India Loses Its Twittering Deputy Minister

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Rakash Singh / AFP / Getty Images

Shashi Tharoor, in New Delhi on May 29, 2009

Shashi Tharoor, one of the rising stars of Indian politics, was forced to resign his post as Deputy Foreign Minister on Sunday, ending a weeklong scandal driven by the clash of two enduring Indian obsessions — cricket and political shenanigans — inside the modern house of mirrors of Twitter.

Tharoor had a long and distinguished career in the United Nations (he was considered for the post of Secretary-General) before, in 2009, running for the ruling Congress Party in a parliamentary seat representing the city of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, a small, southern state best known for its lush coastline and well-educated, affluent population. Having lived most of his adult life outside of India, Tharoor's easy win surprised many observers in New Delhi. He positioned himself as a champion of the aspiring middle classes that are disillusioned by India's notoriously corrupt politics. Keerthick Sasidharan, who volunteered for Tharoor's campaign, wrote in the Wall Street Journal shortly after his victory, "We were all driven by our fondness for Mr. Tharoor and a slender hope that perhaps he might win, and bring about a more professional approach to politics."

The most visible symbol of Tharoor's political style was his enthusiastic embrace of the social-networking tool Twitter, which he used to comment on everything from his ceremonial duties to matters of foreign policy. But the popularity of his tweets — his followers number more than 700,000 — also amplified every controversy. He was publicly criticized even by his own party for tweets on flying "cattle class" to abide by the government's austerity guidelines and on the role of Saudi Arabia as a potential "interlocutor" between India and Pakistan. But while his unconventional political style ruffled feathers, there was never any suggestion of impropriety.

That changed with Tharoor's involvement in the Indian Premier League (IPL), a new global professional cricket tournament that has leveraged India's huge fan base for the game into an instant billion-dollar business. After Tharoor, a lifelong cricket fan, served as an adviser to a group of investors who put up $333.33 million to buy a new IPL franchise, details of the deal were revealed on Twitter on April 11 by Lalit Modi, head of the IPL. Among the shareholders was Sunanda Pushkar, Tharoor's frequent companion, who was listed as part owner of 5% of sweat equity. Modi accused Tharoor of asking him not to reveal the ownership details of the consortium — a charge Tharoor denies. Modi's comments prompted allegations in the Indian media that Pushkar's stake was given to her as a proxy for Tharoor.

Pushkar denied the charges. "In view of my extensive international experience as a business executive, marketing manager and entrepreneur, I was invited to assist Rendezvous [the investor group] particularly in the areas of fundraising, networking, event management and brand building," she said in a statement. "Because this is a start-up effort, I was told that in lieu of a salary they would grant me minor equity in Rendezvous in return for my efforts."

Tharoor has also vehemently denied that he would benefit financially from Pushkar's share in the team. "They approached me for help and guidance," he said in a statement. "I steered them toward Kerala ... Whatever my personal relationships with any of the consortium members, I do not intend to benefit in any way financially from my association with the team now or at a later stage." Through a spokesman, Tharoor declined to comment further.

After a week of trading allegations with Modi — in the newspapers, on television and on Twitter — Tharoor's fate was decided on Sunday night by the leadership of the Congress Party and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Without giving specific reasons for Tharoor's departure, Singh announced that Tharoor had submitted his resignation from his ministerial post, and recommended that it be accepted. Anonymous sources in the Congress Party told the local media that, although there was no proof of any wrongdoing, Tharoor's actions had become an embarrassment to the party and an obstacle to pushing its agenda in Parliament.

"He's never been in politics," says G. Parthasarathy, a foreign policy expert and former senior Indian diplomat, commenting on Tharoor's demise. "He says the wrong thing, he does the wrong thing. Or rather, it is what is considered the wrong thing." Suhel Seth, a marketing expert to politicians and businesses, says that Tharoor's outsider image, which he had used to great effect at the polls, didn't work in a city whose politics run on personal relationships. Instead of making allies among other politicians, Tharoor seemed to hold himself apart, a polished, erudite diplomat in a sea of crass power brokers. "He played up his elitism," Seth says, and paid the price. "It's a sad day for Indian politics."

Tharoor will, however, keep his seat in Parliament and continue to serve his constituency. The future for the IPL is less certain. The sudden media attention has turned a spotlight on its finances: the league is earning more than $1 billion for television rights to its matches, but it is not clear whether any of the franchises are making a profit. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee told Parliament today that the government is looking into "all aspects" of the IPL's funding. "The concerned department has already started the investigation process."