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In India, death of 'Minister Twitter's' wife shocks New Delhi

By Shashank Bengali

11:38 AM PST, January 17, 2014

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NEW DELHI -- The wife of a prominent Indian politician was found dead of an apparent suicide in her hotel room Friday night after engaging in a Twitter feud with a Pakistani journalist she accused of having an affair with her husband.

The politician, Shashi Tharoor -- an author, former United Nations official and Twitter star with over 2 million followers -- found his wife lying motionless on her bed in New Delhi’s five-star Leela Hotel with no sign of external injury, police said.

The news of Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor’s death sent ripples of shock through New Delhi, where Tharoor, who serves as India’s human resources minister, is one of the best-known members of the ruling Indian National Congress party. His high profile also has made him fodder for tabloids, which have labeled him “Minister Twitter” due to his fondness for social media.

But Twitter got him into trouble this week after posts from his account suggested that he was having an affair with a Pakistani journalist, Mehr Tarar.

Tharoor claimed that his Twitter account had been hacked, and deleted the posts. But his wife told India’s Economic Times newspaper that she had found private Twitter messages from Tarar to her husband, and posted them publicly to show the Lahore-based journalist was “stalking” him.

She told another newspaper, the Indian Express, that the two had been having a “rip-roaring affair” since April and that she had found BlackBerry messages on Tharoor’s phone discussing the possibility he would seek a divorce, his third.

One message posted Wednesday from Tharoor’s Twitter account, apparently written by Mehr, said, “I love you, Shashi Tharoor. And I go while in love with you, irrevocably, irreversibly, hamesha [always]. Bleeding, but always your Mehr.”

Pushkar took to her own Twitter account to lambaste Mehr, accusing her of being an agent of Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI. Mehr responded by calling Pushkar, a businesswoman who married Tharoor in 2010, a dumb blond.

Tharoor, 57, and his wife, 52, issued a joint statement Thursday saying they were “distressed by the unseemly controversy” and appealed to the media to respect their privacy because she had been ill.

“We wish to stress that we are happily married and intend to remain that way,” the statement said.

Delhi police announced an inquiry into the cause of Pushkar’s death. Tharoor’s son from a previous marriage, Ishaan Tharoor, tweeted: “I would request that everyone please respect our family's privacy at this moment.”

It was the third marriage for Tharoor's wife as well. The couple previously made headlines in 2010, when Tharoor was forced to resign as a junior foreign minister over his controversial role in the awarding of a cricket franchise in the southern city of Cochin. Tharoor publicly backed the bid but failed to disclose that his wife had been awarded a large stake in the franchise.

A prolific author and diplomat with a silken English accent, the London-born Tharoor served for nearly three decades at the United Nations, eventually becoming undersecretary-general for communications and public information. In 2007, he lost out to South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon for the U.N.’s top post. He was later reported to be on the short list of candidates for dean of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, but withdrew from the running at the last minute.

He returned to India and in 2009 was elected to Parliament from the southern city of Thiruvananthapuram.

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Twitter: @SBengali

shashank.bengali@latimes.com