Monday, 30th October 2017

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In his image

The importance of being Shashi

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 14.05.17

Arnab Goswami's fascination with Shashi Tharoor has survived his transition from Times Now to Republic TV. In itself this obsession is curious but unimportant, but as a symptom of a broader sangh parivar condition and as an illustration of the Hindutvavadi view of the world, it repays examination.

It isn't surprising that the Bharatiya Janata Party and its fellow travellers dislike Tharoor. He seems to be a living, breathing incarnation of everything that makes them uneasy. He's a Nehru-lover (he's written a biography of India's first prime minister), he is ostentatiously secular and flamboyantly anglophone. His social media response to Republic TV's insinuations went viral as an example of 'too much ingliss'.

This is what Tharoor tweeted: "Exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations & outright lies being broadcast by an unprincipled showman masquerading as a journalist." The really worrying thing about this sentence isn't the big words in it but the fact that it's easy to imagine Tharoor saying it out loud and getting to the full stop without faltering. No one has spoken English like this since Curzon died.

'Farrago' briefly became the most searched for word in India afterwards. That's the other thing that irks the cadre and online choruses of the brotherhood. For a deracinated elitist Tharoor has a large and devoted online following, some five and a half million followers on Twitter. People seem interested in his doings, not least bhakts.

This is because there is an old-fashioned way in which Shashi Tharoor embodies middle class success in India. Before liberalization, the salariat's ambitions centred on the civil service examinations. Tharoor went one better. He topped his university examinations as a high-achieving desi should, earned a PhD in a foreign university in short order, immediately joined an international civil service, the UN, and very nearly rose to the top. In the idiom of Indian educational credentials, he is 'Secretary General (Fail)'. It doesn't matter that he didn't make it; it's enough that he had a shot at the top job.

It didn't stop there. After leaving the UN, Tharoor embarked upon a political career. The highlights of this career aren't the official positions he has achieved - Tharoor is unlikely to see a junior ministership in the HRD ministry as a political summit - but the elections that he won. One reason why the sangh parivar's trolls, both online and on television, take Tharoor seriously is because he is a Lok Sabha MP twice over.

Both in good times and in bad, both when the Congress won and when it lost, Tharoor was sent to Parliament by Thiruvananthapuram's electorate. Unlike other English-speaking types who became parliamentarians through the Rajya Sabha route, Tharoor won proper elections. I have CPI(M) friends who are still traumatized by his victories: how, they ask incredulously, could a carpetbagger with barely any Malayalam win Thiruvananthapuram twice?

Tharoor once said that when he began his political career he was approached by the Congress, the Communists and the BJP. He chose the Congress because he felt ideologically comfortable with it. But it isn't hard to see why the BJP was interested. To recruit this cosmopolitan civil servant plus writer plus Nehruvian to the BJP would have been something of a coup.

Even after he joined the Congress, the BJP's reluctant fascination with him was plain to see. One of the more interesting Parliamentary moments after the BJP victory of 2014 was the sight of Tharoor being asked to help the treasury benches draft a statement condemning Pakistan for freeing Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the Lashkar-e-Toiba commander, who masterminded the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. More recently, Sushma Swaraj asked Tharoor to help draft a Parliament resolution condemning Pakistan for giving Kulbhushan Jadhav the death sentence. The BJP, unlike the Congress, realizes that a person who can win elections in the real world and manage a massive constituency online is someone to be reckoned with.

There is something of the spurned lover about the BJP troll army's attitude towards Tharoor. There is a grudging admiration for his fluency, for those sixteen books he has written and for the uncanny sure-footedness with which he has sidestepped the nationalist trap set by the sangh parivar for unwary secularists.

Tharoor has been saying for years that he is comfortable in his skin as a Hindu. He is also, thanks to his speech on reparations at the Oxford Union and his book, An Era of Darkness, the current standard bearer of a venerable desi tradition, anti-colonial nationalism. The followers of the sangh parivar whose parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, weathered colonial rule in a state of calculated quiescence, are, despite themselves, drawn to this preternaturally eloquent politician who can effortlessly make the grand anti-colonial case both in public debate - out-Englishing the English -and over the length of a book rigged out with the apparatus of scholarship. After the Oxford Union debate, many online supporters of the present regime lamented the fact that Tharoor was a good man stuck in the wrong party.

Recent events, though, cast a new light on the Hindu Right's obsession with Tharoor. Last week, Arogya Bharti, the RSS's health wing, spoke to The Indian Express about a long-standing project designed to produce customized babies to build a strong nation by incubating superior children. The office-bearers of this organization told the newspaper that the project was inspired by post-war Germany which had "resurrected itself by having such signature children through Ayurvedic practices within two decades after World War II".

If it wasn't enough that an organization in 21st-century India was citing German eugenics as a model for breeding super-children, its national convenor, a Dr Hitesh Jani, helpfully specified the characteristics of these uber-babies: "If the proper procedure is followed, babies of dark-skinned parents with lesser height can have fair complexion and grow taller."

So the sangh parivar wants an India made up of light-skinned babies that grow up to be tall, light-skinned men. This 'nationalist' organization wants to liberate Indians from a very particular kind of yoke, the burden of being not-white. It turns out that the saffron brotherhood's beau idéal, its perfect man, is someone who looks remarkably like Shashi Tharoor, tall, light-skinned, even light eyed. Suddenly the obsession with Tharoor amongst the sangh's proxies in the media and the online world becomes more comprehensible. It must be thwarting for the RSS and its affiliates that this desi paragon remains stubbornly outside its fold, even as it tries to build an India in His image.