New Delhi: In connection with the latest controversy over his heaping praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has been dropped as spokesperson for the party.
An author, politician, and former international civil servant, Tharoor straddles several worlds of experience. Currently a second-term Lok Sabha (Lower House) Member of Parliament, representing the Thiruvananthapuram constituency, he has previously served as Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs in the Indian government.
During his nearly three-decade-long career at the United Nations (UN), he served as a peacekeeper, refugee worker, and administrator at the highest levels, serving as Undersecretary General during Kofi Annan’s leadership of the organisation.
Tharoor was a pioneer in using social media as an instrument of political interaction. Until 2013, he was India’s most followed politician on Twitter, until being overtaken that year by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He was the first Indian to reach 10,000 and 100,000 followers on the medium, and currently has 2.3 million followers.
Tharoor has lectured widely on India, and is often quoted for his observations, including “India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay”.
He has also coined a memorable comparison of India’s “thali” to the American “melting pot”. He said, “if America is a melting pot, then to me India is a thali — a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.”
Born in London in 1956, Tharoor was educated in India and the United States, completing a PhD in 1978 at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
His first wife was Tilottama Mukherji, granddaughter of Kailashnath Katju, and the first cousin of Markandey Katju. She is now a professor of humanities at New York University. They have two sons, Kanishk and Ishaan. Ishaan is former senior editor at Time magazine, and now writes on foreign affairs for the Washington Post. Kanishk is former editor at Open Democracy, and is working on a novel in New York.
Later, Tharoor married Christa Giles, a Canadian diplomat working at the UN. After their divorce, he married Indian businesswoman Sunanda Pushkar at his ancestral village in Kerala’s Palakkad district on August, 2010. On January 17, 2014, Sunanda was found dead at Leela Hotel in Delhi.
Tharoor happens to be an award-winning author of both fiction as well as non-fiction works, with his 15th book due for release in December. His first non-fiction book, Reasons of State. is a study of Indian foreign policy making, while his book India: From Midnight to the Millennium is an acclaimed analysis of contemporary India, cited by the then US President Bill Clinton in his address to the Indian Parliament.
He is also a globally recognised speaker on India’s economics and politics, as well as on freedom of the press, human rights, Indian culture, and international affairs.
His career at the UN began in 1978 as a staff member of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva. From 1981 to 1984, he was head of the UNHCR office in Singapore, during the boat people crisis. In 1998, the World Economic Forum in Davos named him a “Global Leader of Tomorrow”. He is also a recipient of several awards that include a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, India’s highest honour for overseas nationals.
In 1989, he was appointed Special Assistant to the Undersecretary General for Special Political Affairs, the unit that later became the Peacekeeping Operations wing in New York. Until 1996, he led the team responsible for peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia, spending considerable time on the ground during the civil war there.
In 1996, Tharoor was appointed Director of Communications and Special Projects and Executive Assistant to the then Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In January 2001, he was appointed Undersecretary General for Communications and Public Information, and Head of the Department of Public Information (UNDPI).
In 2006, the Government of India nominated Tharoor for the post of UN Secretary-General. He came a close second, behind Ban Ki-moon, in each of the four straw polls conducted by the UN Security Council and won the online poll conducted by the BBC News website. After the fourth poll, Ban emerged as the only candidate with the support of all five permanent members, each of whom had the power to veto candidates. Of the seven contenders for the post, including a president, two deputy prime ministers, several foreign ministers and a prince, Tharoor remained the only other person to enjoy a majority in the Security Council and came within two votes of Ban on the first ballot.
One Permanent Member, later revealed to be the United States under the Bush Administration, opposed him and China abstained from voting. After the vote, Tharoor withdrew his candidacy and declined Ban’s invitation to remain in service beyond the expiry of his term as Undersecretary General. Had he been elected, the then 50-year-old Shashi Tharoor would have been the second youngest secretary-general to be appointed to the post, the first being Dag Hammarskjold who was appointed at the age of 46.
A prominent human rights advocate, Tharoor was appointed international adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva for 2008-2011. He was also a Fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities and the Patron of the Dubai Modern School.
Prior to embarking on his political career, he served on the Board of Overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the Board of Trustees of the Aspen Institute, and the Advisory Boards of the Indo-American Arts Council, the American India Foundation, the World Policy Journal, and the Virtue Foundation.
In 2009, Tharoor returned to India and contested the general elections as a candidate for the Congress party in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Despite criticism that he was an “elite outsider”, Tharoor won the elections by a margin just two votes short of 100,000. On May 28, 2009 he was sworn in as Minister of State for External Affairs, in charge of Africa, Latin America, and the Gulf.
However, some of his tweets proved controversial and were highlighted negatively by the opposition and press. As Minister of State for External Affairs, he re-established long dormant diplomatic relationships with African nations, where his fluency in French made him very popular with Francophone countries and their heads of state. He was also the first Indian minister to visit Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010. He initiated new policy-planning activities on the Indian Ocean and represented India at global events during his eleven-month tenure as minister.
In April 2010, however, he resigned from his ministry following unsubstantiated allegations that he had misused his office to get shares in the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket franchise.
Tharoor denied the charges and, in his resignation speech in Parliament, called for a full inquiry. In a 2014 rejoinder, he defended his position stating, “I was never involved in a scam of any sort in the IPL. I was brought down because I had antagonised some powerful political cricketing interests.”
In May 2014, Tharoor won his re-election from Thiruvananthapuram, defeating O. Rajagopal of the Bharatiya Janata Party by a margin of over 15,000 votes, and became a member of the 15th Lok Sabha, sitting in the Opposition.