Tharoor and after

So over the weekend, Shashi Tharoor fell on his own sword ‘in the party interest’.

The late Sunday evening denouement was against the run of play — as late as Sunday morning, he was set to continue, with an ‘official reprimand’ — the party strategy was to push back at the Opposition if it continued its clamor, and to rake up BJP-era wrongdoings to point out that ministers ‘accused’ in public do not historically resign, until and unless there is evidence of wrongdoing.

The set-piece play was that Sunanda Pushkar would ‘surrender’ her sweat equity, Tharoor would ‘offer to resign’, the offer would be rejected, and the government would just tough it out.

And then something happened, between late morning Sunday and early evening of the same day, that blew the minister out of the water. Buzz says Pranab Mukherjee had a falling out with the MoS, and the latter, feeling pilloried, bit back hard. Miffed that a junior talked back to him [a bigger crime than corruption, in Pranab-da’s scheme of things — he is used to hectoring his colleagues unchallenged], the FM is understood to have put his foot down and demanded Tharoor’s head on a platter. The MoS is expendable; at a time of rising prices and with various finance related bills due in Parliament, the FM was not.

[In a case of supreme irony, CNN-IBN is as I write this quoting the Finance Ministry as saying Tharoor did not benefit from the Kochi deal. True — he could not have, since there is as yet nothing to benefit from. The damn franchise has to get up and running for there to be any monetary benefits. At a larger level, it is faintly ridiculous for Mukherjee to take the lead in getting Tharoor out, and then have his ministry give him a clean chit].

So the party dumped the minister, and made a virtue out of internal necessity by making a play for the high moral ground. Abhishek Sanghvi was fielded to scale that mountain and plant the Congress flag on the summit of moral probity — and he did that by quibbling about the difference between “morality and legality”, and contrasting the Congress action even in the absence of any official proof of wrongdoing with the BJP’s vacillation in the case of Bangaru Laxman, or the Reddy brothers of Bellary, and others. [In fact, the counter-offensive on those lines has already begun.]

Nice try, and it would have worked in the wonderland of Indian politics except for the inconvenient fact that a certain A Raja continues as telecom minister despite the CBI, as recently as November 2009, filing a charge sheet — note, a charge sheet, not an accusation on Twitter — of large scale corruption in the 2G spectrum auction.

Makes sense, however. Tharoor is one Congress MP — one who, note, has only resigned as MoS and not as a party member. Losing him does nothing to the numbers in the Lok Sabha, but losing ally DMK, which could be a consequence of getting all hot and bothered about Raja, could be critical to the UPA’s continuance.

The Congress claims of morality over legality, and the media’s drumbeat about its anti-corruption credentials, is further hollowed by the fact that neither the party, nor the media, has shown the cojones [In the case of Barkha Dutt I use the word metaphorically, of course] to question the role played by Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel [the BJP could do well to look at Arun Jaitley, while we are about it] in the recent auction process.

Equally, the Congress and its the government’s investigative arm needs to examine the role Tharoor played in the Kochi franchise bid, quantify the nature and extent of wrong doing, and make the findings public. Without such a definitive denouement, this story will never attain closure — and given the fuss there has been already, we deserve to know.

I’ll eschew the usual round up of weekend media stories — too much ink, not enough insight or information. Outlook magazine largely remained content with rounding up the various elements into a cover story and topping that off with a generous dollop of the salacious. However, two other stories surfaced that for various reasons merit your time. The first is by Shantanu Guha Ray in Tehelka — a racy pastiche of fact, supposition, rumor and gossip filled with pointers to the behind-scenes shenanigans, but in the final analysis devalued a tad because it has clearly been sourced from a single person or at least, a single camp [read the story, compare it with the official statement of Tharoor both in the public domain and in Parliament, and spot the echoes].

At the other end of the spectrum is P Sainath, with a piece that argues the need to look an inch or two beyond your nose.

Many in the media and politics are happy to reduce it all to issues of propriety or personality. For, the BCCI-IPL is one platform where the Congress and the BJP cohabit, normally with ease. Big money is, after all, a secular, bi-partisan space. (Or tri-partisan: let’s not deny the central contribution of the NCP to this phenomenon.) It’s also interesting that the media, though now compelled to give the IPL’s underbelly some coverage, are still reluctant to ask larger, harder questions. To go beyond their Modi-Tharoor feeding frenzy. And to avoid induced amnesia.

………..

How about questions on public subsidies going to some of the richest people in the world? The BCCI-IPL cost the public crores of rupees each year in several ways. The waiving of entertainment tax worth Rs.10 to 12 crores for the IPL in Maharashtra alone was discussed in the State’s Assembly. It was little reported and less discussed in the media. Maharashtra has extended other support to the IPL, which is yet to be quantified. This, despite being a State whose debt will cross Rs.200,000 crores in the coming year. And there are similar subsidies and write-offs extended to the BCCI-IPL in other States, other venues.

