Mani-Talk: Will The Real Shashi Tharoor, Please Stand Up?

Published: June 07, 2014 00:34 IST
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(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)

Of the 44 Congress MPs elected to the Lok Sabha, the most highly educated is undoubtedly Shashi Tharoor. His IQ is way ahead of any other Congress MP. His good looks have left armadas of women swooning in his wake. When he brushes his mop of hair from his impressively high forehead, and lights up his charming smile, men roll back in wonder. He writes with matchless skill. He speaks even more impressively, in a voice as deep as Amitabh Bachhan's and with eloquence as fluent and witty as Winston Churchill's. Indeed, the first time I heard him, which was his 125th anniversary address to our common alma mater, I walked up to him to say, "That was a better speech than any even I have ever made - or could ever make!"

When, therefore, the Congress picked him to be one their candidates from his home state of Kerala for the 2009 elections, it was a political coup of sorts. We were to get in our ranks one who had made his name at the highest echelons of the UN, one who had had more international leaders eating out of his hands than Sushma Swaraj is likely to encounter as Foreign Minister.

Inevitably, and notwithstanding his being a rookie MP, he was named immediately after his convincing win to the glamorous, high-profile post of Minister of State for External Affairs and given the responsibility for more than half the world: West Asia, Africa, Latin America. He brought all his abundant energy to becoming perhaps the most peripatetic minister the MEA has ever seen, clocking up flying returns at a mind-swirling pace. Then came the denouement of the IPL cricketing scandal, and the Government felt obliged to put its blue-eyed boy on the back-burner to escape the singeing it might otherwise have got. But as soon as the heat died down, Shashi was back, perhaps not in his natural fortress of South Block but in charge of the UPA's flagship programme, the Right to Education Act.

Then, notwithstanding simmering public doubts over the tragic death of his warm, gregarious wife Sunanda, he was selected again for Thiruvananthapuram, where he won a handsome victory over the BJP veteran, O Rajagopalan, the Left being left far behind, a straggler. With two successive resounding victories behind him, Tharoor returned to the Congress benches in Parliament invested with the highest hopes of his party that he would prove himself a doughty warrior at the nadir to which the party has sunk.

Instead, a mere 10 days after the new Government was sworn in, and long before it begins to be sworn at, Tharoor has poured encomiums on the new Prime Minister that even the most ardent of BJP supporters might have been too embarrassed to proclaim quite so fulsomely - an abhisek of the like that Raja Rajarajendra Chola arranged for the Nandi at the Brihadeeswara temple he built in Thanjavur!

Modi, it seems, has emerged in a mere 100 hours as an "avatar of modernity and inclusiveness". Why did this not occur to Tharoor earlier? This is exactly what Modi had been saying of himself right through the election campaign, that his programme was "development" and that this would include all 125 crore Indians. If Tharoor was going to be taken in by such unctuousness immediately after the campaign ended, why not while the campaign was on? Then, Tharoor could have replaced Rajagopalan and emerged today as a top BJP minister. So, will the real Tharoor please stand up? The proto-Tharoor who lambasted Modi and the BJP till but a fortnight ago? Or the deutero-Tharoor that finds so much virtue in the other man within a week of his investiture as PM?

What did Tharoor expect? That Modi would unleash a pogrom on the morning after? That he would ban ziarat at Ajmer sharif? That he would abolish the Ministry of Minority Affairs or call it the Ministry of Appeasement? (Although giving it to Najma Heptullah is, perhaps, the same thing). That he would abolish Parliament and declare himself Absolute? Of course, Modi will not reveal his ulterior motives on walking into 7, Race Course Road. He will await his Godhra moment, just as Hitler needed his Reichstag moment to befool his Parliament into giving him the Enabling Act which enabled Hitler to institute his one-man rule. How can so dyed-in-the wool a Hindutivist (remember his comparing the victims of the 2002 riots to puppies that come under the wheels of a car?) so suddenly emerge as a Nehruvian secularist? Is Modi 2.0 a caterpillar turned into a butterfly? Has he left his ideological baggage, accumulated over a life-time, in the attic of his Ahmedabad home?

For a man as bright as Tharoor to not ask himself whether Modi has undergone a lobotomy in the week of his inaugurations is bewildering. Does he seriously imagine that this mendicant pracharak, who abandoned his child-wife and lonely mother in adolescence, did it all as a lark and is no more serious about Hindutva than Tharoor is as a Congressman? Can a leopard change its spots like some quick-change artistes the Congress has allowed to sneak into its ranks? What is this "modernity" and "inclusiveness" that Tharoor sees? Is it not exactly what Modi preached as the "Gujarat development model"? That model is 12 years old. Its flaws are 12 years old. The same Tharoor who presumably pointed to the flaws of the model in his campaign speeches (I don't know for certain if he did for I speak no Malayalam and was as busy losing my election in neighbouring Tamil Nadu as he was busy winning his). But assuming he, like all Congressmen, examined the Gujarat model and found it wanting, what has got him believing that the worst excesses of crony capitalism that the Modi model comprises will not be replicated from Delhi? One estimate has it that each Nano includes a generous support of Rs 60,000 from the government, banks and people of Gujarat; that land acquired for a rupee a square yard was so abundantly made available to a big business house who sold the surplus at more than Rs 700 a square yard; that at the Hazira Special Industrial Zone, the tiniest enterprises were allotted land at 700-800 times the rate charged from the largest industrial houses; that the callous displacement of tribals in the interest of the fat cats led to 76 per cent of those displaced being tribal people in a state where the tribals' share of the population is a mere 8 per cent?

The renowned Gujarati economist, YK Alagh, former head of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand has shown that agricultural growth has averaged nearer 6 per cent than the claimed 10 per cent, and even this is on account of the Sardar Sarovar dam sanctioned by Rajiv Gandhi and financed by the Narasimha Rao government after the World Bank withdrew support on account of Medha Patkar's Narmada Bachao Andolan. And how the project, fortuitously for Modi, came on stream the year he became CM. How can agricultural productivity not increase when water for the first time ever flows into parched and arid wastes? Or even how the growth rate of SDP was faster under previous Gujarat regimes, as also several other states in contemporary times, even as human development indices under Modi stagnated at about 15th position of all Indian States?

Being taken in by Modi's promises for the future that belie his track-record of the past is not what is expected of an alert Opposition. Tharoor's statements and clarifications have reduced the strength of the Congress in the Lok Sabha from 44 to 43. We shall struggle on.

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