If the twitterati were India’s voting class, then Shashi Tharoor would be the Supreme Leader. A few weeks ago, when Tharoor’s tweet on the government’s visa policies generated much fuss among his ministerial colleagues, I had jocularly tweeted, “Maybe, Tharoor should quit politics and join journalism. He would have greater freedom as an edit page writer than as a neta!” Within minutes, I was hit by an avalanche of angry Tharoor followers on Twitter, suggesting that I had committed the ultimate ‘sin’ by questioning their Twitter icon’s credentials to hold public office.
Unfortunately for Tharoor, his parliamentary constituency of Thiruvananthapuram isn’t quite the Twitter universe while his Congress party workers reserve their adoration for only one Family. Which is why Tharoor the politician is at odds with Tharoor the twitterer. The success of Twitter is built on the idea of having an open and constant conversation among a mix of anonymous and influential people and is designed to bridge social divides. Indian politics, by contrast, thrives on being an exclusive club of the power elite, with minimal contact with the masses. Notions of transparency which the Twitter world claims is its defining badge are alien to those who reside in the forbidding corridors of Lutyens’ Delhi.
The Congress party increasingly resembles a closed shop, with little space for internal debate and dissent. When was the last time we knew what exactly transpired in a Congress working committee meeting? When did a post-election Congress legislature party meeting result in anything other than a one-line message authorising the ubiquitous high command to decide leadership issues. Banal press releases and platitudinous statements are the staple diet of political communication in the Congress.
It’s not just the Congress party which is secretive. The Left is, if anything, even more inclined to stifle internal democracy. Politburo meetings are, by all accounts, an exercise in Soviet-style functioning where no one is allowed to question the prevailing party line. A majority of regional parties are run like tightly-controlled family businesses.
Perhaps, the BJP has been the most ‘open’ of our major political parties, often at some cost to its well-being. Witness a series of public ‘rebellions’ in recent years, the most graphic of which was undoubtedly Uma Bharti’s infamous walk-out from a party meeting in 2004.
Tharoor, of course, faces another peculiar problem. As a first-time MP who has been catapulted into a ministership, he arouses envy and insecurity among his contemporaries. For the many netas waiting in the queue, the fact that a 53-year-old electoral debutante has taken the elevator to political success is enough for them to look for ways to cut him down to size. Lateral entrants are still a novelty in Indian politics: the many years that Tharoor spent as a UN diplomat count for little in the heat and dust of Bharat. An anglicised, accented, foreign-returned Tharoor is almost a caricature for a vast majority of netas who derive their legitimacy by claiming to be genuine desi ‘sons of the soil’.
In a sense, by turning to Twitter, Tharoor is seeking to legitimise himself amongst a constituency he more naturally identifies with: the youthful, urban, English-speaking middle-class. This is the class which uses social networking as a weapon to express its solidarity against a ‘system’ it has lost faith in. Just as a candle has become the preferred symbol of middle class activism, the 140-character limit of Twitter is perfect to express a strong opinion without having to actually get involved in the muck of public life. For this chattering class, which despises the traditional dhoti-kurta politician, Tharoor is a role model: an educated Indian who ‘sacrificed’ professional comfort to plunge into the uncertainty of political life.
As India’s first Twitter hero, one can appreciate why Tharoor feels an urge to reach out to this large constituency. If a Lalu and a Mulayam have their caste alliances, a Rahul has the family name, a Narendra Modi has a Hindutva appeal, for someone like Tharoor with no mass base, Twitter is integral to his brand recognition in the political marketplace.
And yet, there are limits to Twitter power that Tharoor must come to terms with. For a film star like a Shah Rukh Khan or a Priyanka Chopra, being on Twitter adds to their celebrity quotient and perhaps promotes their films. For a journalist like me, Twitter is another means with which to engage with the viewer and share news breaks. Tharoor is neither a glamorous film personality nor is he a journalist. At the end of the day, he is a minister in the government of India, bound by the oath of secrecy and the principle of the ‘collective responsibility’ of the cabinet system. He does not have the same freedom that an ordinary citizen would have in sharing information or expressing an opinion in a public space like Twitter. The opaqueness of the state may infuriate us, but to expect Twitter to effect a radical transformation in government functioning is to overestimate its capacity.
Moreover, Tharoor, in the end, will be judged not by the number of followers he has on Twitter (or for that matter, the number of books he releases), but simply by the work he does for his constituency and his achievements as a minister. For example, as a Minister of State for External Affairs who is responsible for the Gulf region, why doesn’t Tharoor take up the issue of working conditions for migrant workers? A tweet on his actions might earn him more goodwill than telling us who he lunched with!
Post-script: Tharoor and I come from the same school. He has over six lakh followers, I have a little over 30,000. Since Twitter can be one giant ego massage, must confess to being a little envious!
The views expressed by the author are personal