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.