Indian Decade

Old Guard Eyes Rahul

Does Tharoor’s resignation clear the Old Guard’s path to Rahul Gandhi?

A ponderous mien, complete with a luxuriant thatch of hair and a passable version of a British public school accent were evidently huge advantages in the higher echelons of the United Nations, for they brought Shashi Tharoor to within striking distance of the top prize: the Secretary Generalship.

Along the way, Tharoor made friends with the Indian literary crowd of New York and London—a group much loved by Sonia Gandhi, who picked Tharoor for the Trivandrum parliamentary seat. With the help of 78 percent of the female vote, the personable diplomat got elected in a landslide, and was pitch forked to ministerial rank. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hoped that the Tharoor style would better enable the United States and EU to understand the limits to decision making in this democracy as they pondered starry visions such as that espoused by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who apparently believes that all India has to do to be ‘respectable’ is to make Kashmir free, East Timor-style (the prospects for that are about as great as Rudd’s surrendering Western Australia to the Indonesians).

But in a country where it’s still fashionable to decry British colonialism (even while clinging to a multitude of British-era laws and customs), Tharoor’s frank adherence to Western mores jarred, as did his visible contempt for those not ‘civilised’ enough to enter the rarefied social space of Shashi Tharoor or other admirers of the Nehru clan such as novelist Sunil Khilnani and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen.

Tharoor eventually met and romanced a charming widow, Sunanda Pushkar, who was even a Kashmiri. However, although her knowledge of cricket appears to have been based on watching matches on TV, she so impressed investors (and Tharoor buddies) in an Indian Premier League (IPL) team based in Kochi (Tharoor’s home state) that they gave her millions of dollars in equity. Apparently stung by Tharoor’s refusal to deny a visa to a South African model who had crossed his path, IPL boss Lalit Modi decided to strike where it hurts—the wallet. He outed the ‘sweetheart’ deal between the Kochi sponsors and Pushkar, and is alleged to have got his friends in the BJP to demand Tharoor’s sacking.

The issue of Tharoor’s involvement in the IPL (purely as a ‘mentor’) has also come in handy to those within the Congress Party who have been uneasy about the rise of Rahul Gandhi within the hierarchy. At one time, (1980-83 to be exact), this writer was one of a small group tasked with helping Rajiv Gandhi with his foray into politics. The Rajiv team had sought to ensure that he got access to the best brains—economic and scientific—in the country, and helped work out a set of policies that could have modernized India had they been implemented. But by the end of 1983, the Old Gang had wrested control over Rajiv, replacing Team Rajiv’s chief, the reflective Vijay Dhar, with the feisty Arun Nehru, who loved traditional politics and those who practiced them.

Thus far, Rahul Gandhi has refused to permit the current Old Guard to own him, a stance that is causing considerable (if hidden) unease within a party that knows it’s only a question of a few years before he replaces Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. By that time, they want to see him firmly under their grip, the way his mother Sonia Gandhi is. Tharoor’s indiscretions (though miniscule by the standards of political heavyweights) have come in handy for them to chop off an individual too far removed from ‘politics as usual’ for their taste.

Were the sacking of Tharoor to herald the start of a genuine cleansing of Indian politics, it would be welcome. However, the odds are that he has been thrown to the wolves so as to ensure business as usual for the rest of the pack. His exit may make it easier for the Old Guard to pick on the other ministers with a modern mindset – such as Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh – so that they can ensure they get a hold of Rahul the way the then Old Guard succeeded in doing with Rajiv Gandhi in 1983, about a year before he became prime minister.