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.

81 thoughts on “Shashi Tharoor and the politics of Twitter

  1. Hi.
    Happened to read this piece only now. Think we should start a conspiracy theory of sour politicians leaving no stone unturned to malign Mr. Tharoor. I am speaking in the aftermath of the two day old controversy at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas gathering. It looks like there is stage management to malign and draw Mr. Tharoor into every possible controversy. I read the exact quote in “the Hindu” this morning and just realised how so very malicious the reporting has been. If this is not going to stop, India will lose people like him who have the potential to be real change makers.

    Can we start a “Save Dr. Tharoor from malicious press” group? I would gladly join in.

    • I would love to join you Shalini

      But like I mentioned in my earlier post here
      Mr Tharoor just does not fit into our beloved and corrupt boot licking scratch my back system, sooner or later he is going to get suffocated in this environment and leave.
      Some things will never change in India, and this is one of them.

      The mantra is do not disagree on anything which the almighty high commands have done and decided or will do in future to run the country, be a yes man always.

      Sycophants is the right name actually of our present state of politics and politicians..

      Cheers

  2. Prem, hope B’lore’s treating you well and you are not stuck in its traffic and so not getting time to blog or tweet.

    • same feeling here – was thinking is Bangalore so backward in terms of cloud availability? 😉 you arent able to get online for 7 days?

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  4. I disagree with you here Prem. My thoughts are more in line with Rahul’s and Swamy’s. I think it is extremely unprofessional on the part of a Government minister to show his unhappiness with a government decision publicly via twitter. Rahul and Swamy have done a good job of explaining why. But, let me take another shot. Imagine you are running a firm and one of your employee disagrees with a decision taken collectively by the management (an employee who was part of the decision making body). Would it be professional on the part of the emp. to go and tweet how he does not agree with the decision? If he does so, in a professional setting, he will asked to either shut up or ship out. Your raise your disagreements internally and convince other of why you are right. If you don’t agree I say get out. Sashi Tharoor has all the power and facilities to bring about a change in the way government is done in India and it is shame that he is taking an easy and convenient way out of it.

    • Yes Mr. Brij — XAACCCTTTLLLYY —- III WUUUDD DEFIINIITEELLY if i was the employee ,,, i wud definitely tweet ,,, because i believe in openness—-This is the basis of the FIRST AMMENDENT IN THE US CONSTITUTION — free speech and free thinking — and no power on this earth can stop that —- — no use hiding the TRUTH — SATYAMEVA Jayate — truth alone triumphs — and i wud gladly ship out rather than SHUT UP —- u cannot shut my mouth up with black mail — and I know my worth as an employee ,,, i know the market does value — good employeees —- SO there !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • Madhu,

        Glad to read your thoughts about openness and shipping out (My thoughts are exactly the same – I will prefer shipping out to rather than shutting up).

        I will love Mr Tharoor to move out and show he means what he tweets and will not stand up to rules which don’t make sense to him. How about Tharoor quitting and joining BJP 🙂

        But, I doubt he will do anything but tweet about it.

        • HuLLLOo Mr Brij ,,, u missed the point entirelyyy !! I said i wud ship out if i was given an ultimatum about whether to SHUT UP or SHIP out !!! But I wudnt want to leave the field on my own and then leave it to the next INCOMPETENT Guy !! I believe that to change the system , U have to be in the SYSTEM … Any rejoinders to that ,, Mr Brij ????

          And about the BJP the less said the better ,,,, communalists who believe in spreading the venom of hatred !! among religions ,, they are a party who believe in divisive politics for the sake of their vote bank !!! which has given us stalwarts like Narendra Modi who dont think twice before starting a state sponsored and state supported pogrom against people who are in a minority .. and their ideological companions the Bajrang dal and VHP actually support using violence against nuns and pastors (remember Graham Staines who was burnt alive )teaching in Orissa . REAlly how much more degraded can they get ???

  5. Hats off to Tharoorji.

    Now we realise the role of an educated man in POLITICS.
    You made it …
    Go on…

    The majority given to you by the people shows their faith in you. Now you seems doing justice to them

  6. Prem,
    I think the guys name was David Headley. George Headley was the West Indian cricketer Obviously cricket and politics don’t mix ;).

  7. The mantra is once the Politicians are elected they are free to do OR Not to do as per their whims and wishes with the blessings of so called High Commands.

    Mr. Tharoor I back you 100 per cent with your free and frank views, the ones who can not take this are the ones who feel insecure and fear their positions.

    What he said is strengthening of democracy, if there is any ? left ? Frankly I feel Mr Tharoor just does not fit with the System he is part of, he must be feeling suffocated and I am pretty sure sooner than later he will leave his position and go somewhere he can do some good and positive work. He presents the young India, the 70 year plus Club should make way for younger professionals.

    Cheers

  8. Very well thought article. Indian politics is still about doing ‘Salaam’ to the ancient cronies and those with political lineage. There is no place for educated and cultured people like Tharoor here. If only we could have someone of his calibre as PM, someone with a mind of his own, how fortunate we would be!

    At the same time, I think he should refrain from Tweeting on political issues, as this is quite unprofessional. He must take matters up in the Govt. or hold a press conference, or give a quick interview to the Media to make his point known. What would happen if every minister and every politician began Tweeting? That would be crazy, wouldn’t it? I think Tharoor must use the right channel to voice his views.

  9. Prem,

    Thanks for clarifying the issue. The picture I had (before reading your piece) was that when the govt issues visas, they are mainly dealing with ‘foreigners’. But the demographics have changed greatly in the last decade or so, and now most people seeking visa from our govt are people of Indian origin or their descendants. The only minister who seems to be aware of this constituency seems to Mr. Tharoor, although there is a full fledged ministry to deal with the NRIs.

    Ram

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  12. Mr. Tharoor should recognize that he is first a politician, then a Congress Minister and atlast an Indian Minister. This is the chemistry in politics, rather hidden. He should gracefully quit before he is sent out unceremoniously; as this is not his field nor any social activities. Perhaps, Manmohan Singh might consider him for a Governorship.

    • let me tell you Mr. Pillai, I do not want to say that you are stupid nut certainly say that You are simply a slave to the corrupted Indian politics. What do you know about real politics? Mr. Tharoor is the man India need to get the real indian feeling to all inidans.

      You shoul realise that mr. Tharoor does not need any publicity at all. he would have been the UN Secretary General if Indian support was there to the maximum. he is really capable of Admistering India. I mean ruling India. I am proud of him with Millions of Iother inidans. You are in a gulf country where the rules re visa does not apply but europe and americas do.

    • Mr. Pillai,

      There is something called transparency in Governance. Mr. Tharoor is sharing his views on what is happening in the Government. He is not letting out any classified secrets.

      If we do not know what our politicians’ stand on public issues, how are we going to judge them during elections? Towing the party line all the time is not democracy at all. He, as any other Indian, has the right to his opinion.

      If at all someone has to quit, it is Mr. SM Krishna. He apparently doesn’t believe in public debate and discourse. (http://beta.thehindu.com/news/national/article71879.ece)

      May the Kuwaiti despots not degrade your democratic values,
      Vijay

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