In India, Twitter ruffles feathers in the government

It takes a lot fewer than 140 characters to say, “Do you want to keep your job?”

In what some are billing as a generational clash of technology and culture involving India’s famously inefficient government and bureaucracy, a junior minister has broken ranks with his bosses on the issue of Twitter, earning front-page treatment and leaving his higher-ups unamused.

The scrimmage, played out between outspoken State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shashi Tharoor and senior Cabinet ministers, has titillated a nation that enjoys political intrigue almost as much as its cricket matches.

Tharoor, former U.N. official, award-winning author of 11 books and no stranger to controversy, was unceremoniously told by Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna to keep his doubts on a new immigration policy within the “four walls” of the government. “Tharoor ticked off for visa tweet,” read a front-page headline in the Hindustan Times.

Low-level officials speaking out of turn are hardly rare in most democracies.

But the issue and the technology highlight a bigger debate in India, analysts said -- namely, how open the government wants to be and how quickly it’s willing to adapt to new technologies that chip away at traditional, even feudal, practices.

“It’s not only the technology but a change in mentality,” said Deepak Kumar, a professor of science history at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “In a democratic system, debate should be encouraged. Tharoor is hardly a threat to Indian civilization.”

In his comments on Twitter, the Web-based short-messaging service, Tharoor, 53, criticized a visa policy unveiled this month prohibiting many foreign visitors from returning to India within two months of their last trip, ostensibly as a way to fight terrorism.

India has been rattled by the October arrest in Chicago of David Coleman Headley, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent who made several trips to India in recent years that went all but unnoticed by authorities. Although investigators are still trying to piece together his movements, he is suspected of conducting reconnaissance for the attack in late 2008 that killed 166 people in Mumbai.

The visa change has been criticized by the U.S. and British governments and many Indian analysts as unwelcoming and disproportionate to the risk. In response, the government has pledged to review the policy on a case-by-case basis.

Tharoor pointed out in a series of tweets in recent days that the 10 known gunmen in the Mumbai attack arrived by sea without ever showing a passport.

“Is all that worth it just in hope of making it difficult for a future Headley to [do reconnaissance]?” Tharoor tweeted. “Making it more difficult 2 visit India, return here frequently or stay long hurts large [numbers] of innocents, costs us millions of $ & alienates.”

Foreign Minister Krishna, 77, reminded his subordinate that he should avoid airing his grievances openly as a member of the government. Tweeting is forbidden by the ministry.

“The business of government is far too serious,” Krishna told reporters. “It has to be conducted in a manner in which we decide.”

Many in the younger generation support the high-profile tweeter.

“This controversy arose because of a lack of understanding among some other politicians who are behind the times,” said Ankit Saxena, 27, an advertising executive and avid Twitter user. “Tharoor is not afraid to speak his mind, he’s an opinion-maker, and we follow him because he has a fresh take on politics.”

Others, however, said his critics had a point.

“No government looks well on a government official publicly questioning official policy,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “On substance, Tharoor probably has half a point. But there needs to be a distinction between using these media for discussion, which is fine, and for policy. Making a nuanced case doesn’t lend itself to a sound bite.”

This is not the first time Tharoor has gotten into hot Twitter water.

Earlier this year, he referred in a tweet to economy air travel as “cattle class,” a term that wasn’t appreciated by some in a nation where cows are sacred.

Tharoor stands in marked technological contrast to many of his colleagues in government.

Although a sizable number of central government offices have computers, they’re often turned off and much of the daily business is still conducted with oversized ledgers, errand runners, carbon paper and stacks of paper folders tied with pink and green string.

Postal regulations that echo the days of clipper ships mandate that all overseas packages be shipped with a tailor-made cloth bag, a rule enforced by clerks who insist that cardboard simply isn’t strong enough.

In a June survey, Hong Kong-based firm Political and Economic Risk Consultancy ranked Indian bureaucrats the least efficient among 12 Asian economies, describing them as a power center in their own right extremely resistant to reform.

“It’s not because they can’t afford a computer or because they are illiterate, but because Indian bureaucrats become so comfortable with their obsolete pen and paper,” said Sneha Kataria, 21, a social media strategist based in Mumbai. “They should make a big bonfire with it all.”

Anshul Rana of The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.