Brilliance Trauma!


The prodigious student, who did his doctorate at age 29, just believes what he says and may be wondering privately why people do not understand him

G Ulaganathan

G Ulaganathan

The author is a senior journalist based in Bangalore and has worked with two major English dailies, the Indian Express and Deccan Herald, He is also a visiting professor to a number of universities and colleges and writes for NYT. Currently, he is Bureau Chief (South) of Parliamentarian

He is controversy’s favourite child. Either he puts his foot into his mouth with his comments or he is hounded by media and is portrayed as a criminal before law.

The former career diplomat who had a cushy job at the United Nations perhaps made a wrong move by coming back to India and later joining politics. He embarrassed the Manmohan Singh government with his `cattle class’ comment which almost led to his ouster from the central cabinet. The comment was on economy class fliers. His 2009 remark that he would travel “cattle class in solidarity with all our holy cows”, also in a Twitter posting, had come

in the backdrop of an austerity drive

in the Government and in Congress. Shashi Tharoor, who is a Member

of Parliament, representing Thiruvananthapuram also currently serves as Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs.

Until 2007, he was an Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information in the United Nations. He narrowly missed out after finishing second in the 2006 selection for UN Secretary-General to Ban Ki-moon.

An acclaimed writer with more than 16 bestselling works of fiction and non-fiction , he is also a favourite of the media. He has written hundreds of columns and articles, and he was a contributing editor for Newsweek International for two years.

Brilliant Student

Tharoor was born in London to a Malayali Nair family of Lily and Chandran Tharoor of Palakkad, Kerala. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree in History from St Stephen’s College, Delhi.

In a remarkable accomplishment, he did his graduate studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, US,where he obtained his MA and MALD and was awarded the Robert B Stewart Prize for Best Student and completed his PhD at the age of 29.

Tharoor finished second, behind Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, in each of the four straw polls conducted by the UN Security Council.

Ban, who ultimately won, was the only candidate not to be vetoed by one of the permanent members, while Tharoor received one veto from the United States.

US Ambassador John Bolton later said he got instructions from Condoleezza Rice: “We don’t want a strong Secretary-General.”

Tharoor was a protégé of the independently-minded Kofi Annan, and a senior American official told Tharoor that the US was determined to have “No more Kofis”..

The Congressman

Thus ended Tharoor’s illustrious career at the UN and on coming back to India, Congress lapped him up and made him a minister.

Tharoor once said that when he began his political career he was approached by the Congress, the Communists, and the BJP. He chose Congress because he felt ideologically comfortable with it.

As a minister of state for external affairs in the Manmohan Singh ministry, he was in charge of Africa, Latin America, and the Gulf, including the Haj pilgrimage.

However, his use of social media as an instrument of political interaction often landed him in trouble. He was India’s most-followed politician on Twitter until 2013, when he was overtaken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

His personal life, after his marriage to Sunanda Pushkar, also led to his declining status in politics. He was asked to resign in April 2010 following allegations that he had misused his office to get shares in the IPL cricket franchise.

With the Enforcement Directorate going after him, he has denied the charges.

True MP

But for Thiruvananthapuram, Tharoor is the first elected representative in India to issue annual reports on his work as MP, including furnishing accounts of his MPLADS expenditure.

His views have been hard hitting on various issues and often went against the party line.

In March 2017, Tharoor called for the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata to be converted into a museum on atrocities by the United Kingdom during its rule in India.

He wrote in his column that the British Empire “conquered one of the richest countries in the world (27 per cent of global gross domestic product in 1700) and reduced it to, after over two centuries of looting and exploitation, one of the poorest, most diseased and most illiterate countries on Earth by the time they left in 1947. Nor is there any memorial to the massacres of the Raj, from Delhi in 1857 to Amritsar in 1919, the deaths of 35 million Indians in totally unnecessary famines caused by British policy.”

The Congress party hurriedly had to issue a statement distancing itself from his views and called it his `personal opinion’.

In September 2009, Tharoor and

the then External Affairs minister

SM Krishna were lambasted for staying in luxurious 5-Star hotels. Tharoor

said it was because of the delayed readiness of his official residence and that he had paid out of his own pocket for the accommodation. But after Pranab Mukherjee’s request, both Tharoor and Krishna moved out of the hotels.

Then the famous ‘cattle class’remark: When he said Indian Airlines treated its passengers as cattle in the Economy class, he was asked if would travel in “Cattle class”. He replied, “Yes, but to show solidarity with all our holy cows”.

When it raised much furore, he said “cattle class” was a well-established phrase for economy class travel, and that it attacked the airlines and not the passengers. But it did not cut much ice and he was widely criticised and lampooned. There was much pressure within the party to take action against him. But, fortunately for him Manmohan Singh bailed him out by saying the statement was “a joke”. Another controversy involved Gandhi Jayanti, when he said people should be working rather than staying at home taking a holiday, thereby paying real homage to Mahatma Gandhi, who had said “work is worship”.

Tharoor, after his resignation from the ministry, criticised the new visa guidelines adopted by the Indian government in the wake of the gaps exposed by the arrest

of 26/11 terror suspects,

David Headley and Tahawwur Rana. He was rapped

for speaking against the official position of the government. He

later met External Affairs Minister Krishna and explained his position on the issue. The rules were subsequently partly modified.

In January 2010 he criticised Nehru for his conduct of Indian

foreign policy, and though he blamed the media for `distorting’ his views,

the party was angry and he had to hold a press conference describing the report as “inaccurate” and “tendentious”,

Swachh Comment

In 2014, Tharoor expressed support for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. And immediately he was pulled up by the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee which also lodged a complaint against him to the Congress high command for his pro-Modi stance. This led to his being dropped as the official spokesperson of the party.

In 2016, his comparison of Kanhaiya Kumar, a student charged with sedition, with Bhagat Singh, an Indian independence struggle martyr, generated public furore, and again the party had to distance itself from his views.

He is today the most controversial politician, perhaps only next to Dr Subamanian Swamy. Interestingly Swamy is after him and trying to nail him in the Sundanda Pushkar case.

But Shashi Tharoor, unlike someone like Mani Shankar Aiyar, is liked by many in the Congress top leadership for various reasons, one of which is his holding on to his Lok Sabha constituency, Thiruvananthapuram in spite of stiff opposition from BJP and Communists.

And secondly, he has wide experience in international affairs and can effectively counter the BJP on any issue.

So, despite his off-the-cuff remarks, and personal problems, he is a man in Congress whom everyone loves to hate.

With the Delhi court finally summoning him as an accused in the case of his late wife Sunanda, Congress might finally place him in deep freezer till (or if) cleared, but despite all his gaffes, he remains one of the most erudite politicians of India.

Could we say that Twitter’s popularity amongst Indian youth has much to do with his tweets? It may not be wrong!


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