Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Surprising Power of Symbols: Shashi Tharoor, Twitter, and the Taj Hotel

Today, we're addressing the the recent controversies surrounding Mr. Shashi Tharoor. For those of you who aren't familiar with this modern-day Renaissance Man, he is has made his mark as an author, journalist, and diplomat. In 2006, he ran unsuccessfully to replace Kofi Annan as he UN Secretary-General. He currently serves as the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, and he represents Trivandrum in parliament. His resume is much, much longer than this, of course. Stop by his website to learn more about the things he does, including the way he uses the power of Twitter to bring comfort to those in need.

Ironically, it was Twitter that landed Mr. Tharoor in hot water again last week when the press learned of his now-infamous "cattle car" tweet. No, the "cattle car" he was referring to was not the sleeper class on the Kerala Express--it wasn't even second AC; he was talking about the horrors of flying economy class.

Reading these remarks in the nation's capital, where
42.2 percent of children under 5 are stunted, and 26 percent are underweight, it is tempting to have a good time at Mr. Tharoor's expense, isn't it? But I'm not going to stoop to that level, because cooler heads have already pointed out that the uproar over the fateful tweet was largely a result of the fact that our nation's political leadership has a pathetic sense of humour. Who can argue with that? Besides, is there anyone among those of us who twitter who hasn't tweeted something we'd rather not be reminded of? I know I have, though it hardly matters, since most of my 12 followers are either poets, environmental extremists, or purveyors of pornography (where do those people come from, anyway, and how do I make them go away?)

But back to Mr. Tharoor. I see no reason to make fun of him for his "cattle car" tweet, because there are so many other things to make fun of him for! Today, I'll focuss on his decision to spend the summer at the
Taj Mahal Hotel. First let's be clear: he paid for his accomodation (which typically runs rupees 40,000 per night) out of his own deep pockets. And he had a good reason for choosing the Taj: Kerala House, where the government suggested he stay while waiting for his bungalow to be spruced up, could not meet two of his basic daily needs, "privacy and a gym." The Taj, by contrast, offers privacy, a gym, and a host of other services that Kerala House presumably lacks, including a Mont Blanc showroom, a really nice pool, "personalized Butler Service", and a shop where you can buy jewelry and miniature paintings. I've never been to the Taj, but I've been to a book launch at a nearby four star hotel, and I'll bet the Taj also has guys who stand around in the public bathrooms offering you a clean towell after you wash your hands.

Tharoor and S.M. Krishna's decision to move into five star hotels for the summer generated a lot of heat. Some were outraged that we have politicians living like "neo-rajas"; others were outraged that the issue was being raised at all. One comment in response to a story in Express India Online said, "This is insane.. if a person is bearing his/her cost, he is free to do wateva he wants with his money, you are no1 to moral police him on how he should spend." The writer of this coment has a point, even is s/he can't spell: a person is free to spend his or her money on just about "wateva" he or she likes in this great country, regardless of the consequences this might have on others.

These days it considered bad form in many circles to throw away paper without recycling it, but most people don't question the right of the rich to their private swimming pools, round-the-clock AC's, or long weekends in Paris. But these things actually impact the world in disasterous ways. According to the World Health Organization, climate change is already the direct cause of 150,000 deaths per year world-wide. UNICEF-UK recently released a report detailing the ways in which children are worst affected by climate change--it's chilling stuff.

To be fair, we all participate in pollution and exploitation to some degree. The rich just do it more. Is it really fair to single out Mr. Tharoor? After all, I wrote last Saturday about the problems with thinking that personal personal responsibiltiy alone will change the world. So let me be clear: worrying about whether you drink your beer in a bottle or a can, or whether it's more important to buy organic or to buy local are not the same as deciding whether you should spend the summer in the Taj or in more modest accomodations. Extraordinary, over-the-top consumption, like spitting paan on your neighbor's wall, is no longer something we can tolerate in polite company.

