Topless towers of Ilium
by Sandhya Jain on 27 Apr 2010 21 Comments

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss…

- Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)


Sunanda Pushkar’s memorable encounter with the Minister of State for External Affairs has seriously dented Shashi Tharoor’s political career even as the lady has withdrawn, leaving behind the embers of an imploding Indian Premier League. It seems difficult to conceive how modern India’s most original and successful international show can go on.


Yet Tharoor-gate affords an opportunity to revisit the dangers posed by India’s dangerous open-door policy towards foreign nationals; the ill-heeded warning by Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav against hasty introduction of the women’s reservation bill; and the non-transparency of persons in public life.


When Congress gave the Thiruvananthapuram ticket to the wannabe UN Secretary General in the 2009 parliamentary elections, there was no hint that he was seeking divorce from his Canadian wife Christa Giles. The lady was conspicuous by her absence during the campaign, but one assumed she was keeping a low profile to avoid a ‘foreign spouse’ controversy.


Tharoor was in office for nearly ten months when the storm unleashed by IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi’s Twitter revealed that the minister is (was?) engaged to Sunanda Pushkar, also a Canadian citizen, and currently employed in Dubai. It seems likely that Tharoor met her when serving in the Dubai-based investment firm, Afras Ventures, and remained in touch via nearly 14 trips to the city during his brief stint in South Block.


It is possible she followed him to Delhi with a plan to make him mentor an IPL in lieu of handsome free ‘sweat’ equity for his future wife. Dubai is also where Tharoor met Joseph Jacob, his future OSD, whose father reputedly owns a hefty stake in Afras. It is unknown if Afras founder N.K. Radhakrishnan has officially invested in the Kochi IPL that is technically owned by an entity called Rendezvous Sports World.


Neither Sunanda nor Tharoor seem likely candidates for conceiving and executing such a grand strategy to erect one of the costliest IPL teams in the country ($333.33 million), that too, in a state like Kerala where sporting facilities are poor and the known sponsors are mainly non-Malayalis! Unlike Reliance Industries, Sahara Group, or India Cements, both lack wealth of the kind that permits a grand personal investment. Hence, given the Income Tax Department’s scrutiny into benami transactions funding IPL across the spectrum, it seems reasonable to suppose they have much to hide.


As Chandan Mitra pointed out (April 18, 2010), it strains credulity to believe that unknown businessmen or a suspended Maharashtra transport official could invest over Rs 1000 crore and outbid a consortium led by the Ahmedabad-based Adani Group. More tasteless was the attempt to implicate chief minister Narendra Modi. Given Tharoor’s frequent forays to Dubai and his deputing OSD Joseph Jacob to attend official meetings in connection with the Kochi IPL, there is a clear case for invoking the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, to examine his conduct in office.


BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad has said that Tharoor’s conduct was not merely improper, but a clear criminal offence under Section 13 (when a public servant abuses his office and obtains for himself or for ANY OTHER PERSON, any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage) and Section 20 (any gratification other than the legal remuneration by a public servant either in his own name or for any other person creates a legal presumption of criminal misconduct). The Shashi-Joseph-Sunanda trio certainly needs grilling.


What baffled observers, however, was his mesmeric hold on 10 Janpath and 7 Race Course Road, which made both authorities visibly reluctant to hasten his exit. Whispers circulated that Tharoor obliged the ruling party by fiddling names listed in the Volcker Report on beneficiaries of Saddam Hussain’s UN Oil for Food Programme. CPI leader D Raja wondered why the Congress leadership chose to project him as India’s candidate for the UN Secretary General’s post, for which he was too junior, being merely communications chief at UN and not in any policy making department. That is why he was not taken seriously in any world capital. With the party unable or unwilling to defend him in Parliament, the leadership reluctantly asked him to go.


Meanwhile, Sunanda’s Canadian citizenship and Dubai residence points to a disturbing internationalization (read dilution) of Indian identity. Unless we put in place stringent laws to inhibit politicians, civil servants, and officers of the armed forces from undue intimacy with foreign nationals, we will seriously prejudice our national security, and political and economic interests. The current scandal concerning a naval officer involved in the Gorshkov submarine negotiations with Russia, and Tharoor-gate, are just instances of the perils that face a society that is excessively open to adventurers at its top echelons.  


It is pertinent that at the height of the controversy, in a last ditch effort to salvage the reputation and position of her fiancé, Sunanda suddenly decided to relinquish her Rs 70 crore equity in the franchise. This happened immediately after Dubai-based Ashish Mehta surfaced as her lawyer, raising eyebrows amongst the cognoscenti as Mehta happens to be attorney to Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. By an interesting coincidence, when Lalit Modi recently visited Dubai for an ICC meeting, he accepted the hospitality of Sheikh Maktoum rather than stay in a hotel with other delegates; wheels within wheels!


Finally, the Sunanda Pushkar episode is a grim warning of the kind of women most likely to appear in Parliament if the women’s reservation bill becomes law – locally rootless, but with national and international ‘corporate’ contacts and an ability to ‘fix’ things. Many may not suffer from a citizenship disability like Sunanda, but could be members of entrenched families, the sort surfacing as IPL employees and passing sensitive information around.


This is precisely what Mulayam Singh meant when he said women who arrived under the bill would be the kind who got whistled at. He meant they would be ‘friends’ of powerful men, who would clog the system with private agendas. So shallow is media discourse in this country that he was shouted out of court; it is time Indian politics ended the unholy alliance of business and politics.


The author is Editor,

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