3-time lucky, Tharoor charm continues to draw crowds in Kerala

The poll battle in Kerala capital is not just between two opposing ideologies, but also a clash of personalities, writes Ravi Shankar.
3-time lucky, Tharoor charm continues to draw crowds in Kerala

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: It is a hot day in Thiruvananthapuram and Shashi Tharoor is hot property. Suntanned, voice hoarse after scores of speeches made at crossroads, marketplaces and local temples, Tharoor is enjoying his skirmishes in summer. The air is muggy with the ocean’s salty breath, and he is fighting to retain his bailiwick, which has a large minority coastal population. His pitch isn’t confined to Thiruvananthapuram. “At all my pit stops, I say my main objective is to change the Modi government in Delhi,” he explains. The BJP’s Christian outreach seems vulnerable after the Manipur pogroms. During Sunday sermons, priests are advising their flock to “vote according to your conscience and love for your brethren.”

Tharoor’s anti-Modi rhetoric turns the local election into national fight against divisiveness; a clever tactic. “Without trying too hard, my popularity seems to have grown,” he laughs, quoting recent opinion polls.Tharoor and his BJP rival Rajeev Chandrashekar trade snarky barbs. “Rajeev’s principal motivation is to be a successful businessman. That he has structured his financials to hardly pay any tax is embarrassing,” Tharoor says, adding, “If a candidate of a Desh Bhakti party behaves in this manner, what sort of patriotism is this?”

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All across Thiruvananthapuram, shop verandahs, temple grounds and auditoriums are swarming with Tharoor Bhakts. Men, women and children rush out of their homes to greet his convoy. Tharoor waves back animatedly. There is mutual excitement, even genuine liking. For 15 years, they have seen him on these very streets — at Thiruvallam Chitranjali junction, Vandithadam, Punchakkari and Konchiravallah; the novelty factor doesn’t count. “I won my first election while I was sort of stumbling and sleepwalking through some of the minefields and pitfalls of politics,” Tharoor recalls. He has crossed them unharmed, but the mines are there. Tharoor isn’t taking sides, and would rather be an outsider than join the regional power game. “People would say in the beginning that I’m not a politician and a misfit. Nobody says that anymore because I’ve won three elections.”

But the perception hasn’t disappeared completely, which is ironically his strength. The outsider who abjures the white cotton uniform of the professional Congress politician and wears his trademark kurta and dhoti is trusted more by constituents than the career politicos whose theatrical intimacy disappears after the last ballot is cast. Tharoor’s personal and emotional connect with voters are palpable. He gets off his campaign van at the Nelliyode Devi temple for a short prayer. The goddess seems to like him, too; an old woman blesses him. Tharoor’s manner is affectionately familiar in the way he places his hand on a worker’s shoulder as they chat like old acquaintances. The famous Tharoor charm is alive and well.

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The women of Thiruvananthapuram remain under his spell, thronging sidewalks, shops, and gates of their homes; some stirring the muggy air with bamboo fans embossed with his face. The Left candidate is Pannyan Raveendran (CPI), a long-haired septuagenarian and retired Lok Sabha MP whom Pinarayi Vijayan pulled out of his armchair where was reading either Marx or Manorama. It is ironic to see red, tricolor and saffron flags flying side by side in many places; a confederation of power seekers who seem to accommodate each other, at least outwardly.

Winning Thiruvananthapuram matters to the Congress, though many khadi leaders are suspicious of Tharoor. Tharoor’s anti-Modi trope makes him a national batter. “Here the candidate folds his hands, says a few words, accepts scarves and off he goes to the next pit stop. Now when I speak about bringing change in Delhi, I’m applauded, which is very unusual in situations like this. It means people are responding to my message.”

His message for Kerala? “Making Kerala’s voice heard nationally involves fighting for the idea of India and democratic values.”

At a small junction, a young woman with a bank job has come

to watch him campaign. She and her family were formerly Communists. This time they will vote for Tharoor.

“Why not the BJP?”

“They just want to build temples,” she laughs.

For now, Shashi Tharoor’s effort is to consecrate his career with a fourth win. “He attends weddings, funerals and even birthdays of children,” comments a famous Malayalam writer wryly. Even before the elections were announced, Tharoor had issued a constituency progress report claiming success in completing the Kazhakoottam-Karode national highway bypass, establishing new railway stations, and successfully implementing the village adoption scheme. The suave Congressman explains, “State elections are two years away and I hear people say my real target is to be CM. I’ve come into politics with a national and international vision and I’d much rather we form the government in Delhi in June before anything else.”

He laughs, saying his political shelf life is reaching its expiry date. Going by visible voter enthusiasm, the shelves are still stocked with the Tharoor brand. How much has been sold will be revealed only next month.

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