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Have We Let Shashi Tharoor Erase Questions About His Past?

28/07/2015 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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PRAKASH SINGH via Getty Images
Indian Junior Foreign Minister Shashi Tharoor addresses the media at parliament house in New Delhi on April 16, 2010. Junior Indian Foreign Minister and former high-flying UN official Shashi Tharoor, 54, has been in the eye of a storm since the weekend when news broke that a friend, said by Indian media to be his girlfriend, had been given a free stake in a new IPL franchise. Tharoor has denied the allegations. AFP PHOTO/Prakash SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

Shashi Tharoor was in the news last week for a variety of interesting reasons. First, his speech at the Oxford Union, where he called upon Britain to grant reparations to India to make up for their colonial legacy, went viral. Then, there were media reports that he had dissented with his party on disrupting the ongoing Monsoon session of Parliament. Sonia Gandhi, according to these reports, reprimanded him for going to the media with his dissent, while on the other hand, Tharoor was congratulated by Prime Minister Modi for his speech at Oxford.

Now Tharoor is a remarkably eloquent man. While this is common knowledge, hearing his Oxford Union speech bolsters this impression. With a few notes card in hand, he rips into British colonialism, evoking the myriad wrongs that were committed under the guise of the "White man's burden". Before a packed audience of what must be mostly British professors and students, Tharoor coolly excoriates their country's rotten inheritance. And he is cheered and appreciated all along.

"Appearing on Barkha Dutt's show on July 23, he reiterated some of the arguments he made at the Oxford Union debate... Dutt smiled throughout and looked as pleased as a schoolgirl meeting a beloved icon..."

Tharoor has that effect on people. Appearing on Barkha Dutt's show on July 23, he reiterated some of the arguments he made at the Oxford Union debate. Dutt asked him if he was inching closer to the BJP, what with the PM himself appreciating him, to which he launched into a long and as-usual terrific spiel about his "idea of India" and how it is fundamentally at odds with the BJP's. Dutt smiled throughout and looked as pleased as a schoolgirl meeting a beloved icon.

This is, of course, not the first time that Tharoor has made news for holding a foreign audience in thrall. He has had a string of successes in his globetrotting career. He served at the UN for close to three decades during which, among other things, he did some commendable work for the welfare of refugees stuck in international waters. He left as UN Under-Secretary General in 2007 after an abortive bid to become Secretary General. He returned to join the Congress party and won the 2009 Lok Sabha election from Thiruvananthapuram.

Of course, his wit has sometimes backfired on him. In 2009 he tweeted a picture of the economy section of the flight he had taken and called it "cattle class". The tweet blew up and Tharoor was forced to apologise to the Congress top brass for his blatant elitism. But none of this affected his aura. His background and sophistication ensured that he always had the ear of the higher ups.

Then Sunanda Pushkar happened. He married the Dubai-based businesswoman in 2010 and in the same year, installed her as director of Rendezvous Sports World, the company that bid for the since-suspended Kochi team of the IPL. The monies involved were to the tune of Rs 70 crore. When the conflict of interest came to light, Tharoor was forced to resign from his position as Minister of State for External Affairs.

But financial corruption is common enough in Indian politics and is generally explained away as a necessary evil in a system where one has to please several stakeholders to hold on to dear chair. Tharoor could have easily lived down that controversy and may have even returned to government at a future date.

But in January 2014, Pushkar died under mysterious circumstances in a hotel in Delhi. Shortly before her death she had contacted several senior Delhi journalists, including Barkha Dutt and Rahul Kanwal, to request they attend a press conference where she was going to reveal something that she alleged was explosive. Till date her manner of death remains controversial - at first, the Delhi Police went with the story that her death was suicide, later registering a case of murder.

The case stayed on the back burner until the BJP returned to power and reopened the investigation into the death. As of today, that investigation proceeds, but we are no closer to getting to the cause of her death. A number of witnesses have changed their testimonies in the interim and there is little clarity on what transpired in the hotel room where Pushkar was found dead.

"The Pushkar death deserves to be fully investigated and its truth arrived at. Let no man even remotely associated with it be given the benefit of the doubt just because he 'belongs'."

Meanwhile, Tharoor has returned to the limelight even as his possible involvement in Pushkar's death remains the elephant in the room. With his clipped accent and international career, his Stephanian status (one shared by Barkha Dutt and other leading journalists) and his polished demeanour, he gets access to the in-crowd that runs the capital's intellectual professions. Why, he is the in-crowd, and he has benefitted politically and socially from his position. This naturally influences how he is portrayed in the media, which in turn, shapes public opinion.

There is no other way to say this: it is appalling that Tharoor has never quite lost his footing in high society and is schmoozing with the "right crowd" when there is little clarity on whether he was involved in his wife's death. The breathless response in Delhi to his Oxford Union address and his deep immersion in the capital's politics ironically reinforce the perception that he may, after all, get away with wrongdoing (if there were any on his part) due to his connections. That the Prime Minister has more than once made conciliatory gestures towards him furthers this impression.

Which would be an unmitigated tragedy. The Pushkar death deserves to be fully investigated and its truth arrived at. Let no man even remotely associated with it be given the benefit of the doubt just because he "belongs".

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