In India, a high society tragedy amid decline of elite


When Shashi Tharoor’s wife was found dead in a swanky Delhi hotel last week after their marital strife had been splashed on Twitter, the colourful career of a jet-setting minister looked in doubt and another symbol of India’s elite lost its sheen.
A magistrate who conducted an inquest has ordered police to investigate the death of Tharoor’s wife, Sunanda Pushkar. She died on Friday just days after she accessed his Twitter account to accuse him of adultery with a Pakistani journalist and getting into a public spat with the woman.
An autopsy has found that Pushkar likely died of an overdose of anti-depressant drugs.
Tharoor, who was once a candidate for UN secretary general, has asked authorities to speedily conclude investigations, saying he was “horrified” by media speculation about him and his wife.
The widely published photographs of a distraught Tharoor after his wife’s funeral are in stark contrast to years of media coverage of the well-dressed, former high-flying diplomat who has been courted from India’s cocktail party circuit to US television chat shows.
A prolific author and one of India’s first major tweeting politicians, the US-educated lawmaker and the beautiful Kashmiri who became his third wife were regulars in the social pages. But Tharoor has also been immersed in a corruption scandal and Twitter controversies have dogged him for years.
Media accounts of Pushkar’s last days, spiced by the involvement of a journalist from the country’s old foe, Pakistan, have gripped the country over the past week. The tale of one of the wealthiest figures in government has coincided with the growing prominence of politicians who have emphasised their less-privileged roots.
Anti-corruption leader Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax civil servant who leads the Common Man’s Party and eschews VIP privileges like official cars, and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, touting himself as the son of a tea stall owner, are now dominating as a general election approaches.
“This is the era of the rise of the common man, the tea seller,” said Sagarika Ghose, deputy editor of CNN-IBN and a leading political commentator. “There is a sense that Tharoor is not what India is about these days.
“There is a feeling that the elites are getting their comeuppance, that their time has gone.”
The drama around Tharoor comes after a series of scandals that have dented the idea of a rising, confident India.
The image of an economic juggernaut was undermined last year when growth fell to its lowest in a decade.
Politicians have been dogged by allegations of corruption on a spectacular scale, and a grisly gang rape in Delhi at the end of 2012 that sparked huge protests has marred the “Incredible India” slogan meant to draw tourists from around the globe.
Even a former Supreme Court judge has been probed over alleged sexual harassment and one of India’s most powerful journalists was arrested last month in another sexual assault case.
Tharoor may survive politically. He has received backing from the leader of the ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, and sympathy from many politicians. One TV channel called him the “Comeback Kid” for his ability to bounce back from reverses.
“There’s a tendency to caricature Tharoor. He’s glamorous, in gossip columns, a fashion statement,” said Ghose. “But he is also a very intelligent man and talented politician.”
Tharoor left India as a student and, after nearly three decades at the United Nations, he returned to join local politics when he lost to Ban Ki-moon in the race for Secretary-General in 2006.
He made his mark quickly, becoming one of the first Indian politicians to harness social media. His Twitter handle shows more than 2 million followers.
“He became a symbolic person for a more modern India,” said Bhaskara Rao, a well-known commentator on social and political issues and head of a New Delhi-based think tank.
Tharoor has had his share of problems. As junior foreign minister, his political career almost ended after he tweeted that he would fly “cattle class” in solidarity with “holy cows” - sparking a storm of criticism from the country’s Hindu majority, for whom the cow is sacred.
Tharoor was also reprimanded by his foreign minister that same year for criticising the tightening of tourist visa requirements.
In 2010, Tharoor resigned over allegations concerning a $333 million cricket league franchise bid when it was revealed - again on Twitter - that the winning consortium allotted stakes worth about $15 million for free to Pushkar, his then-girlfriend.
Tharoor returned to the council of ministers two years later and is now the minister for human resource development.
“He has a charming personality and is an astute commentator,” said Rao. “But the hype also has its pitfalls. And that is rather symbolic of the emergence of India.” 

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