a word many journalists and politicians simply didn’t understand.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2020 9:03:02 AM |

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