“Cattle Class”: Shashi Tharoor’s Tempest in a Tweetpot

I have been following Shashi Tharoor’s Tweets since the run-up to the Indian election, and have found him reliably interesting. The fact that he has been using Twitter is to some a gimmick, but it has been a bit of fresh air to people who want politicians to be accessible to ordinary people. (Melvin wrote a parody of the Twittering Minister back in June.)

But recently Shashi Tharoor’s Tweets have landed him in hot water. On September 14, he posted the following 12 words on Twitter:

@KanchanGupta absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!

Kanchan Gupta is an editor at The Pioneer; Tharoor was answering a Tweeted question. The question came in response to a recent directive that government leaders should take austerity measures — don’t stay in 5 star hotels, take the train instead of fly, etc. (Tharoor himself has been living in a luxury hotel in Kerala; as I understand it, he pays his rent out of his own pocket, not Indian government funds.)

Within a day, the throwaway line was all over the Indian news and print media, with opposition leaders demanding an apology and Congress party leadership trying to figure out how to explain Tharoor’s apparent contemptuous elitism. PM Manmohan Singh himself had to intervene, stating that he felt the phrase “cattle class” was just a joke.

A boilerplate example of the outrage over the line, and Tharoor’s Twittering in general, can be found here.

Tharoor subsequently posted the following:

learned belatedly of fuss over my tweet replying to journo’s query whether i wld travel to Kerala in “cattle class”. His phrase which i rptd

it’s a silly expression but means no disrespect to economy travellers, only to airlines for herding us in like cattle. Many have misunderstd

i’m told it sounds worse in Malayalam, esp out of context. To those hurt by the belief that my repeating the phrase showed contempt: sorry

i now realize i shldnt assume people will appreciate humour. &u shouldn’t give those who wld wilfully distort yr words an opportnty to do so

What do people think? Tempest in a teapot, or some legitimate issues here? Should Tharoor either stick to Tweeting “straight,” or ought there be some room for humor for Indian politicians?

26 thoughts on ““Cattle Class”: Shashi Tharoor’s Tempest in a Tweetpot

  1. It doesn’t seem like you’re allowed to have a sense of humour in Indian politics. With so many parties and ideologies someone always seems to be offended. You can’t even kiss in public or even go to a bar without getting harassed in some cases. Some Indian politicians or parties are like the Repubs on steroids.

    Or you can just say whatever you want and just be all like “screw you” – win over the masses with a rebel style. Show the old fogies what’s what. We seem to need a reboot / fresh slate when it comes to progressive politics.

  2. I just learned that Amit Varma of India Uncut appeared on an Indian news chat show to debate the “cattle class” Tweetgate. Links are here. I’ve been watching it — very bizarre discussion!

    There is a definite generation gap feeding the confusion.

  3. I have been following Shashi Tharoor’s Tweets since the run-up to the Indian election, and have found him reliably interesting.

    I think you seriously need to get out more, if you find the blatherings of joke politicos like this interesting. I had the privelege to spen 6 months with the Minister for Rural Development and his office in the previous administration as part of my fieldwork research. To effectively manage your consitutency, party affairs and a sizeable ministry is a massive and exhausting task that was massively time-consuming – if you take it seriously. How the fackin’ hell does one find to tweet never mind think about tweeting is beyond me. Oh, of course, I forgot we are talking about Tharoor; if this clown paid as much attention to his job instead of his self-promotion, he might actually get something done.

    Credit to him though for paying his own bills, most ministers and senior bureacrats take advantage of hospitality and utilities and never bother to pay a single paisa; I don’t see why he can’t stay in the 5 state hotel as long as he pays his own way and not dump the tax-payer with the bills. I mean it is Shashi Tharoor, after all, the man needs his gym facilities and private space. How else will he continue to look so good for the rest of us otherwise?!

  4. This is hilarious – the news anchor is like an Indian Chris Mathews. Love the music and editing on the lead into the discussion, they’re totally taking their cues from CNN.

    Love how the Congress politician is taking notes during the conversation. Agreed on the generational gap comment. Would be interesting to see Lalu Prasad’s tweets :)

  5. I see Tharoor’s mistakes as the following-

    1. Lack of message control. Even Obama distanced himself from Jackass remarks, even though they were highly popular. Tharoor’s cribbing that his words were taken out of context and blown out of proportion would be perfectly understandable for someone running for student council. Not for a Central Minister. This is hardly new, unexpected or peculiar to India. For instance in the 90s Russi Modi got into trouble when he said that is was difficult to have to answer to 600 odd MPs as his boss while running Air India. The parliament took exception to the “Odd MPs” part.

