Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fishy Tharoor

A blog post cross-posted from

Among the "high profile" candidates in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, much touted and vaunted by the media is the former career diplomat, Shashi Tharoor. Tharoor, a prolific writer of fiction and commentaries, spent nearly three decades in the United Nations; infact his final "claim to fame" vis-a-vis the UN was his bid to become the secretary general of the organisation. He lost the bid to Ban Ki Moon of South Korea.

It is clear that the suave and articulate former diplomat has been fielded by the Congress to present an educated and "modern" representative for the United Democratic Front in an urban constituency -the capital of India's most literate state, Kerala. It is the "modern" part that is going to come under some scrutiny in this blog write-up. Called into question would be some of Shashi Tharoor's own writing - most of which qualifies as "Indo-nostalgic" - a term that I borrowed from good old Wikipedia.

About seven years ago, Tharoor wrote an article in the International Herald Tribune describing his visit to two high profile places in South India - Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh and Bangalore. In the former, Tharoor visits the complex hosted by that godman, "Satya Sai Baba". In the latter, Tharoor pays a visit to the uber-modern campus of Infosys Technologies at Electronics City.

Tharoor is impressed by both visits - about the former, he writes glowingly about the "miracles" conjured by the host baba, who "materialises" a ring from thin air for his guest. About the latter, he is impressed at the swanky structures built in Bangalore by the Infosys proprietors. He goes on to call these "facets of 21st century India", suggesting the juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, applauding the baba for his spiritual and material public service and Infosys for its efforts to bring high end technology to India.

Lets delve on the Baba story a bit. Tharoor was rightly upbraided by rationalists for his glowing terms of reference to the charlatan at Puttaparthi. Tharoor's later response was to suggest that he was skeptical about the "conjuring acts" and that goes without saying within the article. I will try to give him the benefit of doubt. But a similar bit of writing elsewhere by him, makes it difficult for me to do so.

Tharoor, in his book, India - from midnight to millennium ( a rather second grade book, if you ask me), writes about the "Ganesha drinking milk" "phenomenon". Diligent recent affairs followers would remember the national frenzy that this "thing" (for want of a better word) created - scores of idols of the Hindu god Ganesh "drinking milk" poured in through teaspoons by devotees. Tharoor was witness to one such "demonstration" in Houston, Texas, right about the same time when the frenzy was being whipped up in India. He notices a terra-cotta statue of Ganesh drinking milk through the capillary way and points at the devotion of those engaged in this exercise. The quotable bit is his conclusions, this: "Ganesh drank willingly from her extended spoon" - lets say he was waxing poetic here and this: "I was prepared to believe a fully rational explanation for the event, but i was equally willing to accept that a miracle might have occured, one not readily susceptible to the demystification of scientists" - uh oh.

In other words, Tharoor is willing to let obscurantism co-exist with rationalism, as hey, 'cos what harm does it do, eh (in Manhattan lingo)? Lets get back to that charlatan bit. Tharoor emphatically says that the baba should not be reduced to a "conjuror", as "he has channeled the hopes and energies of his followers into constructive directions, both spiritual and philanthropic". And then he juxtaposes the charlatan with India's new economy giant, as "emblematic of an India that somehow manages to live in several centuries at once". In other words, Tharoor is willing to accept the legerdemain of the charlatan for his side effects - his "channeling" and thus continues in the same vein as his book - the co-existence of obscurantism and rationalism (surely which brought about the birth of computers, IT and indeed, India's new economy boom).

I need not go into the gobbledygook that the charlatan baba generates. He is a cheap trickster, there is no doubt. But importantly one has to question this nonsensical assertion of the charlatan's piety which is brought out by the gushing praise of the public services "work" of him and his followers. It is true that the followers of the trickster have helped build hospitals and bring in drinking water to parched areas of south India. But isn't it also true that these are services that are essentially to be brought about by the state? Isn't that what Article 37 of the Constitution (the directive principles of State Policy) for e.g. suggests - "The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purpose of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health."

