In the petri dish of democracy, both inner and outer, Congress culture has been overrun by antibodies to free speech. Under Jawaharlal Nehru, criticism did not invite punishment and Panditji's critics were many: C Rajagopalachari, Acharya Kripalani and even Sardar Patel at times. Rajagopalachari, who broke away from the Congress in 1957, wrote about the prime minister, "I have been fighting Sri Nehru all these ten years for what I consider faults in public policies. But I knew all along that he alone could get them corrected… A beloved friend is gone, the most civilised person among us all. God save our people."
Last week, Congress MP and former UPA minister Shashi Tharoor was reprimanded by the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee boss for applauding the CPI(M) government’s high-speed rail project. State president K Sudhakaran threatened to eject Tharoor from the Congress saying the MP "is just another Congress worker", and must be subservient to the party line. This encapsulates the problem within the Congress. Tharoor is no Rajagopalachari. But like Captain Amarinder Singh, he is not an ordinary worker either. He is one of the few most illustrious Congressmen -- a former senior UN diplomat, celebrated author, what is more, a three-time Lok Sabha member from Kerala. And a civilised man too.
In his party where the first among unequals, the Gandhis, call the shots, subservience means slavery to the family. Loyalist Sudhakaran, who most probably cannot figure the meaning of allodoxaphobia (irrational fear of opinions), must be hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobic (someone who dislikes long words) since he would need a dictionary to decode the Thesaurus that is the man about town Tharoor, who ignores the boring white khadi kurta pyjamas of his colleagues.
Politics today is becoming Anglophobic. The Tufts-educated Tharoor's urbanity and freethinking ways would be anathema in his party, too. Free thinking has come a long way since the Nehruvian days, though Tharoor candidly said in an interview that he agrees with his party "most of the time". After Sonia Gandhi ordered her MPs to follow austerity measures like not flying Business Class, Tharoor tweeted that he has to travel "cattle class" -- a frequently used slang for Economy seats -- with other "holy cows". His party netas went ballistic. Today’s BJP politicians would have approved though for obvious reasons.
Class is partly the reason why Tharoor gets so much flak and schadenfreude. Most pre-Independence figures of every ideological persuasion, mostly from the heartland, were urbane, comfortable in their suits and Oxbridge accents. This trend mostly continued till the late 1990s when class became a negligible factor and the political rise of caste, instigated by Indira Gandhi, was institutionalised.
The second reason is that not only is Tharoor a political paratrooper, but does not believe in being in the herd; which perhaps explains his cattle class remark. The Gandhis are the party's caste-less figureheads, who have discovered Hinduism and the sacred thread to counter the BJP's vigorous anti-English, anti-West beliefs. Ironically, in spite of Tamil pride and the state's abhorrence for Hindi, even the most vernacular Dravidian does not abhor English or Western economics; probably a reason why the South is socially progressive and economically prosperous.
People like Tharoor are an aberration in the current pan-party political culture, a throwback to sophisticated, comradely times. It is the age of the snollygosters whose esurience to become kakistocrats makes them believe that the qualities of the past are a matter of floccinaucinihilipilification. Get a dictionary. Go figure.
Ravi Shankar can be reached at email@example.com.