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Shashi Tharoor’s ‘new India': Foreign policy, citizen engagement and new media April 30, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Dash, Kamala Kanta, India , trackback

Kamala Kanta Dash

Thanks for all the support & good wishes. U folks are the New India. We will “be the change” we wish to see in our country. But not without pain! (Posted on Twitter, 16 April 2010)

This message is from Dr Shashi’s Tharoor’s twitter after he got embroiled in a controversy over allegedly using his public office for private gain by possibly using his ‘good friend’ Ms. Sunanda Pushkar as a shadow bidder/shareholder for the Kochi (Kerala) team in the cash rich Twenty-20 cricket tournament of Indian Premier League (IPL).

Dr Tharoor is a former Junior Minister in the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India a former UN Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information and a PhD from Fletcher School Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA. In this (twitter) post he introduced his idea of New India, referring to his followers with whom he has built a strong relationship of sharing information on his official activities and personal opinion on many issues. Tharoor has, in the meantime, resigned from his post as a junior minister in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) after requesting the Prime Minster to conduct a thorough enquiry to find out details of his involvement and other financial irregularities. Tharoor has defended his decision to support the Kochi (Kerala) team and has made it clear that he mentored the team and did not support for any personal monetary benefit. He defended his position in the parliament by saying ‘my conscience is clear and I have done nothing improper or unethical, less alone illegal.’ Many analysts in India and overseas feel that Tharoor has been made a sacrificial lamb in the IPL controversy.

Setting aside his alleged involvement in the IPL controversy and his subsequent resignation, this article analyses his contribution, if not legacy, to Indian politics and especially to Indian foreign policy and his idea of a New India.

Tharoor, an India-backed candidate for the position the United Nations Secretary General (who lost to Ban Ki Moon) and an accomplished author, joined Indian politics in 2009 and contested an election to become an MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of the state of Kerala in South India, on a ticket from the Congress Party. He was inducted as a junior minister in the MEA after an impressive victory in the first ever parliamentary election of his life, with a margin of more than 100,000 votes. He was assigned to look after India’s engagement with the countries in the regions of the Middle East, Africa and Latin America – regions with which India’s engagement has been at least poor and at best unproductive. His fluency in the French language added to his ability to develop a rapport with Africa, especially Francophone Africa, the continent which is believed to be slowly emerging as a space for a strategic contest between India and China.

Since Tharoor took his oath in May 2009 he has remained in the news most of the time for the wrong reasons and interestingly by default has left strong political messages of reform. He courted controversy in saying that he will travel “cattle class in solidarity with the holy cows” against the backdrop of government’s austerity drive. This offended the civic sensibility of Indian politicians and especially his fellow Congress Party leaders. He was made to clarify to get a reprieve from the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and the ruling coalition chief Ms Sonia Gandhi. But this can be seen as a reflection of hollowness in so-called serious Indian politics and in a large number of humourless politicians, both in the ruling and opposition parties, who are always ready to sell sound bytes to increase popular support but have been slow to understand or tolerate humour in politics. His stand on work culture – the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi should be a workday and not a public holiday, and his opinion that ‘strikes are social evils’ have been perhaps the most revolutionary ideas in recent years of political life in India.

Foreign policy and citizen engagement through twitter

Tharoor used the new media ‘twitter’ to reach out to the internet savvy young India, which he calls the New India, that represents the educated middle class who, ironically, have been uniquely apathetic and distrustful of political processes and development in the country.  They are perhaps the first ones to demand their rights when anything affects them but the last to respond if there is a duty to perform for the common good. Against this backdrop Tharoor’s twitter can be seen as an effort to engage with the middle-class educated young of urban India. His twitter following has reached close to 750,000 – much more than that of Shah Rukh Khan, a Bollywood superstar, at 300,000.

He was the first minister to make public his disagreement on his department’s decision regarding the utility of visa restrictions against the backdrop of David Headley’s arrest.  He was the first Indian delegate to visit the earthquake ravaged Haiti to promise his government’s support. He is the first person to eloquently argue in favour of India-Africa relations by employing ‘consultative’ and ‘non-intrusive support’ models of Indo-Africa engagement.

