Byline by M J Akbar: In a class of his own
Shashi Tharoor has to be the only Indian who was safer last week in Liberia than in Jaipur. After all, no one in Liberia had asked for his resignation, but the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, a fellow Congressman, did suggest that the best option for Tharoor would be to resign. I cannot think of a previous occasion when a Congress Chief Minister has asked for the head of a Union Minister from his own party. This must, incidentally, also be the first time that a politician is in trouble because of a misplaced sense of humour.
We must all be familiar with the cause célèbre by now. For the few who need a reminder, it began with a newspaper report that Tharoor was waiting for his luxury ministerial home in Delhi not in the limited comfort of a state government hostel, as is the norm, but in a five star hotel. He was not alone; his senior minister in external affairs, S.M. Krishna, was waiting in an even grander suite, although not in the same hotel. Pranab Mukherjee, the guardian angel of the nation’s finances, was not amused, and publicly reprimanded both for self-indulgence at a time when large parts of the nation had been hit by drought. This must be another first in the history of politics: a foreign minister being told by the finance minister to get out of his starry abode and live it down it like the rest. Krishna moved out and on. Tharoor, who is so confident about his celebrity status that he informs his fan base about every minor detail of his life through a tweet [is twitter the plural of tweet?], was a trifle superior about his enforced downgrade, pointing out he could walk into the home of any well-heeled friend et al.
The austerity flu, defined by some cynics as an epidemic caused by the humbug, left upper class airline seats indisposed as well. Ministers were told to shift from the front of the plane to the back, where mortals sit. Tharoor, provoked by another kind of bug, a bugbear called the unremitting journalist, decided that he too would descend to “cattle class in solidarity with all our holy cows”. Ha ha ha ha and ha. Since India is the land of the holy cow, a literal translation of the term did not go down very well with either the politician or the voter. But a qualified apology by Tharoor sent on Thursday-Friday midnight through his favourite medium of public communication, the cellphone, might make things worse for him.
It may be irregular to place analysis before proposition, but it could be helpful in this case. I do not think it is Tharoor’s fault that he just cannot fathom the mindset of India. He has lived too long within the mindset of New York where holy cows are neither holy nor cows. Second, he has been a bureaucrat in the United Nations, where a tin ear comes with the salary. The first law of democracy is that what you say is less important than what the other person hears.
He clearly suffers from regional-language-deficiency syndrome as well, another symptom of those who have lived abroad for too long. He observed, for instance, that he had been told that his comments sounded worse in Malayalam than in the Queen’s English. If he had been more familiar with Malayalam he would have realised it himself. How do we know this? Tharoor said as much on his tweet. You never recognise how much you expose yourself when entranced by the spotlight. He added: “I now realize I shouldn’t assume people will appreciate humour. And you shouldn’t give those who would willfully distort your words an opportunity to do so.”
Not quite. Indians do have a sense of humour, but it is not the same sense as the humour of western sensibility. Nor is it a question of distortion. Every civilisation has its own mores, and it is not a matter of being better or worse than any other. The West lives by its own laudable values and its separate definition of sensitivities. India has a different code; China a third one. No one is better than the other, but we have to live by the code that is acceptable to a particular civilisation. There is an in-built screen that monitors, in Indian conversation, anything that might be construed to be offensive, even if you did not mean to be offensive.
Gehlot may not be able to compete in the Queen’s English, but he recognises the line over which you cannot step. You cannot rule India without understanding India. This is why the Congress has publicly distanced itself from a cultural implant on the body politic that it cannot fully comprehend.
It might be worthwhile to remember, also, that economy class on Indian commercial flights is not full of peasants and workers. Only two per cent of India travels by air, so this mode of travel has not even extended yet to the middle class. There are more movers and shakers in the back of the Indian jet than in the front, and when they are moved, they can shake anyone out of a chair.
Since Liberia is not yet a holiday destination for Indian VIPs, even for those with expansive bank accounts, the junior minister for external affairs was obviously there on work. I hope he did not have to make an austere journey in cattle class.