Monday, February 6, 2023
HomeOpinionOperation 'Discipline Tharoor' failed in Kerala. But battle against Pinarayi won't be...

Operation ‘Discipline Tharoor’ failed in Kerala. But battle against Pinarayi won’t be easy

If his attacks on Modi and the BJP are any indication, Tharoor would rather be measured than go all-out, especially as an exponent of positive politics.

Text Size:

Congress MP from Ernakulam, Hibi Eden, did not hide where he stood on the issue that had divided the party into two camps lately. “We need to unleash the potential of Dr [Shashi] Tharoor to the advantage of Congress,” he said at the state conclave of the All India Professionals’ Congress held in Kochi on 27 November.

Then it was legislator Mathew Kuzhalnadan’s turn, resorting to football parlance about how it is important for a team to not foul its own member. The Youth Congress vice-president, K.S. Sabarinathan added that Shashi Tharoor was often a reference point whenever he traveled outside Kerala

Back in June, when the result of the crucial Thrikkakara by-election was declared, Hibi Eden had posted a telling picture of V.D. Satheesan walking ahead of him, captioned – “Captain (the original)” – on Facebook. A play on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan donning the ‘Captain’ avatar during the 2021 assembly election, the post had assumed significance as much as the bypoll win for Congress since it came against the backdrop of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in freefall. 

The Thrikkakara win for the UDF came after two consecutive losses in the assembly elections and Satheesan led this campaign from the front having replaced Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala. Satheesan got the nod ahead of Chennithala to be LoP after the election loss in 2021, despite the latter putting up a spirited fight in tandem with the Oommen Chandy faction to continue in the role. That event had marked an eclipse of the ‘group’ affiliations in the historically faction-ridden Congress in Kerala.

Also read: Arif Mohammad Khan vs Pinarayi Vijayan was up for a showdown. Until it became personal

The disastrous jibe

It was the younger Congress legislators who made the coup possible when they aligned with Satheesan against the wishes of their faction leaders. Importantly, more than a vote of confidence for Satheesan, it was the yearning for change and a wish to turnaround the fortunes of their party that propelled many of these young guns to defy faction leaders Chandy and Chennithala. So it was no surprise when some of these very same MLAs ditched Satheesan for Shashi Tharoor within no time. 

So, what changed in such a short span of a year-and-a-half? Apart from the fact that Congress looks nowhere in contention to win in case an election were to be held today, the lack of a mass leader to challenge Pinarayi Vijayan was becoming all too obvious. Moreover, in a state like Kerala, where a 2 per cent swing can determine the fortunes of an alliance, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) under Vijayan had been steadily making inroads into the traditional Congress vote bases. 

And for all his perseverance and performance as LoP in the Kerala assembly, Satheesan is no mass leader. But what proved costly for Kerala’s LoP was a rare loss of composure at a press conference, when he likened the media hype surrounding Shashi Tharoor’s statewide tour to an “inflated balloon, which would burst with the prick of a needle”. Satheesan’s jibe proved disastrous, as he found himself isolated in the party despite being LoP. 

In fact, Tharoor’s kite-flying exercise of meeting with Congress stakeholders and pressure groups across the state only received a shot in the arm when news emerged of an unofficial ban on his party’s programmes. But none in the party leadership would take ownership of the embargo. Veteran K. Muraleedharan cryptically stated that people with chief ministerial ambitions were behind it and slammed the move altogether. Satheesan’s presser came against this backdrop, and it was as much an admission of his role in imposing the ban.

The ploy to ‘discipline’ Tharoor did not work, as the Oommen Chandy faction did not approve of it. And K. Sudhakaran, the Congress’ Kerala president who is awaiting the party’s national president Mallikarjun Kharge’s nod to ratify his nomination, remained ambivalent. 

The Chandy faction’s tacit backing of Tharoor isn’t incidental. It extended its support to Tharoor when he contested for Congress president as a response to the K.C. Venugopal-Satheesan axis getting all too powerful.

Also read: Pinarayi Vijayan remains immune to graft charges but new book says his family sought favours

Climbing high

Tharoor has eventually come out on top in this power struggle. Having tasted blood while running for Congress presidency despite the ‘high-command’ putting pressure on the state unit – Tharoor is supposed to have received not less than 100 votes from the state – he wants to make the most of it. Tharoor’s Malabar itinerary was initially drawn up as a response to media reports of his exclusion from the revamped Congress Working Committee (CWC) as well as from the list of star campaigners for Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly elections

The timing also turned out to be perfect. It was only a week prior to Tharoor’s Malabar trip that state president K. Sudhakaran made a faux pas on Jawaharlal Nehru and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), enraging UDF ally Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). By embracing Tharoor in the midst of the power struggle within Congress, the IUML also managed to send a clear signal to its ally. 

IUML aside, Tharoor is also being courted by the Nair Service Society (NSS), which has pencilled him in as its guest of honour at its annual event in January. And when Tharoor commences his second leg of the statewide tour on 3 December, he is expected to meet with Syro-Malabar Church leaders – in Changanassery, Pala and Kanjirappally – whose support switching to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) had badly affected the UDF prospects in the assembly elections. 

A miffed Tharoor shifting his antenna to state politics was not in the wildest imagination of the state satraps. For a long time, Tharoor has assiduously kept himself away from the hustle and bustle of Kerala’s bipolar politics. And perhaps that kept him fresh for a launch of this kind. The pro-Congress pressure groups and the media lapped it up, but it was the jittery response from the party’s state leadership that turned matters completely in his favour. Perhaps Tharoor himself was unaware of the kind of appeal he held across Kerala.

Tharoor’s candidature as chief minister, premature as it may be, would also get the backing of the business community. The current crop of UDF leaders has acquired a bad reputation on account of unfulfilled commitments and a lack of timely clearances, which is why they continue to back Vijayan. There is also a suggestion that Tharoor should switch to Thrissur, located in the middle of the state, from Thiruvananthapuram, in the 2024 Lok Sabha election, to try and widen his base.

Tharoor would face his stiffest test whenever he takes Vijayan head-on, which is inevitable once he positions himself as the alternative. The Left intelligentsia currently toasting him would recycle their old charges against Tharoor in response, which he needs to be wary of, although a lifetime in diplomacy is expected to keep him in good stead. If his attacks on the prime minister and the BJP are any indication, Tharoor would rather be measured than go all-out, especially as an exponent of positive politics. 

The author is a Kerala-based journalist and columnist. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. Views are personal.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism