Thursday, September 17, 2009

Battle over Cattle


We are a dour people and can’t take a joke. Or else, why would we be up in arms against an innocuous remark by someone in a social networking group? But then Dr Shashi Tharoor is not a ‘someone’; he is a sun rising on the political horizon of India (and, more significantly, for the rising son, a threat looming large!)


On Twitter, journalist Kanchan Gupta (Associate Editor, the Pioneer) asked Shashi Tharoor on 14 September 2009 at 11:57 PM on if he would be travelling by cattle class during his next visit to Kerala. Tharoor’s tongue-in-cheek twitter reply was: ‘Absolutely in cattle class, out of solidarity with all our holy cows!’


This is humour. Friendly banter. Good back-slapping fun. Nothing less, nothing more. (For the uninitiated – and this may include the Congress High Command - ‘Cattle class’ is an internationally popular slang for the standard class, lowest class or the Economy class.)


Now, what’s wrong with that?! Anybody – and that includes a minister – with a reasonably good command over English idioms and phrases will jump to give such a reply! You say ‘cattle’ and a witty person is most likely to think of the exclamation ’sacred cow!’ or the expression ‘holy cow’.


It’s even more likely to happen when you are writing at a micro-blogging site like Twitter where you have to sum up what you have to say in 140 characters or less! Tharoor gave a clever reply to a simple query. He spoke so much in so little.


I consider it quite acceptable and think it has nothing to do with hurting the political sensibilities or offending the religious sentiments of people. It is humour: appreciate it or ignore it! But the Congress is doing neither. It has misunderstood the comment and thinks Tharoor is ‘referring to a certain person as cow!’ It says ‘high command will decide.’


He asked for it. Shashi Tharoor, back to India after decades in the US, forgot that India is not the US and the Congress party is not the Democratic Party and he is not President Obama. When he got onto Twitter and started tweeting regularly to an ever increasing number of followers (164,548 at last count), the Congress High Command was obviously not amused.


When the number of his followers crossed one lakh, alarm bells started ringing. Outside of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Tharoor, a political novice, had become the first leader to connect directly to so many Indians, and that too interactively on a daily basis.


His soaring popularity, highlighted regularly by the media, created a new star in the Congress overnight. More significantly, it also made many Indians acutely aware of the distance and the disconnect that existed between them and the much more youthful Rahul Gandhi, the uncrowned king of the country.


The High Command had to do something. Sure enough, it reacted a few days back by publicly ordering him out of the five-star hotel he was staying in. He would have to shift to a place like the rather humble Kerala House where not only was there no gymnasium, Tharoor even had to eat food in the canteen like, and with, the real ‘aam aadmi’.

It is clear that Tharoor did not get the real message then. His explanation that he wanted privacy for which he was paying from his pocket and that in order to keep fit, he needed to use the gymnasium did not wash.

The Congress was not going to let him get away. It was just waiting for that inevitable slip that would give it just the opportunity that it needed to censure him even more severely and put a firm end to his twittering ways.

He did that and more in his reply to a tweet about travelling in Economy Class as a part of the austerity drive launched by the Congress High Command. It did not matter that he was not the first to use the ‘offending’ expression ‘cattle class’; he was only repeating the words of the journo. It did not matter that it was repartee and wordplay.

The Congress party hit back hard saying that his remarks were ‘unacceptable, given the sensitivity of all Indians and not in sync with our political culture’. The ‘political culture’ bit is the operative part. How can any Congressman dare to even remotely compare Sonia Gandhi with a cow? Criticising the party's Holy Family is blasphemy!

Tharoor, in his subsequent tweets, says:

1. learned belatedly of fuss over my tweet replying to journo's query whether i wld travel to Kerala in "cattle class". His phrase which i rptd

2. it's a silly expression but means no disrespect to economy travellers, only to airlines for herding us in like cattle. Many have misunderstd

3. i'm told it sounds worse in Malayalam, esp out of context. To those hurt by the belief that my repeating the phrase showed contempt: sorry

4. i now realize i shldnt assume people will appreciate humour. &u shouldn't give those who wld wilfully distort yr words an opportnty to do so

5. holy cows are NOT individuals but sacrosanct issues or principles that no one dares challenge. Wish critics wld look it up

But then who has the time or inclination to learn the nuances of the language when the brief is to destroy a rising star?

I am sure this is not the end of the story. I will not be surprised if he is given a ‘punishment transfer’ to the Ministry for Rural Development and soon finds himself travelling in real ‘cattle class’: a bullock cart, on the dirt tracks that you find in India's hinterland. Any bets on the timeframe?


philip said...

Right on target .

A Stoic said...

Ashok Gehlot's demand for Tharoor's resignation gives the game away.
Gehlot is already on record as being against the 'pub culture'.

And the kind of politician that Gehlot prefers is available here:

In enlightened Kerala, the AISF of the CPI (all enthusiastic modern Communist youths) have burned Tharoor in effigy!

