Affairs, Betrayals, and Accusations: The Shashi Tharoor Scandal

Shashi Tharoor WEF

Shashi Tharoor at the World Economic Forum (via Wikimedia Commons).


In what could only be described as a soap opera, an unbelievable scandal hit India and Pakistan this past January. The very public incident involved the Indian Minister of State for Human Resources Development, Shashi Tharoor, and his wife, Sunanda Pushkar. A Pakistani journalist named Mehr Tarar also played an important role in the drama that played out mostly on twitter. The “he said-she said” situation caused national outrage and confusion, some might even go as far as claiming national embarrassment on the part of the government. One thing is for certain, the incident served to highlight the ever present tensions between India and Pakistan.

Shashi Tharoor is a renowned politician who served as the United Nations Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information where he undertook a large number of initiatives, including the United Nations’ first ever seminars on anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia. This groundbreaking legislation helped earn him a nomination for the Secretary General position within the United Nations. Although he wasn’t chosen, Tharoor returned to India where he rose to become a prominent government official. Both Tharoor’s celebrity and high-ranking position make him a desirable subject for many journalists, including one Mehr Tarar.

Mehr Tarar, a journalist for The Lahore, reached out to interview Tharoor last summer. A few months later, Tarar posted cryptic tweets about the new secret love of in her life, as well as tweets publically admiring Shashi Tharoor. Naturally, Tharoor’s wife began to suspect something unusual was going on. On January 15th 2014, Pushkar went onto her husband’s twitter and revealed, to his 2 million followers, the supposed private messages between Tharoor and Tarar declaring their love to one another. In response, Tharoor declared that his twitter had been hacked. Then, Pushkar confirmed that she wrote the tweets and began claiming that Tarar was stalking her husband and that she was an undercover ISI agent who was trying to infiltrate her marriage to gain political information.

This was a very serious accusation, with the implications involving deception and international government interference. Historically, there is palpable tension between the two south Asian countries. Decolonization and subsequent partitioning of India in the 1940s left bitter feelings of rivalry for many in the region. These feelings lead to conflict from time to time, especially in the hotly disputed Kashmir region, a location Tarar has visited many times for her employer.  With Pakistan’s nuclear power status in mind, an accusation like this could only exacerbate tensions. In short, a silly scandal could have very serious impacts on a region where stability is never assured.

Tarar quickly released a statement vehemently denying any affair or association with the ISI and expressed her belief that this claim would place her family in danger. Within 24 hours, Pushkar retracted her statements and released a joint comment with her husband stating that she did not write the tweets. The reality of an election year was likely the motivating factor for the sudden change in Pushkar’s story. It is clear that the back and forth public bickering between an important government official and his wife could only be a negative influence on public opinion.

However, things took a shocking turn the following morning on January 17th when it was announced that Pushkar was found dead in the hotel she and her husband had been sharing. In the wake of this tragedy, a large amount of attention was placed on Tarar and the supposed ISI connections that she had. An equal amount of speculation was placed on Tharoor and many theories from poison to government espionage have begun to surface with regards to Pushkar’s untimely death. The medical examiner ruled out foul play and there is an ongoing investigation into whether Pushkar committed suicide. However, this has not stopped India’s population from wildly speculating about the death of the chief minister’s wife. It is unclear what impact this incredibly public scandal will have on Shashi Tharoor’s chances in the national elections that are quickly approaching. The opposition has wasted no opportunity to criticize Tharoor and hammer him with accusations and condemnation. As is apparent in the United States, public opinion can make or break a national election. Only time will tell what impact this seemingly petty scandal will have on the Indian elections and the region as a whole.

WHAT WE’RE READING – 10 SCIR Summer Reads

While summer marks the end of the academic year, it also marks the beginning of when the SCIR editors have time to catch up on their reading.

We asked our editorial board what they’re reading this summer and why – and the reasons why you should read them. Here they are, in no particular order.

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1) Counterinsurgency Field Manual by General Petraeus

Written by USC’s own Judge Widney Professor Pertraeus, the COIN Field Manual is a text that editor Cristina Patrizio believes that someone who is interested in foreign service and government operations should be familiar with.

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2) Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

“I find him fascinating, and would like to get a deeper understanding of his qualms with morality,” says Cristina Patrizio.

3) In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Natalie Tecimer looks forward to reading this award-winning book this summer, stating that “after taking my genocide class, I’m really interested to read about the American family that was wined and dined by the Nazis even though they were in full awareness and contempt of what was going on and the danger of Hitler.”

4) Theodore Boone by John Grisham

Because even IR junkies need something fun to read at the beach. Besides, Grisham’s books have been translated into 29 different languages. That’s classic soft diplomacy.

5) The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

After attending IR 304: Espionage and Intelligence, Brad McAuliffe can’t wait to read about the cloak-and-dagger plots written by one of the world’s finest spy novelists.

6) The International Relations of Middle-earth by Patrick James

Another book by a USC Professor made our editors’ summer reading lists. When looking for new ways to look at international relations, why not consider the world of Tolkien?

7) Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India by Atul Kohli

Dhwani Thapar hopes to continue her studies in South Asian affairs with her summer reading. In her words, “India still has a long way to go because the economy is stretching in either direction, as top socioeconomic tiers make progress and lower tiers do not. I am interested to see what Kohli has to say about the sustainability of India’s socioeconomic rise as it takes on further international responsibilities but must contend with major domestic challenges in a growing population.”

8) Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Dhwani also expressed some interest in psychology. “This book delves into how we use subconscious decision-making as a tool to understand the world around us. I would like to read it because we touched upon these ideas in both my writing and organizational management courses at USC. As a young individual, it’s important for me to understand the barriers (and shortcuts) I might construct in perceiving my colleagues and environment,” says Dhwani.
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9) From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

“As we enter into an age of Asian dominance, I am interested in studying the original thinkers who disseminated an intellectual tradition that has informed and inspired the continent’s anticipated rise,” says editor Elise Steinberg.

10) Foreign Policy Begins at Home by Richard N. Haass

Also interested in American affairs, Elise aims to learn more about the U.S. as well. “Haass’ doctrine of restoration for a U.S. facing complex and critical global and domestic challenges should prove an interesting read.”