Shashi Tharoor at Leading Edge 2019 on being an educated Indian politician

Shashi Tharoor made his comic debut at Leading Edge, where he delivered a humorous session on ‘the perils of being an educated politician’

RA Chandroo

Tongue firmly in cheek, we asked MP from Thiruvananthapuram, author and former UN Diplomat Dr Shashi Tharoor to talk about ‘the perils of being an educated politician’, at Outlook Business Leading Edge 2019 held in Mumbai recently. It was meant to be a humorous interlude in the otherwise grim discussion on the slowdown, and he obliged. Of course, by then he had shot his stand-up act “One Mic Stand” for Amazon Prime.

One of the largest perils he has faced, it seemed, came from the lack of humour in our political discourse. “There is a solemnity there,” he said, “though we have had leaders like Mahatma Gandhi who were impish.” Tharoor quoted two instances to illustrate.

Gandhi was once asked by a journalist, “what do you think of western civilisation”, and he replied, “I think it is a good idea”. Another time, the leader of the freedom movement was invited for tea with Queen Mary and King George V, and was asked if his dhoti and sandals were too scanty a dress to meet the royals. He replied, with a straight face: “But the King was wearing enough for the both of us.” Even Jawaharlal Nehru, who Tharoor thinks is one of the best political minds and writers we have had, was privately believed to be a charming and entertaining dinner companion but he rarely showed that side of himself in his books and letters. “We have this expectation that our politicians must be deadly serious and, I am afraid, that is a test I failed too often,” he said.

In 2009, there was the infamous ‘cattle class’ tweet that the MP had posted. Tharoor said that he had no idea that his remark poking fun at the airline had caused such outrage till 23 hours later, when he landed in Liberia, when panicky calls from Delhi informed him “the proverbial dung had hit the proverbial fan”. People called for his resignation and he was in a state of disbelief. “Finally, after four days of front-page news, the prime minister (Manmohan Singh) had to say, for god’s sake, it was only a joke,” recalled Tharoor. The storm did die down but he learnt that innovation and intruders are not welcome in Indian politics.

Another peril of being an educated politician, he said, was that “there was absolutely no intellectual satisfaction in the bulk of the things one is required to do.”

95% of the time people come and ask MPs to do things for them, that in any Western democracy, no MP or Senator or Congressmen would do because they would be considered unethical. “People come to you saying, get my son a job, arrange a transfer for my daughter or we have taken this loan and we cannot afford to pay it back, so talk to the bank and get them to waive it or get easier terms… It is these personal favours one after the other and MPs are judged by their ability to deliver on these,” he said. But this is not what he had imagined he would do when he got into politics. Tharoor then made peace with having to play by the rules set by his predecessors and forget all the ideals he had drawn from western democracies.

Dr Tharoor said that when he turned down a request from one of his voters, an aide was horrified. He told Tharoor “no Kerala politician says no… you simply have to agree to all demands made and fulfill it with all the sincerity you can muster.” He then told the new MP a story about a chief minister who was asked to write a letter to former US president Bill Clinton, asking him to meet this constituent. “If I had been asked to do it, I would have refused saying that it was stupid, I am not going to do it, Bill Clinton is going to think I am an idiot. But the Kerala CM knew that what a US president thought of him mattered far, far less than what his voter would think of him… so he wrote the letter and I am sure it never reached Bill Clinton, but he had won the loyalty and allegiance of that particular voter,” said the leader.

As an MoS, in the External Affairs and later the Human Resource Development ministry, Tharoor was frustrated by how little he could do. “I tweeted one day, that being an MoS is like standing in a cemetery. There are many people under you, but nobody is listening… It summed up my experience of the ministerial office, that there is very little you can do when all the authority is concentrated in the hands of the cabinet minister.” He cautioned aspirants for a governmental role: “If you come in with a track record of administration, diplomacy or whatever, and if you think you can transfer that seamlessly to a governmental environment where the rules are different, you have got another thing coming.”

As an opposition member in 2014, when his party had depleted numbers in the Parliament, he experienced the fault lines of our governance system. “This system is what we have copied from the British and it is peculiar British perversion, to elect a legislature to form an executive,” he said, adding that this “betrays the principle of separation of powers.” When you form the government with a brute majority, you really do not care if your policies or laws make sense because your party members are going to vote for your proposal anyway. With the anti-defection law, no MP can vote according to his or her conscience, he said. When a bill is brought to vote, in our system, every MP is expected to toe the party line. If an MP wanted to vote otherwise, he or she could be expelled from the party and even from the Parliament under the law. “After all the trouble and expenses they have taken to get elected to the Parliament, very, very few issues are going to prompt someone to stand up and risk losing his or her seat in order to take a position of principle,” he said.

There is little scope for debate on laws. Unlike western democracies, he said, politicians do not really write the laws. Bureaucrats do that and they are discussed in the Cabinet and brought to the House. “The actual discussion on the floor of the bill tends to have no impact on the bill,” he said. Though he added that, when a standing committee is asked to review you a bill, then politicians debate on it extensively.

His talk ended with a sincere interaction with the audience, where the political leader who carries the burden of humour made every attempt to lighten the mood.