His summing up at a seminar presented by Lord Bhikhu Parekh at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) in New Delhi landed him in controversy when he was accused of portraying Nehru’s (Non-Alignment) foreign policy “as a moralistic running commentary”. It was unexpected for a minister to criticise the holy men of his own party: in this case Nehru. He, however, eloquently defended his point by invoking “the tradition of criticism as the hallmark of academia”. He brought a renewed focus “to the need for informed discussion of foreign policy issues in our democracy”.

All these initiatives and especially the controversies in one way or the other have challenged the orthodoxy in the Indian foreign policy establishment and have brought fresh air to the debates over citizen participation in public policy.  If one can see beyond the IPL mess and de-link the controversy from his job as a foreign minister then Dr Tharoor has set lofty standards in the conduct of foreign policy in India.

In India an informed citizen in their private capacity does not get any chance to contribute to public policy: the bureaucracy implements policy and the politicians approve it to be implemented. There is virtually no culture of public debate in any policymaking. The government is reluctant to consult the academicians for policy formulation and feedback. Academia and bureaucracy share a high level of mutual indifference and distrust. It is a gross failure on the part of the Indian state that it has been unable to engage its citizens in public policy discourse. Interestingly, the foreign ministry has a division of public diplomacy that hardly provides any opportunity for the Indian public to play a role in policy consultation. When apathy of the educated for the political system seems to have got deeper and wider, Shashi Tharoor’s frank opinion-sharing on twitter attracted many to discuss their views on politics and foreign and security policy.

As evident in many recent elections, the rising middle class has been very sceptical about the political process and thinks that no change can take place through democracy, public participation and voting. However, Tharoor’s entry has brought a breath of fresh air into national politics. With charisma, promise of change and flamboyance he became a hero for the urban middle class. Whether he will be back in the government or not depends a lot on the ongoing investigations into the IPL and the subsequent clearing of his name. Moreover this will also depend on the willingness of the ruling coalition to again accommodate him. However, the question that remains to be answered is whether his involvement in this controversy is going to undermine his genuine efforts and contribution to the idea of citizen participation in governance. If not, at least one thing is certain: the twitter will remain his legacy to his idea of New India.

He later elaborated his idea of New India in the speech he gave in parliament after his resignation from the Ministry of External Affairs.

“…I returned to India because I believed in an India of honesty and hard work and not of corruption and crookedness. I believed in an India of openness and straightforwardness and not of hypocrisy and double dealing. I believed in an India where opportunities are available to all and not just to a chosen few.  I believed in an India of pluralism and diversity and not of religious bigotry and caste politics. I believed in an India that is secure in itself and confident of its place in the world, an India that is a proud example of tolerance, freedom and hope for the downtrodden. That India can be built by the sincere efforts of all of us in this august house and outside it”.

His vision for a New India has got its echo in the dreams of millions of young Indians who want to make a difference to their country. But the ‘old India’ remains powerful and strong to resist any change in the way the politics being played in the largest democracy of the world. Nevertheless, Tharoor and his followers remain hopeful of a New India.


1. Tejaswini - April 30, 2010

it is a good contribution in terms of understanding how tharoor’s notion of New Idea and the modern techologies of the state intersect against the old bulwark of the bureaucratic model. Well done!!!

2. Vijayakumar Bhaskaran - April 30, 2010

Yes, the new India needs to come out openly when there is a need and where it matters. The new India should not only be hooked up with the technology. When there is a need to critisise the system, we have to do it openly without fear of being chased away from a political party or positions. It is high time that the old India understood the minds of new India and allowed them to take more control of the system. Otherwise we will always be behined China and many other emmerging economies in the world. It is again time for the political parties to do away with cheap politics.

3. sam - April 30, 2010

good thought

4. Debadatta - May 1, 2010

there was a need to understand his contribution. the controversy overshadowed everything. good attempt.

5. Amitav Behera - May 5, 2010

Nice one. All details provided with strong analysis. I appreciate it out and out. But here I would like something more. I need to see this site provide updated information and analysis about international relation of various countries, especially relations with India and others … also provide your analytical thoughts about strategic relations which India should build up with the countries with whom there is no such relation as of today…. like African … Latin American…. Eastern Europe…. South East Asian nations … South Asia Masala is an excellent forum to bring in such fresh insights. thanks

6. Shashi Tharoor’s ‘new India’: Foreign policy, citizen engagement and new media | Shashi Tharoor - May 27, 2010

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