Shashi Tharoor, like Manmohan Singh before him, knows only too well the fate that would befall Congress loyalists if they even as much as, by your leave, demur. Manmohan learnt it the hard way when the Gandhi scion and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi famously remarked, “My personal opinion about the ordinance on convicted lawmakers is that it is complete nonsense, it should be torn and thrown away,” leaving the then prime minister red-faced.
Manmohan understood the Congress dynamic (in his book The Accidental Prime Minister, Sanjaya Baru quotes him as saying that “I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power”) but what has confounded some in the party is how Tharoor could end up committing the same mistake twice, that of taking on the sacred cows dear to the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, and her team of hand-picked advisers.
This when Tharoor himself is no stranger to party politics, having got his fingers burnt a few years ago, when he mixed up his idioms to explain flying economy (“in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!” he had tweeted.) In Tharoor’s defence, he had clarified that by the words “holy cows” he was not referring to any individuals. “Holy cows (sic) are not individuals but sacrosanct issues or principles that no one dares challenge. Wish critics would look it up,” he had said, explaining himself.
If Tharoor’s savvy for Twitter made him controversial then, it has come to haunt him again. His tryst with the latest controversy has as much to do with his celebrity status on Twitter as with his unconventional approach to politics. On 2 October, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi threw Tharoor a curve by inviting him and eight others — Goa Governor Mridula Sinha, former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, yoga guru Baba Ramdev, industrialist Anil Ambani, actors Kamal Haasan, Salman Khan, Priyanka Chopra and the cast of Hindi TV comedy serial Tarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chashma — to join him in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign).
Modi was inspired by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which went viral on social media in August, to promote awareness of the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) disease. (The activity involved pouring a bucket of ice-cold water on one’s head and inviting others to do the same.) The idea, as Modi was to explain, was that “they (the nine nominated by Modi) will nominate nine people each, and this chain will continue through social media. When you upload a video of cleaning, nominate nine others to do the same.”
Tharoor, who was on his way to Romania when the prime minister made the announcement, reacted upon landing there but by then politics had taken over. To be fair to him, he would have been damned if he did and damned if he did not accept the prime minister’s invitation. Tharoor’s explanation as to why he accepted the invitation was lost on some of his colleagues.
In a signed article Tharoor wrote for the NDTV website a few days later, he said: “Which Indian worthy of the name would not be humbled to be tapped by his prime minister for a national cause? … (His) invitation to nine people who are not part of his government helped portray it as a people’s movement rather than a government drive. Who would be churlish enough to refuse an offer to participate in a people’s movement, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, that would improve the lives of all Indians?”
Probably sensing a barrage of criticism that could come his way, Tharoor qualified it by saying: “At the same time, as I also said in accepting his invitation, I am not a fan of tokenism, and I was worried the campaign would descend to symbolic photo opportunities for grandees who would never touch a broom again after 2 October.”
On 8 October, the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) met in Thiruvananthapuram to discuss the fallout of Tharoor’s alleged misdemeanours. “Tharoor has hurt the sentiments of the party workers and it should have been avoided. The KPCC will submit a report to the AICC (All India Congress Committee) leadership, which will talk in detail of the sentiments of party workers in the state on this issue. This should not be repeated again,” KPCC president VM Sudheeran told reporters after the meeting.
As Tharoor is an AICC member, the KPCC could only recommend the party leadership to take appropriate action against him. By 13 October, the Congress had issued a terse press statement announcing Tharoor’s sacking from the post of a spokesperson of the party. “Congress president Sonia Gandhi has accepted the recommendation of the AICC disciplinary committee to remove Shashi Tharoor from the list of spokespersons of the AICC with immediate effect,” it read.
Congress general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi said that the AICC disciplinary action committee took the decision based on a “complaint” submitted to it by the KPCC. The three-member committee comprised Motilal Vora, AK Antony and Sushil Kumar Shinde.
According to Congress sources, the KPCC felt that Tharoor’s conciliatory statements about Modi would do more harm than good to the party in Kerala. Sudheeran promptly welcomed the action against Tharoor, saying it was an “appropriate decision”.
For his part, Tharoor sought to draw a line under the episode by saying that “as a loyal worker of the Congress party, (I) accept the decision of the party president to relieve me of my responsibilities as a spokesman” though with a caveat that: “While I have not yet seen the KPCC complaint referred to, and while I would have welcomed an opportunity to respond to it and draw the attention of the AICC leadership to the full range of my statements and writings on contemporary political issues, I am now treating this matter as closed and have no further comment to make.”