A whole raft of concealed freebies from public resources to the BCCI-IPL is also not discussed. We have no picture of their full scope. No questions either on why a public sector company should be billing itself as the “sponsor” of a team owned by the fourth richest man in the planet. No questions asked about issues ranging from super-cheap land leases and stadia rentals and low-cost stadia security. We don’t even know what the total bill to the public is: just that it is probably in tens of crores. We do know that these supports to the IPL from public money come at a time when subsidies to the poor are being savaged. But we don’t want to go down that road. An inquiry into the IPL must cover the BCCI as well and must record all the open and hidden write-offs and subsidies that both get.

While on looking beyond your nose: Now that Sunanda Pushkar has “voluntarily” given up her free equity [and of course, this has “nothing to do” with Shashi Tharoor — a statement that comes to you with a bag of salt supplied gratis], I am left with an unanswered question: Who are Shailendra and Pushpa Gulati, Puja Gulati, Jayant Kotalwar, Vishnu Prasad and Sundip Agarwal?

Senior journalist Swapan Dasgupta, who has on his blog and on Twitter been beating the drum for Tharoor to go, reacted to news of Pushkar’s renuciation with this question:

“In law, if a thief returns the stolen goods, does the charge of theft go away?”

Very good question — and what is most striking about it is that free equity is tantamount to “theft”.

So then, since “free equity” is theft, and we are all naturally outraged by the possibility of such evil — Shiva Shiva, what is this world coming to when people get free equity?! — why is the media, including Swapan, not similarly asking who those other six people are? After all, they too received free equity. Yet there is not a modicum of interest about why they got these gifts, about the size and scope of these gifts, and about whether there are any hidden beneficiaries, in the same manner than Shashi Tharoor is alleged to be the hidden beneficiary behind the free equity gifted to Sunanda Pushkar.

Why is that question not important enough to merit one moment of airtime, one line of print? Why is the “investigation”, the outrage, so selective?

If the media needs a clue that this angle might be worth its while, here you go:

Why were you, Kisan and Pushpa Gaikwad, Shailendra Gaikwad, Sunanda Pushkar, Jayant Kotalwar, Vishnu Prasad and Sundip Agarwal given free equity? From what we understand, you are a director in the company and your husband helped structure the deal. What role do the others mentioned here have?

Straight off, my husband (StanChart’s Director Public Affairs Sushen Jhingan) has absolutely no role to play in this, and I am extremely upset that he was dragged into this. This is something that I have been involved in for a few years, as have some of the others. We were a group of friends and friends of friends, all cricket lovers, who got together in this some time ago.

As mentioned earlier, there is no free equity. Rendezvous Sports World Private Limited is responsible for rendering management services for which no management fee or consideration is going to be charged. You will appreciate that to run a franchise is not an easy task and till the break-even is achieved, a lot of funds need to be pumped in by investors/other shareholders. All the shareholders/stakeholders of the UJV (unincorporated joint venture) have reposed confidence in Rendezvous Sports World Private Limited that we will perform duties which will be allotted to us and shall cross the break-even as per the business plan.

Till the break-even is achieved, there is no return which will accrue or be realised by any shareholder or Rendezvous Sports World Private Limited. You can check with the owners of other franchisees how many of them have crossed the break-even stage after three seasons. The bidding for IPL IV has seen new heights. If we are required to pay franchisee fees, which are huge, we have to work very hard to ensure that the break-evens are achieved, as no investor puts in monies to earn losses. We are under tremendous pressure to perform and these rumours will only add problems to our performance.

A simple question is met with a 274-word response that is non-responsive. What does that tell you?

And while on such questions, who are the two former India players turned commentators who played a backstage role in getting Kochi the franchise? Why did they devote their energies to this project? What did they get in return — besides of course the altruistic satisfaction of having given Kerala in general and its cricket in particular a leg up? [Done laughing yet?].

None of this is to suggest that the Shashi Tharoor angle is not worth probing. The question is, why is it the only angle? Because Lalit K Modi focused on it in his tweets, and the media is only capable of picking up cues and amplifying them? Or because there are others involved in this mess it is in no one’s interest to question?

Meanwhile, the government is now intent on stepping up the heat on Modi. Sruthijith, a friend you can follow on Twitter here, adds significantly to the sum of our knowledge with a story that opens thus:

‘Mr Lalit Modi has had a trail of failed ventures and defaults till four years back but has a lifestyle now that includes a private jet, a luxury yacht and a fleet of Mercedes S class and BMW cars all acquired in the last three years.’

Thus opens a highly confidential and explosive report by the income-tax department that has been in the possession of the government for six months now but formed the basis of any action only on Thursday evening after a raging controversy over secret ownerships and sweetheart deals in the Indian Premier League, or IPL, stalled both houses of Parliament.

