Mainstream, VOL LII No 12, March 15, 2014
The Shashi Tharoor Case Reminds Us Again that Politics Seriously Diminishes People
Saturday 15 March 2014
This is a time when even his critics would feel sorry for Shashi Tharoor. He had a dream run for the first half-century of his life— progression through the very best of schools, a prized United Nations career, acclamation as an author, political debut as a favourite of India’s ruling oligarchy, ministership at first shot as MP, recognition as a darling of high society. But he was star-crossed from the day he entered politics. One controversy ended only when another started. And then, tragedy of a kind that one would not wish on one’s enemies.
The sudden death of his wife prompted speculation much of which was unfavourable to Tharoor. That Sunanda Pushkar’s family filed no complaint was helpful to him, but loose ends remained in spite of—and sometimes because of—reports by doctors, forensic experts and police sources. There is also scepticism about inquiries by the police when Tharoor remains a Union Minister. At the political level, he continues to be a honeybun with the Congress High Command; at the height of the controversy, he was appointed an official spokesman of the party.
It is possible that Shashi Tharoor may emerge legally and politically unscathed through his ordeal, and even stand for re-election. But there are things that go beyond the legal and the political. Writers are supposed to be aware of, and sensitive to, life’s unsaid realities. If the writer in Tharoor overcomes the politician in him for a moment, he will realise that his glamour value will never be the same again, that he will forever be linked in the public mind with things that should not have happened.
But the writer will not overcome the politician in Tharoor. That is what politics does to people: It dulls human sensibilities and makes the paraphernalia of power look more important than they are. It also ruins reputations. The grandest reputation in free India’s history was Jawaharlal Nehru’s. It lay shattered at the end of 17 years of power—shattered by a range of mishandled crises, from the Kashmir mess to the border war with China. Next only to Nehru’s was Jayaprakash Narayan’s reputation for sacrifice and probity. In the perspective of history, JP now looks like a great man whose contribution amounted ultimately to nothing. Manmohan Singh was an internationally respected economist until politics turned him into an object of ridicule.
Shashi Tharoor is not in this league of course, so his diminution by politics has been the more drastic. It’s a pity that he fell for the transient trappings of power because, unlike even the High Commanders who protect him, he had other options. Literature remains an obvious one, since he already has a firm foundation as both novelist and nonfictionist. With his international connections and public relations skills, he could break new ground with the Chandran Tharoor Foundation named after his father. Big-ticket programmes for public benefit have not turned modern with modern methodologies in India in ways Bill Gates and Bill Clinton have pioneered. Shashi Tharoor can be an avant-gardist in this area, honouring the values of a family he has often publicly praised.
Chandran Tharoor was Amrita Bazaar Patirka’s correspondent in London and then The Statesman’s advertising director in Calcutta. He was admired as a benefactor of those in need, and for his zestfulness which earned him, from The Statesman colleagues, the title of “dynamo”. Chandran’s brother, T. Parameshwar, was the father of Reader’s Digest India and an aristocratic presence in Bombay’s meritocracy in the 1950s. The Tharoors are proud of their traditions that go back a few hundred years. So there is enough for Shashi to build on, enough options to choose from. The most detrimental option will be to stand for re-election from Thiruvananthapuram and, inevitably, open up the wounds. Very likely that option will be chosen. That is what politics does to people: It subverts judgment.