Not on Twitter: Miss you, Shashi - African and Arab diplomats await rehabilitation of proactive minister

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  • Published 9.05.10
Shashi Tharoor

New Delhi, May 8: Shashi Tharoor may have been pilloried for his perceived lack of gravitas but three weeks since his ignominious exit from the government, he is being sorely missed by many an African, Arab and Latin American envoy in the diplomatic precincts of this city.

At a lunch hosted by the United Arab Emirates ambassador earlier this week, which was attended by envoys of all 22 nations which form the Arab League, Indian guests were besieged with queries on why Tharoor was sacked and how soon he would make a return to South Block.

Although no one was willing to go on record (“because as ambassadors to your country we cannot comment on domestic political decisions”), several of them insisted that Tharoor had been instrumental in pushing for closer ties with regions of the world that are “completely neglected in the Indian media” and often get short shrift in official circles, too.

One ambassador of an important Gulf nation attributed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia to the sustained efforts put in by his then minister of state.

Another underlined that Tharoor had been “extremely proactive” in pushing for closer ties with a host of non-western nations that came under his watch.

In his 10-month stint as minister of state for external affairs, Tharoor was entrusted with the Latin America, Africa and West Asia desks.

One reason envoys from these regions warmed to Tharoor was that he went out of his way to make them feel important, sources said.

Given his long innings in the UN, Tharoor was at ease dealing with diplomats from across the world. Besides, as UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s aide, he had developed a good rapport with a whole range of African politicians and diplomats.

As one African diplomat put it, “Tharoor did not talk down to us but listened and consulted.”

The ambassador from a South American country went further. “Frankly, even officials of the level of joint secretary don’t bother to meet ambassadors of small countries. Many of them don’t know much about our region or don’t care enough. But Tharoor was genuinely interested and it showed.”

Another diplomat recounted how Tharoor hosted ambassadors of Africa and Latin America over marathon working lunches and dinners at Hyderabad House — a gesture that had been seldom accorded to envoys of “low-profile” countries earlier.

Even foreign ministry officials who were not exactly enamoured of Tharoor’s twittering tendencies or his penchant for self-publicity concede his engagement with the non-western world was not confined to just talk but based on substance.

One South Block mandarin went so far as to say: “No external affairs minister did as much to shore up India’s Africa policy since the days of Swaran Singh.”

In his short term in office, Tharoor made six trips to Africa, visited several Latin American countries such as Colombia, Peru and the Dominican Republic, landed in Haiti after the devastating earthquake and struck a chord in several Gulf and Arab embassies.

Yet, for all his popularity among a wide cross-section of diplomats on his erstwhile beat, Tharoor’s future depends on how he redraws his equations with the political class.

Even on earlier occasions when he got into trouble over his unconventional ways, his well-wishers had advised him to stop tweeting his own trumpet and stop behaving like a saviour who had come in from the cold.

He did not heed their advice at the time and made it worse by getting embroiled in the IPL controversy and trying to brazen his way out of it.

Over the past three weeks, however, Tharoor appears a lot more subdued. He attended Parliament regularly in the just-concluded session but mostly sat by himself quietly in one of the back rows of the Lok Sabha, assiduously avoiding the media on his way in and out of the House.

For the first time since he emerged on the Indian political scene, the flashy flamboyance was missing and he seemed almost melancholy.

His nomination to the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs is one indication that the Congress and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have not yet given up on Tharoor.

If he focuses on his core competence and avoids extra-curricular interests such as cricket and communications technology, he could earn himself another innings — especially in view of the palpable goodwill among diplomats who do not follow him on Twitter but would like to see Tharoor back among their midst.