Shashi Tharoor’s Twitter saga: Twittergate controversy gets more ridiculous

Saturday, September 19, 2009, 10:45
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This is going from bad to worse. The Shashi Tharoor Twittergate saga is not dying down at all. The main at the center of it all is currently in Africa – I don’t think it will end nicely when he is back.

Photo: Shashi Tharoor, MoS, External Affairs

Photo: Shashi Tharoor, MoS, External Affairs

It all started when Shashi Tharoor, MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala and an active Twitter user replied to a tweet from journalist Kanchan Gupta. The question from Kanchan Gupta was:

Tell us Minister, next time you travel to Kerala, will it be cattle class?

The question was posed at 11:57 PM, Sep 14. At 12:17 AM, Shashi Tharoor replied: absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows.

Here are links for the Twitter user pages of Shashi Tharoor and Kanchan Gupta.

Major hungama ensued, and media went to town with it. Many were truly offended by the reference to the economy class as cattle class. Many more pretended to be offended.

Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan looked suitably morose, announcing that Congress found the term “unacceptable”. She conceded that the term “cattle class” was commonly used, but “we find it unacceptable because thousands of Indians travel on ordinary class.”

It did not end there. Many politicians added their voice to Twittergate. The controversy became worse when it was reported by Indian Express that the chief aide to Shashi Tharoor, one Mr Jacob Joseph took it upon himself to prove how right his boss was. He retweeted several tweets from many of Tharoor’s Twitter followers, who felt that Tharoor did nothing wrong in using the phrase “cattle class” and felt that Congress party, and Indian politicians in general, were a humourless lot. All this while there was no comment from Tharoor.

Sensing the anger – possibly at the top levels of the Congress party – sundry politicians in the Congress too jumped ito the fray. Rajasthan’s chief minister Ashok Gehlot said that Shashi Tharoor should tender his resignation before being asked to do so by the party. Gehlot said that the statement made about people travelling in economy class as “unfortunate,” and that Tharoor should not only apologise but submit his resignation.

It was revealed today that Shashi Tharoor called up Sonia Gandhi and spoke to her about the issue. The actual content of the conversation was not revealed, however.

When Rahul Gandhi was asked by the media about his response to the “cattle class” he replied that the party has said whatever it had to say.

Meanwhile, Tharoor apologised on his Twitter page. His apology was sent in a series of tweets that went thus:

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

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

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

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

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

But this does not seem to have satisfied the party. Congress spokesman Manish Tiwari refused to acknowledge the apology, and said that “action would be taken at the appropriate time.”

First, what is cattle class?

For English speakers in India, cattle class is not a new term. As long back as I can remember, the term cattle class was sued to refer to the economy class of airlines. The term originated because people were packed into the economy class seats with not enough leg room or shoulder room, it was crowded, and a far cry from the comfort of the Business Class or First class in airlines.

It is not meant to insult the travellers in the economy class in any way.

A direct translation is not helpful in this case. Remember the “mother of all battles” phrase uttered by Saddam Hussein? The English translation sounded bombastic and funny at the same time – but in the flowery language used in Iraq, it was perfectly normal. We can all pick out phrases in our vernacular languages in India, translate them into English – and see how offensive some of them would sound.

Cattle Class is a derogatory term alright – but it is directed towards the airlines, not the passengers. Tharoor’s audience in Twitter are largely exposed to the English language term. But it seems several of the newspapers an TV channels which played it up were not. If I were running a newspaper, I would be embarrassed to make a controversy out of it. I would play it down. Why? It just exposes my lack of comprehension in commonly used English language phrases.

Was Shashi Tharoor wise in tweeting “cattle class”?

Not at all. Tharoor had just been asked – in the name of austerity – to leave his five star accommodation, and move somewhere cheaper. At that time, he had moved out, but only after replying that he was paying his own bills in the five-star hotel.

That is perfectly fine, but not in India. Here you have a party putting up a show of austerity with much fanfare, and you are supposed to follow suit proclaiming your admiration for those ideals. Remember how they hated the sanctimonious guy in college? It works something like that. Also, there is the fact that both Sonia Gandhi traveled by economy class, while Rahul Gandhi travelled by train just a day before his tweet. This is the Congress we are talking about – and while Sonia Gandhi has been pretty ineffective in controlling the infighting in the party in states like Kerala or Punjab, she does not apparently appreciate such witty rebellions.

Or perhaps Sonia Gandhi does not have a problem with the tweet. But maintaining the apparent infallibility of the High Command has always been an axiom in the Congress, and the High Command has to somehow recover lost ground once it has been questioned.

The role of the media in Twittergate

Nothing to be proud of, frankly. Instead of playing down what they knew was a case of misunderstanding of the term, they went on and on. It was kept alive by the media probably because at the time, there was no worthwhile news item in the pipeline. They went around looking for quotes, and politicians can’t resist it when media asks them for quotes. Well aware that the TV audience include large numbers who do not speak English, they did not want to be caught defending the ‘elite’ and stuck to the safe option that Tharoor went over the line in using the term cattle class. What other option did they have?

Post-cattle class brouhaha, some advice for Congress, Tharoor and the media

Or forget the media. The media knows what it has done. It will do it again. Even politicians in India can be shamed and named by persistent media, but shaming the media is another matter altogether.

For Shashi Tharoor

You know what you should do. Do it. Keep it quiet on Twitter. You are a writer, but watch every word you say. You are not dealing with just the people who populate Twitter or the upper middle class. What you write will be watched, and just as you received a lot of kudos for being tech-savvy and sophisticated enough to make the upper classes think you are their man, there are many who resent that, think you are an outsider, and waiting for something to trip you up on. Which they did this time.

Use simple English. Read your tweets a few times before you publish them. Journalists (in those days when they actually got some training) were told to write in such a way that someone who has not passed his high school would be able to comprehend them. Goes for you too.

It is rare that a first-time MP makes it to the cabinet. Put it to good use. Thiruvananthapuram voted you into Parliament with an overwhelming majority, and were thrilled to see you being made a MoS. DO not ruin it all.

Neither your English language skills or tech literacy matters in the hurly burly of Indian politics.

Here, you are not allowed to joke, or be casual or flippant. Sit tight and grab on to that chair.

Oh, and about that aide of yours – Jacob Joseph – who has no idea about public relations and thinks that retweeting attacks on Congress – you need to  deal with them. That was serious immaturity.

For Congress

Learn how to douse a fire. Shashi Tharoor asked for this trouble, fine. But leaving every Congressman to bad-mouth him reflects badly on the entire party. Perhaps you think that it was better that Congress shows some anger instead of allowing BJP to capitalise on this. If that is it, it was smart. But nevertheless, there is a limit to it.

Probably Congress thinks – rightly – that the aam aadmi voted them to power, and they have to keep their sensibilities in mind. True, but after the initial drama, play it down. Deal with Shashi Tharoor in private.

There is a theory I have – the “holy cows” phrase, not the “cattle class” one, is what has pissed Congress off. COming a day after Sonia’s and Rahul’s budget travel, it sounded suspiciously like he was taking a potshot at them. He may not have been, and maybe was just referring to the holy cow of pretend-austerity. But that is not what it might sound like to ears ready to listen to any hint of a dig at the holy family!

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One Response to “Shashi Tharoor’s Twitter saga: Twittergate controversy gets more ridiculous”

  1. sanjoy alexander said on Sunday, October 4, 2009, 9:34

    Well-written piece. The tone of the article deserves thwo thumbs-up. Keep up the good work.
    Sanjoy Alexander