India is in the middle of Twittergate.

Shashi Tharoor, the high-flying minster of state for external affairs in India, was almost felled by Twitter.

A Twitter fan asked Tharoor if, in light of the government’s austerity drive, he was now going to fly “cattle class” instead of business

“Absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows,” Tharoor tweeted back.

It was funny.  But not in a country of holy cows.  

All hell broke loose. His own party members jostled with each other calling for his head, many of them no doubt gleeful to take down the Johnny-come-lately a chhota peg or two. Sonia Gandhi, the party chief, apparently called him in for a knuckle rap. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, eventually tried to defuse the situation by calling it what it was – a joke. Tharoor had to apologize (via Twitter) saying he meant no disrespect to economy class passengers. Or cows, I guess.

Tharoor, the former UN spokesman, is media-savvy and urbane, but obviously misread the power of symbols in India.

India is all about symbols. Status symbols – which school does your son go to, which gym do you go to, which apartment complex in which gated community do you live in.

Religious symbols – the symbolic birthplaces of gods and mythological figures - and their representations in art can provoke riots.

A politician mines those symbols. Each party chooses its symbol carefully because a voter might be illiterate but he knows his symbols. “I always vote for the hand,” our old maid used to say. The Congress symbol was the hand. She had no idea who the local candidate was but she knew the symbol.

Tharoor had already committed a symbol faux pas. He had been ensconced in a five star hotel while the government was going on a very public austerity drive. It didn’t matter that he was paying his own bills. It was the symbolism that counted.

Days after the story surfaced that was THE topic of conversation on all the television talk shows in India, complete with entire panels of experts. The irony of all that talk about austerity on a media completely built around consumerism, whose soap opera stars glittered with jewelry and fabulous saris, was lost on everyone.

His Twittering was a symbol too – of a new kind of minister, accessible, available, media-friendly and very, very visible. The chattering classes were becoming the twittering classes. You could barely turn on the television without seeing him. And now he’s been felled by his own symbol. As my friend Mira Kamdar said, now Indian politicians will have to think before they tweet.

You could say this is the starchy old-school politics, of Nehru caps and obtuse press releases that no one ever read, having its revenge on the new social media wunderkinds. They will say the old slow meandering ways India worked can be frustrating in an age of Twitter, but are safer.

But Tharoor, smarting from Twittergate, is no doubt getting a crash course in the power of symbols. But he could have just learned from the master – Mahatma Gandhi, who always insisted on traveling third class in trains. When there was no third class, they had to attach one for the sake of the symbol. As Sarojini Naidu, a noted wit in her time, quipped then, “It costs a lot to keep Gandhi poor.” Good thing she didn’t have Twitter.