Highly-placed sources in the I-T department and the Congress party told ET that Mr Modi has been on the government radar for quite sometime. The alleged opaqueness with which he conducted the multi-billion dollar cricket tournament and the manner in which he took on home minister P Chidambaram in 2009 seem to have resulted in a detailed enquiry into his activities by the IT department.

Read on.

In preparing the report, investigators seem to have accessed his email account, confidential conversations on a UK-registered cell phone number and regulatory filings from across the globe, from Mauritius to Ireland to the US. Some other Indian cell phone numbers have also been unearthed which the I-T sleuths claim Mr Modi “keeps changing”. The report alleges that Mr Modi is “apparently deeply embroiled in both generation of black money, money laundering, betting in cricket (match fixing of certain IPL matches)”.

An email sent to Lalit Modi remained unanswered on Sunday evening. His lawyer was also sent the same email. A number of his associates named in the report might come under the scanner as the investigation, which started with visits to Mr Modi’s offices on Thursday evening, progresses through the coming weeks. Even though the report detailed the premises the tax department wanted to raid and sought permission to go ahead, political clearance was not granted until junior minister for external affairs Shashi Tharoor stepped into IPL’s murky quicksand and with him dragged the government and the Congress party into one of the biggest scandals in recent times.

We know why the government is acting now, but ask yourself this: why did the government sit on this for six months and more? Which minister or ministers played a role in keeping Modi off the investigative radar for all that while?

Enough ‘serious’ stuff. Late last week, I was jolted out of a gentle doze by L Sivaramakrishnan’s trademark squeak. The commentator was apparently all excited about the fact that this time, the tournament was incorporating an award for best commentator.

Even before I could turn on my laptop and go check, the squeaks faded. The reason why was soon apparent: Siva’s name was not on that panel. In fact, only five names were featured: Ravi Shastri, Pommie Mbwangwa, Mike Haysman, Danny Morrison and one other who I don’t recall right now.

Strange, I thought. Who drew up that shortlist?

And then the story grew stranger. While clicking at random on links I had saved late Sunday evening, I landed back on the IPL site and its voting page — and noticed that all commentators on the panel had now been added to the list for consideration.

Nice try, dudes: first, create a panel weighted to ensure the success of a particular candidate [would anyone reading this vote for Danny, say?]. And then, after allowing the candidate to build a sufficient lead, bring in the rest of the names.

While on that, did you notice the names in the Best Stadium Experience category? Who picked those three grounds, and decided to exclude the rest? Kolkata, for instance, has drawn raves throughout the tournament for the sheer electricity the crowds bring to the game. How come the Eden Gardens doesn’t feature? Or more generally, why is the jury being asked to vote only on names already selected by some unseen hand?

All these questions are actually leading up to a single question: Is there anything — anything at all — about the IPL that is not manipulated/fixed?

PostScript: At a personal level, been rushed all morning, preparing for a trip to Delhi starting Tuesday evening through Friday morning. Blogging will be sporadic during that period, and since I’ll be in meetings during the days, the regular live show will feature other hosts: Amit Varma today as usual; my colleagues Ganesh and Thejaswi , with guest panelists, through the middle of the week, and Aakash Chopra in his usual slot on Friday.

Update: In one of my first posts on the Tharoor-Modi spat, I had suggested that Modi, for once, over-reached, and that the affair will end with the high flier getting his wings dramatically clipped [Dammit, this “I had said” stuff is making me sound like the Times, now]. I under-estimated — word now is that Modi will be axed, by the end of the month.

Makes sense. If it was a straight Modi-Tharoor fight, the BCCI could have used it to cut LKM to size. Now it has assumed a far greater dimension, with IT, Enforcement Directorate and other investigative arms of the government getting into the act. The Board needs to build a firewall, to ensure the flames don’t singe the likes of Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel et al. And the only way to do that is to throw Modi to the wolves.

Upping the ante…

…or lowering the level of dialog? Here’s what happened:

First, Shashi Tharoor made a statement in Parliament that was a complete waste of time, and much money [remember it is costing us Rs 26,000 a minute, give or take, to keep those jokers in business]. Here’s the full text; it contains nothing that has not already been put into the public domain by Tharoor and others already, in various television interactions. Maybe the next time he is asked for a statement, Tharoor should just refer the Lok Sabha to CNN-IBN or whoever — saves time all round.

And then Modi got into the act, with this little number.

“This morning, I learnt from a colleague of mine that Mr Tharoor has approached that ‘he would like their support to move the team out to Abu Dhabi. I don’t know which way they are going. The theme is to play in India, We will not allow any team to play outside India,” he told ‘Times Now’.

“All these allegations are to digress from giving the truth as to who the shareholders are and that’s the key and that’s what we are looking for. I will raise it in the next governing council meeting,” he said.

Eh? How?

The rules are very clear — a franchise has to be housed in the city the franchisees picked. It cannot even be moved to an adjoining city, let alone an entire other country. Modi knows that as well as anyone else. Better — he wrote the damn rules. So how could Tharoor, or anyone else under the sun, move the Kochi franchise to Abu Dhabi?

