The Political Risks of Tweeting in the Land of Sacred Cows

Indian Junior Foreign Minister Shashi Tharoor (L) arrives at Parliament in New Delhi on June 1, 2009. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

By Mira Kamdar

Originally posted on The Huffington Post, September 27, 2009

India's new-media savvy Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor has tweeted up a domestic political tempest in a country where sensitivities are ever on a hair-trigger alert for any sign of religious or class offense. Asked by a journalist via Twitter how he felt about traveling "cattle class" in light of his government's new austerity measures, Tharoor, ever a quick wit, jauntily tweeted back that he would happily fly "cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!"

Oops. Appropriate cocktail party repartee among a circle of social wits, yes. Appropriate on-the-record answer to a journalist in a country where cows really are holy, especially to the politicians who can make hay out of them (excuse the mixed metaphor), no. Tharoor's remark created a herd of trouble, his words an instant cause célèbre discussed 24/7 on India's many new talk shows and news channels.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, sensing blood like curs outside the abattoir, baled for his resignation. No surprise there: the Bharatiya Janata Party is part of the Sangh Pariwar, that group of organizations self-appointed to defend Hinduism, as it defines it, from all who dare to insult it, as it defines the insults. As Salil Tripathi has pointed out in his new book Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull Books 2009), there are all too many people with way too much time on their hands sniffing the wind in search of insults real and perceived to Hindus and Hinduism, most often as defined in extremely intolerant and socially restrictive terms. One is not surprised that the Hindu right would seize upon the conjunction of "cattle car" with "holy cow" to tar and feather a star politician who has vigorously defended not only India's secular values but the tolerant, open-minded traditions of Hinduism itself.

But Tharoor's remarks also struck nerves within his own party, the Congress. Unfortunately, the cattle-car reference, as it will forever now be known, was tweeted on the day Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi took a much-hyped flight from New Delhi to Mumbai in economy class. The party's spokesperson, Jayanti Natarajan, complained that Tharoor's metaphor was "not in sync with our political culture," whatever that means. But the scandal wouldn't go away. Finally, Sonia Gandhi herself had to engage in some political theater by calling in one of her favorite rising political stars for what was communicated to the press as a verbal rap on the knuckles and a warning that a second such lapse would meet with the direst of consequences. Meanwhile, Congress Party notables across the board seemed to be in a competition to see who could get out the best sound bite condemning the handsome, urbane, internationally renowned, and unabashedly witty man who'd blown back into India from New York via Dubai and instantly been promoted right into the inner and uppermost circle of national government. One sensed glee at the opportunity for some of Congress's older guard to take the high-flyer, as it were, down a notch.

Tharoor tried vainly to explain that he was referring not as a member of the global elite, which of course he is, to the great unwashed masses who must of necessity travel economy class but to the way cash-strapped airlines treat the flying public. As for the "holy cow" reference, he has since apologized for it as well as for the other, especially to all those who didn't get the humor of it all.

If ever there was a tempest in a tweet, this is surely it. But this seemingly silly incident stands as a warning to all, especially who work in the public domain, that our words cease to belong to us the moment they exit our mouths, our e-mail boxes, or our Twitter accounts. The very allure of Twitter is its ability to instantly express in virtual real time thoughts as they occur, and which seem obsolete the instant the next passing thought is tweeted. The medium begs a "tweet before you think" reaction to incoming queries. But the ephemeral nature of Twitter, it turns out, is an illusion. Like those e-mails one regrets the instant after one has clicked the "send" button, individual tweets can reach destinations for which they were never intended, be subject to interpretations never imagined and achieve a permanency never desired. Tharoor's Twitter travails provide a lesson for even the most media-savvy: one little tweet can trigger a tsunami of trouble.

Mira Kamdar, a Senior Fellow of the World Policy Institute, is a 2008 Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society and the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World