On the campaign tour for his presidential election bid, Shashi Tharoor Tuesday reached home state Kerala, where the climb is as uphill for the 66-year-old.
The state unit is divided on his candidature, with the bigger camp of mainly senior party leaders openly coming out in support of Mallikarjun Kharge, and a section of the youngsters batting for Tharoor, the MP from Thiruvananthapuram. Tharoor has said he wasn’t surprised by this: “I don’t expect support from big leaders in the party. A majority of my supporters are young leaders and party workers.”
Congress sources said that senior leaders, otherwise well known for promoting own group interests in Kerala, have rallied around Kharge on the general assumption that the veteran Karnataka leader is the official candidate of the party, particularly the Gandhi family. Cutting across intra-party differences, Kerala leaders wear their support for the family on their sleeves.
Sources said that another factor weighing in favour of Kharge for the Kerala leadership is K C Venugopal, who as AICC general secretary (organisational matters) is among the most influential leaders in the Congress right now and is close to Rahul. Emergence of another leader from Kerala such as Tharoor may threaten Venugopal’s position.
Besides, the present Kerala leadership, of K Sudhakaran and V D Satheesan, owe much to Venugopal for their rise in the wake of the 2021 Assembly election loss of the party in the state.
Tharoor himself doesn’t have many admirers among the Kerala Congress, who saw him as an outsider handed the prestigious Lok Sabha seat in 2009. The reason the party still stood behind him was the strict direction from the national leadership to ensure the victory of the UN diplomat-turned politician.
It is a long way from 2009 though, and Tharoor has developed his own fan base and standing since, courtesy largely his erudition and social media presence. This is particularly appealing for the younger generation, seeking leaders with a difference, and Tharoor has tapped into this sentiment. In his presidential contest bid, he is projecting himself as the candidate for change.
During the Assembly elections of 2021, Tharoor, in fact, was a prominent Congress campaigner. His engagements with voters through debates had been a big hit across the state, though Congress had lost the elections.
So if Kharge has in his corner KPCC president K Sudhakaran, Leader of Opposition V D Satheesan, former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and former Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala, Tharoor’s corner has some interesting names too: Congress MP Hibi Eden, legislators Mathew Kuzhalnadan and Shafi Parambil, and Youth Congress state vice-president K S Sabarinadhan, also an ex-MLA.
A three-term Congress MP from Kerala, M K Raghavan, who was one of the proposers for Tharoor’s nomination and is backing his candidature, said: “Tharoor at the helm of the Congress would benefit the Congress as well as the Opposition (at large) in the present Indian scenario. If a Keralite becomes Congress president, it will be a matter of pride for me.”
Tharoor’s supporters point out that it would be the first time a person from Kerala would become Congress president in 125 years. It was back in 1897 that Kerala-born Chettur Sankaran Nair held the post.
While not arguing with this, Satheesan and others have been pointing to Kharge’s credentials as a Dalit leader. Satheesan says it is a matter of pride that a person from a backward community would become Congress president. “He is an experienced, seasoned leader. The Congress does not believe in packing off senior leaders, their experience should also be used to help the party grow,” Satheesan says, while adding that Tharoor was welcome to contest and it would not divide the Kerala unit in any way.
Congress sources admit Satheesan’s strident stand was a surprise as he leads the young brigade in the party and has been known to argue for a change of guard to bring in young faces. All the young leaders backing Tharoor are known to be close to Satheesan.
Sudhakaran has also talked of Kharge’s Dalit background, and his long stint in parliamentary politics as well as organisational matters, saying this made him the most capable person to lead the Congress. “He is a leader who can engage with all generations of party workers. He has never compromised with the RSS and Sangh Parivar. Such a leader can identify the strengths and weaknesses of the party,” he said in a statement.
Tharoor, who again made it clear Tuesday that he would not be withdrawing from the contest, said Sudhakaran as an office-bearer in the party should not have made his stand open. “What Sudhakaran stated is only his personal opinion. I am looking at ‘conscience’ votes,” he said.
Tharoor also told reporters Tuesday that some leaders had even approached Rahul to persuade him to withdraw, and that the latter had turned them away. “He (Rahul) reminded me that he has been saying for the past 10 years that there should be a contest for the party chief’s post. He also said that some persons asked him to request me to withdraw my candidature. He told me he will not do so. He said I should not withdraw and that I should contest,” Tharoor said.
Having arrived in Kerala after a tour of Nagpur and Wardha in Maharashtra and Hyderabad, Tharoor said workers everywhere had urged him to not back away. “Their confidence in me is what gives me the strength to move forward,” he said.
Among those Tharoor met in Hyderabad was former India cricketer and working president of the Telangana PCC, Mohd Azharuddin. After the meeting, Tharoor tweeted a photo with Azharuddin, saying: “Delighted to receive the endorsement of former MP & Indian cricket legend @azharflicks… Fit as ever & raring to go, Azhar joins me in wanting change & reform in our party so as to better equip us to take on the BJP.”
Tharoor also tweeted a photo with former Union minister M Pallam Raju in Hyderabad, saying, “We both support a stronger @incIndia!”
Others who have thrown their weight behind Tharoor include his proposers for the nomination, MPs Karti Chidambaram, Pradyut Bordoloi, Raghavan, Mohammad Jawed, party veteran Mohsina Kidwai, and former MP and G-23 leader Sandeep Dikshit. Senior leader and former Union minister Saifuddin Soz and his son Salman are also backing Tharoor.