As politicians go, Shashi Tharoor is one of a kind.
First off, he is that dreaded creature – the NRI. The NRI has always been a creature viewed with suspicion in India. In his book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, Tharoor had joked that real debate was whether NRI stood for ‘Not Really Indian’ or ‘Never Relinquished India’. While an NRI might have been courted for investment in India, or to help lobby for a Indo-US nuclear deal abroad, becoming a Lok Sabha MP after living for years on the other side of the kala paniis quite remarkable.
When in his book The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone, Tharoor re-christened NRIs as the Now Required Indians, he probably didn’t think that requirement would actually be tested at the ballot box. The return of Shashi Tharoor to India, to the hurly burly of Indian politics, after the more rarefied high diplomacy of the UN is a remarkable story that has nothing to do with his personal politics.
Shashi Tharoor has the sort of career trajectory which for a man of his generation usually leads away from India. Excellent student. Debate champion. Quiz club founder. Ph. D at 22. Singing the song Lily the Pink on car rides. In an interview Tharoor readily admitted “I was one of these kids that I am sure other kids had every reason to resent. I was just very good at taking exams.” He was such a good student that St. Stephen’s waived their entrance examination for him. He set himself a goal once of reading 365 books in one year and made his target before Christmas.
His parents, like good Indian parents, fantasized about Shashi the doctor or Shashi the engineer. But he told them he hated science. He even took his IIM examinations to assuage his parents, got in, and then chucked it up to go to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the US.
Like many Indians who go to America, he too thought he would live there a few years, get his higher education degree and come back. Perhaps take the Indian Foreign Service examination. His grandfather had a dream that he would be the collector of his district. Like many Indians who go to America, it didn’t quite work out that way. A few years stretched to many but unlike many Indians living abroad — many of whom are doctors and engineers — he came back.
Sure, if he had won the post of UN Secretary General the story would have ended differently. But it’s actually remarkable that at a time when NRIs come back and fret and fume about heat, dust and pollution, Tharoor got into the most heated, grimy and polluted sphere of them all – retail politics. A politician who read books, wrote books and made no bones about his erudition is an odd bird in Indian politics where Macaulayputra is a four letter word.
Much like Narendra Modi, Tharoor just can not tone his personality down. In an article in DNAhe is described by K C Singh, the bureaucrat who coordinated his campaign as India’s candidate for Secretary General as a “narcissist, totally in love with himself and his image.” But he’s also savvy enough to not wear his narcissism on his sleeve, or rather in pin stripes all over his suit. At a literary meet, a member of the audience launched into a speech about how amazed he was at Tharoor’s ability to answer any question in elaborate complete sentences without pauses and stutters. Tharoor deftly replied that the man had just done what he claimed could not be done – i.e rendered Tharoor speechless.
But there is little, in fact, that can shut Shashi Tharoor up or down.
At a time when the hint of scandal causes a Sushma Swaraj or a Vasundara Raje to clam up and go into radio silence Shashi Tharoor has doggedly kept up a public event media profile even as the Sunanda Pushkar investigation was leaking like a sieve, splashing photographs all over the media. Some found it brazen and proof of a man who was inexorably addicted to the limelight. Others admired his sheer chutzpah and professionalism.
There are plenty of other suave politicians in India. But Tharoor’s gift of the gab, the St. Stephenian debate club’s thrust and parry is both admired and also looked upon with suspicion. In a country where English is both aspirational and a source of great unease and inferiority complex, Tharoor is sometimes too silver-tongued and quickwitted for his own good. The famous “cattle class” quip taught him that in India everything is taken with deathly seriousness and no banter is allowed. Looking back on that Tharoor admitted “My very accessibility to give the media sound bytes became a source of utter opportunity to bring me down.” And after the Sunanda Pushkar case he also realized that his media friendliness was not going to save him from a media lynching either.
His years as an Indian politician have undoubtedly been tumultuous. His return to India had a sort of fairy-tale red carpet feel to it. He waltzed straight into the cabinet, but was soon fired and then later reinstated. He has been embroiled in controversy and scandal almost since the moment he set foot on Indian shores.
As the media here analyzes and reads between the lines of an op-ed to figure out whether Shashi Tharoor moved two inches closer to Narendra Modi or Sonia Gandhi, it’s also easy to forget that he’s had another life where what he did mattered for more on a daily basis than just grist for evening news hot air and gossip.
As the head of the UNHCR office in Singapore during the boat people crisis, Tharoor was directly involved in a critical humanitarian mission of life and death. In an interview for India Currents magazine, Tharoor recalled one family with a baby who were floating on the sea after the engine on their boat died after the Vietnam War. They were out of food and water, subsisting on rain water and hope. “The parents slit their own fingers and got the baby to suck the blood in order to survive,” said Tharoor. When they were rescued by an American ship they were so weak they could hardly stand. “To see that same family a few weeks later, healthy, well-dressed and setting off for a new life in the United States was an extraordinary experience.”
To map the long and winding road of Shashi Tharoor, from a young boy in Mumbai to UNHCR chief to a new life in new India as the two-time (and counting) MP from Thiruvananthapuram, played out in blaring headlines, is no less an extraordinary tale; the great Indian story of a different kind of survivor.