What You Should Know About Tehseen & Shehzad Poonawalla


What You Should Know About Tehseen & Shehzad Poonawalla

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

This was awkward. I was just about to ask the most famous Indian man on Twitter, who no one really knows, the reason for his fame, and I’d somehow found myself sitting next to him in his car.

This was the first time I’d met Tehseen Poonawala, the guy who yesterday broke the Indian internet yet again when he “ended all relations” with his brother Shehzad Poonawalla, because Shehzad came out blasting the Congress for rigging its Presidential elections for Rahul Gandhi.

Some months ago, I’d found “Happy Birthday Tehseen Poonawalla” trending on the top of my Twitter feed for hours on end. It wasn’t a sponsored trend and it was not the first time I’d seen his name pop up on the micro-blogging platform. So I asked the question you’re thinking about: Who, in the name of holy social media heaven, was Tehseen Poonawalla?

His Twitter bio is: “Political Trendwatcher, Life coach, Entrepreneur & Columnist. Student of Mythology yet an atheist. Pledged organs.” Which is basically code for “I’m rich”. But his birthday messages labelled him a “Youth Icon” and a “Shining star” and upon further research, I realised they were definitely not bots. His Twitter followers are upwards of 1 lakh, and his tweets seem to get banger engagement.

Take for instance, the pinned tweet on his profile, that has nearly eight thousand retweets. He has quoted a guy who asked him to check his Twitter history, where Poonawalla once called Monicka Vadera “sexy”. Poonawalla’s response is: “Dude @mvadera is my wife. And yes i think she is super sexy. And Wtf is wrong in that sir?” (That other fella, who challenged Poonawalla, has now deleted his profile.)

Now I realise I’m sitting uncomfortably close to the brother-in-law of Robert Vadra, the seat of Dilli’s actual power. Poonawalla, a good-looking man with high cheeks, is rocking a sharp blue blazer, a crisp white shirt, and obviously expensive shoes. But it’s his Twitter visibility that I am interested in.

“The definition of celebrity is changing,” he tells me. “Why do you think I’m not a celebrity?” I tell him I can’t argue with his Twitter numbers for sure. His party-popping has garnered him a large enough following to allow him to fulfil the “Political trendwatcher” bit of his bio, which blew up when he “requested” Smriti Irani last year to “erect” a 56-inch pole in every university with a condom on it. The tweet (which he claims is fake and is part of a court case) was in response to her ministry’s diktat on flying the national flag in every university across India.

The tweet might have been tongue-in-cheek, but it added to his Congress cred, and propelled Poonawalla to Tweleb status. Once there, no one really fails in this country, unless you’re Amitabh Bachchan’s son. Over time, his feed became more political, injecting itself into the bloodstream of #LeftTwitter. He is Congress through and through though, considering how much he shitposts the BJP, which now get a cool thousand retweets. His political tweets sit side by side with pictures of him partying and wishing journalists “Good luck” for their new jobs.

Tehseen Poonawalla

Tehseen’s birthday messages labelled him a “Youth Icon” and a “Shining star” and upon further research, I realised they were definitely not bots.

Image Credit / Twitter: tehseenp

“This is who I am,” he tells me. “I enjoy a good life, I come from a good family, why should I be a hypocrite? People are ‘multi-personality’, we should let them shine.” As the car made its way around Sri Aurobindo Marg, Poonawalla hit the nail about his celebrity on the head: “Politics is all about perception,” he said. In this day and age, doing a good thing isn’t enough, you have to be seen doing it.

That’s a lesson Narendra Modi taught us all in 2014. Whatever your thoughts on our Prime Minister, the truth is that he altered the PR game in India. His “vikas” plank was most visible on Twitter, which aided in bringing him the support of the aspirational economic class. Simultaneously, his linguistic usage changed, with tweets related to Hindutva taking a nosedive in the two years before the elections. Modiji had already built an on-ground core audience – then he carefully ventured out to expand to a different kind of audience to his base. Poonawalla is no Modi, but he’s got politics on his mind, and he’s learning from the best.

He’s aiming to expand his base by putting his weight behind MaSuKa (Manav Suraksha Kanoon), an anti-mob lynching bill, with Shehla Rashid and Kanhaiya Kumar. This is not in opposition to his carefree, party-loving, socially aware youngster lifestyle – it’s just an addition to it.

A week after our meeting, I noticed an uptick in #MaSuKa references on Twitter. Poonawalla was speaking to more and more news channels, and it all came to a head with last week’s #NotInMyName protests. He was at the demonstrations in Delhi, in a sharp Nehru jacket. His brother, Shehzad, who is Maharashtra Congress’ secretary, came holding a copy of the Indian Constitution while being in handcuffs, for what he called, “a symbolic demonstration of the assault on the freedoms granted to us by the Constitution under this government”.

It is remarkably embarrassing for any government that its citizens should be petitioning for a special anti-lynching law, when all it requires is for the law to take its due course. But for Poonawalla, who might become the face of the movement, it should be an extremely rewarding PR exercise. It will be just the leg-up he needs should he decide to enter politics proper.

Tehseen Poonawalla

Poonawalla’s party-popping has garnered him a large enough following to allow him to fulfil the “Political trendwatcher” bit of his bio.

Image Credit / Twitter: tehseenp

Poonawalla has leveraged his intrigue to a position of political relevance, which is driven by English channels, whose newsrooms are in turn driven by Twitter trends. I am reminded of a tweet from earlier this year, which distilled the Tehseen Poonawalla experience on Twitter: A mirror selfie of the man on the left, and a screen-grab of his latest appearance on Times Now on the right. It is this hyper-self-awareness that raises a question over his “authenticity”. Is he this woke and cool or is he just really good at optics?

As we already know, in politics, the difference doesn’t really matter.