Just for the purposes of argument, assuming Tharoor could do that — then what? What is one franchise supposed to do sitting in Abu Dhabi while the other nine are in India: play with itself? [And I don’t mean that the way it sounds. Or do I?]

This is nothing more than an attempt by Modi to trump Tharoor: If you play the Kerala card and set yourself up as the defender of the state’s right to own a franchise, I will become the defender of India’s sole privilege of hosting the IPL. And it is faintly ridiculous when, earlier this season, Modi has been talking about taking IPL around the world.

Clearly, this thing Modi “learnt” from “his colleague” is merely another in the increasingly ridiculous series of charges and counter-charges being thrown around. As he says himself, the idea is to “digress from the truth”, and distract attention from the areas it should be focused on.

The sad part is, the principals are supposed to be responsible men: ministers and other government officials, administrators, and the like. Yet their behavior increasingly resembles schoolyard bullies having a hearty mud fight.

You don’t know whether to laugh, or to throw up your hands and, echoing the Bard, go “A pox on both your houses”.

PostScript: I’m heading off for the weekend, folks. Updates between now and Monday, only if something really happens to merit it. Else, see you next week. And during the weekend, occasionally on Twitter.

Actions, reactions

It was Board president Shashank Manohar who, early March, took an unusually strong stand and, while canceling the scheduled auction process for two new franchises, clearly established the IPL as nothing more than a sub-set of the BCCI, and that he, not IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi, was the ultimate authority.

Speaking on Manohar’s behalf, BCCI secretary Niranjan Shah said then:

“The tournament has been launched under the BCCI banner and the committee, which runs the tournament and sets the rules and regulations for the franchises, is formed by the cricket board. The BCCI is the final authority in all cricket-related matters in the country. It is mandatory to have the BCCI president’s approval before the IPL committee decides on anything.”

I’m guessing that must have rankled with Modi, who is prone to considering himself a power in his own right. In fact, while the BCCI hierarchy has to go through the election process, however stage-managed, each year, Modi managed to get an uninterrupted five-year term as IPL commissioner, arguing at the launch of the league that a new venture of this kind needed long-term leadership.

At the time of the auction fiasco, newspapers had with elephantine subtlety suggested that one of the key players responsible for the postponement was ‘a suave Central minister from Kerala’ [camouflage as effective as saying ‘a turban-wearing Sikh with a reputation as an economist who happens to be head of state of a major nation’].

For a Modi smarting under Manohar’s strictures [and stymied, one suspects, in his plans of deciding who the next franchises should be], Tharoor now offers the perfect target. And with a directness that could well prove hubristic, he fired off his volleys through the medium of Twitter. In a series of posts, Modi posted details of the breakdown of the consortium that posted the winning bid from the Kochi franchise.

The revelations from on high

The move is hardly subtle. What Modi is pointing at, in earlier comments and now in this Twitter series, is a sequence of events that read thusly: 1. Shashi Tharoor was at least in part responsible for the cancelation of the original auction. 2. Tharoor wanted Kerala to win a franchise, and played an active back room role in steering the winning bid. 3. The Rendezvous Group, one of the stakeholders of Kochi, has given free equity to various individuals, including one Sunanda Pushkar, who is believed to be a ‘close personal friend’ of Shashi Tharoor.

Not only does Modi invite you to do the quid pro quo math, he then rubbed it in when, in response to a question on his Twitter, he said:

I was told by him not to get into who owns rendezvous. Specially Sunanda Pushkar.Why? The same has been minuted in my records.

So now it’s war. Kochi has already demarcated its battlefield — it will take Modi to task for breaching confidentiality clauses in the contract.

Modi’s revelations have clearly hurt the owners of Kochi. “It was not expected from a body like the IPL,” a senior member of the consortium told Cricinfo. “The documents are very clear that information submitted is confidential and cannot be revealed by either side.”

The franchise now wants the IPL to reveal the ownership details of the nine other franchises. “What we are trying to say is the documents we have submitted to him are supposed to be kept confidential. But if he is letting out the information on our consortium then we would like to be informed of the details of all the owners of the IPL teams, including the individual shareholders, as he has done for us,” the source said.

Modi has been insisting that all details regarding the ownership of the other franchises are in the public domain — but in fact, they are not. At least, not completely — in all cases, the surface ownership is public, but the hidden details are not. And it is there, in the details, that the devil lurks for Modi, whose ties with various franchises are no secret.

These links are, Modi had said when first questioned about it, not a problem. For instance, on his relationship with Mohit ‘Dabur’ Burman, whose brother Gaurav is married to Modi’s daughter, the commissioner said:

“So what if Mohit Burman’s brother is related to me? He is not a part of the IPL.”

You can almost hear that argument being echoed, any day soon, by the Kochi franchise:

So what if we give away free equity to some one dozen people? It is our money, we can do what we want with it.

