a version of this appeared in DNA dated apr 21st at http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/main-article_hypocrisy-and-tharoor_1373654

The utter hypocrisy about Shashi Tharoor

Rajeev Srinivasan

After a week of breathless media speculation, Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor has resigned. This is a shame, and it is a disappointing tale of missed opportunities for all parties concerned.

First, Shashi himself. It has been obvious that the long knives are out for him – a warning to “beware the Ides of April” would have been appropriate. There have been too many silly/manufactured controversies about Tharoor’s posts on Twitter.

The fact that there was media uproar about trivial issues suggested that these were planted in the pliant media. Presumably there is professional jealousy in the Congress party, because Tharoor has not gone through the mill pressing the flesh and building up IOUs in smoke-filled backrooms. He is the quintessential outsider, and Machine politicians simply hate such.

Besides, it is likely there was personal animosity as well. Tharoor is a dashing person, a good writer and speaker, and popular with women. The joke in Trivandrum constituency, my hometown, was that there was no way Tharoor could lose, as he was guaranteed 50% of the votes – every one of the female votes, young or old!

In Malayalam, there is a proverb about all conflict finally boiling down to “kanakam or kamini”, that is, either money or women. Surely there were elements of both in the flap over the cricket team that led to Tharoor’s resignation. There was the mysterious Sunanda whom Shashi had been squiring around Delhi; and the matter of the free equity she got in the team, for value that was not obvious to the casual observer.

Having been acquainted with the Tharoor family for years I believe Shashi would be offended if someone tried to bribe him. Nevertheless, an impression has been put about that Tharoor’s alleged wife-to-be has been given money in order to influence Tharoor. This is unfortunate and it doesn’t stand to reason: why would someone as smart as Shashi hurt his political career doing something as blatant and stupid as this? The obvious conclusion is that he was framed. Shashi has been crudely smeared. Fortunately, this is not the last we will hear from him – he’s too good a person to keep down.

Next, the Congress party. Did it suddenly become the absolute paragon of virtue? There are the small matters of Quattrochi’s ill-gotten gains, and the vast amounts allegedly squirreled away in numbered Swiss bank accounts, which the Congress resolutely refuses to investigate. But it’s quoting scripture when it comes to poor Tharoor?

In any case – although I realize this is a bad question – exactly how much money was at stake? A piddling Rs. 70 crores or so! There are serving cabinet ministers who have been accused of siphoning off thousands of crores in a spectrum auction, or in dubious overseas transactions using Participatory Notes. There are the Congress MPs caught on camera bribing opposition MPs in 2008’s infamous vote of confidence, but they all got off scot-free. There is an election commissioner whose boss wrote to the government recommending that he not be not be given any office with any responsibility.

Not one of these people has been asked to resign until their names were cleared in investigations: they have brazened it out. The only person who was sacrificed was Natwar Singh. It is quite likely that he was made a scapegoat to protect others – I wonder if it is the same with Shashi Tharoor.

There is a sinister possibility – that Tharoor was getting rather too popular for his own good. There is an axiom in the Congress party whereby non-Dynasty people have a glass ceiling. As soon as someone is viewed as a threat of even the smallest kind to the Dynasty scion, well, he is cut to size. Maybe Tharoor’s very popularity – 700,000 Twitter followers – was his bane.

Third, the opposition. I have no idea why the BJP and the Communists got their knickers in a twist about Tharoor. When you have bigger fish to fry – people who have severely damaged your parties’ fortunes through hook and by crook – why are you doing a hatchet-job on Tharoor? He is not even an ideological Congresswallah, and might possibly have been persuaded to switch horses as the Congress’ fortunes diminished. Lost that chance.

Finally, the citizens of Tharoor’s constituency. Instead of standing by their MP – after all, he is certainly more appealing than all the other candidates put together – the good citizens of Trivandrum have either been indifferent or have been secretly enjoying their schadenfraude. Wake up and smell the coffee, it’s your constituency’s loss!

All in all, a tragic situation. The Foreign Affairs ministry is notoriously bad at negotiation, and to lose the one person there who is on first-name terms with most world leaders is not exactly a good thing. I hoped Tharoor would stay on. Maybe he can be rehabilitated after clearing his name?

