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The tragedy of Shashi Tharoor

Soutik Biswas | 07:54 UK time, Monday, 19 April 2010

Shashi TharoorWhen Shashi Tharoor joined the Congress-led government as a junior foreign affairs minister after a rousing electoral debut last year, he was hailed as a great, young hope for a new emerging politics. At 54, he is still a toddler by Indian political standards.

Mr Tharoor's credentials were impeccable. He had been a top UN diplomat who had even taken a shot at the secretary general's job, albeit unsuccessfully. He was erudite (a prolific writer of novels, non-fiction and columns), articulate (a delight for English TV networks) and adept at using social networking tools to reach out to his supporters (more than 700,000 followers on Twitter). He appeared to be a far cry from the stereotypical subcontinental politician.

Once in government, Mr Tharoor led a charmed life. First he was ticked off by the government for staying in a luxury hotel at a time when his recession-hit government was preaching austerity. (Mr Tharoor argued that he was paying his own bills, but moved out of the hotel anyway). Then his frenzied Twittering got him into trouble - on at least two occasions he appeared to have irked his party with his messages. He finally ran out of luck on Sunday night after the government could not countenance his involvement with a cricket team in a tournament neck deep in allegations of corruption and sleaze.

In many ways, Mr Tharoor's inglorious departure is a big blow to urban, English-speaking Indians who believe that the country's politics needs people like him to change the rules of the game. "Tharoor's predicament should give no joy to those who have yearned for freshness in politics. He had his chance but let human frailties and the air of India cloud his judgement," writes analyst Swapan Dasgupta. "His unavoidable fall will be celebrated by those who want politics to remain a closed shop."

Was Mr Tharoor's fall a result of blithe insouciance - or what Mr Dasgupta calls "smug superciliousness" - that made him think that he could never do any wrong? Or was he naïve enough to get involved in the auction of a team in a controversial cricket event, as alleged? It is difficult to say. Mr Tharoor has maintained his innocence and said that nobody ever raised any questions about his integrity in his career as a UN diplomat.

But most analysts say it was a bit reckless of him to allow a close aide to turn up for the auction of a cricket team in which a woman friend of his was picking up equity, allegedly free. They say it was improper for him to even call up the chief of the Indian Premier League to discuss matters relating to the team. All this, they say, doesn't ring quite true with a telling Twitter message from Mr Tharoor last week, before he handed in his resignation: "Thanks for all the support and good wishes. You folks are the new India. We will 'be the change' we wish to see in our country. But not without pain!" Social networking will never win votes in India. In the end, writes Swapan Dasgupta, "a man who sought 'new politics' was brought down because he couldn't rise above old politics". That perhaps really sums up the tragedy of Shashi Tharoor.


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