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An outsider, more than ever before

Jan. 18: His rakish looks, his silver tongue and his ready wit made him an “outsider” in the starchy Congress — a label Shashi Tharoor wore on his Twitter sleeves with pride.

The badge flashed its less benign blade today, leaving Tharoor fending for himself in public.

The Congress leadership, instrumental in lending Tharoor a helping hand more than once, has done its private bit to stand by Tharoor in his worst crisis.

Sonia Gandhi called on him, so did her political aide Ahmed Patel. The Prime Minister sent a touching note — “the loss of one’s companion is indeed irreparable but I would like you to know that we are with you in this hour of grief” — and Salman Khurshid said he “can only wish my friend Shashi strength in this terrible moment”.

Tharoor’s proximity to Sonia, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi was part of Congress folklore. His comfort level with suave politicians like Khurshid and Sheila Dikshit is also well known.

But other than such kindred spirits, the Congress appeared to be waiting and watching which way the probe into Sunanda Pushkar’s death would turn before lining up behind Tharoor.

Some Congress ministers who attended Pushkar’s last rites at the Lodhi Road crematorium in south Delhi had a non-political reason to justify their presence: the Kerala connection. Tharoor represents Thiruvananthapuram, the most prestigious Lok Sabha seat in Kerala where its capital is also located.

Among those who went were Kodikkunil Suresh and K.C. Venugopal, Union ministers and household names in Kerala but not known outside their state.

The most powerful Malayalis in the cabinet confined themselves to offering condolence in private. A.K. Antony, the defence minister, P.J. Kurien, the Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson, and Vayalar Ravi, the overseas Indian affairs minister — all big names in Kerala politics — called on Tharoor at his home. Sonia apparently stayed for “six-to-seven minutes”, it was pointed out.

Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, Union minister of state for home R.P.N. Singh and the two junior Union ministers from Kerala and one from Andhra were the leaders present at the Lodhi Road crematorium when Tharoor and Sunanda’s 21-year-old son Shiv Menon lit the funeral pyre this evening.

Well-versed in political and diplomatic etiquette, Tharoor would not have missed the “scaling down” on such an occasion.

Some of the Tharoors’ socialite friends such as designer Ritu Beri and Bina Ramani were spotted. Some celebrities walked in wearing crisp white cotton paired with Pashmina shawls — their presence unwittingly serving to highlight the political class barrier and the absence of the faces usually seen when a Congress minister is bereaved.

On Twitter, author Shobhaa De struck a discordant note: “I refuse to call her Sunanda Tharoor. Free at last! God bless her free spirited, beautiful soul.”

Asked what she was meaning to say through the tweet, De did not elaborate but said: “I am very saddened by her deathÖ. She was a fragile and vulnerable person.”

In the Congress, few were taking swipes at Tharoor in the hour of tragedy but his political future did appear uncertain.

That future is now tied to the course the case will take.

Congress sources said that if a criminal case is not filed against Tharoor, he was still likely to get the Thiruvananthapuram ticket but worried that the Sunanda issue would be exploited by both the Left and the BJP.

“Can the high command take the risk of fielding him in an election where winning every seat is crucial to us?” asked an AICC office-bearer who did not want to be named.

Former ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan, now based in Thiruvananthapuram, feels that “it is still early”' to discuss whether Tharoor stood any chance for renomination.

“It will depend on two factors — how the death had happened and how deep the Pakistani linkage was. The questions are legitimate and the answers will be out in a matter of a few days. Let’s wait till then.”

Within the Congress, Tharoor has been bit of a loner because of his earlier high-profile UN job, accent and controversies. At the party’s 24 Akbar Road headquarters, he was often described as a “confused intellectual” who had little link with the ground.

His candidature in 2009 had come as a bolt from the blue for Kerala leaders, who saw Tharoor as a high command nominee who would not cut ice with the voters in Thiruvananthapuram. His family home is in Palakkad in north Kerala. Tharoor, however, won by a margin of over 1 lakh votes.

The tragedy has struck at a time a buzz had begun that under Rahul, Tharoor would become a key player along with Nandan Nilekani and Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

The party’s Kerala leaders tried to put on a brave face. “Yes, Tharoor is a Congress MP and hence the Opposition will see it as a political issue. But I would say this has nothing to do with politics,” Congress leader Pandalam Sudhakaran said.

But the Left is already clamouring for a probe into Sunanda’s death. “A detailed inquiry should be held to bring out the truth,” said CPM leader Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. He also expressed the fear that Tharoor as Union minister might try to influence it.

The CPM’s youth wing, DYFI, took out a march in Thiruvananthapuram and burnt Tharoor’s effigy.

The BJP had gunned for Tharoor even before Sunanda’s death, when she had tweeted that her husband was having an affair with Mehr Tarar whom she described as an ISI agent. The party’s state president, V. Muraleedharan, said the matter was serious.

Sudhakaran described the demands for inquiry as “cruel’’. But party sources conceded that the state leadership, already grappling with infighting and a battered image, was worried about the fallout. Thiruvananthapuram was one of the handful of seats the Congress was hoping to win before this scandal broke.

Tharoor had learnt the tricks of the trade and as MP actively intervened for the city’s needs. He claimed credit for getting the National Highways Authority of India to revive a plan for a critical bypass linking the state’s biggest IT park in Thiruvananthapuram with neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

He backed demands for setting up a bench of the high court in the state capital and claimed credit for getting the approval of the environment ministry expert committee for the impact assessment report of a mega port at Vizhinjam, which can radically transform the state’s economy.

But some local leaders have been quick to predict Tharoor’s downfall. “One who moves fast, falls fast,” said a party leader who owed loyalty to the late K. Karunakaran.

For a while now, talk that the Tharoors’ marriage had been reduced to a “sham” was doing the rounds of social circuits in Delhi and Mumbai. The word was that the couple were keeping their differences under wraps till the general election.

At the cremation today, Tharoor put an arm around Sunanda’s son Shiv as they stood watching the flames but he didn’t lean in. Sunanda’s father, Poshkar Nath Dass, broke down as the body was laid on the pyre and had to be supported.

Shiv, who reached last night from Dubai, and Sunanda’s two brothers sat on the ground while Tharoor took a bench someone offered him and was comforted by his sister Smita, who had arrived from London.

The family was called in to complete the formalities for a death certificate, after which the boy returned to sit by his mother’s pyre. Shiv left with Sunanda’s brothers and Tharoor went home with his staff.