It is a truth universally acknowledged in India that a politician bereft of an issue to express his indignation over, would concoct one out of thin air. The moment such a concoction is introduced to the mango citizens (aam janta if you are wondering), the Indian news-media congregates to take a swig out of the barrel and proceeds to get high.
This familiar scene is playing out currently in India. In what has to be the most WTF evoking “It happens only in India” type occurrences that I have seen since moving back home, an innocuous exchange on Twitter (see image below) between a journalist and the most famous Indian recipient of the Colbert Bump in dominating newsprint and airwaves. It has politicians jostling among themselves to express their displeasure and the media, not one to be left behind, has been fanning the flames mentioning twits and twats every minute of the day for the past 24 hours and counting.
While Tharoor is on a state visit to Liberia and Ghana (sans Internet/Blackberry access for the most part), his own party-men have taken umbrage to his tweets that had the otherwise common phrases, “cattle class,” and “holy cows”. Calling his comment unacceptable “given the sensitivity of all Indians”, Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan (who this blogger once considered articulate) said that her party does not endorse it and “finds his comment unacceptable and totally insensitive.” (Link)
Much WTFness was felt when one heard what Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot had to say. Commenting that Tharoor “occupies a responsible and most dignified post”, Gehlot advised him to apologize to the nation for the comments (which he termed “very unfortunate”) and submit his resignation. (Link). But Tharoor did find an ally in his own Prime Minister. Downplaying Tharoor’s tweets as “no issue”, PM Manmohan Singh called it a joke and said, “the matter has been blown out of proportion”. (Link)
Meanwhile the media was not sitting idle. In the last 24 hours, almost every English news channel has had panel discussions on what has since been termed “cattle gate”. Blogger and author Amit Varma was part of one such panel discussion on the TimesNow channel. In a hilarious exchange that had Twitter-aware viewers going WTF every second of the way, Congress spokesperson Tony Vadakkan had this to say to the host of the show,
Let me tell you something: I did a little research after you phoned me, to find out what is the basic cause for this tweet business. Some of the survey reports that I received was Tweet is a very lonely man, and he needs counseling.
That utterance (do not miss the videos on Amit’s blog post) sums up the hilarity of the whole issue. What “cattlegate” has demonstrated to the millions of educated Netizens in India is that Indian politicians do not appreciate humor in the Queen’s language. What is even more surprising is that, some of the politicians that are considered articulate and educated (Jayanthi Natarajan, for one) have demonstrated their abject lack of knowledge of the nuances of the Queen’s English.
To his defense, Tharoor’s tweet was obviously a humorous quip referring to his own party’s recent austerity drive (In other news, the same party, citing security concerns, flew its MP and king in waiting Rahul Gandhi on a whirlwind tour of the southern state of Tamil Nadu at a cost of more than Rs. 10 million) and would have gone unnoticed elsewhere.
But this is India. As some sections of the tired tweeps of the Indian twitterverse jump to his defense (Link), and as yet others look on amused, while English challenged politicians indulge in old fashioned politics to cut down a charismatic newcomer, Shashi Tharoor himself has sought to defuse the situation. He mentioned that he was actually denigrating the airlines for herding passengers into seating like cattle. He clarified (what a lot of us have known for years) that “holy cows” referred not to humans, but to “sacrosanct issues or principles that no one dares challenge”, he said sorry “to those who were hurt by the belief that (his) repeating the phrase showed contempt”. He says he realizes that he shouldn’t assume people will appreciate humour and wished that critics would look up the means of these terms before reacting.
But if utterances by unnamed Congress politicians are to be believed, Tharoor’s apology will not be enough and his tweets will be the catalyst for his downfall. In spite of the PM Manmohan Singh coming to his defense, Party spokesperson Manish Tewari has said that his “party will take whatever action is appropriate and necessary at an appropriate time.” And according to TV news reports, Congress sources have said that Tharoor will be axed when the customary Union Cabinet expansion happens.
This is the sort of sad thing you get (as one tweet put it) when you have an educated person in a cabinet of half illiterate humorless twits. But this case of a bunch of humorless politicians taking a joke literally is certainly rich (as another tweet put it) coming from a party who adopted the music of “Slum Dog” as its call to arms in the last election earlier this year. Can we see through the reason why they ignored the literal translation of that phrase? Obviously yes. And that is a sad state of affairs.
However at Uberdesi, we are monitoring this situation carefully. There is enormous potential for His Eminence, the leader of all the Hindus in the continental US and elsewhere, Rajan Zed, to make an appearance. He could be tapped to teach Shashi Tharoor, who has spent the last few years outside India, about what the Hindu scriptures say about holy and sacred bovines. That would put the latch on #cattlegate once for all.