Thursday, Apr 17, 2014Thursday, Apr 17, 2014
News
 

Wife's death casts shadow on Indian minister Shashi Tharoor's career

Published on Jan 18, 2014 11:33 PM
PRINT EMAIL
 
India's junior human resource development minister Shashi Tharoor (C) gestures after performing the last rites for his wife Sunanda Puskhar at a cremation ground in New Delhi on Jan 18, 2014. The death of Sunanda was described as "sudden" and "unnatural" following an autopsy on Saturday, a day after she was found dead in a New Delhi hotel room having earlier accused Tharoor of adultery. Police have launched an inquest into her death. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

India's Minister for Human Resources Development Shashi Tharoor, known as Minister Twitter for his prolific presence on the microblogging site, has survived many a controversy in his five-year-old career in Indian politics.

Now, many wonder if it is all over for the suave 57-year-old former diplomat, who is looking to be re-elected as an MP from Trivandrum, capital of his home state of Kerala.

His wife, Ms Sunanda Pushkar, died on Friday, 48 hours after an unseemly row erupted when she accused him of an extramarital affair with Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar and launched a Twitter attack on the latter for stalking her husband.

“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.”

“His political career hinges on the cause of death,” said former journalist Rashid Kidwai, author of books on the ruling Congress party, suggesting he may become a political liability.

“Already there is a backlash against him on Twitter and the whispers against him (within the Congress party) in the party will continue.”

In a country where personal lives of politicians remain out of bounds for the otherwise aggressive media, India had been transfixed by the alleged affair revealed over Twitter by Ms Pushkar, who described herself as “distraught” over it.

Still, some friends are standing by Mr Tharoor.

From earning a PhD at the age of 23 from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Diplomacy to being, at 45, the youngest Undersecretary-general of the UN, the high-achiever has always had a following, enhanced by his boyish good looks. Along the way, he authored more than a dozen books.

While he dotes on his twin sons Ishaan and Kanishk, from his first marriage - who were born in Singapore while he was serving here as the head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 1981-84 - his personal life has swung many ways. His marriage to Tilottama Tharoor, his college sweetheart and mother of his children, ended in divorce. He then married and left another UN staffer, Ms Christa Giles before marrying Ms Pushkar in 2010.

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 for many middle-class households in India.

He joined the UN in 1978 and was posted to Singapore from 1981-84 at the height of the Vietnamese “boat people” refugee crisis. This was when Vietnamese refugees started fleeing their country in boats after the Vietnam war

First wife Tilottama Tharoor at the time contributed several articles for 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 said in a 2008 interview with The Straits Times.

“I came to Singapore as a young man and with a huge responsibility at a very difficult time. There were about 4,400 refugees in the Hawkins Road refugee camp. By the time I left. we had got that number down to under 400. But the individual stories stayed with me,” he adds. 

The best-known Indian in the UN system, Mr Tharoor used his persuasive skills to convince Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to support his candidature for the post of secretary-general in 2007

Unsurprisingly, Mr Tharoor lost as the US backed South Korean Ban Ki Moon. That forced him out of the UN in 2007, and he began eyeing a political role at home with the ruling Congress.

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

“He was declared 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 Malayalam, his mother tongue and language of his state from where he campaigned, were not enthused as the first-time 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 once tweeted about flying “cattle class” to slay “the holy cows”. His Congress detractors complained that he was criticising Mrs Gandhi.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who shielded him then, was unable to protect him from his next controversy. This was a scandal which erupted in 2010 when it was revealed that his then girlfriend, Ms Pushkar, had been given a free stake in a cricket franchise that Mr Tharoor had used his influence to midwife.

While Mr Tharoor denied wrongdoing, he was forced to resign as minister of state for external affairs . Later that year 2010 he went on to marry Ms Pushkar.

In spite of it all, Dr Singh brought Mr Tharoor back into the Cabinet.

Even after the scandal over the Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar broke, Mr Tharoor, who said his Twitter account had been hacked but whose wife revealed she had sent the tweets revealing the affair, was back on Twitter on Friday tweeting about the Congress meet.

“Rahul Gandhi in the midst of his rousing speech which electrified the...audience,” he wrote, uploading a picture of Mr Gandhi, the vice president of the Congress party and the face of the party going into the 2014 general elections due within five months addressing the meet, which made Friday's headlines.

But by the end of the day it was Mr Tharoor who had replaced his boss as headline news.