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Tharoor has cleverly stitched up a political support base

Last updated on: April 19, 2010 12:19 IST
For all his hubris and bravado, his westernised accent and media-savvy persona, Shashi Tharoor has climbed onto a familiar political platform that many upwardly mobile Keralites in Dubai may be happy to invest in, writes Sanjaya Baru, former media advisor to the Prime Minister.

I
t all began in Dubai. Shashi Tharoor's political career, his friendship with his political aide-cum-Man Friday Jacob Joseph, the alliance with Sunanda Pushkar and the idea of a Kochi IPL cricket team. When Tharoor left New York, after a 30-year career with the United Nations, he did not choose either Thiruvananthapuram or New Delhi as his home. It had to be Dubai -- a natural nest for a globalised Keralite, like most of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

For three decades now, the "Gulf" has become the bridge between home and opportunity for millions of Malayalees. It is not often recognised that the coconut, cashew and cardamom-growing economy of Kerala, with an educational system that supplied talent and a trade union system that suppressed it, would have sunk into the Arabian Sea if its people had not set sail for the Persian/Arab Gulf.

It was at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, that Raju Kurian, now an officer of the Reserve Bank of India, did the first important study, way back in 1977, on the impact of "Gulf migration" on Kerala's economy. In the intervening three decades, Kerala has been enriched by the now famous remittances of its Gulf workers. From being the non-English-speaking, mundu-clad working class, the Gulf migrant has become the globetrotting wealthy arriviste, investing in malls and hotels, in business and politics, with friends in high places in the Gulf and New Delhi!

Kerala's Gulf diaspora lacked only one thing. An icon, a globally recognisable face, a man for all seasons. That vacant slot was filled by an energetic diplomat whose global branding had been done by the Indian government's ill-advised decision to extend its support to him when he chose to field himself as a candidate for secretary-general of the United Nations.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up his Global Advisory Council, the Bengalis could boast of an Amartya Sen and the Gujaratis of Jagdish Bhagwati on the council. The Tamil diaspora contributed the mathematics Abel prize winner Srinivasa Varadhan and business czarina Indira Nooyi. The Malayalee diaspora was, however, represented by a real estate businessman, P N C Menon, who had made his millions in, where else, the Gulf and our own Tharoor of Afras Ventures, Dubai!

For the people who can legitimately take pride in producing some of India's best brains, scientists and educationists, it must have been disconcerting that their best global icon was neither a Nobel nor an Abel prize winner, nor a global CEO. In the event, Tharoor did well for himself and made his friends and admirers in Dubai proud. Not surprisingly, he chose a sport he and India loved. The heady cricket cocktail of money, glamour and political power, he may have thought, would take his political career to the next level.

Unlike investors in most other cricket teams, who hail mostly from the states that the teams are identified with, the Kochi IPL team has a large number of non-Malayalees, and the only Malayalees investing come from, where else, the Gulf! The Gulf connection has become vital for Kerala. Not surprisingly, the United Progressive Alliance government chose a Keralite for the job of Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs. The Ministry of External Affairs typically posts either a Muslim or a Malayalee to embassies in the Gulf.

It is a historic relationship that the Malabar coast has had with the Arab world. The only other Indians who can claim an equally ancient and intense relationship with the Arab world are the Gujaratis. It is not at all surprising that the Kochi vs Ahmedabad contest for the next IPL is intimately linked to the UAE links of so many from both states.

It is also interesting that some of the most financially successful Indians, ranging from M F Husain to Sania Mirza, so many from Bollywood and so many from India's Page Three crowd have a UAE or Qatar connection! Unconfirmed reports suggest that several Indian politicians, business persons and film and media personalities own fancy apartments in Dubai and have business interests there.

Apart from the fact that the 1.5 million Indians in the UAE, and the 3.5 million in the region as a whole, are an important source of foreign exchange remittances, contributing over US $50 billion every year, the UAE has emerged as India's major trading partner, competing with China and the European Union for the top slot.

Some part of this recorded trade is a reflection of the unrecorded trade between India and Pakistan, with Dubai being the "transit" port. When the India-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) comprehensive economic cooperation agreement is done, the two economies will come even closer. Dubai free port has its attractions for India's upwardly mobile and globally integrated elite. For good reasons and dubious ones, the India-UAE connection has become a vital aspect of India's external economic links.

While this connection is important for the economies of several states, including Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh (especially Surat and Hyderabad), nowhere is this link more visible and vital than in Kerala. Tharoor has, therefore, very cleverly stitched up a political support base for himself, spanning the Arabian Sea, linking the moneybags of the Gulf with the youth of Kerala.

Tharoor's appeal to regional sentiment in Kerala is not surprising. Regional chauvinism is the first refuge of the globalised Indian seeking a political career. For all his hubris and bravado, his westernised accent and media-savvy persona, Tharoor has climbed onto a familiar political platform that many upwardly mobile Keralites in Dubai may be happy to invest in.

Sanjaya Baru
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