    2. The apology was sanctimonious, insincere and whiny. His apology came off as I meant to champion the poor oppressed Air Travelers and BTW airlines suck. The knaves have their knives out for me. P.S. I am sorry that many are too stupid to get the joke.

    A simple — I am sorry for the misunderstanding. I have the greatest of respect for economy class passenger and I unconditionally apologize for hurt feelings — would have been sufficient. After all Politicians everywhere US / India do this all the time, especially when the matter is small and innocuous

    1. Being politically insensitive and being a loose cannon. Sure the austerity drive is a sham, and just a symbol. But it is precisely the use of such symbols that helped the congress win an election at a time when the govt performance was historically miserable. For Tharoor to make fun of this was dumb, especially since he already had made the mistake previously (by staying in a 5 star hotel for months)
  6. Tharoor used a luxury hotel room in delhi as temporary accomodation,paid for out of his own pocket, he moved out after the austerity drive began.

  7. I agree with DizzyDesi.. Tharoor seems very ‘newbie’ to Indian politics to me. Of course, personally , I found the pun hilarious. And as a citizen, ( and as someone who voted for the Congress in May) I’m irritated that our government and media takes a twitter so seriously , when there are so many more things they SHOULD be worrying about.

  8. i have been following him on twitter for sometime, it is interesting to know what is the life style of a politician is. more than half of his tweets is about having dinner/lunch with some dignitaries from somewhere, other half is random musings, which for the most part is witty and so on, but i doubt from what i read, whether he can make any meaningful impact with his new title.

  9. Mr. Tharoor ran foul of Congress’s carefully cultivated image of a humble club working for the poor. He should have understood that with declared assets of $300,000, even great madam Ms. Sonia Gandhi is at best a middle class woman by his lofty standards. Self abnegation is a virtue for a left wing politician in India and Mr. Tharoor just needs to get with the program.

  10. Tharoor is an arrogant twit. While it is a storm in a teacup in some sense, Tharoor should have known better. After all, wasn’t he the Under Secretary for Communications at the UN? Perhaps, he should have turned on his fake Oxbridge accent while explaining his deviance to Mamma Sonia – then again, Lingua Italiana is not – yet – in his considerable repertoire.

  11. The bigger problem here is that this incident shows once again how the Indian media likes to focus on an irrelevant detail and report it with breathless indignation as though it were new in some way. We don’t need to read Tharoor’s tweets to find out that he’s elitist. Of course he’s elitist: he went to Campion, St Xavier’s and St Stephen’s! What do you expect? :)

    Sarcasm aside, the tweetgate stupidity has focused media attention on Tharoor, and not on the questionable merits of the austerity drive in the first place: are travel expenses really all that significant compared to (to name just two random things) the statues of every politician on every street corner, or the Z+ security demanded by every half-wit passing by? Would any proponent of this austerity measure downgrade their masters’ security expense? It appears for all purposes like a futile exercise in saving trifles and losing the plot. But having come to expect this ADD-style distraction from Indian media over the past few years, we can hardly be surprised at what they choose to report.

  12. Humor is fine. Just accept people are free to respond to that humor too. The problem is that basically he referred to the average person as the “cattle class.” He ended up sounding like a snob who is slumming.

  13. I think the Congress discomfiture was more with the irreverent ‘holy cows’ meaning the Gandhis, than with ‘cattle class’. They know their cattle class quite well after so many years.

  14. We don’t need to read Tharoor’s tweets to find out that he’s elitist. Of course he’s elitist: he went to Campion, St Xavier’s and St Stephen’s! What do you expect? :)

    Just because he went to communal schools doesn’t make him an elitist. Those schools have a religious quota, and he may have qualified under that.

  15. Most politicians around the world have their Marie Antoinette moments, it just looks really bad in a party that likes to play up some “khadi cloth aw shucks I’m a simple rustic in the mold of Gandhi & Vinoba Bhave” sentimental BS. This kind of reminds me of the scene in Goodfellas where everyone is partying after some humongous heist. Once couple gets taken to task for buying a fur coat & caddy. Tharoor is probably one of the few uncorrupted Indian pols around but his self financed peacocking draws too much attention to his kleptomaniac comrades

  16. I think that in his original “cattle class” comment he was trying to take a dig at the austerity drive in a humorous way. The comment came across like “oh yeah I have to put on all this drama of flying in economy because all around me are nothing but holy cows”, considering that economy class is humorously referred to as cattle class. It’s similar to the compulsions of politicians of putting on the white kurta while in office.

