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How Twitter attack brought down the most popular tweeter in India

Junior Foreign minister resigns over claims on microblogging site that his girlfriend received free £9.8m stake in IPL franchise

Andrew Buncombe
Tuesday 20 April 2010 00:00 BST

For once, the Twitter account of the sleek and urbane Shashi Tharoor has fallen silent.

Three whole days have elapsed by since the senior UN official-turned Indian politician and best-selling novelist sent a message. His last post read: "Thanks for all the support & good wishes. U folks are the new India. We will 'be the change' we wish to see in our country. But not w'out pain!"

His words were prophetic. Amid allegations that he had improperly used his position as India's junior Foreign minister for personal ends in a cricket tournament deal, the 54-year-old has been forced to take the "pain" and resign from the government.

After a series of meetings with senior leaders of the Congress Party, including the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, it became clear that there was little appetite to defend a man who appeared to be unable to avoid controversy – much of it related to his love of Twitter.

Mr Tharoor, who was once considered for the post of United Nations secretary general, is the most popular "tweeter" in India with more than 700,000 followers. When he was made a minister last year after returning from New York and being elected MP for the state of Kerala, he made it clear that he intended to shake up the traditional, bureaucratic and rather stuffy way of doing politics in India.

He saw Twitter as a means of reaching out to a new, young, educated category of Indians who might not normally bother with politics. But his Tweets – and his perhaps Westernised sense of humour – were misunderstood, sometimes by members of his own party.

Last year when the Congress Party leader, Sonia Gandhi, announced an austerity drive and told ministers they could no longer fly business class, Mr Tharoor posted a message to say he too was "travelling cattle class in solidarity with all our holy cows".

Many of his fans thought it was a pretty good joke but some senior figures within the party believed Mr Tharoor, who has never lacked self-confidence, had become too smug. His "holy cow" comments were followed by further controversies, including an announcement via Twitter that he did not agree with the government's visa policy.

At other times he used the 140-character missives to berate the media for trying to find controversy where he believed none existed, such as the time he appeared to suggest that Saudi Arabia could play a role in mediating talks between India and Pakistan. India has always rejected any third-party involvement in its relationship with its equally nuclear-armed south Asian neighbour.

Mr Singh called him to his official residence on Sunday and told him that the government required his resignation. The prelude to this decision also involved postings on Twitter – though on this occasion not Mr Tharoor's.

Pressure had been building on the junior foreign minister since the news broke that a female friend – widely said by the Indian media to be his girlfriend – was given a free stake in a new team that is to participate in the popular and hugely lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament. It was claimed the $15m (£9.8m) payment was made as compensation for Mr Tharoor's "mentoring" of the consortium behind the team, that is to be based in Kerala.

On Sunday, Sunanda Pushkar, the Dubai-based businesswoman given the stake in the new team in Kochi, announced that she would be giving up any involvement and returning her financial stake. But by then it was much too late for Mr Tharoor.

Details of the alleged deal were announced 10 days ago by the IPL boss, Lalit Modi, also a highly controversial figure, who leaked the information on Twitter. Mr Tharoor tried to defend himself, likewise turning to the micro-blogging site to dismiss the claims by Mr Modi, whose actions could yet lead to disciplinary action. Cricket's regulators are concerned that the IPL boss revealed supposedly confidential information.

Mr Tharoor, a very successful author whose works include a tome about India-Pakistan cricket matches, may now again have more time for writing. He insisted there was no wrong-doing on his part but his claims appeared unconvincing. The government, its feathers already ruffled by the minister's tweets, was no longer prepared to leave itself open to attack from the political opposition.

Perhaps a little ironically, many of Mr Tharoor's supporters rallied to his aid yesterday on the blogosphere. Several pages on social-networking sites have been set up to support him. "Shashi Tharoor is a person with an exceptional global experience. It's a foul play against him, we don't care [about] his private life," tweeted one of his fans.

But in an insightful analysis of the affair, the veteran journalist M J Akbar said: "Tharoor's misfortune was to encounter an adversary who could out-Twitter him at high noon in the gunfight at IPL corral. Tharoor and Lalit Modi have more in common than sharp suits, sharp wits and a dogged commitment to the television cameras. Having achieved so much through effective use of the media, they were convinced their favourite weapon remained the best option.

"They went to war through the media," he went on. "A veteran ... would have told them, had they but asked, that children in glasshouse nurseries shouldn't throw stones."

Others whose tweets have caused controversy

Darren Bent

*Most footballers conduct negotiations via their agents, but not the ex-Tottenham striker who expressed his dissatisfaction with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy to his Twitter followers instead. Desperate to secure a move, he wrote: 'Do I wanna go Hull City NO. Do I wanna go stoke NO do I wanna go sunderland YES so stop fucking around levy [sic].' Bent had to apologise to Levy, and he's since left Twitter – but he did make it to Sunderland in the end.

Stuart MacLennan

*On 6 April 6 Gordon Brown called a general election. Three days later the campaign had its first Twitter suicide, when Labour candidate Stuart MacLennan was caught Tweeting in an unbecoming manner. He called David Cameron a 'twat', Nick Clegg a 'bastard', and X-Factor contestants Jedward 'odious little shits'. More seriously, he referred to old people as 'coffin dodgers' and said he wanted to eat a 'slave-grown' banana. He was sacked within the day.

Jeff Frederick

*When US Republican politician Jeff Frederick heard that a Democrat would be switching sides in the Virginia senate, which was evenly split at the time, he tweeted: "big news coming out of Senate: Apparently one dem is either switching or leaving the dem caucus." But Frederick hadn't considered that by using Twitter to pre-empt an official announcement, he gave the Democrats time to persuade their flighty Senator to stay – which he did.

Mark Cuban

$25,000 is a high price for a single Tweet, but that was the cost to NBA basketball team owner Mark Cuban, who used his account to voice his anger at officials after his Dallas Mavericks lost a big game. Focusing on a technical foul by the opposition, he asked: 'how do they not call a tech on JR Smith for coming off the bench to taunt our player?' Once fined, he ruefully tweeted: 'can't say no one makes money from twitter now. the nba does."


*Companies can come a cropper on Twitter, too, as Habitat learnt to its cost when it entrusted the company account to an intern. In a fit of over-enthusiasm, the hapless individual began using popular hashtags – which are used to group tweets according to their subjects – to gain the store's promotions more views. Their use relating to the Iranian election protests, in particular, drew howls of criticism. Habitat apologised – and the intern got the boot.

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