When the author of The Great Indian Novel joined government last year, there were great expectations from him. He was, by our political standards, young; well educated; had prior international civil service experience and, best of all, he was a lateral entrant to the Augean stables of Indian politics.

Yet in less than a year, Shashi Tharoor, one-time contender for the top job at the United Nations (UN), had to part with a second-rung job in India’s ministry of external affairs. What went wrong? As in all such stories gone awry, there was a mix of personal and situational elements.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

At a personal level, he erred badly: His alleged involvement in negotiating a “sweet" equity deal for his friend Sunanda Pushkar in the Kochi Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise undid him. This was not an isolated error of judgement, it betrayed a lack of understanding of how Indian politics works. What matters is not personal probity, but a clear, unadulterated, image of probity.

His problems began much earlier. Since September last year, he indulged in a series of public and quasi-public pronouncements (such as on Twitter) that were perceived as being insensitive or went against the grain of India’s foreign policy positions. These laid the ground for his later exit.

In that sense what Tharoor encountered was, for an outsider, a harsh political environment where much greater and egregious mistakes are tolerated, but violations of political correctness are not. His remark on travelling “cattle class", even if it was in jest, was seized upon by eager north Indian politicians who made much hay out it. There were other, less excusable, errors too.

In the end, it is baffling as to how a person with his experience and understanding could not figure the nuts and bolts of the system. Had he been a rank outsider, with no prior experience in a manipulative environment, his inability to wade his way through the system would have been understandable. His experience at the UN should have taught him the strategic value of silence. But clearly, he left that understanding on the other side of the Atlantic.

Does this episode say anything about the hostility of Indian politics to lateral entrants? Yes and no. Yes, because in any system, sullen hostility of existing players can subvert the best-laid plans and any well-meaning person. No, because one cannot blunder one’s way across any political system, let alone the Byzantine corridors of power in New Delhi.

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