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Thiruvananthapuram's New Political Reality

By SHYAM G MENON
June 12, 2024 14:43 IST
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Even as the dust settles on one election, glory in Thiruvananthapuram has come with a new question on the horizon: Who will be UDF's candidate in the next Lok Sabha election given Shashi Tharoor has said 2024 would be his last?

It isn't a vacancy that can be easily filled, points out Shyam G Menon.

IMAGE: Congress leader Shashi Tharoor during the celebrations after he won the election from the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency for a historic fourth time. Photograph: ANI Photo
 

For Shashi Tharoor's supporters in Thiruvananthapuram, the morning of June 4, 2024 was harrowing.

As the counting of votes progressed, till noon it was Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Rajeev Chandrasekhar who led. The lead rose to exceed 20,000 votes.

Most people knew from experience that for the sitting member of Parliament seeking a fourth term from Kerala's capital city, relief may come when votes from the constituency's coastal areas are taken up.

These regions have traditionally favored the Congress.

In some of his earlier contests from Thiruvananthapuram too, Tharoor had to wait till the coastal votes were taken up for counting, to be in sight of victory.

"What made the going particularly edgy this time was the overall criticality of the 2024 elections. It was a battle nationwide against a monstrously powerful BJP," my friend, who belonged to the Christian community, said at his house in Thiruvananthapuram, two days after the results of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections were declared..

"Given that backdrop, Chandrasekhar's 20,000 plus lead of that morning made me very nervous. Not just that, Tharoor is among the most erudite, informed and articulate MPs we have.

"If he loses in this election, then I felt, it says something about where we have descended to as a nation," he added.

A dedicated Congress supporter from his college days, my friend had continued his association with the party into his working years.

Past noon on counting day, he was getting ready to go to Tharoor's residence, when Tharoor's lag in number of votes began to show signs of reducing.

As the votes from the coastal belt began to get counted, the television in my friend's house announced a lead for Tharoor. He felt elated.

"But then my heart sank, when that lead suddenly shrank. I was quite worried but enquiries showed that it was the effect of votes from the Nemom assembly segment getting counted. Nemom has always been a BJP stronghold," he said.

Mercifully thereafter, Tharoor's lead grew more and more secure.

When my friend reached Tharoor's house in the city, television crews had already assembled outside.

Tharoor, who had spent much of the day at his house, left for the Congress headquarters and the counting centre at Mar Ivanios College, shortly after his lead seemed irreversible.

Tharoor won by a margin of 16,077 votes. While the BJP won in Thrissur, Thiruvananthapuram became a nearly-won for it.

The predicament of 2024 wasn't new for Tharoor. In 2014, he had won by 15,470 votes.

On that occasion his BJP opponent had been O Rajagopal; 2014 marked the commencement of Narendra Modi's innings in Delhi.

Of the four times my friend had witnessed Tharoor contesting from Thiruvananthapuram, the counting day of 2024 was the most nerve wracking one and it was primarily because the heart wished for a Tharoor victory as part of the larger message sought to be sent to Delhi; that many people in India found BJP and Modi unacceptable.

In fact, on the evening of counting day, a senior journalist told me in Kozhikode that he was relieved it was Suresh Gopi and not Rajeev Chandrasekhar who won the BJP a seat from Kerala.

Reason -- he felt that given the mix of businessman, technocrat, military family and politics that Chandrasekhar was, he suspected the minister didn't represent a strong enough barrier to the opaque Deep State, which India had started exhibiting under Modi's watch.

That said, elections from Thiruvananthapuram are not expected to be the same after Chandrasekhar's participation in the 2024 contest. The reasons are several.

IMAGE: Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra D Modi during an election meeting in support of BJP candidates Rajeev Chandrasekhar, right, and V Muraleedharan, left, at Attingal in Thiruvananthapuram. Photograph: ANI Photo

"Both Tharoor and Chandrasekhar had expensive campaigns that resembled event management more than the traditional style and substance of Kerala election campaigns," a former classmate, who had once contested local body elections on a Communist Party of India-Marxist ticket, said in Thiruvananthapuram.

"The LDF (Left Democratic Front) also spent money but not to the same extent as the big two," he added.

