Shashi Tharoor, the diplomat-turned-politician and acclaimed writer, could well be Kerala’s chief minister after the next assembly elections in 2026. The possibility has led to sleepless nights, not so much in the ruling Left Democratic Front as within the Congress. After he lost valiantly in the Congress presidential election against the official candidate, Mallikarjun Kharge, in October, Tharoor has turned his focus to his home state. The three-time member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram launched a four-day tour of north Kerala on November 20, speaking in a series of meetings ostensibly on his favourite topics like Jawaharlal Nehru, secularism and so on. Clearly, Tharoor’s outreach was to embellish his political, social, and cultural constituencies. He visited fellow writers like M.T. Vasudevan Nair and made ‘courtesy calls’ to Muslim League leaders and heads of the Catholic Church. The powerful Nair organisation, the Nair Service Society, has invited him as chief guest to its annual function.
Sensing Tharoor’s ‘lecture tour’ as a campaign to stake his claim as the next chief ministerial candidate, state Congress leaders have come out strongly against him. The Youth Congress, which had announced Tharoor’s first meeting at Kozhikode, withdrew following orders from the state Congress leadership. Although the meeting was held with the support of enthusiastic young Congress workers, M.K. Raghavan, Kozhikode’s MP and a staunch Tharoor loyalist, was the only prominent leader who attended the event. But Tharoor was warmly welcomed by the Indian Union Muslim League at the home of its supremo, Sayyid Sadique Ali Shihab Thangal, in Malappuram. This sent a chill through the spine of the other Congress leaders as the IUML is its most trusted ally.
The Congress’s V.D. Satheesan, the Opposition leader, initially cautioned against “activities being done parallel to the party” without naming Tharoor. He angrily slammed “media-created leaders who are like air balloons that burst with a pinprick”. Kerala’s Pradesh Congress Committee president, K. Sudhakaran, warned against “parallel politics” even though he said that Tharoor wasn’t doing anything against the party. The Congress’s new power centre, K.C. Venugopal, the All India Congress Committee’s general-secretary who is close to the Gandhi family, also disapproved of Tharoor’s operations. Complaints flew to the high command, forcing Tariq Anwar, AICC general-secretary in charge of Kerala, to rush to the state, although he said that Tharoor hadn’t indulged in any anti-party activity. Perhaps spooked by the growing enthusiasm for Tharoor among the core sections of the United Democratic Front’s social base — the IUML, the Catholic Church and the NSS — the Congress high command seems to have directed the state leaders to control their outburst. The KPCC disciplinary committee has now decided not to block Tharoor’s meetings but politely asked him to keep the party informed in line with organisational discipline.
Rival Congress factions appear united against Tharoor. The former KPCC chief, Ramesh Chennithala, with no love lost for Sudhakaran or Satheesan, commented against “parallel activities”. Tharoor’s detractors say he has never been involved in the agitations against the LDF government and is even soft towards the chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan. Tharoor’s initial refusal to support the UDF’s agitation against the proposed semi-high-speed railway line is cited as an example. Tharoor dismissed all allegations and said his tour only upholds the Congress’s philosophy and values. “I am playing as Congress’s centre-forward,” he said, echoing the spirit of the ongoing World Cup. He refused to admit he was being shown a red card.
The only Congress leader who backed Tharoor was K. Muraleedharan, MP and son of the former chief minister, K. Karunakaran. Muraleedharan, who dislikes the present leadership, said that Tharoor was opposed by those who want to be the next chief minister. “Those who underestimate him would be like Argentina, which Saudi Arabia trounced in the World Cup,” said Muraleedharan. Satheesan, Chennithala, and Venugopal being of the Nair caste just like Tharoor has also made the contention bitter; the next turn of chief minister in the Congress is supposed to go to a Nair.
Tharoor has enthused the younger party workers and the non-political class. He has supporters even among the Left and sangh parivar camps, as proved by his resounding electoral wins. With the LDF making an unprecedented return to power in 2021, the UDF and the Congress badly need a leader who has clout that goes beyond political, religious and caste divisions.
The enthusiasm for Tharoor is visible in the IUML and the Kerala Congress, the UDF’s pillars and the leading parties of the Muslims and Christians who comprise nearly 45% of Kerala’s population. They are impressed by Tharoor’s widespread popularity and secular credentials despite the charges against him for having a ‘soft-Hindutva’ heart. They are not confident of the capability of the Congress’s new leadership — Sudhakaran, Satheesan and Venugopal — which replaced titans like Chandy or A.K. Antony, to challenge the LDF or as a bulwark against the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even though it has not stated it openly, the IUML is worried about the Congress’s capability to take on the BJP even on the national level.
At present, the Congress doesn’t have the good representation of leaders it once had from the minority community. Until recently, the Congress balanced its social engineering with Hindu and Christian leaders at the top, like Karunakaran and Antony or Chennithala and Chandy. The dominant Kerala Congress faction with Catholic Church connections crossed over to the LDF after the demise of its patriarch, K.M. Mani. The IUML worries that large sections of Muslims are moving to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Adding to the minorities’ fear is Sudhakaran’s allegedly pro-sangh parivar statements. On November 14, Nehru’s 133rd birth anniversary, when the Congress elsewhere was hammering the BJP for denigrating India’s first prime minister, Sudhakaran scored a self-goal. At a meeting in Kannur organised by the District Congress Committee, Sudhakaran said that Nehru was so democratic that he “compromised even with communal fascists”. The KPCC boss was referring to Nehru’s inclusion of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor, in independent India’s first cabinet as the minister for industries and supply. This immediately started a wildfire. The Left lambasted Sudhakaran. There were protests even inside the Congress. Sudhakaran defended himself again until Tariq Anwar insisted on a public explanation. The IUML, too, expressed its displeasure. Sudhakaran had no way but to admit that it was a slip of the tongue.
A few days earlier, Sudhakaran had delivered another shocker. At a public meeting at Kannur, he revealed that during the 1970s, when he was a student leader, he had sent his men to protect many shakhas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from attacks by the CPI(M). Sudhakaran justified his action as a sign of his “concern for democracy” under threat from the CPI(M). But the IUML demanded an immediate meeting of the UDF to discuss Sudhakaran’s statement, with M.K. Muneer reminding everyone of Rahul Gandhi’s statement that there was no place for the RSS-minded in the Congress. Sudhakaran, Venugopal and Satheesan called IUML leaders and pacified them.
With the ruling LDF under siege from a growing number of scams and allegations, the convulsions inside the Congress couldn’t come at a more inopportune time for the UDF.
M.G. Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram, has worked with various print and electronic media organisations