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Tharoor tribe, endangered in politics

New Delhi, April 18: Politics can often turn a Hobbesian alley for the outsider — nasty, brutish and short. A widely agreed preventive is Thomas Hobbes’s own famous prescription: submission to the written and unwritten canons of the Leviathan, whether that’s an enthroned individual or an enshrined system.

Lateral entrants to politics who have tried playing it their own way have either suffered rejection or opted to eject. Those that have paid the Leviathan due deference have mostly survived its cut-and-thrust, even prospered. The current establishment offers spectacular illustrations of both.

At the top of the pole is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an economist-technocrat, who seemed to have absorbed the cardinal rules of khadi before donning them: never menace your master. Singh has served three party bosses, an equal number of Prime Ministers and looks set to become the longest reigning head of government since Jawaharlal Nehru himself.

As India’s best-educated helmsman, Singh has eminent qualifications for high office, but it can be argued that what brought him and keeps him where he is has only little to do with his erudition; it is about his grasp of the norms of public conduct and the in-house rules of the Congress of unambiguous hierarchy and, under Sonia Gandhi, of perceived morality too.

At the bottom of that outsider pole is Shashi Tharoor, international diplomat-turned junior foreign minister, who appears to have donned khadi with the intention of imposing his own ethic — and sense of humour — on the essential fabric of Indian politics. He has publicly taunted the austerity regime, tweeted close to insubordination and against strong advice, bravely lectured Nehru’s foreign policy, blithely fiddled with key and established formulations of Indian diplomatese and, lately, worn the proliferating stains on his credibility variously as badge of honour and proof of being unfairly profaned.

Tharoor has spent so much of his first year in the business tempting the noose that he must have felt entitled to believe he had mastered the great Indian rope trick.

But having made a fulsome contribution to the muck-load of IPL linen now being dragged out for public washing, Tharoor has seemed isolated behind the accumulation of serial misdemeanour. In Parliament, he was left to himself to fend the baying Opposition; outside, his party was equally hands off, happy merely to state that the jury on his survival is out until the Prime Minister’s return.

Indeed, it is known that government and Congress elders had strongly advised Tharoor to resign his office to lift prejudice off an inquiry and embarrassment off the party. Tharoor had, for sometime, resisted in a fashion that deepened the sense among seniors and peers alike that his Teflon virtuosity made him oblivious of the infamy he had gathered upon himself.

Is this merely about Tharoor, though, or is he also part of a larger narrative that describes the trajectory of lateral entrants to politics? They’ve been a mixed bag, from dropouts like Amitabh Bachchan, Arun Nehru, Arun Singh and Ashok Mitra to survivors like Mani Shankar Aiyar, Yashwant Sinha and Bengal finance minister Asim Dasgupta. “Lateral entrants do have a problem in the sense that they are often viewed with suspicion and envy by career politicians who have invested much more time in politics,” says Swapan Dasgupta, who himself teases the membrane between professional journalism and politics.

“Politics demands that somewhere you fit it to the larger scheme and sublimate yourself to it. That is the reason why someone like Asim Dasgupta gets by and a man like Ashok Mitra could not.”

But Tharoor, Swapan Dasgupta believes, made things particularly worse for himself by trying to fit the system around him rather than fit into himself.

“He provoked the allegations against him by his conduct, and made it worse by appearing self-righteous and sanctimonious, he always appears to be saying, look how much better and higher I am than the rest of you, that does not work,” Swapan Dasgupta argues.

Commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta broadly agrees with Swapan Dasgupta’s view. “Politics in this country runs on its own rules of obeisance, complicity, silence and distance,” Mehta says. “If you try to bring in new rules into play, you often get into trouble.”

Indeed, Mehta thinks Tharoor’s crisis has only partially to do with him being an outsider to politics. “It’s basically the way you conduct yourself anywhere, in any profession. There is bound to be problems if you were to enter any field and try and consistently behave as if you try to construct a persona different from and above the rest, somehow morally and professionally better qualified.”

A senior Congressman who wouldn’t go on record, was blunt about describing the “problem” with Tharoor and some other lateral entrants who never fit the role. “Tharoor, and others before him, have refused to believe there are things greater than themselves, like their leaders, their party, the government. They constantly foreground themselves at the expense of all else, exuding the ‘Look I am so great’ feeling. If that is the case, politics is not for you, there are unwritten but rigid rules here, even rules governing hypocrisy. Such people must learn it the hard way.”

Another leader referred to Aiyar who, he said, was a “first-rate” maverick. “But it is crucial to remember one thing about Aiyar, for all his big mouth iconoclasm, he has never violated that sacred line, loyalty to the Gandhi family, that’s what keeps him going. You have to make survival provisions somewhere.”

Aiyar has probably located his Leviathan right. Tharoor always seemed headed to meeting a Hobbesian end.

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