Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tharoor go, save your class (April 18, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

The recent controversy to have hit the embarrassment-prone Minister of State Shashi Tharoor has been interpreted by some observers as a clash involving the ‘old’ and the emergent India. Tharoor’s cosmopolitanism, his willingness to tap social networking for political ends and his flamboyance, verging on exhibitionism, has been invoked to suggest a departure from the stodgy hypocrisy of Indian politics.

On his part, Tharoor consciously promoted his own superior distinctiveness, grabbed a disproportionate share of media space and riled colleagues with his smug superciliousness. Escalating resentment against the interloper was undeniably a factor behind trivial pickups, such as the one of his ‘cattle class’ tweet, turning into battles of a class war. The simmering tension between vernacular India and English-speaking India erupted into the open with Tharoor.

Apart from the fact that neither St Stephen’s nor the UN bureaucracy had equipped him to fight the ugliness of the class war, Tharoor was insufficiently attentive to the fact that unlike the media, diplomacy and even the professions, politics is not the preserve of the PLUs.

To survive in the cut throat world of netagiri, PLUs have to overcome their class background unless, of course, they are blessed by family ties.

An appreciation of the social turbulence that Tharoor predictably encountered in his first year in politics is not to endorse his argument that entrenched ‘vested interests’ picked on the new boy and gobbled him up for nashta. Being an orphan of Macaulay has its own problems in today’s India but the disability of upbringing is compounded if question marks are attached to the person’s integrity.

Rajiv Gandhi was treated with exceptional indulgence in the first two years of his prime ministerial life. However, once the Bofors scandal raised concerns over his integrity, particularly his family’s links to Ottavio Quattrocchi, he found himself being incessantly mocked at for being a babalog. The derision cost him the 1989 election.

In his interview to NDTV, Tharoor self-righteously proclaimed that in his long and distinguished career in international public diplomacy no one had ever raised a question about his integrity. He is absolutely right. As someone who has known him since 1972, I must confess a sense of bewilderment when the Delhi grapevine first started picking up whispers centred on the IPL bidding. Tharoor may be faulted or even appreciated for his earlier lapses but sleaze and Shashi didn’t seem co-terminus.

I have to confess that many of us have been deeply disappointed. The facts of the Sunanda Pushkar ‘sweat equity’ allotment are very damning. Tharoor’s deep involvement with the Kochi bid was an open secret and even an admitted fact. Delhi society was also fully aware of his liaison with Sunanda — he made the association pretty public — and his proposed marriage to her. She accompanied the Minister on what we presume was an official visit to Assam and there is TV footage of her being welcomed by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. There was nothing discreet or distant about the relationship. She was a lady much more than someone Tharoor ‘knew well’.

Under the circumstances, the extremely generous disbursement of free equity worth approximately Rs 70 crore (but whose worth could multiply nearly six times in five years) to Sunanda appears fishy to say the least. Tharoor has claimed that the arrangement owed to her ‘proven expertise’ in marketing and running businesses. It is a claim that appears to be based on unrecognised potential and has drawn derisory responses.

Equally, Tharoor’s suggestion that the attacks on Sunanda are indicative of gender bias has appeared expedient. The awkward conclusion is that cold business logic cannot justify such an incredibly lucrative bonanza for Sunanda. No wonder her denial that she is a ‘proxy’ for the Minister has been greeted with scepticism. Even the Congress has not been convinced that Tharoor and Sunanda are personally linked but professionally detached.

Tharoor has divulged many explosive details about the murkiness of the IPL. His attacks on Lalit Modi have struck a chord and put pressure on the BCCI to take a more direct interest in the business of the tournament. There are strong indications that Tharoor’s intervention may also facilitate the appointment of a professional CEO for IPL.

Likewise, Tharoor’s point about spreading cricket to Kerala is well taken and it is unlikely that Kochi will be deprived of its IPL team.

However, none of this detracts from the fact that Tharoor hasn’t been able to explain Sunanda’s stake in the Kochi team to everyone’s satisfaction. As a person well versed in the ways of the world, he was aware that it was the non-disclosure of a friendly loan of £ 373,000 from a colleague that led to the resignation of Peter Mandelson from the British Cabinet in 1996. He may have also been aware that generous salary increases and promotions to his girlfriend Shaha Riza led to the resignation of Paul Wolfowitz as World Bank president in 2007. Tharoor must, in addition, be only too familiar with the nepotism that sullied the record of his former boss, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

As an avowed believer in openness, transparency and probity in public life, Tharoor can hardly deny that this is an open and shut case and makes his continuation as a public servant untenable. It can hardly be his case that rectitude is an unworthy Anglo-Saxon ideal or simply a stick to beat Mayawati with.

Tharoor’s predicament should give no joy to those who have yearned for freshness in politics. He had his chance but let human frailties and the air of India cloud his judgement. His unavoidable fall will be celebrated by those who want politics to remain a closed shop. But for letting the side down so badly, he has only his cocksure arrogance to blame. A man who sought ‘new’ politics was brought down because he couldn’t rise above old politics. For the honour of his class he should step down.

Sunday Pioneer, April 18, 2010

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