Of course, it's much worse when our political leadership does these things. That's because of something called symbolism. For thousands of years, kings and emperors have understood symbols can be as effective as armies in conveying to others the power and meaning of their nations. In Delhi, we are surrounded by evidence of this, from Qutab Minar to India Gate to Raj Ghat.

Shashi Tharoor is no stranger to symbols; he's a writer, after all. One only has to read a few examples of his humbly-titled "The Shashi Tharoor Column," which ran in The Hindu for a very long time to appreciate this about him. Here he is at his best:
...to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls...India’s founding fathers wrote a constitution for their dreams; we have given passports to their ideals. That is the India that Mahatma Gandhi fought to free, and its 60th birthday is well worth celebrating.--The Hindu August 5, 2007
Yes, Tharoor understands symbols, but he apparently doesn't understand the ideals of the people who founded this country. Remember the Swadeshi movement? This country's founding ideals do not require passports, because they are rooted right here in the land and the people that gave birth to them.

Sure, we've seen our leaders cynically misappropriate these ideals for decades and we're sick of it. In fact all the teeth-gnashing by both the BJP and Congress over that silly tweet last week is really just a replay of this drama

But let's be clear. If we are to remake this country and this world into something fit to pass on to our children, the answer is not to replace
the values of the millions of people who struggled and won our freedom with the values of power and over-consumption represented by the Taj Mahal Hotel. Just last week we wrote about the link between climate change and failing monsoons. For that reason and for many others, we can be sure that as bad as poverty is today, it will be much, much worse, if we continue to worship at the alter of greed and over-consumption. In the lived context of most of this country today, the words Mahatma Gandhi used in 1924 to describe the Swadeshi movement sound strangely current. It is, he said,"a call to the consumer to be aware of the violence he is causing by supporting those industries that result in poverty and harm to workers and to humans and other creatures."

Makes a lot of sense, no?


  1. I have been following your blog-posts with interest, Hari. With regard to your latest post, I'm glad that you've brought some perspective into the Tharoor case. The cattle-class remark coupled with conspicuous over-consumption are shockingly irresponsible on part of a politician. As you've rightly said here, the harm is caused by the power of symbolism (I'm reminded of the terrible harm that the Bachans caused about superstition in a country where people are KILLED because of religious superstitions! - with the "manglik" drama - that I found equally outrageously irresponsible!).
    And also thanks for the consistency of your "green" posts. Good to see someone pressing the alarm button, but not too insistently! Cheers!!

  2. @Guest, thanks for stopping by; I appreciate your point about symbolism, and your kind words. I've found this blogging thing is not as easy as it looks! This focus of this is "green" but the more I think about it, the more it seems connected to other issues, no? I'd write more, but I've got to get back to my day job.

  3. If I understand you correctly, you take issue with Tharoor for a) Over consumption and b) Not understanding the symbolic nature of the "austerity drive" am I correct?

    True, he IS guilty of over consumption - but perhaps not obscenely so. Meaning that I'd like to see how he behaves personally - does he waste plastic, paper, oil? It's a bit much IMHO for staying in a 5-star hotel, paying as you pointed out - from his own pocket.

    As for the symbolic nature of the drive, I agree that he should have understood it. But from his point of view I suppose he was pissed that he was being victimized and held up as an example of politicians spending lavishly of public money, and had to clear th air. I would be pissed too.

  4. @Guest,
    Sorry I missed this comment; I'm still trying to figure out how to work this machine. For me it was mostly the fact that he felt he had to stay in the Taj. I'm not asking him to go general or sleeper class when he travels, but the Taj? That's just Over The Top (OTT). He should know better. I appreciate that he didn't steal public funds to pay for it; but for me that wasn't the issue. (And the India as a Thali metaphor, well the part of me that takes poetry seriously found that annoying, but in a different way, entirely; but nothing to take him to task for in a political commentary:)

  5. Hey.. Thank you for subtly pointing out that India's founding fathers were all communists.


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