Yet, how long can they put real merit down.....?

SAJUKRIS said...

Superb. You have expressed the "heart of the matter" so well. Feel sorry for cowboy Tharoor!!

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
deeptiskrishnan said...

Excellent! This needs to be published in the papers, so that, all of us, the billion odd 'cattle class' get the correct picture!

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

I agree and disagree with you, KTR. Our politicians are castigated for many reasons but never for their lack of sense of humour. People without this quality are usually dim-witted, and have no business to run a country. The controversy over Tharoor's innocuous remark was needless and stupid, and most possibly driven by self-interest, as you have rightly said. It is a saving grace that the PM has seen the comment as what it was.

But I don't understand why someone cannot keep himself fit without the facilities of gyms in five star hotels. If such a thing was a prerequisite for fitness, 100 crore Indians would have been sick and possibly dead.

Gandhi travelled third class in trains, but a separate dabba was attached every time he travelled with his entourage. Sarojini Naidu once said, "It costs us a lot to keep Gandhiji poor."

Hypocrisy? I think not. Gandhi was making a political statement and that was how he connected with crores of Indians, who wouldn't have twitted even if the facility were available at the time.

bhawani said...

Shashi Tharoor has erred 'cos he is yet to realize that he has entered an arena which he had so far been commenting/crtiquing, thru his columns etc.

Further, he should not have been Tweeting so often in his political avatar. Probably he must have been under the mistaken impression that the code of conduct is the same for an international civil servant and the Indian politician.

More importantly, as a Minister/MP/Neta, you can live in Hotels with as many stars, BUT, never pay your bills, carry off some interesting accessories from there, none will complain, nor carry tales to the Press. All hell will break loose if you have the audacity to say, "I foot the Hotel Bill with my money."(!)

In Kerala, he has many enemies, the political wannabes he overtook to become an MP and then an MoS.
Unless he learns to wear the darned khadi shirt, go to Kottakal for his fitness and survive on allegations and counter allegations for the scoop-hungry media it will be tough surviving in our political quagmire.

Some thinking has gone into the allocation of Ministerial berths. Surely with Tharoor in External Affairs some element of "Open Sesame" will work magic for Indian diplomacy. But then, who wants a well-oiled relationship with our neighbours or any other country, for that matter.Where is the "Masala" for the political establishment and our media if we do not have the likes of Tharoor, skidding on a banana peel.

paramgiri said...

I also feel that the word "cattle " suits us all...No traffic rules ..not waiting to see rest houses to get relieved, and the cleaning team gets all sorts of materials from beach in trivandrum..

paramgiri said...

It is rest rooms and not rest house.

Ashok Menath said...

Are we dour? I am not sure. Malayalees certainly are not. Take for instance the slap stick movies by film makers like Sathyan Anthikkad, and Sreenivasan. The light hearted jest in their movies, I believe, won’t be appreciated by non-malayalees. Remember their third rate Hindi remakes by Priyadarshan. One caveat though: a malayalee will heartily laugh as long as the comedy only involves others.

Now about the clowns who make Indian politics a comedy. Is there anything new in it? Remember the moral crusaders from the yester years like this Governor of Tamil Nadu who banished non-vegetarian food from the Madras Raj Bhavan. He got the beautiful gardens and lawns of Raj Bhavan ploughed and planted bhindi, palak etc and nourished them with the sacred urine and dung of the ‘holy cows’ he brought from, god knows, where. Juxtapose this to the ‘Hindu’ moral crusaders who ransack shops selling valentine day cards, attack girls wearing jeans and going to pubs.... Yes you are right. We are so dour that we have even accepted these clownish antics as serious manifestation of morals and principles.

Shashi Tharoor will be better advised to remember Voltaire:

“To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well mannered”

He should, therefore, learn to be stupid and well mannered in the ‘right’ way. His clipped English and suave demeanour won’t make him well mannered in our political

A note of dissent as well: The ‘gym and privacy ‘ alibi was, to put it mildly, bland. Hilarious nevertheless!!

wannabe said...

A Stoic: Each has is ojective and his/her strategy. Sadly, most of them are not in tandem with the well-being of the country nor do they encourage or facilitate harnessing merit.

Santanu and Ashok: I too did not think the gym and privacy bit would quite wash. After all, he has a public persona in his new avtar!

Bhawani: I could not agree with you more.

Philip, Sajeev, Deepti: Thank you for those nice words.

A postscript: He paid his hotel bill, very fine. But when he says he used his money to pay his bill', does it not smack of arrogance? Perhaps that is what Bhawani means by 'code of conduct'.

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

sense of humour is a dangerous thing for a public figure to have - at least in india.tharoor will learn. give him time to get the hang of the lie of the political land he inhabits; and then he'll be the best neta we have,
after all, he's a super diplomat

Ritwik Sinha said...

A slightly different take on this issue.