Mixed Media: Holy cow! Minister in world’s largest democracy gets rapped for wisecrack tweet

That Congress leaders asking for the sack of Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor for a controversial tweet is unfortunate. While statements on public forums like Twitter and social networks are liable for scrutiny, it’s important for political parties to be democratic and allow for a free exchange of views, writes Pradyuman Maheshwari.

e4m by Pradyuman Maheshwari
Updated: Sep 22, 2009 8:48 AM
Mixed Media:  Holy cow! Minister in world’s largest democracy gets rapped for wisecrack tweet

So should Shashi Tharoor have been rubbished by the Congress in the way he was last week? The Minister of State for External Affairs is fortunate he didn’t get the sack the way Jaswant Singh did not too long ago.

Tharoor is new to New Delhi politics, but not to public life. He ought to know that political parties in India expect its members to toe the line of its masters. The self-styled leaders are arrogant, do not appreciate humour, are full of themselves and can’t take any criticism. Oh, well, such people exist in the media too, but then we have the choice of dumping the publication, channel or website.

And for not following the rules of the house that he lives in, I think Tharoor asked for the rap. His reply to a question by Kanchan Gupta, Associate Editor of The Pioneer, if he would travel economy given the Congress’s austerity drive, could’ve been a simple “Yes, of course”. But Tharoor, writer, humanitarian and whatever else he is, chose a smart line instead. Gupta’s question was: “Tell us Minister, next time you travel to Kerala, will it be cattle class?” And Tharoor’s response: “absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!”

While what the man who couldn’t be UN secretary general said was indeed innocuous, it mustn’t be seen in isolation. The Minister – in search of privacy and a good gym – stayed in a five star hotel and not the several service apartments available with ease in the Capital. This may have been paid for by his fairly healthy savings, and although there was no austerity drive announced when the current UPA regime took charge, am sure he could’ve put the monies to better use. Also, other than a very basic apology, there was no remorse on part of the man. Jacob Joseph, his officer on special duty, was allowed to run amuck, retweeting anti-Congress posts and taking on spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan.

Tharoor tried to defend himself by tweeting: “Learned belatedly of fuss over my tweet replying to journo’s query whether i wld travel to Kerala in "cattle class".

His phrase “which i rptd”. Agreed he repeated it, but the usage of cattle class in his original reply was not under quotes as he did in his defence. Also, what’s objectionable to the few Congress members I spoke with is his reference to the biggies in the party as holy or sacred cows and OSD Jacob retweeting nasties, and thereby indicating that these were endorsed by him (and hence the Minister). Sample these: On Natarajan: “english humor + outdated indian political spokesmen is a dangerous combo. avoid them! we indians are with you!”. On fellow-ministers: “twittergate is what u get when u have an educated guy in a cabinet of humorless twits”.

So, will I be upset that Tharoor, the Minister, is forced to quit? If I was a Congress loyalist, I would say he deserves to be reprimanded and told that he needs to be more discreet in his tweets. But I am not one and I believe there is a larger issue here: we are the world’s largest democracy and boast of our democratic policies and secular fabric, so why can’t our political parties be democratic and ease up a bit and allow for a fair exchange of views?

It required a progressive wise man like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to ask people not to fuss over a joke, but uncrowned prince and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi approved the acts of the noisemakers by saying whatever had to be said was said by the party members. It’s pointless even paying heed to BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy’s call from the PM to either apologise for Tharoor’s statement or sack him. For, by doing what it did to Jaswant Singh for his book on Jinnah, the BJP has lost its case of a party that can lead modern India.

There are other lessons here. Twitter may be a microblogging platform and facilitates free speech and an opportunity to express oneself on a variety of issues, but it’s a public forum. Unlike the electronic or print media, where you can say you were misquoted, no such luxuries here.

It’s critical that all of us who are active in the new media and networking platforms must be careful in what we write. For each and every bit of it is up for scrutiny and could be said to represent the views of the organisation one is associated with. I’ve been through much legal hell with my views on certain media organisations on a now-defunct blog. When I took the views of some top-flight legal talent, I was told in no uncertain terms that every word expressed in public can invite legal action.

I was forced to drop the idea of blogging on the media.

I hope Tharoor doesn’t get cowed down with all the stones being hurled at him. Puhleez continue tweeting, Mr T. Just rein in Jacob, will you?

(The views expressed above are personal. Post your comments below or email mixedmedia@exchange4media.com or tweet me at @pmahesh.)

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