The Constitution, that affirms in the preamble that India is a "secular" republic is itself an incarnation of modernity which mid-wived through enlightenment overcomes obscurantism and fosters rationalism. But that is not the main point I am driving at. The point is that by channeling the energies of citizens - guileless gullible miracle-worshippers and many guileful folks who seek an instrumental reason in association with other "high and mighty" - through obscurantist techniques and usurping the place of the state in delivering services, the charlatan is only furthering the gullibility of the people and the cause of the "high and mighty" who follow him. He ensures that these citizens who are equal partakers of the state, do not question the laxity of its custodians and consequently reduce the efficacy of its functioning as they are satisfied by the services rendered by a fake miracle-monger and ascribe the benefits of such services to divinity.

A modern secular, rational human being will in no way endorse obscurantism even if it has an instrumental value. In the case of the Baba,this instrumental value - provision of essential services - only furthers ignorance and further obscurantism, as the believers refuse to get out of their ignorance because of the benefits that they receive out of it. A sensitised public who are aware of the "domain of rights" and the "rule of law" in a democracy would assure those services through the aegis of the state and would not be subject to the whimsical bogus miracle-mongering of a con artist.

In essence, Shashi Tharoor's effusive praise of the juxtaposing of obscurantism and rationalism will only be a curse on and an impediment to the eventual filtering of rationality and modernity, two important features that translate into a greater civic consciousness.

Moving on to more Tharoorism. Tharoor is widely acclaimed for his "precocious" work as a diplomat, who became one at a fairly early age and after a quick PhD at Tufts School of Diplomacy. The case for having an accomplished diplomat in parliament is obvious, especially in a context, where diplomatic skills are a premium in these days of attacks of terrorism such as the Mumbai incidents on 26th November, 2008. It is therefore apt to study what our diplomat-candidate had to offer during those days of public discourse on the response to the incidents from India. Lets have a look at what Tharoor wrote in the Haaretz in the aftermath of the incidents. Tharoor uses false equivalence, comparing the attacks on Mumbai by terrorists originating from Pakistan with rocket attacks from the Hamas based in Gaza (note Tharoor never mentions the "beleaguered" Hamas and the "blockaded Gaza). He suggests that the Indian establishment (and I suspect himself) is envious of the abilities of the Isrealis to take punitive action against its adversaries, while it is not able to do so. And in making that argument, Tharoor blissfully ignores the contours of the conflict in Palestine, the history of Israeli aggression, the torment faced by the Palestinians and the continuing illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. In effect, as journalist focusing on West Asia, Marian Houk argues in his blogpost,

"One of Shashi Tharoor’s main flaws is that he never understood what is going on in the Middle East, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he saw it to his advantage, in the interest of his career advancement, to pander to one side, the one with the most power and influence … and that is a classic, though profoundly immoral, way to behave."

How about Tharoor's other credentials? Tharoor, is an advisor to the Coca Cola India Foundation Yatn, a corporate social responsibility project of the Coca Cola company. Yes, the very same Coca Cola company whose plant in Plachimada in Kerala is currently shut down because the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB ) has refused to issue the "Consent to Operate" to the company, owing to the high levels of polluting content (cadmium) in Coca Cola's sludge and in the groundwater in and around the water plant. An argument can be made that Tharoor is not to be blamed for the company itself, as his associations are only to the effect of advising on social responsibility projects by the company. But interestingly, Tharoor responding to critics who questioned this association, went on to whitewash the charges against the Plachimada plant by suggesting that he is "unable to understand the scientific basis for your continued charges against the company, and can only conclude that they are politically-motivated". Funnily, he quotes the reports on Plachimada by KSPCB which has indeed shut down the plant because of its findings. As this rather dubious letter by Tharoor suggests, he is willing to juxtapose corporate pollution of natural resources with corporate generated employment.

We surely don't want a obscurantist who clothes himself in modernity, do we? We surely don't want a diplomat in the legislature who is a careerist pandering to the influential, do we? We don't want an apologist for corporate damage to natural resources, do we?

