Column: What makes Tharoor a big success as a leader.
By Sreedhar Bevara and Ashraf Nehal
Shashi Tharoor’s recent campaign for the presidency of the Indian National Congress captured the imagination of the country’s national media. Though the former United Nations diplomat lost the race to octogenarian Mallikarjun Kharge, Tharoor managed to emerge stronger both within and outside the party.
It showed that Tharoor, who represents Thiruvananthapuram in Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian parliament, is here to stay as a powerful voice and force in Indian politics for decades to come.
This was not the first time the writer-diplomat-politician fas found silver lining in a defeat. In 2006, he used an unsuccessful bid for the position of UN Secretary General to succeed his then boss Kofi Annan as a springboard to enter Indian politics.
What makes Tharoor successful as a leader? This essay looks closely at the leadership traits of the three-term MP.
Born in London, in 1956, to Chandran Tharoor, an advertising professional, and Sulekha Menon, young Shashi showed leadership qualities at an early age. As the elder Tharoor worked hard to ensure a bright future for his children, his son understood challenges in life at an early age and decided to chart his own future.
READ: Shashi Tharoor to brainstorm with Kerala diaspora (February 18, 2021)
The first time Tharoor was thrust into a leadership position was in 1975, when he became the president of the students union at the St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history.
After leaving for the United States for higher education in 1975, within three years, Tharoor earned a doctorate in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. At the age of 22, he became one of the youngest PhD holders in the school’s history.
The same year, he joined the United Nations, working as a Geneva-based staff member with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Quickly rising through the ranks, he became an assistant secretary in 1996 and Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information six years later.
READ: Shashi Tharoor to launch his two latest books at Dallas, TX, event on September 18 (September 11, 2018)
Communications and Public Information is one of the biggest organizations within the UN. Heading it as the Under Secretary General, Tharoor impressed the world at large with his both leadership and communications skills. In the process, he enhanced the image of the UN.
After he did a stellar job, Tharoor was persuaded by several nations, including India, to throw his hat in the ring for the top UN position, that of the Secretary General. His campaign to become the UN chief was going well until the United States effectively vetoed his candidacy. Tharoor’s UN career ended after losing to Ban Ki-moon for the top UN job.
Tharoor’s next innings, in politics, started with him getting elected from Thiruvananthapuram, in 2009.
Tharoor possesses two intangible traits and skillsets that make him a good leader: political acumen and supreme communication skill. Let us examine them one by one.
Communication skills: Leaders must be good communicators to inspire and empower people around them. Communication is not just about being an orator who has command over words, but the impact those words leave on you.
In Tharoor’s case what amplifies his communication skills is his mastery of many subjects, which is the result of years and years of reading and research on diverse areas, such as history, politics, sociology, economics and finance, and sports, among other subjects.
The clarity with which he articulates his viewpoint and the solutions he offers are rooted in the mastery of subject. The fact that he can explain issues in simple terms allow him to reach a broad section of audiences. That is also one of the reasons the nation’s youth are rallying behind him.
READ: Shashi Tharoor blames United States, India for his failed bid to become UN Secretary-General (October 21, 2016)
His protean talent as a communicator allows Tharoor to connect with voters. For a politician to be effective, he or she must connect with people. For example, former U.S. President George W. Bush was seen as a less accomplished candidate both times he ran for the highest office in the United States. His two Democratic Party opponents, former Vice President Al Gore and former Senator and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, were more accomplished individuals. But in most opinion polls, more Americans found Bush to be more affable. He is someone they could have a beer with, unlike Gore and Kerry, considered far superior to Bush in intellect.
Tharoor has much in common with Gore and Kerry, highly educated individuals who can slice and dice any complex subject. But unlike the former U.S. leaders, he communicates with common voters in an effective manner.
During the relatively short duration of his political career — just a little over 13 years — Tharoor has been extremely effective as a political leader. Despite the grand old party’s electoral problems — in the 2019 elections, the Congress party obtained only 52 seats in the 543 member Lok Sabha — Tharoor came out with flying colors.
He won at a time when many of the top members of his party suffered embarrassing losses, even in the party’s strongholds. Tharoor gave the Congress camp a resounding victory despite facing a strong opponent in Kummanam Rajasekharan, a former governor of Mizoram and one of the stalwarts of the BJP in Kerala.
As a parliamentarian, the Congress MP has won accolades from all quarters. The powerful manner in which he argued India’s case for reparation from Britain for its colonial loot, at an Oxford Union speech seven years ago, impressed even Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is one of the select few Congress party MPs to receive the prestigious Sansad Ratna award.
As a parliamentarian, Tharoor has never failed to address issues of public concern, whether it is in parliament or in the media. He regularly attends parliamentary sessions — he has an attendance rate of 90 percent — actively engaging in debates and discussions of bills, and asking questions relevant to, not just his constituents, but people of India in general.
The Congress leader also spends considerable time in Trivandrum, listening to and working with his constituents. That renders him immune from one criticism constantly aired against many MP colleagues from his party — that they go to their constancies only when the election approaches.
The greatest testament to a candidate’s political acumen is his ability to win elections in tough races. Tharoor has done it in Trivandrum, a competitive constituency, thrice. Winning an election is both an art and science. In a country like India, as they say, one needs to have a combination of four Cs — “cash, cadre, caste and credibility.”
Tharoor has both “credibility” and “cadre,” perhaps the two most important Cs, without which he wouldn’t have won back-to-back elections. In the process, he had to overcome two mammoth Communist and Nationalist waves. No small feat for a man often dismissed by some in the media as a so-called elitist and intellectual.
Strangely, there has been a steady stream of criticism against his political conduct by some in the party, time and again. But the Trivandrum MP hasn’t been disloyal to his party, in stark contrast to many of his colleagues who became Trojan horses and left the party for ministerial positions.
Tharoor has remained true to the values of the Congress party, espoused by its leaders during the independence movement. He represents the literary, intellectual, liberal and secular side of the Congress that has become rare in recent decades during, which the party began its steep decline. A staunch patriot, he has shown an unflinching commitment to secularism, constantly championing secularism in parliamentary and television appearances, as well as through his writings.
Great leaders always earn their position, by selling their vision to those they aspire to lead and working with them to realize that vision. Shashi Tharoor is one such leader.
(Sreedhar Bevara is an award-winning author and leadership/management consultant. Ashraf Nehal is a political analyst and columnist who mainly tracks Indian politics.)