Can Tha­roor make the cut as In­dia's prime min­is­ter?

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Rakesh Mani

WHEN I first met Shashi Tha­roor in the sum­mer of 2006, he was at the peak of his cam­paign for the of­fice of United Na­tions sec­re­tary-gen­eral. De­spite a pun­ish­ing sched­ule, he agreed to a half-hour in­ter­view with me - a rookie jour­nal­ist fum­bling through his first in­ter­view for a non­de­script e-zine. And yet, en­tirely to his credit, he was as gra­cious and charm­ing as could be. I sus­pected that his in­dul­gence had much to do with his own ex­pe­ri­ences as a young jour­nal­ist. Writ­ing for Youth In­dia mag­a­zine as a col­lege stu­dent, Tha­roor once in­ter­viewed In­dia's thenprime min­is­ter Indira Gandhi at her Saf­dar­jung Road res­i­dence in New Delhi. Thirty years later, in his spa­cious of­fice at UN head­quar­ters, he was on the other side of the mi­cro­phone. I'd asked him then if In­dian pol­i­tics was an op­tion he had given much thought to.

"I was tempted, but re­alised I didn't have the right back­ground. I didn't have a poor man's ru­ral con­stituency, and nei­ther was I a ma­haraja or an in­dus­trial scion. In In­dia, the ed­u­cated, salaried classes go into di­plo­macy be­cause there is no fea­si­ble po­lit­i­cal life for us," he noted wryly.

When he swept into the Lok Sabha in 2009, many re­joiced at the prospect of ush­er­ing in a new era of young, ed­u­cated and ac­com­plished politi­cians. They ex­pected a man like him to raise the bar of pro­bity in the shad­owy world of In­dian pol­i­tics. Yet, right from the start, Tha­roor strug­gled with the Congress party's old­world ways. Some al­leged that his su­per- star-sta­tus in the me­dia and his im­me­di­ate el­e­va­tion to the Cab­i­net irked many oldtimers, who felt up­staged. And yet, de­spite sev­eral false starts, he seems to have held on to the trust of the party top brass. If Rahul Gandhi is truly un­in­ter­ested in the top job, as he has said him­self, that ef­fec­tively cre­ates a po­lit­i­cal open­ing in the party. Many imag­ine that Tha­roor would be the Congress party's best choice to put for­ward as a prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date. Oth­ers rub­bish the no­tion, and dis­miss him as a po­lit­i­cal greenhorn with a pen­chant for the me­dia glare. More­over, they ar­gue, 10 Jan­path would balk at hav­ing him steal the top job from more se­nior party loy­al­ists. Tha­roor, how­ever, is not a man of the masses and suf­fers from poor vis­i­bil­ity out­side of the ur­ban, English­s­peak­ing classes. His core sup­port comes from the ed­u­cated, pro­fes­sional sec­tions of In­dia who have al­ways dreamt of an in­ter­na­tional leader who can con­duct him­self im­pres­sively and speak flaw­less English, a mod­ern-day Nehru if you will. To them, Tha­roor pro­vides de­liv­er­ance from the rus­tic - and of­ten frus­trat­ing - al­ter­na­tives that In­dia of­fers. To para­phrase the colum­nist San­tosh Desai, in a coun­try where ed­u­ca­tion and eru­di­tion is, for some pe­cu­liar rea­son, as­so­ci­ated with abil­ity and moral­ity, Tha­roor might be able to mount an ef­fec­tive cam­paign within his party - and later against the op­po­si­tion can­di­date - pro­vided he can see off his other ri­vals within the Congress. The most se­ri­ous of th­ese con­tenders, former fi­nance min­is­ter Pranab Mukher­jee, has ef­fec­tively ex­cluded him­self from the race by choos­ing to oc­cupy Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van in­stead. How­ever, he still faces an­other for­mi­da­ble and ex­pe­ri­enced op­po­nent with both the am­bi­tion and the po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions to gun for the Congress Party's nod - the present fi­nance min­is­ter, P. Chi­dambaram. Cor­po­rate In­dia would eas­ily warm to the idea of the pro- busi­ness tech­no­crat, Chi­dambaram, mov­ing into the top job. Many pun­dits viewed his lat­est Bud­get speech as, es­sen­tially, him lay­ing out his prime min­is­te­rial cre­den­tials to busi­ness, spe­cial in­ter­ests and ur­ban vot­ers.

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