Today I want to write in Shashi Tharoor’s defence. And I certainly hope that’s how he views it. For Shashi is a friend, a valued guest on my show and an engaging writer whose books and columns I’ve enjoyed reading.
So when Kerala Congressmen accuse him of being a fortune hunter, of flattering Mr Modi and surreptitiously implementing the RSS’s agenda, I’m bewildered. That’s not the Shashi I know. But I’m equally stumped by his riposte. He’s not an outsider and definitely not a foreign object. He’s simply different. And thank God for that.
Now what is it that Shashi has done that’s worked his partymen into such a froth? In June, in an article for huffingtonpost.com, Shashi wondered if the new tone, style and behaviour of the PM adds up to “a Modi 2.0, a very different figure in government from the ogre some of us had feared and demonized for years?” His answer was “It is still too early to tell but the initial signs are encouraging”. At the time many would have agreed.
Last week Shashi was invited by Mr Modi to be one of nine Swachh Bharat ambassadors. He tweeted he was honoured to accept, calling it “a great campaign” but adding the challenge was to sustain it. But did anyone think the campaign was a bad idea?
Sceptics said it wouldn’t succeed whilst cynics called it a gimmick. Perhaps. But no one said it was wrong for the PM to campaign in favour of cleanliness.
On both occasions Shashi said aloud what you, I and many other sane and sensible people said in our homes or, in my case, in TV studios: that the PM had made a good start, sounded different to the past and we, therefore, dearly hoped he was a changed man and that Swachh Bharat was a welcome attempt to clean our cities and change mind-sets and habits, even if it was just a start without adequate back-up in terms of structural reform.
The only thing is Shashi is an Opposition politician and spoke in public. The rest of us did so behind closed doors to trusted friends. That, quite frankly, was the error he made.
In India’s partisan politics any praise for the other side, even if slender and conditional, is an anathema. It’s suggestive of floor-crossing. When it concerns Mr Modi, the impression the PM is succeeding or, at least, not floundering makes it decidedly worse. How Congressmen wish he would, instead, stumble and collapse. They loathe him just as passionately as he hates them. The difference is Mr Modi won the election.
So was Shashi naive? Recklessly honest? Blindly, even unthinkingly, courting trouble? In the black and white world of Indian politics, where loyalty to one’s side is valued more than the capacity to rise above the fray and recognise truth, you could say yes. But I would differ. Not because I disagree but because the time has come for change.
Shashi was attempting that. This is why I said he was different and thanked the good Lord for it. We need more politicians who can see the good on the other side of the aisle without switching sides or compromising the key principles which define their own position.
A little bit of bipartisanship doesn’t weaken the political debate but it does enrich the nation. I hope Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are able to understand that. If they are, Shashi has nothing to worry about. If not …
The views expressed by the author are personal