Saturday, January 23, 2010


If the twitterati were India's voting class, then Shashi Tharoor would be the Supreme Leader. A few weeks ago, when Tharoor's tweet on the government's visa policies generated much fuss among his ministerial colleagues,many journalists commented Maybe, Tharoor should quit politics and join journalism. He would have greater freedom as an edit page writer than as a neta!" Within minutes, they were hit by an avalanche of angry Tharoor followers on Twitter, suggesting that they had committed the ultimate 'sin' by questioning their twitter icon's credentials to hold public office.
Unfortunately for Tharoor, his parliamentary constituency of Thiruvananthapuram is not quite the Twitter universe while his Congress party workers reserve their blind adoration for only one Family. Which is why Tharoor the politician is at odds with Tharoor the twitterer. The success of Twitter is built on the idea of having an open and constant conversation between a mix of anonymous and influential people and is designed to bridge social divides. Indian politics, by contrast, thrives on being an exclusive club of the power elite, with minimal contact with the masses. Notions of transparency which the twitter world claims is its defining badge are alien to those who reside in the forbidding corridors of Lutyens Delhi.
The Congress party increasingly resembles a closed shop, with little space for internal debate and dissent. When was the last time we knew what exactly transpired in a Congress working committee meeting? When did a post-election Congress legislature party meeting result in anything other than a one line message authorizing the ubiquitous high command to decide leadership issues? Banal press releases and platitudinous statements is the staple diet of political communication in the Congress.
Its not just the Congress party which is secretive. The left is, if anything, even more inclined to stifle internal democracy. Politburo meetings are, by all accounts, an exercise in Soviet-style functioning where no one is allowed to question the prevailing party line. A majority of regional parties are run like tightly controlled family businesses. Perhaps, the BJP has been the most 'open' of our major political parties, often at some cost to its well-being. Witness a series of public 'rebellions' in recent years, the most graphic of which was undoubtedly Uma Bharti's infamous walk-out from a party meeting in 2004.
Tharoor, of course, faces another peculiar problem. As a first time MP who has been catapulted into a ministership, he arouses envy and insecurity among his contemporaries. For the many netas waiting in the queue, the fact that a 53-year-old electoral debutante has taken the elevator to political success is enough for them to look for ways to cut him to size. Lateral entrants are still a novelty in Indian politics: the many years that Tharoor spent as a UN diplomat count for little in the heat and dust of Bharat. An anglicized, accented, foreign returned Tharoor is almost a caricature for a vast majority of netas who derive their legitimacy by claiming to be genuine desi 'sons of the soil' .
In a sense, by turning to Twitter, Tharoor is seeking to legitimize himself amongst a constituency he more naturally identifies with: the youthful, urban, English speaking middle class. This is the class which uses social networking as a weapon to express its solidarity against a 'system' it has lost faith in. Just as a candle has become the preferred symbol of middle class activism, the 140 character limit of Twitter is perfect to express a strong opinion without having to actually get involved in the muck of public life. For this chattering class which despises the traditional dhoti-kurta politician, Tharoor is a role model: an educated Indian who 'sacrificed' professional comfort to plunge into the uncertainty of political life.
As India's first twitter hero, one can appreciate just why Tharoor feels this incessant urge to reach out to this large constituency. If a Lalu and a Mulayam have their caste alliances, a Rahul has the family name, a Narendra Modi has a Hindutva appeal, for someone like Tharoor with no mass base, Twitter is integral to his brand recognition in the political marketplace.
And yet, there are limits to Twitter power that Tharoor must come to terms with. For a film star like a Shah Rukh Khan or a Priyanka Chopra, being on twitter adds to their celebrity quotient and perhaps promotes their films. For a journalists twitter is another means with which to engage with the viewer and share news breaks. Tharoor is neither a glamorous film personality nor is he a journalist. At the end of the day, he is a minister in the government of India, bound by the oath of secrecy and the principle of the 'collective responsibility' of the cabinet system. He does not have the same freedom that an ordinary citizen would have in sharing information or expressing an opinion in a public space like Twitter. The opaqueness of the state may infuriate us but to expect Twitter to effect a radical transformation in government functioning is to overestimate its capacity.
Moreover, Tharoor in the end will be judged not by the number of followers he has on Twitter (or for that matter, the number of books he releases), but simply by the work he does for his constituency and his achievements as a minister. But then it must be noticed that even as a minister he had performed fairly well [the right to vote 4 NRI is a huge step which was undoubtedly his brainchild].So, this criticism also fails and is thrown out of window straightaway. However for his betterment he should learn something from One contemporary elite politician who has realized this better than most is the Orissa chief minister, Naveen Patnaik. The Doon school-educated urban sophisticate who lived on plush Aurangzeb road, night clubbed in New York with Jackie Onassis and Gore Vidal, wrote books on herbs and gardens and relished his smoke and scotch, is now transformed into a tough and rooted regional satrap. When in Delhi, he stays at Orissa Bhavan, hasn't traveled abroad since becoming chief minister, will happily entertain tribal dancers from his state and is always seen in public in a crumpled kurta-pajama. He may still drink the finest chota pegs in private, but in public he is what his followers want to see him as: an austere, committed mass leader.