According to him, the LDF saw itself as a lightweight for most part of the 2024 campaign and felt convinced of a potential second position in Thiruvananthapuram only in the concluding stages of pre-poll work (he also said that suspicions of the CPI-M having focused more on neighboring Attingal where the LDF candidate was a party member, were likely true).

Money, marketing and scale weren't the only twists in the game in Thiruvananthapuram.

People I spoke to remembered that three Parliament elections ago, when Tharoor was first parachuted into Thiruvananthapuram as a Congress candidate, the development bogey had been one of the campaign cards deployed.

Kerala's capital city has suffered from years of neglect and a general underestimation of its prospects for growth.

Fifteen years later, in 2024, notwithstanding what work he may have done, Tharoor was the target of criticism by competition.

Both Chandrasekhar and LDF candidate Pannyan Raveendran of the Communist Party of India alleged that Tharoor hadn't done much for Kerala's capital.

Chandrasekhar in particular, milked the development card.

The BJP pitched him to the electorate as a person who will execute projects and promises.

To counter, Tharoor came out with a list of things he had done.

Point is -- in the 2024 election, development received a huge emphasis in the campaign.

So much so that given the continued underestimation of Thiruvananthapuram's growth and its infrastructural needs, the development card may prevail in election campaigns here as a pronounced legacy of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party leader Suresh Gopi being offered sweets by his wife during the celebrations after he won the Lok Sabha election from the Thrissur constituency. Photograph: ANI Photo

My friend, the Congress supporter, felt that limiting Tharoor to the role of a person executing development projects would be to limit his many talents to a narrow spectrum of delivery.

But against the fact that parties like the CPI-M and the governments they ran failed to do enough for Kerala's capital city, even a person like Tharoor won't be spared the compulsion to contribute to Thiruvananthapuram's development as long as he is the constituency's MP.

"My feeling is that both Chandrasekhar and the BJP will continue to keep the development card alive in Thiruvananthapuram," a well-known technocrat said when quizzed about this subject.

He may have lost this time but nobody is writing off Chandrasekhar and the reason for doing so has nothing to do with him and everything to do with Thrissur.

Suresh Gopi won in Thrissur after trying multiple times and most importantly, he cultivated the constituency even in the years he lost elections from there.

In Thiruvananthapuram, a city yearning for similar attention, if the BJP manages to get its act together, the consequences could be serious for the party's political competitors.

While it opened its Lok Sabha account from Kerala only in 2024, the BJP already has a sizable representation in the Thiruvananthapuram corporation.

The next Parliament elections are scheduled to happen only in 2029.

However, much before that Kerala would see elections to local bodies and the state assembly.

Against the backdrop of its increasing vote share in the state, if the BJP manages to improve its tally in the Thiruvananthapuram corporation, political observers see it as a fine spring board to win seats in the assembly elections that will follow (currently the BJP has no representative in the state assembly).

"I expect the BJP's presence and influence in Thiruvananthapuram politics to grow further," my former classmate and CPI-M member, said, concern clearly visible on his face.

According to him, the only challenge in that journey would be the caliber and commitment of local BJP leaders.

He firmly felt that the CPI-M needed to take note of the BJP's growth, set its own house in order and fashion a relevant response.

He wasn't sure of the party's ability to do so because its appetite for criticism and introspection in Kerala has shrunk over the years.

Cadres who speak up or question, aren't encouraged.

And that's only one half of the problem the CPI-M faces for it faces challenges from Communist puritans too.

In the 2024 elections to Parliament, not only did the puritans' dissatisfaction with the current LDF state government spill over into the voting, the belief is that there was leakage of CPI-M votes to its competitors.

"People are looking for a third front that can be an alternative to the UDF and the LDF," the technocrat said.

IMAGE: Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a roadshow to canvass votes for Shashi Tharoor. Photograph: ANI Photo

While that may be true, an important question still begging an answer is whether Kerala would be comfortable juggling three fronts or whether it would want the three whittled down to a format of two, which is the pattern it has subscribed to for the past many years.

But as evinced repeatedly in the 2024 elections, the UDF and the LDF have been at each other's throats too long to sit at the same table despite the existence of the INDIA bloc.

Meanwhile for the UDF, even as the dust settles on one election, glory in Thiruvananthapuram has come with a new question on the horizon: Who will be their candidate in the next Lok Sabha election given Tharoor has said 2024 would be his last?

It isn't a vacancy that can be easily filled.

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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