The Ultracrepidarianism Of Dr Shashi Tharoor

The Ultracrepidarianism Of Dr Shashi Tharoor

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Wednesday, April 22, 2020 03:50 PM IST
The Ultracrepidarianism Of Dr Shashi TharoorThiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor.
  • There was one problem with Tharoor’s advice to the Prime Minister. The fall in domestic American crude oil prices would not benefit India.

    Tharoor had confused WTI with the international oil price.

One impact of the Wuhan virus pandemic has been a steep decline in crude oil prices globally. For various reasons, the Americans were the worst hit. They were already in the midst of a supply glut when the epidemic forced a demand slump. As a result, domestic oil prices fell, and continued falling until American oil was trading domestically near zero.

At one point, the prices of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) went negative. It just meant that local trading was temporarily suspended until stockpiles were cleared, but the imagery of a negative oil price was so unbelievable and attractive, that the news went around the world in a flash.

Into this hubbub rode our own Dr Shashi Tharoor, honourable Member of Parliament for the Lok Sabha constituency of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

In his own opinion, Tharoor the economist, swiftly came to the conclusion that if foreign oil prices came down, then so would India’s oil import bill.

If that came down, then obviously, it was the solemn, bounden, Nehruvian socialist duty of the government to cut petrol and diesel prices.

And who is better to instruct Narendra Modi on that than Tharoor?

Here was a marvellous opportunity to showcase his ineffably celestial intellect to the world, while simultaneously showing Modi up as a fiscally unimaginative, niggardly opportunistic, Hindu nationalist, fascist enemy of the masses.

Besides, what other species of politician would be so merciless as to avoid passing on such benefits to ‘the people’?

And so Tharoor valiantly tweeted some gratuitous advice to Modi, about WTI falling to $5: “Will the shameless government that has milked the public with extortionate fuel taxes for six years finally relent and pass some of this windfall onto the beleaguered Indian consumer?”

There was only one problem.

The fall in domestic American crude oil prices would not benefit India. Tharoor had confused WTI with the international oil price.

Of course, it can’t be an assessment of Tharoor’s intellect, if we don’t use fancy words such as ultracrepidarianism. Let’s pause here for a definition — it means trying to pass high opinion, in an apparently-knowledgeable manner, on matters you actually know nothing about. Or to offer advice as if you are an authority on that subject.

And that is precisely what Tharoor did.

The word itself has a classical etymology, even if its usage is rarely classy.

It is a portmanteau from the early nineteenth century which plays on Roman philosopher Pliny the elder’s delightful advice that a cobbler should not go beyond the sole — an elegant way of counselling people to stay within the limits of their knowledge.

Now, while our world has been unfortunate enough to be inhabited by some marvellous practitioners of this rare art, naming and shaming them is not on the menu today, so let us leave examples aside.

Similarly, while there are numerous synonyms to describe people who don’t know what they are talking about, we shall not use them here. That is because the current objective is not to malign Tharoor for his ignorance, but to merely highlight the thoughtless folly of his tweet.

If only Tharoor had bothered to apply his mind before exposing it, he would have learnt that a slump in domestic American crude oil prices has no direct, commercial links to either the Indian petroleum bill, or to the oil prices in those nations from whom India buys its black gold.

So yes, India does source some of its crude from America, but at this point, no Texan is selling.

Whether American WTI fell to $10 or $5 or $-37, that price drop had no impact on India.

But poor Tharoor didn’t get it. He was too caught up in composing another Wordsworthian jibe at his bete-noire, Modi.

For a moment, he was Milton Friedman, Saudi Sheikh Zaki Yamani and John D Rockefeller all rolled into one.

In his mind, Modi was finished, out for the count, KO’d! Then the bubble burst, and Tharoor’s ultracrepiderianism was sadly confounded by his greater orthopedantology.


Orthopedantology: the refined art of sticking one’s foot in one’s mouth.

Tharoor must feel cheated. So close, yet so far. He nearly had Modi on the mat there with ‘WTI @ 5’. But for the miserable habit of cow worshippers growing cynical brains, he might even have gotten away with it. After all, none of his own tribe would have pointed out the ludicrousness of his statement, or its inapplicability to India.

Still, we are confident that he will try again; that he will one day prove that there is no topic in this world he cannot speak knowledgeably about.

The only issue though, with inveterate ultracrepidarianists, is that their overweening flamboyance, and unsighted self-confidence has a tendency to turn most conversations into pointless monologues. As counter, here’s a closing tip for such smatchetry (go on, Google that).

So, the next time you meet the likes of Tharoor, and wish, for example, to express your dismay at the heartless manner in which their party responded to the recent, brutal lynching at Palghar, don’t be so crude as to give them a piece of your mind. Don’t hesitate. Don’t be a fustilug (ponderous and clumsy). Instead, play the Lib, lift your nose, sniff, and say in a polite, level, phlegmatic tone:

Disregarding the horror of Palghar might be your Liberal schadenfreude, but contesting such selective apathy is our Weltanschauung.

Then turn, and leave.


Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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