The ministry of tweet sorrow

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Envy is driving the campaign against Shashi Tharoor, not outrage

Manjula Narayan
Special Correspondent

THERE’S SOMETHING about Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor that inspires virulent reactions. Here’s a man with a formidable curriculum vitae, who’s articulate and funny. The Indian political establishment should be clasping this rare creature to its bosom or at least astutely studying why everyone from the tired hack to the social networking-addicted college student just cannot get enough of him.

There he is in the newspapers ‘outed’ along with SM Krishna for staying at a five star hotel. Most of the upright citizens of this country, especially the ones who live in well-appointed homes within gated communities, their monthly budget allowing for frequent meals at fancy restaurants and who enjoy the occasional holiday ‘in abroad’, were flabbergasted. How can politicians enjoy room service at the expense of the Indian tax-paying public, they fumed. At this, the golden boy for whom every Malayali matron’s heart beats loud, pronounced with breath-taking insouciance that he pays his hotel bills himself. More heartburn. The great over-washed Indian middle classes, the ones who can afford newspapers, can only ever hope to steal the towels and toiletries at luxury hotels during the annual two-day sales conference hosted by whichever company employs them. Damn that Tharoor, him with the bedroom eyes, has saved up enough to pay not just for his winning election campaign in Thiruvananthapuram, but also to live for months at a five star hotel. Then, to exacerbate the general sense of irritation, while his cohorts are rummaging in their bags for their insurance papers as they’re being wheeled into the cardiac ICU, this man, apparently he’s a chick magnet on top of everything else, is doing an Usain Bolt on the treadmill and a Lance Armstrong on the exercycle at the hotel gym. Insufferable! In reaction, a half-baked austerity drive follows and Congressmen eager to win brownie points on the new self-abnegation index crowd the economy class aisles in the larger interests of the nation. They leap onto trains too and as a result, railway toilets are unclogged for the first time in decades.

Shashi Tharoor
I now realise I shldnt assume people will appreciate humour. &u shouldn’t give those who wld wilfully distort yr words an opportnty to do so
Shashi Tharoor

Just when it seemed like the fuss had died down, the former UN Under-Secretary General is on yet another front page having an animated conversation with Sonia Gandhi. They could have been trading chicken rogan josh recipes or discussing the best way to get azaleas to bloom in September, but the picture made it look like the cleft-chinned one was, perhaps, lecturing Mrs Gandhi on how to run the Congress. Sacrilege!

Next came the Twitter stutter. Kanchan Gupta of The Pioneer tweeted: “Tell us Minister, next time you travel to Kerala, will it be cattle class?” Anybody with even a fleeting acquaintance with a Malayali male will tell you that this aggressive species revels in ironic verbal sparring and is particularly loath to lose any smart quote opportunities. Twitter, which now has 25 million unique visitors worldwide, was invented precisely for guys like these. Never mind if the Luddites who yearn for a return to the somnolent days when Orkut was the coolest thing on Web 2.0 share Newsweek columnist Daniel Lyons’ belief that Twitter is a “playground for imbeciles, skeevy marketers, D list celebrity half wits and pathetic attention seekers”. Tharoor doesn’t fall into any of those categories. He might have been born in London, gone to school in Mumbai and Kolkata, attended college in Delhi and Massachusetts and lived in Noo Yawk for the longest time, but underneath that diasporic veneer he’s much like all the other men in Kerala’s garrulous gene pool — an admirer of the perfectly timed sardonic repartee. How could he, poor victim of his DNA, have let that line go without grabbing at the metaphor mooing at him? “Absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!” he pronounced.

Unfortunately for Tharoor, most other Indians don’t give in wholeheartedly to the joys of word play, don’t appreciate irony and seriously cannot tolerate irreverence. Reactions to the remark were mostly outraged, except from Tharoor’s fans who tweeted incessantly against sycophancy. At last count, Tharoor had 2,03,075 followers on Twitter.

To those hurt by the belief that my repeating the phrase showed contempt: sorry

THE APOLOGY

Not that the numbers impress those who have barely made it to the Internet age. Congress Spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan flayed Tharoor on national television and the Chief Minister of Rajasthan Ashok Gehlot, who earlier this year had let his authoritarian slip show with his fulminations against pub culture, insisted that smarty pants be shown the door or at least be made to stand in the corner of the class as punishment. Eager to put his two bits in, Rajiv Pratap Rudy of the BJP kindly suggested that the Congress do with Tharoor what his esteemed party, saviour of Hindus of the lunatic fringe and experts at sweating the small stuff, did with Jaswant Singh.

Learned belatedly of fuss over my tweet replying to journo’s query whether I wld travel to Kerala in“cattle class”. His phrase which I rptd

The choleric reactions weren’t restricted to the great and the good. One Maruthi from Chikmagalur seethed online: “Sheer arrogance it is on his part to hold on to valid discharge of duties as minister even after having such lighter values as to derogate cows, a symbol for Satwic principles which Mahatma Gandhi envisaged”. From cow lovers to economy class travellers to genuflectors at the altar of the party monolith, Tharoor unfettered by Twitter’s straitjacketing 140-character limit, had managed to insult them all.

I dont use the MEA internet to tweet & I do so outside Govt premises. Bt most democracies encourage Twtr

EVENTUALLY, BORED by the rising crescendo of offwith- his-head howls, the venerable Dr Manmohan Singh intervened. “It was a joke,” he said. Who knew the Prime Minister had a sense of humour? Really, you were half expecting him to do to Tharoor what Bhajji had done to Sreesanth. Anyway, an unfortunate result of the brouhaha is that Tharoor’s tweets have now become utterly boring. Those yearning for another holy cow moment, have to be content with blah on his visit to the African nation of Liberia. Fascinating stuff but not nearly scintillating enough for those who’ve developed a taste for bovines. Which brings us back to the question of why Tharoor effects some folks so deeply. Could it be that as a successful professional returning to a relatively small pond he’s automatically placed himself on par with the top rung of Congress leaders, much to the chagrin of party men who’ve been bowing and scraping for years? Whatever the issue, Tharoor looks set to have a difficult time. Things would have been easier if he had been less photogenic, if he hadn’t had such a huge election win, if he hadn’t seemed so youthful despite being only a few years younger than 58-year-old Gehlot. Really, if he had, maybe, a suppurating sore on his forehead and suffered from incurable halitosis, the average unbeauteous Congressman would have forgiven him his trespasses. But alas, there ain’t no cure for jealousy. Go right ahead and retweet that, Mr Tharoor.

i’m astonished at the finger-wagging dislike of transparency amongst some in our democracy

manjula@tehelka.com