For Rajeev Chandrasekhar, politics of performance matters most

The poll battle in Kerala capital is not just between two opposing ideologies, but also a clash of personalities, writes Ravi Shankar.
For Rajeev Chandrasekhar, politics of performance matters most
Express illustrations.

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Rajeev Chandrasekhar hardly smiles. The BJP’s candidate for the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat is looking for a Kerala cannonball run as he winds his way through Thiruvananthapuram’s pastoral expanses and sandy seaside. “Yes, I’ve been told that before,” he says laconically.

And Chandrasekhar is trying, as if his posters sporting a wide smile speak the real truth. The Thiruvananthapuram war is not just between ideologies but a clash of personalities. The affability of Shashi Tharoor and the somewhat wooden Chandrasekhar’s passionless voice are a notable contrast. When Chandrasekhar mumbles to constituents, “Please vote for me, make me win. Together let’s bring prosperity to Thiruvananthapuram,” it is as if his heart isn’t in it.

But their rivalry is vicious. “If Tenzing Norgay claims to have climbed Mount Everest, people will believe him, unlike some random Congress politician saying so,” he sneers. The billionaire elaborates that he “brings the politics of performance to the table. When I say things, I’ll get it done.” He echoes his slogan, “Now it’ll get done.” Chandrasekhar says he had achieved so much in his life, to be compared with “someone who has done so little.”

For Rajeev Chandrasekhar, politics of performance matters most
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Throwing such shade at Tharoor could backfire: Tharoor is the only Malayali celebrity who almost became the UN chief, authored bestsellers, and is a three-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram.

Chandrasekhar is particularly bitter about the Congress drumming up his I-T returns controversy. The habitually skeptic Malayali doubts that “such a wealthy businessman earns less than a taxi driver,” according to Santosh, an auto-rickshaw driver, who scoffs at the BJP leader’s affidavit claiming he earned only `680. Nevertheless, he plumps for BJP. “My vote is for Modi, I don’t care about the candidate.” Reminiscent of the 2009 Kejriwal wave in Delhi, Santosh says that auto drivers back the BJP.

Though there are days to go before we know if a rickshaw revolution is underway, the BJP poll machine is ebullient. Chandrasekhar’s campaign vehicles advertise collages of him and Modi. Vehicle-born loudspeakers blare operatic exhortations that will make a Mollywood music director envious: “Here he comes, our darling Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the charioteer of development, bless him, anoint him!” For the blessing and anointment, Chandrasekhar is betting on his “reputation of 18 years of flawless, blemishless public life and of course my entrepreneurial record.”

Any campaign experience? “Though it’s the first Lok Sabha polls that I’m fighting for myself, I’ve helped many friends in the late ‘90s from behind the scenes.” Thiruvananthapuram is not his first rodeo. The party is concentrating purely on development; Chandrasekhar promises, “My mission is to ensure the state’s capital don’t decline further and achieve full potential.”

What works for him? Chandrasekhar answers that he is part of the politics of performance and the change in India’s capabilities Modi has brought. What works against him is shadowy; the Kerala idyll hiding deep faultlines of caste, religion, class and ideological conficts. There is scarcely a ripple on the silver mirror of the Vellayani backwaters, but old hatreds lie submerged. The CPI is out in force, supporting its octogenarian contender Pannyan Raveendran, whose campaign vehicle is an open Willys Jeep bedecked with red balloons and red flags. Raveendran dismisses the BJP as an irrelevant intruder.

“Communism is an ideology that has failed across the world, how can it survive in India?” Chandrasekhar scoffs. The BJP is trying to create a “Hindu atmosphere” in Kerala, different from the patriarchal North India. Hindutva activist Lakshmi Kumari writes in Sita Must Live, “If Hindu Dharma is to regain its glory and make its impact on the present-day world civilisation, Sita, the spiritual power and essence in Rama’s life, must also be given her place by his side. The restoration and revitalisation of Hindu dharma lie in the hands of the present-day daughters of Sita, the women of India.” This is perhaps why Ayodhya hasn’t had the impact the BJP expected in Kerala. A man clad in saffron shirt shouts, “Bharat Mata ki...” Neither Chandrasekhar nor the crowd responds with ‘Jai’s.

For Rajeev Chandrasekhar, politics of performance matters most
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Most people assembled at the campaign stops are Sangh members. A man holds up his young son towards Chandrasekhar, who pats him on the head and gives a rare smile and jokes to the boy to vote for him. Like in the Congress, there is discontent in the state Parivar — not between factions, but against an ‘outsider’ to Thiruvananthapuram. Chandrasekhar protests, “When the normal person is struggling to improve his family’s lot, how does it matter if two candidates are slugging it out?” He insists the voter must examine the performance of his sitting MP and his challenger’s potential . “Peoples’ suffering cannot be addressed with letters. To every question I raise, Shashi replies he has written three letters. But I don’t rest till the problem is solved.”

Chandrasekhar certainly isn’t resting. He has miles to go before he leaps, and Thiruvananthapuram to take the leap of faith with him.

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