Tharoor, the politician, at odds with the Twitterer

As I see it
Last Updated 14 January 2010, 16:43 IST

A few weeks ago, when Tharoor’s tweet on the government’s visa policies generated much fuss among his ministerial colleagues, I had jocularly tweeted, “Maybe, Tharoor should quit politics and join journalism. He would have greater freedom as an edit page writer than as a ‘neta’!” Within minutes, I was hit by an avalanche of angry Tharoor followers on Twitter, suggesting that I 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 as 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 authorising the ubiquitous high command to decide leadership issues.

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 anglicised, 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 legitimise 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.

Near, yet far away

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 Sharukh Khan or a Priyanka Chopra, being on twitter adds to their celebrity quotient and perhaps promotes their films. For a journalist like me, twitter is another means with which to engage with the viewer and share news breaks.

Tharoor is neither a glamourous 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. For example, as a minister of state for external affairs who is responsible for the Gulf region, why doesn’t Tharoor take up the issue of  working conditions for migrant workers? A tweet on his actions might earn him more goodwill than telling us who he lunched with!

(The writer is editor-in-chief, CNN IBN)

(Published 14 January 2010, 16:40 IST)

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