End of the road for Minister Twitter?

Monday, Jan 20, 2014

INDIA - Mr Shashi Tharoor, known as Minister Twitter for his prolific presence on the microblogging site, has survived many a controversy in his five-year career in Indian politics.

Now, many wonder if it is all over for the suave 57-year-old, who hopes to be re-elected from Thiruvananthapuram, capital of his southern home state of Kerala.

"Politically it has done some damage," said Mr Jacob Joseph Puthenparambil, a digital communications professional based in Singapore who once served as an aide to Mr Tharoor. "He was elected because he was seen as an outsider, an academic and a man of polish. That (image) has been severely dented."

Ms Sunanda Pushkar, his third wife, died in a hotel room of unexplained causes last Friday. She had complained to newspapers about his amorous instincts and vowed to divorce him but later the couple appeared to have reconciled and issued an "all is well" statement.

"His political career hinges on the cause of death," said former journalist Rashid Kidwai. "Already there is a backlash against him on Twitter and the whispers against him in the party will continue."

Still, some friends are standing by Mr Tharoor.

"Whatever it is, Shashi has worked hard to do good work and that doesn't change," author Chetan Bhagat remarked on Twitter before Ms Pushkar died.

From earning a PhD at the age of 23 from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to being, at 45, the youngest under-secretary-general of the UN, the good-looking Mr Tharoor has always had a following. Along the way, he authored more than a dozen books.

While he dotes on his twin sons Ishaan and Kanishk - born in Singapore while he served here with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees - his personal life swung many ways.

His marriage to college sweetheart Tilottama Tharoor, the mother of his children, ended in divorce. He then married and left another UN staff member, Ms Christa Giles, before marrying Ms Pushkar.

Born in London and schooled in Mumbai and Kolkata, he was a champion debater at Delhi University's prestigious St Stephen's College. He credited his academic success to the pressure exerted by his parents, typical of many middle-class households in India.

He joined the UN in 1978 and was posted to Singapore in 1981 at the height of the Vietnamese "boat people" refugee crisis.

His wife Tilottama contributed several articles to The Straits Times under the name Minu Tharoor.

"Singapore has had a tremendous impact on the making of me as a UN official, as a human being and above all as a father," he told The Straits Times in a 2008 interview.

The best-known Indian in the UN system, he used his persuasive skills to convince Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to back him for the post of secretary-general.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Tharoor lost as the US was backing Mr Ban Ki Moon. That forced him out of the UN, and he began eyeing a political role with the ruling Congress.

Many within the party saw him as an upstart and interloper.

"He was declared a Congress candidate barely a month before election day," said Mr Puthenparambil.

Even though he won by a landslide, his peers, who attacked him on everything, including his lack of fluency in the local language, Malayalam, were not enthused when the MP bagged a coveted berth in the Ministry of External Affairs.

His witty ways sometimes put him in trouble. Reacting to austerity measures ordered by the government, he tweeted about flying "cattle class" to slay "the holy cows". His detractors complained he was criticising Mrs Gandhi.

Dr Singh was unable to protect him from his next controversy - the revelation that then girlfriend Sunanda Pushkar had been given a free stake in a cricket franchise that Mr Tharoor had used his influence to midwife.

Mr Tharoor denied wrongdoing but was forced to resign. He went on to marry Ms Pushkar that year.

Nirmala Ganapathy