The controversy surrounding the death of Tharoor’s wife Sunanda Pushkar added grist to the political rumour mills. A postmortem report did not rule out “poisoning” as the cause of her death. Sunanda was found dead in mysterious circumstances in a hotel room in New Delhi on 17 January. (The party has since iterated that the decision to sack Tharoor as a spokesperson should not be linked to the controversy surrounding the post-mortem examination of his wife.)
However, the report came in handy for Tharoor’s detractors in the party, particularly those hailing from Kerala, who see him as an outsider and resent his growing profile in the party and outside.
Some former ministers in the UPA government such as Mullapally Ramachandran and Vayalar Ravi have been more than forthcoming in sharing the contents of the report with the media in the state and in the national capital in a bid to fix Tharoor. They see Tharoor, a suave and sophisticated politician with a big fan following on social media, as a threat to their preeminence.
Needless to say, there is no love lost between them. Tharoor’s retort that his Kerala colleagues should at least read his articles and comments before preparing their report for the AICC did not help matters either.
Compounding matters for Tharoor, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy further distanced himself from an already isolated Tharoor by saying that a “series” of issues involving the MP had hurt the sentiments of the party leaders in the state.
Among the many other indiscretions that were cited against Tharoor were:
• Tharoor’s article published by The Huffington Post, a US-based online news site, in June in which he said, “For an Opposition Member of Parliament like myself, it would be churlish not to acknowledge Modi 2.0’s inclusive outreach and to welcome his more conciliatory statements and actions. The moment he says or does something divisive or sectarian in the Modi 1.0 mould, however, we will resist him robustly. India’s people, and its pluralist democracy, deserve no less.” The party immediately dismissed it as his personal view. That it had not gone down well with a section of the party can be had from the fact that Tharoor has not been asked to address the media as a spokesperson since then; and
• Tharoor holding forth on the prime minister’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York to an Indian television channel which had invited him to a panel discussion. According to some in the Congress, Tharoor had not been authorised to do so. Tharoor had variously described the prime minister’s speech as “impressive”, “well done” and “all together an ‘A’ ”. He felt that the speech was “spot on”, although he did find fault with certain portions of the prime minister’s remarks.
A pre-emptive strike
Tharoor’s sacking should be seen as a preemptive strike by the Congress to make an example of him and send out a message to the party rank and file that it will not brook any indiscretion, however innocent it might seem, in the interest of the party. However, on balance, the punishment meted out to him seems disproportionate to his alleged crime.
To some observers, the sacking of Tharoor is more a symptom of a deeper malaise afflicting the Congress party than anything else. The irony is that a Congress loyalist (a fifth column?) such as Mani Shankar Aiyar is treated with kid gloves even when his uninterrupted and uninterruptible diatribe against Modi cost the party dear in the General Election. His chaiwala remark, in particular, did nothing to project the Congress as a party worthy of a popular mandate to govern.
Also, the party didn’t pull up a Milind Deora when he took aim at Rahul and some of his advisers for the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha polls.
Most recently, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi praised Prime Minister Modi’s ambitious Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY) or Member of Parliament Model Village Scheme and also had participated in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in Guwahati. (Under the SAGY, MPs from both Houses of Parliament would be asked to develop one village from their constituency by 2016 and another two by 2019.)
However, Gogoi soon made amends by explaining his position. The fear of a reprimand from the party leadership was evident in the manner in which he clarified that he was not following in the footsteps of Modi by launching a Clean Assam Campaign and that his inspiration even as a child was Mahatma Gandhi.
Tharoor’s sacking raises more questions than answers, especially when the Congress has more pressing issues at hand. To begin with, it needs to reinvent itself by reorganising the party apparatuses and revisiting its strategy of how to take on the BJP and Modi; revive its political fortunes in the states; and also pave the way for a more robust intervention by Rahul in the party’s affairs.
Then there is a larger question of why Indian politicos don’t seem to have a sense of humour?
The irony is that some in the Congress seem to be taking themselves more seriously than perhaps the electorate, which did not see it fit to bestow on the party the status of the principal Opposition party in the Lok Sabha, by limiting its strength to a mere 44 MPs in the lower House of Parliament.
Speaking at a function to celebrate his The Great Indian Novel in New Delhi some years ago, Tharoor had said that when he wrote the book, he was not sure whether there could be humour in politics. It doesn’t seem so yet.