And:

So what if Sunanda Pushkar has personal ties to Shashi Tharoor? He is not part of the IPL.

Tharoor has, in his official statement, clearly drawn the battle lines: he says he is not directly involved with the franchise — which ironically is what Modi too had said earlier; more to the point, the statement says this is not about the minister and his lady friend, but about Modi not wanting the franchise to go to Kerala — an argument designed to rally the state to the minister’s defense. [Meanwhile his OSD, Jacob Joseph, has been upping the ante, using his Twitter stream and the TV cameras to call Modi a cokehead and drug pusher; significantly, Joseph is also harping on the Kerala versus Modi theme with a fair degree of shrillness].

But the real catch is that Modi has, through his hasty action, turned the political blowtorch on the BCCI. Behind the scenes, enormous pressure is now being brought on Manohar and the board honchos to take action — and this comes at a time when the government has already made various moves against the IPL and the BCCI, including withdrawing the tax exemption the board has traditionally enjoyed.

“The [tax] exemption was disallowed for the year 2007-08 as it was held that the BCCI is no longer promoting cricket as a charitable activity and is now primarily a commercial entity,” Palanimanickam was quoted by AFP as saying.

The income tax department also said there was “no element of charity” in the affairs of the BCCI. “Cricket is only incidental to its scheme of things,” it said in a statement. “It is more into prize money for every run or wicket, which is nothing short of a gimmick. The conduct of certain activities and receipt of income from these activities clearly show that these activities are totally commercial and there is no element of charity in the conduct of BCCI. It is evident that major income arises not from the game of cricket but from the business of cricket.”

Ouch!

If Tharoor was the only person in the cross hairs, Modi likely could have gotten away.  Trouble is, many heavyweight politicians are involved in IPL ops, behind the scenes. To cite just one example, Praful Patel was known, at the time, to have used his clout to get the original auction postponed. Besides, too many of the BCCI honchos have a finger in the IPL pie — and once the Kochi franchise starts throwing mud around, there is no telling in what direction it will fly, and on whose face it will stick.

It is also no secret that the government has for a while been looking to bring the BCCI, at least partially, under its purview — and that possibility now looms large before Manohar and his cohorts. Hence the board president’s strong reaction to Modi’s latest misadventure — Manohar publicly stated that Modi’s actions were improper and in breach of contract, and then called for a hearing tomorrow.

What probably looked like a good idea at the time — throw some mud, get the Kochi franchise disqualified, call for another auction and steer it in the desired direction — is already looking like a mis-step of monumental proportions. And the fun is only just beginning — the next few weeks are, if there is anything to the background buzz the media antenna has been picking up, liable to be packed with a fair quota of drama, and some headaches for the IPL’s combative commissioner.

Shashi Tharoor and the politics of Twitter

I’d planned on staying off blog for the duration, and re-surfacing only after my move to Bangalore was complete. And even the farcical happenings at the Firozeshah Kotla didn’t tempt me back onto this platform — but the whole “controversy” about Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor and his recent post on Twitter is a whole other story.

Everyone and his uncle seem up in the air about those 140 characters, so how about backing up a bit and taking a look at the back-story?

George Headley, a United States citizen, reportedly entered India multiple times to scope out possible terrorist targets. So our government in its infinite wisdom decided to “do something about it”.

The “something” was a tweak to existing laws, which now mandate that holders of multiple entry visas cannot re-enter the country within a two-month period of their last exit. That is to say, if you leave India tonight, you have to wait two months before you can come back in. [You can, however, apply to the Indian consulate/embassy in your native country for an exemption].

First question: does this cripple the plans of terrorists? Have we, by asking a potential terrorist to wait two months between one recce mission and the next, made this part of the world any safer?

Clearly, the answer to that is no. This is classic governmental syllogism in action: We have a problem. We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do this.

The government had no clue what Headley was doing when he was here. Despite the best post-facto investigative efforts of various “intelligence” agencies in this country including the newly formed NIA, no hint of Headley’s involvement surfaced on our radar — in fact, the revelations re Headley have come as an embarrassment to our cops, who in their FIR had named others as being responsible for scoping out the 26/11 targets.

Now that the extent of Headley’s activities has become common knowledge, the government, typically, has to be seen to “do something” — and as per usual, the “something” happens to be a half-baked measure that does not address the problem.

What it has done is created a national embarrassment. Britain and the US have officially protested — and their protests are based on complaints by their citizens [including, in the case of the US, various Indian Americans living in that country]. These include the story of a family who came on a month long visit to India. While here, they decided to take in the sights and sounds of Sri Lanka, and flew to Colombo. Three days later, when they tried to re-enter India — where the bulk of their luggage was stored in their hotel — they were told that they could not get in; they had to go back to wherever they came from, wait two months, and then come back if they wished to continue their holiday and/or reclaim their property.

