Liberals, Can We Now Cancel Shashi Tharoor?


Liberals, Can We Now Cancel Shashi Tharoor?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

American theologian James Freeman once wrote, “The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election, while the statesman thinks about the next generation.” For a decade now, Shashi Tharoor has seemed the latter. A charming contradiction of the traditional neta, a man capable of writing his own books let alone his speeches; someone who purposely drives the agendas of the next generation – sexual liberty, women’s rights, free speech, free will, colonial reparations, and so on.

Within the span of a week though, he has begun to look more like the cadre of politician he rose as the antidote to.

His eloquence, his control over the English language and seemingly woke sensibilities – art, cricket and books – endear Shashi Tharoor to India’s millennials like perhaps no other politician has in the past. Tharoor is, in fact, an exception, a moderator more than he is the protagonist, someone who seamlessly flits between the casualness of selfies and the cosmopolitanism of debate floors in legacy English universities, all the while, remaining a member of the Parliament. He is the hip-hop artist walking through the Carnatic corridors of our polity, the metropolitan that the mulch of Indian politics usually chews through.

But last week, after two women entered Sabarimala to execute what has been declared legal by the Supreme Court, Tharoor claimed it an unnecessary act of provocation. Despite his way with words and his supposedly liberal leanings, Tharoor has often courted controversy. From mocking local cultures to making awkward anglophone jokes, he hasn’t always tread safely. In this instance, after discontent poured online, Tharoor went on to write at length an uncharacteristically underwhelming, at times preposterous explanation of his comment.

He begins, as if through guilt, by citing the many women’s movements he has voiced support for. “The cause of Dalit entry into temples was championed both by large numbers of Dalits and by many of their co-religionists of other castes, who all felt that the ban was an abominable social practice with no religious sanction. There has been no similar mass movement of believing women clamouring for entry here,” he writes.

A charming contradiction of the traditional neta, a man capable of writing his own books let alone his speeches.

Firstly, the notion of support being a function of volume or size, instead of a principle, is what an Indian politician would typically say and enact upon. That Tharoor needs the evidence of mass numbers for a thing to feel right or even real, contradicts his ideas on hyper-nationalism (a far more popular idea at the moment).

Secondly, to expect women to move en-masse for entry into Sabarimala against perhaps, the enforced will of not just the devotees, but husbands, fathers, party workers, hired hooligans and just about every other man who embodies this country’s patriarchy, is delusional. More than that it feels like long-sightedness on Tharoor’s part, a parochial view of gender in a nation enmeshed from top to bottom in a complicated layer of caste, class, and patriarchy. And just so he knows, there already have been mass movements, both in the space he masters (social media) and the space he clearly feels intimidated by – reality (the human chain of women in his own state).

Perhaps he expects women to think and act like men, adopt their vocabulary, climb chariots and go on yatras before they converge on Sabarimala, like its reckoning: the behati ganga that all liberal men will gladly wash their hands in once it starts flowing of its own volition. Also, he writes that he cannot go against the devotees. Who did he think this fight was against then?

There is, of course, the argument that Tharoor the politician, has pulled Tharoor the liberal writer/thinker by the collar and quietly educated him about the pitfalls of a little too much liberalness. That Indian polity is won, let alone run, by a handy mix of hard-headedness and lunacy, of regressive ideas wrapped in the loincloth of traditionalism, is a fact we must consider. That he has simply been cajoled into treading the party line to align with the outdated than the new and fresh he continually speaks of, merits consideration – but it is well-nigh indefensible.

It is ironic that within a week of each other, Modi and Tharoor feel like opposite sides of the same coin. Both, in the face of an uncertain election year have chosen to relinquish their stance, their voice, in favour of the politically apposite. Both have, instead, passed the buck onto the hapless Supreme Court, dodging clarity outright.

It is bizarre to think that both Modi and Tharoor could come to mirror each other for a moment. In Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting For Godot – which turns 70 this month – two men (Vladimir and Estragon) wait under a tree for a man name Godot, who never arrives. One is a realist, the other a philosopher. They talk religion, contemplate death and witness the reversal of slavery. To my mind, both Modi and Tharoor feel like the two men, their “wait” an operatic limbo manufactured for the viewer.

It is this elastic sense of time through which men speak of the highest of things accomplishing precious little of them, all the while seeking opportunities to endow themselves with privilege and the sense of heroism that comes along with it. Personally, it is disappointing that a man so capable of the meaningful indulges in the labour of the pointless. If it is the notion of power that is holding Tharoor back, it really isn’t power to begin with. Perhaps, he could serve the world better by being unshackled by the needs of political manoeuvring. Until then, he is only as good as anyone enacting his or her politics, without principle.