Most mandarins of the ministry of external affairs (MEA), including minister of state Shashi Tharoor, are housed in the South Block building, just downhill from Rashtrapati Bhavan, atop Raisina Hill.
Access to Tharoor — a one-time candidate for the post of UN secretary general—at the ministry, if one should get an appointment, lies past an assortment of guards in a multitude of uniforms and an X-ray machine. And finally, through a frisking station and metal detector manned by guards hand-picked for unfriendliness. Only to then get lost in the maze that is the MEA. Even the ministry’s website calls the building “an intricate labyrinth of vaulted staircases and high-ceiling passages”.
Click here to watch video
Which is why Twitter is a blessing for anyone trying to figure out what the real Tharoor is like. The micro-blogging service reveals that minister Tharoor is not averse to a mango, a pun and — brace yourself — both at once.
His tweet at 10.37am on 10 June: “Having lived abroad in places without Indian mangoes, have literally become aam aadmi this year, or at least aam ka aadmi —eat 6 a day!”
Indeed, in the week before Tharoor’s “Special Officer” Jacob Joseph Puthenparambil confirmed an interview slot, much had been made in the media about Tharoor’s Twitter activity. One commentator had gone so far as to say that his 140-character updates could leak ministry secrets.
“He will never tweet anything sensitive. Only what is in the public domain will be posted on Twitter!” Puthenparambil says dismissively when questioned about the allegation (when Tharoor was in Dubai on a brief visit last month, the UAE’s minister for foreign trade, Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid al Qasimi, welcomed him as “Minister Twitter”).
Statesman: Tharoor occupies an office that once belonged to K.R. Narayanan and Vinod Khanna. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
From the outside, the minister’s office looks like any other in the vast complex. Inside, however, the room is bathed in the diffused golden glow of five-star hotel lobbies. Neatly arranged hard-bound volumes line the rows of the large bookshelf to one side. Many of the books have the name of one or the other member of the Gandhi family on the spine—by Nehru, about Rajiv, etc. We spot no copies of the minister’s own 11 books, published over 27 years.
But before there is time to get overwhelmed, Tharoor rushes out of his chair, around his large desk, and reaches out to shake hands. With the ease of someone who has occupied the office for years, and not just a few weeks, he ushers us into a meeting area in the corner. Even as I fiddle with the buttons on my audio recorder,Puthenparambil is already casting disapproving glances at a watch and then a printout of Tharoor’s schedule.
One of the most striking things in Tharoor’s writings is his concept of India. It pervades his work. But given the fact that he has spent so much time living and working outside India, where does he get this concept of India from?
“The origin of that concept is simply to be the son of two Keralites, born in London, brought up in Bombay, high school in Calcutta, college in Delhi and annual visits for at least a month to a remote village in Kerala. That gives you a pan-Indianness straight off,” Tharoor says.
There is a popular India analogy in Tharoor’s recent book, The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India in the 21st Century: “If America is a melting pot, then to me, India is a thali—a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.”
It is an analogy that sounds hopelessly romantic. I ask Tharoor if the real world of Indian politics has room for such romanticism. Surely his experiences while campaigning, as a Congressman and now as minister, must have infused a little cynicism? Tharoor pauses to think (later, I realize that while he is garrulous on the subject of the UN, his books and his career, Tharoor is much more measured, less intuitive when talking of his political party and his peers in the Lok Sabha. He doesn’t quite suffix the sycophantic “ji” to every name he utters, but there is no mistaking the careful choice of words).
He finally says: “The process of politics breeds a certain sense of cynicism. For instance, I’ve seen how people use identity politics to drive their own agenda. But while going out and campaigning, I did find myself speaking to leaders of various communities. Conscious that their word carried some weight. That is politics. You can’t dismiss these basic natures of… our… our reality.”
Earlier, while we were waiting in his spartan office, Puthenparambil narrated anecdotes about Tharoor’s campaign. Including a rumour that Tharoor was a “Zionist” Israeli spy. Fortunately, the campaign team found an old UN photo of Tharoor with Yasser Arafat. Copies were circulated and the crisis averted.
All through the day, several MEA officials troop in and out of Puthenparambil’s office. Prominent in this ebb and flow is G.S. Babu, a Congressman from Thiruvananthapuram and a rare member of the local cadre who supported Tharoor’s candidacy when it was announced.
Babu’s job now is to shuttle between Thiruvananthapuram and New Delhi and report on developments. Today, he’s dressed in a starched white khadi shirt and dhoti, with gold-rimmed spectacles and bloodshot eyes (they look like he’d had a glass too many of toddy for lunch but Puthenparambil assures us that “Babu is a genuinely Gandhian Congress worker”).