A version of this was published by DNA on Apr 6th at http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/main-article_vatican-s-pr-disaster_1367827 . a PDF version is at http://epaper.dnaindia.com/epaperpdf/06042010/5main%20edition-pg12-0.pdf

Vatican’s PR Disaster: Sex, Lies and Coverups

Rajeev Srinivasan

The raging controversy over child abuse in the Catholic church is spiraling out of control. What started a few years ago in Boston has now spread to Ireland, Germany and Brazil. Without making any value judgment about guilt or innocence – though there is a lot to say about betraying trust – it is obvious that damage control and containment were poor.

The apparent facts are as follows: many people are alleging that they were sexually and physically abused as children by Catholic priests. Furthermore, they allege a cover-up, whereby predatory padres, instead of being disciplined or dismissed, were spirited off to distant parishes where many continued dubious activities unmolested.

Some damaging allegations are now even reaching the top of the hierarchy, Pope Benedict, formerly Archbishop Ratzinger. It is being whispered that the then-archbishop was aware of the problem, and that he colluded in the cover-ups. The church could have handled itself much better, whether or not there is truth in the accusation: perception is reality, after all.

There are case studies of how large companies handled public-relations disasters, and these are relevant. For, the Catholic church, in an alternative retelling, is the oldest, largest, richest, and most successful multi-national company ever. Its offering, religious belief, is in high demand; the church is a ruthless and savvy competitor.

There is a remarkable advantage to religious faith: It is the only product where, if successful, that is, the customer gets what he wants, he is pathetically grateful; on the other hand, if the customer does not get what he wants, he blames his own lack of faith, not the church. Most companies would kill for such a ‘teflon’ product. Unfortunately, only Microsoft has come even close.

A little history is in order: The Catholic church was born at the Council of Nicea circa 345 CE; it immediately proceeded to create the dominant design by destroying other alternatives on offer. It declared as heretics, for instance, the Gnostics, the Cathars, the Nestorians, et al, and burned them at the stake. The result was first-mover advantage and monopoly profit. It also gained Intellectual Property protection by declaring its Book to be inviolate, the literal word of God.

When Martin Luther created a competitor, Protestantism, the Catholic church lost market share. However, it retaliated with its Counter-Reformation, and the result has been an uneasy duopoly with fluctuating market-share, and, in Pope John Paul’s pithy words, the Protestants “preying upon [his] flock like wolves”.

The next major upheaval was the Enlightenment in Europe, which dulled the appeal of the core product. People balked at vague promises about Heaven: they wanted instant gratification, and so competing faith products appeared, for instance Communism.

Pope John Paul was a savvy CEO, and he engineered a hostile takeover of Communism, via a joint venture with the Americans. He knew the value of PR, so he created more saints than all his predecessors combined – such free publicity! When he found his core market under attack from the followers of Mohammed and of Secular Humanism, he decided to explore new markets, as he declared in Delhi: “plant the cross in Asia in the third millennium”.

Alas, Pope Benedict is no marketer, but a rigid, doctrinaire theologian. A savvy manager would have shown contrition, muttered mea culpas, and sought forgiveness; this plays well because people like to see the mighty humbled. Consider some examples: Johnson & Johnson after the Tylenol scare, Union Carbide after Bhopal, and Toyota in its problems with faulty brakes.

When bottles of the pain-reliever were found laced with cyanide in 1982 in Chicago, it was obvious it was not a production issue, and that some criminal had injected the poison into bottles on retail shelves. But J&J took full responsibility, immediately apologized, and recalled every unit at considerable cost. Result: J&J gained a reputation as a caring and ethical pharmaceutical company.

After the chemical leak in 1984, Union Carbide pointed fingers at everybody but itself; when it offered compensation, it made insulting racist assumptions. There was an international criminal warrant on the CEO’s head, and the company never quite recovered from the fiasco.

In Toyota’s recent disaster, it first pretended that there was no problem; it then underplayed its response. Its Chairman was nowhere in sight to take the blame or institute corrective action. Toyota’s hard-won reputation for honesty, dependability and straight-shooting compared to fast-talking American competitors has been damaged.

Learning from all this, the Vatican should not have attempted to brazen things out, suggesting that the reports of abuse were “gossip”. It should have made dramatic concessions, admitting fault, instead of getting defensive. A few scapegoats should have been sacrificed, and seen leaving, weeping in contrition. Some actual reforms should be put in place. A Papal resignation would be ideal, thus exalting the office and the individual. Sadly, marketers were out-shouted by dogmatists; the whole thing is a fine mess now.