24 Sep 2009
What’s in a tweet? Ask Shashi Tharoor, the diplomat-turned politician and India’s minister of state for external affairs.
If anyone should know about the nuance of words, who better than Tharoor—a novelist and columnist, who also has been a suave diplomat with the United Nations as the under secretary general for communications and public information.
But a greenhorn that he is in the arena of politics, he recently made a “bovine blunder” as the AFP likes to put it.
Asked on Twitter if he was travelling by economy class on a trip to his home state of Kerala, he tweeted: “Absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!”
This witty remark created a controversy in India, as it was deemed to be in bad taste, especially coming from a Congress member of parliament and a minister in Sonia Gandhi’s ruling party—a party that had recently given a call of austerity to all its members.
Tharoor’s witticism couldn’t be more politically incorrect!
As India is suffering from conditions of draught and the common people are suffering from the effects of a global recession, Sonia Gandhi’s party men are supposed to shun all ostentations, stay away from five-star hotels and travel in economy class (the so-called “cattle class” in the tweet) in solidarity with the common man. All these measures are obviously symbolic in nature as India’s common man neither flies in airlines nor has a compulsive addition to Twitter.
After the austerity call, the minister had just got out of a five-star hotel where he had been staying for months (he was yet to get his official bungalow in Lutyen’s Delhi). Then came this tweet, mocking the austerity drive and making fun of the expression holy cow—cows being sacred in India, and more so if the comment was spiteful against the Congress party members.
Not to lose an opportunity, Tharoor’s detractors attacked him in the media. Some even asked for his resignation. But many came out in his support, arguing that the remark was made in jest, and that the issue was being blown out of proportion. Sure it was. The remark was innocuous but the timing was wrong—giving it a sinister slant.
The result? Tharoor was reprimanded by his party boss. The poor minister didn’t have to resign but he had to apologise.
Sometimes austerity, not brevity, is the soul of wit
In my estimate, Tharoor’s cattle class faux pas was a disaster waiting to happen.
Tharoor is a 21st century politician, so it was natural for him to take to twittering right from the time of his election campaigns. Within months, he became the most active and most ‘followed’ Indian politician on Twitter.
Buoyed by his popularity and perhaps also due to his compulsive addiction to Twitter, the minister frequently tweets on a daily basis, so much so that I once asked him how come he managed to post so many tweets every day: offered prayers at this temple, delivered a speech at such and such meeting, on the way to meet so and so, and so on. I asked him if he was tweeting after every meeting, every political function, out of some kind of compulsion—as if one needed to keep a record of every act that one performed in 24 hours, like a 24- hour live TV broadcast . Of course, he never replied to the question.
So, the slip was waiting to take place. If not this blunder, something else would have come up and caught by his opponents who would look at each of his tweet with a microscope.
After the “bovine blunder”, perhaps now Tharoor would be a bit restrained and circumspect in his tweets. It would be less fun but more sensible for him being a responsible minister.
On 17 Sept, he admitted as much: “I now realise I should not assume people will appreciate humour and you shouldn’t give those who would wilfully distort your words an opportunity to do so (sic).”
Now, isn’t that a lesson for all of us who tweet?
Zafar Anjum is the online editor of MIS Asia portal.