January 24, 2014 00:00
By Nirmala Ganapathy
Shashi Tharoor, known as Minister Twitter for his prolific presence on the microblogging site, has survived many a controversy in his five-year career in Indian politics.
Now, many wonder if it is all over for the suave 57-year-old, who hopes to be re-elected from Thiruvananthapuram, capital of his southern home state of Kerala.
“Politically it has done some damage,” said Jacob Joseph Puthenparambil, a Singapore-based digital communications professional who once served as an aide to Tharoor.
“He was elected because he was seen as an outsider, an academic and a man of polish. That [image] has been severely dented.”
Sunanda Pushkar, his third wife, died in a hotel room of last Friday, with initial post-mortem findings pointing to a drug overdose. She had complained to newspapers about his amorous instincts and vowed to divorce him but later the couple appeared to have reconciled and issued an “all is well” statement.
“His political career hinges on the cause of death,” said former journalist Rashid Kidwai. “Already there is a backlash against him on Twitter and the whispers against him in the party will continue.”
In a country where personal lives of politicians remain out of bounds for the otherwise aggressive media, India had been transfixed by the alleged affair revealed over Twitter by Pushkar, who described herself as “distraught” over it.
Still, some friends are standing by Tharoor.
“Whatever it is, Shashi has worked hard to do good work and that doesn’t change,” author Chetan Bhagat remarked on Twitter before Pushkar died.
From earning a PhD at the age of 23 from Boston’s prestigious Tufts University, to being, at 45, the youngest under-secretary-general of the UN, the good-looking Tharoor has always had a following. Along the way, he authored more than a dozen books.
While he dotes on his twin sons Ishaan and Kanishk – born in Singapore while he served there with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – his personal life swung many ways.
His marriage to college sweetheart Tilottama Tharoor, the mother of his children, ended in divorce. He then married and left another UN staff member, Christa Giles, before marrying Pushkar.
Born in London and schooled in Mumbai and Kolkata, he was a champion debater at Delhi University’s prestigious St Stephen’s College. He credited his academic success to the pressure exerted by his parents, typical of many middle-class households in India.
He joined the UN in 1978 and was posted to Singapore in 1981 at the height of the Vietnamese “boat people” refugee crisis.
His wife Tilottama contributed several articles to Singapore’s Straits Times under the name Minu Tharoor.
“Singapore has had a tremendous impact on the making of me as a UN official, as a human being and above all as a father,” he told the Straits Times in a 2008 interview.
“I came to Singapore as a young man and with a huge responsibility at a very difficult time. There were about 4,400 refugees in the Hawkins Road refugee camp. By the time I left, we had got that number down to under 400. But the individual stories stayed with me,” he added.
The best-known Indian at the UN, he used his persuasive skills to convince Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to back him for the post of secretary-general.
Unsurprisingly, Tharoor lost as the US was backing South Korean Ban Ki-moon. That forced him out of the UN, and he began eyeing a political role with the ruling Congress.
Many within the party saw him as an upstart and interloper.
“He was declared a Congress candidate barely a month before election day,” said Puthenparambil.
Even though he won by a landslide, his peers, who attacked him on everything, including his lack of fluency in the local language, Malayalam, were not enthused when the MP bagged a coveted berth in the Ministry of External Affairs.
His witty ways sometimes put him in trouble. Reacting to austerity measures ordered by the government, he tweeted about flying “cattle class” to slay “the holy cows”. His detractors complained he was criticising Gandhi.
Dr Singh was unable to protect him from his next controversy – the revelation that then girlfriend Sunanda Pushkar had been given a free stake in a cricket franchise that Tharoor had used his influence to midwife.
Tharoor denied wrongdoing but was forced to resign. He went on to marry Pushkar that year.
In spite of it all, Singh brought Tharoor back into the Cabinet.
Even after the scandal over the Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar broke, Tharoor, who said his Twitter account had been hacked but whose wife revealed she had sent the tweets revealing the affair, was back on Twitter tweeting about the Congress meet.
“Rahul Gandhi in the midst of his rousing speech which electrified the ... audience,” he wrote, uploading a picture of Gandhi, the vice-president of the Congress party who was addressing a party meeting, which made Friday’s headlines.
But by the end of the day it was Tharoor himself who had made headline news.