When I ask him about Tharoor’s campaign, Babu proudly narrates how the minister had to earn every single vote. “There were a lot of leaders who were sceptical. There were so many senior leaders who have been working for the Congress in Thiruvananthapuram for many years. So naturally, many of them became upset when the candidacy was given to a new fellow.”
So then how did Tharoor win with the largest margin from the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat in around three decades?
Babu credits the victory to two factors. The first is the crack team of NRIs, who flew down to work on the campaign. A campaign website, a Facebook page and the Twitter stream were all ideas generated by this team. Puthenparambil explains one of their more novel schemes: “We knew there was no point in doing SMS campaigns. People would just delete it. So we got Tharoor to record an audio message on the campaign trail right in the middle of a noisy street. We then dialled up eight lakh people and played out the recording. Many thought it was Tharoor really speaking in Malayalam to them—live.”
Puthenparambil, who owns a trade magazine publishing firm in Germany and is a co-founder of the popular Mutiny.in group blog, is one such NRI—one of the many fans and supporters Tharoor has gathered in the course of book tours and lectures. After the election victory, most of them returned to their workplaces. But Tharoor asked Jacob, as he has come to be known in ministry circles, to come back and continue working as something of an executive assistant.
At well over 6ft, Puthenparambil is by far the tallest person we spot in South Block. Yet when he sits down at his table, the pile of files on it easily reaches his eye level. “I don’t even know what half of these are!” sighs Puthenparambil, thumping the top file with a flat palm in a rare moment of levity. Otherwise, he relentlessly races from room to room or juggles phones (all five of them—Puthenparambil alone has two landlines, three BlackBerrys and one iPhone. Both minister and special officer share the handsets and “there is a Twitter client installed on all of them”, we are told).
But even more critical to Tharoor’s win than the NRI muscle flown in, says Babu, was the second factor: the candidate’s personality. Babu says that the minister is a rare mix of pandithyam and lalithyam.
Victor: Tharoor overcame party indifference and relentless mud-slinging to win in Thiruvananthapuram.
The first word is Malayalam for scholarship. The second word is less straightforward. It could mean simplicity, or childishness. But Babu, you sense, uses it to mean innocence and a complete lack of ulterior motive: “He is so impressive with his knowledge and his books. But when you meet him in person, he is so simple and down to earth. He has this ability to draw people to him and make them like him in just 15, 20 seconds... If you met him you would vote for him.”
In short, Babu says, Tharoor outlasted rumour campaigns, dissension and industrial-strength mud-slinging. Instead, he convinced most voters that he was a native, a Thiruvananthapuramkaran—in reality, Tharoor is more a native of Palakkad, half a state away from the capital. But Puthenparambil clarifies that Tharoor wanted to contest all along from the “capital of his state”.
I ask Tharoor if he carries any UN baggage to the Lok Sabha. What do other MPs expect of him? Is he the smart alec from the UN?
“I can’t tell you what people are expecting of me. You should ask them. But my life and career has been an open book. In fact, 11 open books. And I hope the books indicate a consistent and…humane vision. There is no secret about the value and principles with which I conduct myself.”
“Beyond that I need to adapt. I am not sure the approach I used in New York 10 years ago or in Bosnia 15 years ago should be used in South Block today. But now, I am an insider in the ministry. I will be guided by the ministry’s positions on various things.”
His words are carefully chosen. As the saying goes: You can take the diplomat out of diplomacy but not vice versa. This is clearly evident in Tharoor’s past actions. The minister is not one to potter about letting precedents guide him on what to do. It is probably just a matter of time before he plants his personal stamp on proceedings. On 18 June, newspapers reported that Congressmen in Thiruvananthapuram had complained to the party leadership. Apparently their MP was too “unilateral”—he does too much without consulting anyone.
Even more revealing of his working style is a quote by Tharoor in a landmark interview he gave at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, US, just over 10 years ago. Tharoor spoke to Harry Kreisler, currently the director of the institute, about a variety of topics, from diplomacy to writing.
In response to a question about how he dealt with difficult bureaucracies, Tharoor said, “I have been able to get things achieved, to bend certain rules, to even help some people on the quiet with the connivance of government officials in ways that no non-governmental organization would be able to do.”
No doubt, the local Congressmen in Thiruvananthapuram have an exciting five years to look forward to with their “unilateral” MP.
