Hullo Shashi Modi, Meet Lalit Tharoor
By M J Akbar
There is something oddly dysfunctional about Shashi Tharoor's career graph. Four years ago he was Dr Manmohan Singh's candidate for the most high-profile job in the world, that of secretary general of the United Nations, despite professional advice from the foreign ministry that he had little chance of victory. But when last year Dr Singh got an opportunity to give Tharoor a job, he decided that the Man Who Would Be King in New York was fit only for minister of state, reporting to a Cabinet minister who generally cannot find much for his junior to do.
As events have proved, Dr Singh was right in 2009. But the first person to twig on Tharoor was Dr Singh's friend George Bush. In 2006, Washington made it clear that despite the warmth of the Singh-Bush era, Tharoor was too immature. Incidentally, Tharoor did not leave his "high-paid" UN assignment, as he repeats a bit too often, in order to do Indian politics a personal favour. He resigned to try and move to the top of the UN food chain.
The more interesting question, surely, is why Tharoor accepted a demotion in Delhi. He is not, after all, famous for underestimating himself. There had to be another reason. The obvious answer is that the limelight is more important to him than the job. Half the limelight was better than no limelight at all. Many politicians display an inordinate affection for the mirror. The problem, as ever, lies in the degree. The swivel moment comes when you go searching for a place in the story, instead of the story searching for you.
The IPL is, logically, the brainchild of a party animal, for it is the most ingenious private party organized in the history of independent India. Each limited-entry guest is welcomed into the fiesta with a winning lottery ticket. As in all lotteries, the money comes from the public and payment goes to a handful, in this case a pre-selected network. All guests are not equal, but all are equally happy.
There are many forms of payoff, including phenomenal salaries, and we are not talking merely of what players take home. The most lucrative core of this less-than-virtuous circle constitutes a club of promoters and their friends, the franchise owners who are permitted a double benefit: promotion of their brands through surrogate advertising, and the promise of huge escalation in share values, since there is no immediate prospect of profitability through regular business models. The owners of the now extra-famous Kochi franchise have said that they will have to lose more than Rs 100 crore a year for the foreseeable future. Details of ownership have been kept opaque to transfer value to individuals while funding comes from companies.
Tharoor is writhing between a mistake and a misfortune. His mistake was to gatecrash a party without an invitation. He thought he could buy entry with Dubai and Gujarat money and spin out collateral political benefits by name-association with Kochi. He leapt to take the political credit when Kochi won the franchise. He is alleged to have taken financial rewards more surreptitiously. His friend Sunanda Pushkar's feeble claim that she is not a proxy is silly. You do not get sweat equity in perpetuity, which means free and forever, with a starting value of Rs 70 crore, for being an unknown executive of a Dubai company. There hasn't been a case of "cheque-payment culpability" of this order since the transactions that ended the chief ministership of A R Antulay in 1981. Nearly 30 years ago, Congress inexplicably tried to defend the indefensible before dumping Antulay so hard it virtually broke the warhorse's back. Mystery repeats itself.
Tharoor's misfortune was to encounter an adversary who could out-Twitter him at high noon in the gunfight at IPL corral. Tharoor and Lalit Modi have more in common than sharp suits, sharp wits and a dogged commitment to the television cameras. Having achieved so much through effective use of the media, they were convinced their favourite weapon remained the best option. They went to war through the media. A veteran like Sharad Pawar would have told them, had they but asked that children in glasshouse nurseries shouldn't throw stones
Modi has one advantage over Tharoor; he is in the private sector. His accountability is to fiscal laws. Tharoor affects the image of the Congress at a time when the party cannot afford a greasy controversy. Tharoor is the first Congress minister in the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh government to be publicly pilloried for alleged corruption.
He has left Mrs Gandhi and Dr Singh with a complicated problem: how do you rearrange spaghetti into straight lines?
Appeared in Times of India - April 18, 2010