Shashi Tharoor might see reason in juxtaposing obscurantism with modernity or Israel with India or corporate environmental pillage with corporate generated employment. This writer sees no reason in juxtaposing a former diplomat with mediocre views and a tendency to "pander to the influential", with the image of a member of parliament in India's most literate state.


Kenney Jacob said...

hmmm so from among the 5 whom do we vote for ? Any suggestions ?

Srinivasan Ramani said...

That is your choice, Kenney. It is my job as a journalist to point out Shashi Tharoor's failings. Best of luck.

Kenney Jacob said...

How about using your journalistic skills to point out the failures of the other 4 ?

People throw stones only at a tree with fruits.

Srinivasan Ramani said...

I am not a Trivandrum resident to know about the failings of your other representative-claimants. I know more about Tharoor through his writings and work.

I believe that fruits fall from trees because of gravity. You should ask that question to Shashi Tharoor.. He might see the "baba's hand" in it and would be willing to believe both in the baba and in Newton.

With "trees" such as Shashi Tharoor who needs weeds of obscurantism?

Anshul Trivedi said...

Srinivasan ... I agree with you on the obscurantist part, but almost every Indian politician is like that ... As it is, "if" he wins, and that is a big if, he'll just be a member of parliament... he'll be better qualified than the Pappu Yadavs and the Priya Dutts... Don't you think people won't bother about this facet of his personality as most of them are devout Hindus-Christians themselves. Its about delivering on the constituency level. On the matter of his stand on Israel, I think the Indian ruling elite don't really have problems with it, condemnable as it may be, we are their number one arms customers. It is only the Left that takes principled objection to Israel's excesses. I think you are a bit too harsh on this guy... and giving him too much importance...

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Dear Anshul,

From my writing here and elsewhere, you will notice that I have as much contempt for the Priya Dutts and the Priya Ranjan Munshis as much for other incompetent folks out there who win elections and become undeserved representatives of the people. My writing on Shashi Tharoor is not meant to target him alone, but to critique a much-vaunted candidate for a major national party. Just because Tharoor's beliefs and his actions are no better than the general rut that constitutes India's legislatures, doesn't mean that those beliefs and actions will remain unquestioned. It is not therefore a matter of "harshness" or giving too much importance.

keralafarmer said...

"The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purpose of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health."
How the nutrition level can be raised?
Through chemical pesticides and fertilizers. How the ground water of Plachimada contaminated? Is their any responsibility for farmers to increase the the level? The label of Foreign Liquor also explains Drinking is injurious to health.
Did you know the BSP candidate of Trivandrum who blamed by female IAS officials?
We the people last time elected Panniyan Raveendran who don't know English and Hindi. Was he suitable as an MP.
If you are analyzing as a journalist you have to analyze all the candidate. So that common people will get a choice whom to Vote.
If not the people will decide their whom to Vote.
Did you know the issues of PDP support to LDF? Did you know the issues on Lavalin related issues? These are also good subject for a journalist.
Thank you
A Farmer from Kerala.

Mohan Kannanthodath said...

An indepth analyses of a fraction of what Tharoor has written. Good work from an academic point of view.

From the view of influencing people's decision for and against a personality I think your blogging should be more comprehensive. I agree Tharoor is 'Indostalgic'....but there is one common thread he maintains in any comment he makes about India, and that is the 'Pluralism' in India. His cliched example of Abdul Kalam , a muslim President, swearing in a Sikh Prime Minister, whose party is headed by a Roman Catholic in a country where 80% are what I guess he was trying to portray on the glimpses of Infosys and Puttaparthi.

I am not a big fan of the God Man either, but I have nothing against a person not disrespecting a God man since our country allows its so.

In front of Tharoor all other choices were anyways hopeless, so there is no point even debating on that.

I liked your view on the State's responsibility vs the onus what the God Men are taking. I would request somebody with your journalistic skill to write a separate blog on this, it would be a good read. I thought your views on that was a good take away for me in this blog.