    I think that Tharoor is one of a small group of qualified people holding a high public office; qualified not because he must be really good because of his impressive resume but qualified in the sense that he has decent education, is articulate, has experience and doesn’t have a motive for leeching off in public office. It’s actually admirable that he had the guts to take a dig at a measure imposed by his own party, considering that in India, in each party members inevitably end up bowing before the party head. You have to have some talents and believe in yourself to be that confident, sadly a quality that lacking in politicians in India.

  17. Tharoor is one of the few qualified genuine politicians. The corrupt, hypocrite politicians does not like him. Ashok Gehlot asked for Tharoor’s resignation, but Gehlot is also the one who supported the attack on girls in a pub in Karnataka. (check here) I feel Indians (specially the older generation) does not have a sense of humor.

  18. It was Kanchan Gupta who used the word ‘cattle class’.ST was simply responding to it, and couldn’t resist the pun ( holy cows). But, even if he meant Sonia and Rahul by ‘holy cows’ as some people seem to have understood that word, Tharoor has said worse things about the dynasty in his avatar as a writer. I suggest reading Kanchan Gupta’s column about this non-issue.

    The discussion in the media on the Cattle class and now, the ‘work load’ tweets is obscuring the foreign policy turnarounds from Tharoor’s senior- S.M.Krishna. I mean, India actually asking US to leave Af-Pak and settle with Taliban :)

    Meanwhile, Mr.Tharoor doesn’t seem to lack political instincts either, going by this story in India Today, an obvious plant, because no one would have noticed the story about his tweets, if he didn’t tweet about the story in the first place.

    Amardeep,

    There is some space for humour in Indian politics.But there are different types of humour. What would go well in UN may not create laughter in Trivandrum. This is where Tharoor needs to step up his learning curve.

  19. Millions of Indians travel in ‘Cattle class’ each year. To compare them to animals even in passing is class Elitism. What does one expect from this dandy who has spent a greater part of his life outside India and has promoted delusions about this place. Tharoor must stick to the job His Bimboness was appointed for in the first place: to sign coffee table books and promote the ‘All is well. India is beautiful and this is the Indian century’ charade for consumption of the western media so that institutionalized atrocities against the poor and the marginalized can continue quietly in the background (Not that the west really cares, but they are more accountable democracies and answerable to their people back home)

  20. “Cattle class” is an American phrase, I believe. I wouldn’t expect an Indian audience to understand. Some things don’t translate well.

  21. American phrases can sometimes land you in trouble in India. Recently I was talking about the need for community colleges in India and the vice chancellor of the local university (who was an IIT prof) got really mad at me as he associated community colleges as somehow related with religious and caste based communities in India.

  22. he associated community colleges as somehow related with religious and caste based communities in India.

    Lol. This is funny.

  23. The term followers in twitter is quite interesting especially when you consider a politician whose career is build and broken by followers.

    While most of them only have either supporters or rivals (who wont claim themselves as followers), tharoor is fortunate to have followers (also read twitter followers) who both agree and disagree with him.

    If you want to disagree with tharoor on twitter you have to first follow him. Isn’t that amazing :)

    And for Cattle Class, lets hope no one starts a cattle rally saying that their name was pulled into a political debate.

    People can feel bad, not all think alike, but people can also take a humor, at least when they realize its a humor

  24. I still don’t understand why Mr. Tharoor’s statement was given such a twist in the game. Here in US they call it as Cattle Class which means like cows they just load people in and travel. It is a common usage and in India not surprisingly it has to be made a big hype by media. Our aam janta (common mass) should be able to take things with a pinch of humor with it. Otherwise it will be difficult to live for any person. Look at his work that he has done and has been doing for the people and I think Media should highlight on those and not catching or looking for words which will create unnecessary controversies. Anyway Mr. Tharoor good or bad – today he is known to people who didn’t know him much earlier :)

    Cheers Dawn

  25. The newspaper that started the story caught Mr. Tharoor’s ministry attempting to get the government to pick up personal expenses.

    Proof of austerity

    As The Indian Express reported, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s ministry pushed hard to get the government to pick his hotel bill. The only reason this did not happen was that the urban development ministry, to its credit, put its foot down and pointed to cheaper staying options.
  26. Pingback: In conversation with Shashi Tharoor at Galle Literary Festival - Groundviews