Tuesday, April 20, 2010
L'affaire Shashi Tharoor
Of probity and provincialism
Nobody who is caught with his hand in the till ever admits to his guilt till proven guilty in a court of law; all sense of decency and honour, dignity and respect, evaporates and yields space to belligerence followed by maudlin sentiments of hurt innocence. So also with the disgraced former Minister of State for External Affairs who once famously tweeted to me that he was proud to be associated with the Congress because of its “tolerance” and “liberal values”.
That was in response to my tweet (not the one on 'cattle class' travel which led to his first taste of controversy!) pointing out his irreverent comments about Mrs Indira Gandhi and the Congress’s first family (“Had Indira’s Parsi husband been a Toddywalla rather than so conveniently a Gandhi, I sometimes wonder, might India’s political history have been different?”) in his book India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond. This was soon after Mr Jaswant Singh’s unceremonious exit from the BJP following the publication of his book Jinnah — India, Partition, Independence and Mr Tharoor was all over Twitter, patronisingly gloating over a veteran politician’s fall from grace in his party.
For all its ‘tolerance’ and ‘liberal values’, the Congress has not been particularly tolerant about Mr Tharoor’s extra-ministerial activities or liberal towards his cavalier attitude. When push came to shove, the Congress disowned him and distanced itself from his interest in promoting T20 cricket in Kochi. It would be in bad form and poor taste to gloat over Mr Tharoor’s current plight, but it would be perfectly in order to point out that arrivistes in politics should resist the temptation of excessive preening.
It is not the least surprising that Mr Tharoor, whose Dubai-based fiancée was a beneficiary by way of free ‘sweat’ equity worth Rs 70 crore from IPL’s Kochi franchise deal (hours before he was given marching orders she offered to return the shares which only served to implicate him) should have pretended outrage, flown into a temper with journalists, belligerently asserted that under no circumstances would he resign from office, only to be told to put in his papers last Sunday evening. He has now predictably resorted to mawkish claims of victimhood.
Reading out a statement in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, Mr Tharoor declared, though not for the first time, “My conscience is clear and I know that I have done nothing improper or unethical, let alone illegal… I am deeply wounded by the fanciful and malicious charges that have been made against me.” We have heard similar remonstrations of innocence before by those accused of compromising their integrity.
He could have, however, spared us the claim that he resigned from the Union Council of Ministers to uphold the “highest moral traditions of our democratic system” and to “avoid embarrassment to the Government”. He did not resign voluntarily when unsavoury details (including those of his role which went well beyond that of a neutral ‘mentor’) of the IPL’s Kochi franchise scandal surfaced in media, which would have been the honourable thing to do; he was told to go by his party bosses. Had he resigned immediately, or at least offered to resign, rather than arrogantly cavil at the suggestion that he should do so to uphold the “highest moral traditions of our democratic system” he now cites, his reputation might have been tarred but it would not have been lying in tatters today.
Nor is any purpose served by his informing the Lok Sabha that he has “requested the Prime Minister to have these charges (against him) thoroughly investigated”. Whatever else may be the Prime Minister’s shortcomings, and he has many, he is not known to be a man who acts in haste. Neither is Mr Pranab Mukherjee known for arriving at a decision without carefully scrutinising and considering all available facts. A formal inquiry should be conducted into l’affaire Shashi Tharoor, but irrespective of its findings, which cannot possibly controvert the facts of the case, the smooth-talking former Minister would do well to bear in mind that in politics perception matters more than reality and the past is often, if not always, swamped by the present. Politics is a harsh world far removed from the rarefied confines of the UN headquarters in New York.
It would, however, be churlish to deny Mr Tharoor the right to defend himself and clear his name; others with a far lower integrity quotient have been given that opportunity. After all, as he has eloquently pointed out in his statement in the Lok Sabha, he has “a long record of public service unblemished by the slightest tint of financial irregularity”. That he served the UN under Mr Kofi Annan, who will be remembered as a Secretary-General who fetched immense disrepute to the organisation and whose son was found to have benefited from UN contracts, is inconsequential. Although it could be asked as to whether his conscience troubled him every time media reported about Mr Annan’s, or his son Kojo’s, dubious deeds. Of course, the perks of office can have a numbing effect on the conscience of the most honest person, as can the loaves and fishes of office.
What is reprehensible is Mr Tharoor’s attempt — there’s nothing covert or sly about it — to provoke provincial resentment against his sacking from the Government. No doubt he has been elected to the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram, but he was a Minister in the Government of India, not the Government of Kerala. As an MP, he is tangentially responsible for minding the interests of his constituency as his primary job is to participate in parliamentary debates on national affairs and help frame laws on national issues. As a member of the Union Council of Ministers, his remit was to mind India’s foreign affairs.
By repeatedly referring to Thiruvananthapuram and Kerala, the “ethos of Kerala”, the people of Kerala (with whom he had no association at all during his growing up years in Kolkata and Delhi and the many decades he spent at the UN) he has tried to link high issues of ministerial probity with low politics of provincial identity. The unstated though clear message he has sought to send out is that an elected representative of Kerala is being unjustly penalised. That’s balderdash and Mr Tharoor, more than anybody else, knows it.
It’s strange that a suave, accomplished person with an impressive track record of serving an international organisation with distinction, and whose last tweet sent out at 11.16 pm on April 16 reads, “U folks are the new India. We will ‘be the change’ we wish to see in our country,” should fall back on the discredited ‘old’ politics of provincial pride and prejudice in his time of trouble. That’s as distressing as his fiancée benefiting from a cricket franchise deal that he ‘mentored’.
(My blog on the mess called IPL/BCCI will appear soon. And no, I am not a fan of Lalit K Modi nor do I fly the flag for IPL.)
[This appeared as the main edit page article in The Pioneer on April 21, 2010.]