That is one story among the dozens that are pouring into foreign missions on a daily basis — stories of people unable to enter the country for a wedding, a funeral, because two months have not yet elapsed since their last visit; stories of unaccompanied kids turned back at the airport because they had visited India en famille within the statutory period and so were deemed a threat if they re-entered…

Much of these problems arose because the government did not take the trouble to brief its consulates about the intent behind the rule change; nor did the Home Ministry/MEA properly brief the immigration officials at our international airports, leading to considerable confusion in the application of the new law.

An embarrassed government has since had to back track, and dilute the provisions of its hastily passed, ill-conceived edict.

So much for the back story. Now for Tharoor’s tweet. These are his posts:

#Is all that worth it just in hope of making it difficult for a future Headley to recce? R we going 2 allow terrorists 2 make us less welcoming?

# Making it more difficult 2 visit India, return here frequently or stay long hurts large nbrs of innocents, costs us millions of$ & alienates.

Those are his posts. Did the minister say something that is demonstrably wrong? Clearly, no.

So what then is the fuss about? Why did SM Krishna feel the need to reprimand his junior?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the growing gap between an antediluvian India and the more modern one. Our governments, state and central, are packed with ministers of varying levels of literacy; they fear the light of questioning and tend, wherever possible, to shut themselves away from the public gaze. The very concept of talking directly to the public is — horrors! — anathema to them.

Therein lies the central irony of this manufactured controversy: the crime Tharoor has committed, apparently, is to talk to the people of this country without the intervening filter of the “media”.

So why do we call ourselves a democracy, again?

For instance, had a journalist approached Tharoor after the new visa norms were introduced and asked him if he, as a minister, thought the new rule would make India safer, what should he have said?

Yes? That is a patently stupid answer, since it clearly does nothing of the kind. What if he had answered, no? What if he had said to the journalist what he ended up saying on Twitter? The media would have  lauded him for his frankness, and trained its guns on the twit who framed the asinine law in the first place.

While I was writing this post, I had a call from TimesNow, asking me to appear on Arnab Goswami’s show tonight, on a panel that will debate this issue. The Times journo who called told me there are two sides to this debate: one, the side I am on, which says there is no harm in a minister speaking his mind, whether in a news forum or directly through social media. And the other, he said, was the side, represented by the Krishnas of this world, which says Tharoor had broken the rule governing what ministers can talk about.

Wait a minute, I asked — is there a rule that says ministers cannot speak on Twitter or through any other means, directly to the people?

The journalist said, actually, no there isn’t.

Repeat: there is no rule, no norm anywhere that prevents Tharoor from posting his thoughts directly to the people who elected him. Yes, there is the Official Secrets Act — but that does not cover a law that is public knowledge anyway, nor does it cover a man’s opinion, even if that man happens to be a minister.

So here’s the question: by what law do the Krishnas of this world seek to hinder Tharoor’s freedom of speech?

Frankly, this nonsense needs to stop. And the media — large sections of which appear to be angst-ridden that a minister, rather than give them “exclusives”, talks directly to the public — needs to play the lead role in stopping this, where today it is acting as an echo chamber that amplifies “controversies” where none need exist.

You can, too. Follow Shashi Tharoor on Twitter — at last count, over 500,000 people already do. In doing that, we encourage openness among those we select to represent us in Parliament, to make our laws for us. And you flip the bird at those in government who would treat us, the citizens of this country, as farmers treat mushrooms: by keeping us in the dark and feeding us unadulterated bullshit.

Eye Browse

1. Umberto Eco’s piece in the Guardian about the importance of good handwriting struck a nerve. I used to pride myself on my neat, even writing. Now, I have a collection of fine writing instruments [one of my obsessions], and a handwriting that deteriorates into the realm of the illegible after about two sentences. From Eco:

The crisis began with the advent of the ballpoint pen. Early ballpoints were also very messy and if, immediately after writing, you ran your finger over the last few words, a smudge inevitably appeared. And people no longer felt much interest in writing well, since handwriting, when produced with a ballpoint, even a clean one, no longer had soul, style or personality.

And while on that, a recent study indicates that handwriting is the best lie-detector test there is.

2. Social media familiarity breeds contempt, seems to be the moral of this Times Online story on Stephen Fry.

3. “When the pet develops rabies and starts biting its own mentors, it must be put to sleep, no way around it,” a senior general involved in military operations in the North-West Frontier Province told me in late April, suggesting a definite new realization — if not change of heart altogether — that as far as the military establishment was concerned, the militants had gone too far. Until that point, the Army’s claims that it was doing its best to hunt down “miscreants” were met with skepticism across the board.

