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Arithmetic of caste politics will determine Tharoor's fate

April 11, 2014 10:25 IST

Shashi Tharoor on the campaign trail'If the Nairs split between Shashi Tharoor and the BJP candidate, O Rajagopal and the Nadars combine with the Leftists and the Christians to vote for the CPI candidate, Bennet Abraham, what would happen to Tharoor.

'It is presumed that the voters do not cast their votes, they vote their castes,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

I recall a day like this five years ago, the morning after voting closed in the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala. Victory was in the air and there was a sense of a mission accomplished in the campaign team of Shashi Tharoor, which comprised not only Congress leaders, but also non-political enthusiasts from diverse backgrounds, writers, intellectuals, artists and non-resident Indians.

We were lured by Tharoor's personality and the hope and promise he held out. He looked like a messiah of change, totally different from the other candidates, the harbinger of a new breed of politicians.

The results of the election, not expected for a month, were a foregone conclusion. Words of a majority of a lakh of votes were on many lips. A Minister of State for External Affairs was virtually born.

Today, I can only guess the mood in the Tharoor campaign team, having had to keep away from it as a public servant. The mood may well be optimistic, but no one is willing to predict the results, which are expected on May 16.

The fortunes, not only of Tharoor, but also the national coalition of which he is a part, hangs in the balance. Analysts are not banking on his charisma, but on the arithmetic of caste politics.

If the Nairs split between Tharoor and the BJP candidate, O Rajagopal and the Nadars combine with the Leftists and the Christians to vote for the CPI candidate, Bennet Abraham, what would happen to Tharoor, they ask.

It is presumed that the voters do not cast their votes, they vote their castes.

I have been looking eagerly at all the pictures of the Tharoor campaign to see a familiar face from the campaign team of 2009. Except for a couple of Congress men, who were assigned to the team and a faithful relative, I saw none of the eager supporters of five years ago.

I did not hear of young Indians swarming in as far from the US, the UAE and Sierra Leone to lend a helping hand. They may have been there, but none was visible.

Perhaps, many of them had valid reasons, like mine, to keep away. Others may have felt that Tharoor had enough support within the party and outside, judging from the confidence that he himself and many others exuded. At least some of them were, I am afraid, disillusioned.

Last time, the criticism was on Tharoor's background, ideology and lack of familiarity with his constituency. But the natural adoration of Keralites for those who have succeeded abroad made up for all the doubts, including his alleged closeness to the US and Israel.

It was easy for us to point out that the US had vetoed him even after he had won the second largest number of votes in the election for the post of United Nations secretary-general. It was easy to put up posters of Tharoor with Yasser Arafat to show his love for Palestine.

His half-baked Malayalam had its own charm. In Kerala, speaking 'Manglish' was often seen as a virtue, it being a sign of foreign education and aristocratic life abroad.

Voters presumed that, with his background of the UN, he would leverage UN funds for the development of Thiruvananthapuram. They thought that foreign investors would line up to get here. Cities like Barcelona would be twinned with Thiruvananthapuram, opening the doors to prosperity.

Jumping on the Tharoor bandwagon was the fashionable thing to do.

This time, Tharoor was still the handsomest Nair, as Paul Zachariah put it, and his silver tongue and golden pen were much in evidence, but he appeared bruised and vulnerable in several ways.

Holy cows and cattle class still chased him and all his efforts to demonstrate his love for the game of cricket reminded the people about the IPL fiasco. The tragic death of his wife, Sunanda Pushakar, cast a shadow around him despite his protestation that he should be allowed to grieve in private.

Even my repeated assertions that I knew that Sunanda Pushkar was seriously ill and that I knew someone, who died of the same disease, carried no conviction and dismissed as the desperate efforts of a friend to help him.

The stern conduct rules of the election deterred his detractors from repeating the unanswered questions, but whispers were centered around the events at the Leela hotel in Delhi on January 17 this year.

The main plank of the Tharoor campaign this time was development, the theme of every party and every candidate. The national programmes of the UPA government were mentioned occasionally, but the focus was on the development the MP brought to Thiruvananthapuram by way of new trains, new escalators, new mast lights and big national flags.

The maximum and effective use of the MP Fund, an obligation, was projected as a great accomplishment. The expectation of building the Vizhinjam port and the hope for the establishment of a high court bench in Thiruvananthapuram, Tharoor said, were issues older than him, but he had moved them forward by his continuous efforts. The Opposition dismissed them as flights of fancy and claimed the credit of development for themselves.

The campaign team pointed out how Tharoor had published periodic reports, highlighting his work in the constituency. His use of the social media and interaction with youngsters were effective tools. Though nobody mentioned it, the publication of Pax Indica and a book incorporating the views of the young MPs of the Indian Parliament (India -- the Future is Now) were feathers in his cap. His Malayalam had improved so much that he was brave enough to interpret Rahul Gandhi's speech from English to the vernacular at a public function.

The opposition to Tharoor was formidable this time. The BJP leader, O Rajagopal, the only candidate, who had seen a thousand moons, had a credible record of selfless service and of having done something concrete for the state when he was a minister in the NDA government. He has acquired a saintly image over the years, with no reason for anyone to vote against him. The general belief that he would be a minister in the Modi Cabinet gave him an advantage.

The Leftist candidate from the Nadar community, hardly a Communist, who contested on the CPI ticket, turned out to be a serious challenger as a community leader and social worker. The Aam Aadmi Party's Ajit Joy might also have taken away some votes from the Tharoor vote bank.

Tharoor is a familiar face and his cultivated costume with a tricolor shawl on his kurta has become a fashion symbol, which was emulated by others at least occasionally. But his campaign clothes this time marked him out as an outsider. The last time, he had sported the local Congress uniform of white dhoti and shirt, which enabled him to merge with Congress leaders.

As Dr Babu Paul observed in his preface to my book, Mattering to India -- The Shashi Tharoor Campaign (Pearson 2011), to be returned from the same constituency again would always, and for anyone, be more difficult than winning the first election.

I shall not hazard a prediction, but express the hope that my friend of more than twenty years will emerge victorious again.

T P Sreenivasan, (Indian Foreign Service 1967), former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA, is now the Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council, and Director General, Kerala International Centre.

For more columns by Ambassador T P Sreenivasan, please click here.

T P Sreenivasan