He taught Indian politicians how to tweet. A chastened Shashi Tharoor now warns against its overuse

“I told you so.”
“I told you so.”
Image: EPA/Anindito Mukherjee
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In 2009, when Twitter was just around three years old and Indians still largely perceived social media interactions as a leisurely pursuit, the then junior foreign minister Shashi Tharoor was already being referred to as “Minister Twitter.” Long before Narendra Modi’s unparalleled popularity, this former UN under-secretary general was India’s most followed politician on the micro-blogging site.

The only other significant political presence on the internet at that time, Tharoor says, was the Bharatiya Janata Party patriarch Lal Krishna Advani, through his web page.

So, the parliamentarian from Thiruvananthapuram was a trailblazer.

“I told [a journalist from Tehelka] that ‘everyone is criticising me today but believe me, in 10 years, every major politician in this country will be on Twitter,’ and she didn’t believe me,” Tharoor, also a renowned author, said recently. “It didn’t take 10 years. Four years later, Mr. Modi overtook me as the most followed [Indian] politician on Twitter and is now miles ahead,” he said. The two-time parliamentarian was speaking at a public Q&A session titled “The Current State of India by Dr. Shashi Tharoor,” hosted in a New York University auditorium on Feb. 13.

Today, it is almost axiomatic for Indian ministers, their ministries, and all and sundry political leaders to mark their presence on social media if they want to be taken seriously. Their posts—even mis-posts—often make it to the front pages of newspapers.

Even then, till the 2014 elections, social media was still viewed as “partly image building, partly source material for the mainstream media,” Tharoor said.

Only around 10% of the population had access to the internet even in 2013, so no one thought social media users could actually cast decisive votes. However, a report by Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) said that India’s over 93 million Facebook users and 33 million Twitter users ”[wielded] a tremendous influence” over poll results in 160 of India’s 543 constituencies.

Taking note, political parties allocated Rs400-500 crore of their Rs4,000-5,000 crore ad budget to digital campaigns. During India’s ”first social media election“ in 2014, where 160 million of its 790 million eligible voters were first-timers and aged between 18 and 24, the Narendra Modi anthem went viral. Shortly after the national elections, the Aam Aadmi Party won the Delhi state assembly polls fuelled by its online anti-corruption campaign.

Yet, India isn’t yet at a stage where mass rallies can be organised through Twitter and Facebook, the former minister said in New York. ”You still need your jeeps and your megaphones, and your traditional methods of rousing the masses, and street corner rallies and so on,” Tharoor says. But with internet penetration touching 35% by 2016, there are more people to woo online as well, he said.

Online’s influence extends beyond just the screens as well. ”Social media is much more directly being mined by the mainstream media,” Tharoor says. “Even if people aren’t using social media, they’re influenced by [it] through the mainstream media much more than they used to.”

Even government policy and action is often being framed by online reactions and plays out on Twitter and Facebook.

For instance, while Modi is the star with over 27 million Twitter followers, other ministries, too, have effectively used social media to reach out to people. Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj is a fine example. She has even initiated action to rescue stranded people from Iraq and Yemen and located missing passports and persons, following appeals on such platforms.

The Modi government’s social media use is “becoming a way of bypassing the bureaucracy,” Tharoor said.

Sometimes, though, the very nature of the medium proves disastrous for such interactions.

Tharoor criticised Swaraj for her recent Twitter tirade against Amazon after a user pointed out listings selling doormats with the Indian national flag printed on them. (Tharoor incorrectly attributed her Twitter outburst to the sale of slippers with Mahatma Gandhi’s face on them. That was a separate controversy.)

“An instruction was issued on Twitter to the Indian embassy in Ottawa,” Tharoor said about Swaraj’s tweet to “take this up with Amazon at the highest level.” He said, “The language used and the reference to use or misuse of visas in this area, all of this was a far cry from notions of diplomacy as discreet, behind-closed-doors—even when you give a dressing down.”

Obviously, Tharoor knows a thing or two about Twitter rows.

As minister, he was famously chided for his Twitter commentary critical of the policies of his own ministry, then headed by senior Congress leader SM Krishna. ”The business of government is far too serious,” Krishna had then said about Tharoor’s tweets. “It has to be conducted in a manner in which we decide.” Following this episode, there were calls from both within and outside the then United Progressive Alliance government for Tharoor’s ouster. He survived, though.

This wasn’t his first brush with controversy on Twitter. A few months ago, a laconic tweets on flying “cattle class” to abide by the government’s attempts at austerity, were perceived as a slight to the high command, namely party president Sonia Gandhi. He had survived then, too.

In January 2014, Tharoor’s furious wife Sunanda Pushkar posted scandalous messages on his Twitter timeline. The messages “threatened to divorce him over his alleged relationship with a Pakistani journalist.” A few days later, Pushkar was found dead under mysterious circumstances in a New Delhi hotel. While investigations have been on since then and Tharoor was even questioned in this connection, nothing conclusive has come up till now.

In her outburst, Pushkar had also threatened to disclose Tharoor’s role in a 2010 Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament controversy. Earlier, in another tweet, the then IPL chief Lalit Modi had mentioned paying Rs70 crore worth of sweat equity in the now-defunct Kochi Tuskers Kerala team to Pushkar.

Modi’s Twitter revelation was something Tharoor couldn’t survive; he had lost his job in the foreign ministry.