That clip is from a Foreign Policy article suggesting that Pakistan is making more progress in its war against terrorism than an increasingly cynical world is prepared to acknowledge. It ends however on a prophesy designed to further fuel the cynical view that most of Pakistan’s ‘successes’ are calculated pitches for its fund-raising drive:

And we should not be surprised if, as a result of Muslim Khan’s interrogations, his mentor Maulvi Fazlullah also gets captured — perhaps timed to coincide with President Asif Ali Zardari’s trip to New York to host a “Friends of Democratic Pakistan” summit on Sept. 24, at which he is expected to urge the world to better compensate Pakistan for its efforts against extremists, who under the tutelage of al Qaeda still pose a grave threat to the entire region. But perhaps now it’s time the international community shows it is willing to reward success.

4. I can never get enough of writers talking of writing [the NYT series is a favorite, often visited/re-visited resource]. Here, for those interested in such, is today’s find.

5. A blog post gives six reasons for politicians to take to Twitter. Clip:

Now what you can do with Twitter – Dr Shashi Tharoor on his visit to his constituency met with a girl who has lost both her legs and on the same day he tweeted –

Visited a girl who lost both legs to a train when crossing the track bcoz road to her home was underwater. One more tragedy of underdevpmnt”

“Will look for prosthetic help for the girl. In her final year of high school. Desperately poor. A couple of Jaipur Feet cld change her life

That 280 letters changed the life of that girl. The same day itself offers for help came from all over the world and last I heard that girl is undergoing treatment. Could such quick response possible without Twitter? What does that show? Doesn’t that show that politicians and elected representatives can use twitter to spread the word faster than any other media out there?

Indeed. The catch? How many politicians are articulate enough to use that tool to get the right message across?

6. In The Atlantic, Mark Bowden has a great piece outlining, against the backdrop of TV coverage of the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, how journalism has been ‘outsourced’ to political hit men, business interest groups and such.

This process—political activists supplying material for TV news broadcasts—is not new, of course. It has largely replaced the work of on-the-scene reporters during political campaigns, which have become, in a sense, perpetual. The once-quadrennial clashes between parties over the White House are now simply the way our national business is conducted. In our exhausting 24/7 news cycle, demand for timely information and analysis is greater than ever. With journalists being laid off in droves, savvy political operatives have stepped eagerly into the breach. What’s most troubling is not that TV-news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery. The very smart and capable young men (more on them in a moment) who actually dug up and initially posted the Sotomayor clips both originally described themselves to me as part-time, or aspiring, journalists.

Then again, who needs journalists? As this piece in Columbia Journalism Review underscores, the new business model is to spend a lot of money on a telegenic talking head, and let the news gathering end of the business go whistle. While on the media, Nikhil Pahwa linked on Twitter to this spiderweb of inter-connectivity between politicians and journalists in India. Open link with caution — guaranteed to change the way you read newspapers/watch television. :-)

7. From TED via Mental Floss: Oliver Sacks in prime form on the subject of hallucination.

8. Transparency International has just released its annual report on Global Corruption. To no one’s surprise, India wins high placement.

9. Sometimes, all it takes to provoke a really stirring debate is a really badly written opinion piece. This qualifies. The writer sets out to trash contemporary Indian writing in English on the basis of book titles and blurbs; the resultant debate, now two weeks long and counting, is proving to be the gift that goes on giving. Wade right in — the last word hadn’t been said yet.

10. What happens when one of the most famous opening sentences in literature is rendered in Emoji? This:

Moby Dick is passe. Here's Emojidick

Moby Dick is passe. Here's Emojidick

The New Yorker, on the project. Seems to me we’re coming full circle — from symbol-based communication to alphabets, and now back again.

11. Having observed two of the four UN General Assembly sessions [as much of each as I could stomach] out of the five during my tenure in NY, I found them incredibly boring affairs. But then, they never had Muammar Gaddafi, spelt any one of 50 ways,  over during that time. My loss. Your gain.

Over and, for the day, out.

Thin-skinned in India

Some time today, the Mumbai High Court will hear a petition related to a book:

Use of the word ‘ghati’ in his book Breathless in Bombay has landed first-time author Murzban Shroff in trouble, with an activist claiming that it “lowers the reputation and image of Maharashtrians in the eyes of non-Maharashtrians”.

While 47-year-old Shroff, a Mumbai-born Parsi, maintains that the term is not aimed against any community, activist Vijay Mudras wants the government to seize all copies of the book, which he feels is a serious threat to communal harmony.

Here’s the WTF bit:

Mudras objected to certain dialogues that include the word ‘ghati’ in ‘This House of Mine’, one of the 14 stories in the book. The story revolves around occupants of a society who face an eviction notice from the housing board. One of the characters, named Olaf, repeatedly uses the word ‘ghatis’ to describe the Marathi-speaking people in the building.

In his complaint, Mudras alleged that the book could foment disharmony, feelings of hatred and ill will and demanded seizure of its copies. On the basis of his complaint, a metropolitan court had ordered a probe by NM Joshi Marg police, following which the case was registered against Shroff.