One of his first breaks from tradition occurred when Tharoor attended a bloggers and Twitter meet in Delhi after his victory. A star-struck audience of around 50 listened to Tharoor talk of politics, campaigning, the UN and “the gol gappe in Delhi”. It was yet another example of Tharoor’s ability to assimilate into any environment—UN, Thiruvananthapuram, Lok Sabha or a bloggers meet.
What is remarkable about Tharoor’s UN career is his rise through the ranks, starting as an entry-level junior officer to being the potential secretary general—all in the span of 30 years (had Tharoor won the race for the top post, he would have been the youngest ever secretary general).
Youngest, fastest, smartest—the adjectives are often associated with Tharoor. “I was blessed with an ability to give exams well,” Tharoor says. As a student, he topped in every class except, and he remembers this distinctly, class VIII: “My parents almost died. It was like the world had ended.”
Tharoor credits a lot of his academic achievement to the incessant pressure his parents piled on him (his father, Chandran Tharoor, worked in various positions and locations for The Statesman newspaper and his mother was a housewife). In a May 2006 interview with the New York Sun newspaper, Tharoor said: “I wouldn’t recommend it to my own twin sons… I never enjoyed a normal adolescence.”
When I remind him of the quote, he tells me how he’s never put any pressure on his sons Ishaan and Kanishk. The 25-year-olds (Ishaan is older by 3 minutes), born of Tharoor’s first marriage to journalist Tillotama Mukherji, are writers with Time magazine and the Open Democracy foundation in the UK, respectively. Tharoor married Christa Giles, a UN employee, in 2007.
When Tharoor senior opted for the humanities over science, his parent relented, but later urged him to graduate in economics and then do an MBA. “At least become a businessman, if not a doctor or engineer,” he reminisces.
Balancing act: Tharoor during a thulabharam at Guruvayoor temple in Kerala. He donated his body’s weight worth of plantains to the temple. PTI
Tharoor got admission to the Indian Institutes of Management in Ahmedabad and Kolkata, but once again did his own thing by joining the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, US, on a scholarship. By the time he had left Fletcher at 22—an age when most people are contemplating an MBA as back-up just in case the Infosys offer doesn’t come through—he had two master’s degrees and one PhD (his doctoral dissertation later became the basis for his first book Reasons of State, published in 1982).
Tharoor wished to join the Indian Foreign Service. But the declaration of Emergency in India put him off. He told Kreisler: “I was getting more and more information about all that was going wrong and how…ordinary poor individual Indians…were being picked up at bazaars and carted off to have their vasectomies done compulsorily... And that was a profoundly disillusioning period.”
So he signed up to join the UN in 1979. In February 2007, Tharoor resigned as under secretary general after Ban Ki-Moon topped the Security Council’s fourth straight straw poll for the secretary general’s post. He left the organization in April. “Ban asked me to stay back in the UN, in positions outside New York. But once you run to lead an organization and it doesn’t happen, I don’t think you should stay back. I’ve never set foot in the UN headquarters since.” Don’t expect him to return any time soon. A few weeks after our interview, it was reported that S.M. Krishna, minister for external affairs, would be India’s representative to the UN.
As our conversation hits a pause, Puthenparambil swoops in to announce that we have only 5 more minutes. He tells a reluctant Tharoor: “We have meetings with joint secretaries and then the maulana also has to be met. We have no more time.”
While our photographer panics and sets up his equipment, Tharoor looks at me—“Does my hair look OK?” And then pops through a door into a rest room. He emerges a few moments later—“OK, I look fine now.” Photography commences.
Later, Puthenparambil begins to rattle off details from Tharoor’s packed schedule. Meetings followed by meetings, the day finally concluding with dinner at an ambassador’s residence. Tharoor nods along and occasionally comments on some minor detail. But unlike Puthenparambil, he is entirely unruffled. The minister has settled in very well indeed.
Outside, the weary-eyed Gandhian Babu echoes Thiruvananthapuram’s hopes: “They’ve never had an MP like him. Bhayankara expectation alle! (There is tremendous expectation).”
It is the fulfilment of something Tharoor said 10 years ago in his interview with Kreisler: “…the writing has helped me to reclaim and reinvent a sense of Indianness…I make no bones about the fact that India matters to me, that I would like to matter to India.”
Outside South Block, a horde of television cameramen and reporters mill around, waiting for the minister. Most want quotes on the racism imbroglio in Australia.
From Thiruvananthapuram to the lawn outside South Block, Shashi Tharoor has now begun to matter to India.