Twittergate Redux: Tharoor in Trouble Again – And Again

Hello everyone and Happy New Year!

First, let me apologize for my months-long absence. I had been traveling — to Nagaland, Darjeeling and Thailand, among other places — and working on a number of magazine assignments, and I let the blogging slip a bit I’m afraid. In the meantime, a lot has happened: the Obama-Singh summit, the Mumbai attack anniversary, the Bhopal anniversary, revelations about David Coleman Headley, Copenhagen, the Telangana crisis, a sex scandal involving an 86-year old politician, etc. I will try to catch up on some of this in the coming days and weeks, and also try to give you a sense of what I’ve been up to.

But now on to some more recent developments: When last we left Shashi Tharoor, the suave United Nations diplomat who is currently India’s junior minister for foreign affairs, he was in trouble with Congress party bigwigs over his Twitter posts. Well, he’s been at it again. Last month, Tharoor used his popular Twitter feed to answer a question from a reader about India’s new tightened visa regime. The reader wanted to know if India’s new visa restrictions were, in the name of preventing terrorism, simply preventing tourists from visiting India’s glorious sights?

(Quick context to this question: In light of revelations about David Coleman Headley — the U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin who traveled to India to conduct reconnaissance for the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, providing information for, U.S. prosecutors allege, 2008′s deadly Mumbai attacks — the Indian government has changed its visa rules. Among other changes, it has mandated that any tourist who comes to India on a long-term visa must take a break of at least 60 days between each visit. The rule has drawn strong protests from the U.S. and the U.K., both of which have complained that the 60-day period is too long for many people and that the new rules have so far been applied inconsistently.)

Tharoor was quick to tweet back: “Dilemma of our age. Tough visa restrictions in hope of btr security or openness & liberality to encourage tourism & goodwill? I prefer latter.”

The comment made headlines, especially in light of the earlier Tharoor Twittergate. There goes Tharoor again, using his Twitter feed to disagree with his own government’s policy, the subtext of the reporting went. It was enough to land Tharoor in hot water with his boss, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, and the rest of the Cabinet, which had approved the new visa policy. Krishna brought Tharoor in for a stern talking to. The foreign minister later told the press that he was the ultimate decision-maker when it came to foreign affairs and that once a policy was formulated, “everyone has to fall on the same page.” Ouch.

Then, last week, Tharoor was in trouble once more. He had been moderating a discussion in which British Minister of Parliament and India expert Bhikhu Parekh offered a critique of the foreign policy legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. Parekh said that while Nehru, who was a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement, had elevated India’s status in world affairs, he also infused Indian policy with a “self-righteousness” that other nations found off-putting. Tharoor, who has himself written a biography of Nehru, was quoted by three Indian newspapers as saying that, unfortunately, he agreed with this aspect of Parekh’s critique. Nehru, Tharoor said according to these press accounts, “gave us the negative reputation for conducting foreign policy as a sort of moralistic running commentary on other people’s behaviour.”

His reported remarks caused outrage within the Congress Party, which is the party of both Nehru and Tharoor. (It is also the party currently led by Nehru’s granddaughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi.) Nehru’s or his relatives have led Congress since Independence and it criticism of the party icon is considered a major taboo. “I am very surprised by the style of Tharoor. He is a member of the Congress and his responsibility is to carry forward the legacy of Pandit Nehru and not to be critical of it,” Congress Party spokesman Shakheel Ahmed said. The other Congress spokesman, Abhishek Singhvi, was even more blunt in some ways: “Nehru is a giant about whom no one can be dismissive in a one-liner,” he said. “Given [Tharoor's] past history [of controversies], it’s useful to apply the principle that silence is golden.” Ouch again. 

Tharoor had to take phone calls from various party officials, including the Prime Minister, asking him to explain himself. He also called a press conference in which he claimed he was badly misquoted and lambasted the press. He said he was merely summarizing Parekh’s remarks – in his role as the discussion’s moderator — not offering his own views. He also said that some of the remarks attributed to him were actually Parekh’s. “Irresponsible reporting may briefly gratify a few sensation-seekers in the media, but they do no credit to the need for informed discussion of foreign policy issues in our democracy. India deserves better. So, frankly, do I,” Tharoor said.

Poor Shashi. I have to agree with him — he and India do deserve better. But the what they deserve goes far beyond a more responsible media, which is what Tharoor was talking about. Instead, India deserves a political discourse that welcomes debate and which is willing to at least examine long-held myths. Idol worship may have done India a lot of good in terms of religion, but it makes for bad policy.

As I have noted before, Tharoor is exactly the sort of dynamic foreign policy leader India needs. He is smart, articulate, sensible and reform-minded. Within the ministry of external affairs, he launched a policy planning group to help promote more strategic thinking. He also understands the need for India to change the way it is perceived by other countries — particularly those in the West –  if it wants to play a bigger role on the global stage. (The critique of Nehru’s foreign policy offered by Parekh — and perhaps endorsed by Tharoor — is dead on: for too long India has been content to be a moral critic, not a constructive player. I wrote about the halting efforts of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to change these perceptions in a recent Newsweek story.) He understands the importance of new technology (hence his Twitter addiction).

And yet he is singularly ill-suited for contemporary Indian politics — particularly in the Congress Party — where slavish devotion to party leadership is more highly valued than good ideas and an understanding of the world. In each of these controversies, Tharoor’s real crime has not been the substance of what he’s said; it’s been insubordination. In India, breaking rank — short-circuiting the hierarchy – is the gravest of crimes. To Congress Party bigwigs Tharoor must appear to be a very dangerous man indeed, a true loose cannon. He had his own reputation before he ran for elected office and he has his own following of admirers, not just in India, but globally. The independence that such a following affords Tharoor is something the Congress Party cannot abide.

In each of these three controversies, on the substance Tharoor was undeniably correct: Sonia’s austerity drive was nothing more than token window-dressing, not a real policy (you will notice that most references to it have vanished); the new visa rules are a draconian overreaction more likely to dissuade tourists from visiting India than posing any real impediment to a determined terrorist; and Nehru did imbue India’s foreign policy with a kind of moral self-righteousness which, if it ever served India well, no longer does so today.

But in India none of this matters. Instead the debate is all about the shock of Tharoor’s challenging received wisdom, government hierarchy and perhaps more importantly, party hierarchy. The mainstream media, often a progressive force in developing societies, is, in this case, a highly conservative one. Rather than rooting for Tharoor’s innovative ideas and embrace of new technology, they seem to be rooting for him to fail.

For now, Tharoor is holding on. One gets the sense that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agrees with much of what Tharoor thinks, even if he disagrees with him airing his views publicly — especially on a forum such as Twitter. For now, Singh may have been able to keep the long-knives of the Congress party away from Tharoor’s neck. But Tharoor may not survive the next gaffe. (And here we ought to use the classic Michael Kinsley definition of a gaffe: i.e. a gaffe is what happens when a politician speaks the truth.) If he is drummed out, this government and India will be the worse for it.

Jeremy Kahn is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, India, where he covers everything from politics and foreign affairs to business and the arts. In addition to The Faster Times, his work has ...read more

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