The book was published last year. And as author Murzban Shroff points out, more than 12 months have passed with no sign of any disharmony — hell, even those modern masters of faux outrage, the MNS, found nothing objectionable in the book [they have to find the book, first — though it was prominently displayed at the time of its launch, it has gradually drifted to the back shelves of city bookstores and, in some cases, vanished from those shelves altogether].

Why do courts, at a time when everyone from the PM on down is expressing concern over backlog of cases, waste their time with such nonsensical ‘issues’? Why does the legal machinery pander to every idiot concerned citizen who abrogates to himself the right to feel outrage, no matter how baseless, on behalf of the mass? And why are those who file such clearly baseless cases not punished for the colossal waste of our legal machinery? [The Metropolitan Court ordered the NM Marg police to probe? How exactly was the probe conducted, and what did it find that justified registering the case?]

And while on manufactured outrage, Shashi Tharoor has reportedly apologized for an innocent exercise of collegiate humor on his Twitter stream — hoping, thereby, to diffuse the snowballing ‘outrage’ within the Congress party over this:

@ShashiTharoor Tell us Minister, next time you travel to Kerala,
will it be cattle class?
11:27 AM Sep 14th from TweetDeck in reply to ShashiTharoor

@KanchanGupta absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all
our holy cows!
11:47 AM Sep 14th from web in reply to KanchanGupta

Note that Shashi Tharoor didn’t volunteer the expression — he merely repeated the characterization Kanchan Gupta had given the economy class in our domestic airlines.

‘Will you travel in cattle class?’ ‘Yes I will travel in cattle class’.

Had the question been ‘Will you travel in economy class’, the answer would as likely have used the phrase ‘economy class’.

I didn’t see the journalists’ association getting upset over a senior member of the fraternity ‘denigrating’ the people who buy the newspapers that provide journalists with their livelihood, did you, and threatening to drum Gupta out of the profession?

The larger question, as Amit Varma points out, is: exactly who does the reference denigrate? Even prior to this exchange, Tharoor was spotted in cattle class economy class — so at the very least, he includes himself in the ‘cattle’ and denigrates himself along with the rest.

Semantics apart, Amit on his post [and in his appearance on Times Now last night] makes a point Tharoor has since made in his apology. Amit:

If it is derogatory to anyone, it is to the airlines that give their customers so little space, and not to the customers themselves. So whose sensitivity are we talking about here? Air India and Jet?

Tharoor:

“It’s a silly expression but means no disrespect to economy class travellers, only to airlines for herding us in like cattle”.

None of this requires advanced degrees in linguistics to decipher, and that leads you to believe that Tharoor is getting this public rap on the knuckles not because of the use of the phrase “cattle class”, but because of the humorous twist at the end: “with the rest of the holy cows”.

The phrase was, or was interpreted in the notoriously humor-less echelons of the Congress Party to be, a reference to Pranab Mukherjee, who had earlier made a cake of himself by officiously ordering External Affairs Minister SM Krishna and Shashi Tharoor to vacate the five-star hotels they were staying in — and paying for out of their own pockets.

But more even than Pranab, Tharoor’s twit tweet stepped on the most sacrosanct toes of all: those of no less than Sonia Gandhi. Consider that Tharoor posted his little riff on the same day as this. Sonia travels economy, Tharoor talks of holy cows in economy, one plus one clicks in the ‘minds’, if you’ll permit the exaggeration, of the Jayanti Natrajans of this world — and lo, ‘outrage’ germinates in that fertile soil.

The impact of the holy cow Sonia Gandhi is best illustrated by this example. The MP had already paid for his business class ticket — what was the point in merely changing seats with some other passenger, just to show he was ‘flying economy’, too?

It reminds me of an incident from when, back in the day, AP chief minister NTR launched an austerity drive of his own. One day, local newspapers were full of pictures of a particular state minister arriving at the railway station, ostensibly getting into the train and settling down in his seat. Trouble was, next day the same newspapers carried the story of how, while the minister was traveling on official work from one city to the next, his car — and entourage — had traversed that same distance by road and was waiting for him at his destination. The minister’s innocent explanation: I needed my official car there to attend meetings and for other work, what is wrong with that?

I don’t blame the minister, do you? We have become a nation of gestures [consider this one, from the holy cow reigning high priestess of austerity], of tokenism — how was the poor fellow supposed to know? [Just like Bhiwandi MP Suresh Tawre, who thought all he had to do was switch seats to fulfill the ‘austerity’ requirement to the satisfaction of his holy cow boss.]

Question for Pranab, the party’s enforcer: How much of recent actions against colleagues in the External Affairs Ministry has to do with austerity and other shibboleths, and how much has it to do with the fact that when your boss, the Prime Minister, stumbled into deep doo-doo over the Sharm-e-Sharif statement relating to Pakistan, the External Affairs Minister didn’t save MMS by falling on the sword?

Update: The TimesNow debate on the Tharoor Tweet now up on India Uncut in video.