The author is a senior journalist based in Bangalore and has worked with two major English dailies, the Indian Express and Deccan Herald. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and colleges and writes for a many publications, including NYT
India is not an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.”
That is from Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram. A man of great wit, wisdom and words — probably three things that do not suit a modern-day politician.
Is he an anachronism in the world of Indian politics? Many think so and he is also a favourite child of controversies, both on personal and professional fronts.
But the city of Thiruvananthapuram is proud of its representative in the Lok Sabha. Talking to a cross-section of the voters gives us the feeling that he is the best man for the job. They have elected him two times — in 2009 and in 2014, and if one senses their mood, they may elect him again in 2019. As an MP, his performance has been quite impressive. He has been a regular to the house when it is in session with an attendance percentage of over 70 and a regular contributor to the proceedings – be it concerning his state, Kerala, or the country.
Ease of Access
There is no doubt that he is a brilliant speaker, both in English and Malayalam besides a couple foreign languages. But the one significant factor that endears him to the people of Thiruvananthapuram is easy accessibility to him. He meets everyone either at his office in Pulimodu or at his residence whenever he is in town.
The staff at his office is courteous and give a patient hearing to anyone who approaches them with a problem or an issue. And, Tharoor is in constant touch with his office staff, almost on a daily basis.
Tharoor is also a pioneer in using social media as an instrument of political interaction. He was India’s most-followed politician on Twitter until recently Tharoor once said that when he began his political career soon after coming back from the United Nations, he was approached by the Congress, the Communists, and the BJP. He chose Congress because he felt ideologically comfortable with it.
In March 2009, Tharoor contested the elections as a candidate for the Congress in Thiruvananthapuram. His opponents included P Ramachandran Nair of the Communist Party of India (CPI), Neelalohitadasan Nadar of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), MP Gangadharan of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and PK Krishna Das of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), all of them well-known figures in Kerala politics. Despite criticism that he was an “elite outsider”, Tharoor won the elections by a margin of about one lakh votes. He was then inducted as a minister of state by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. On 28 May 2009, he was sworn in as Minister of State for External Affairs, in charge of Africa, Latin America, and the Gulf, including the Haj pilgrimage, and the Consular, Passports and Visas services of the Ministry.
He re-established long-dormant diplomatic relationships with African nations, where his fluency in French came in handy. He initiated new policy-planning activities on the Indian Ocean and represented India at various global events during his 11-month tenure as minister. In April 2010, he resigned from the position, following allegations that he had misused his office to get shares in the IPL cricket franchise. Tharoor, of course, denied the charges and, during his resignation speech in Parliament, called for a full inquiry.
Between 2010 and 2012 Tharoor remained active in Parliament and was member-convenor of the Parliamentary Forum on Disaster Management, a member of the Standing Committee on External Affairs, of the Consultative Committee of Defence, the Public Accounts Committee, and the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Telecoms.
In the special debate on the 60th anniversary of the Indian Parliament, Tharoor was one of four members of the Congress, including party President Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Leader of the House Pranab Mukherjee, to be invited to address the Lok Sabha. In 2012 Tharoor was re-inducted into the Union Council of Ministers by Manmohan Singh with the portfolio of minister of state for HRD. In this role, he took a special interest in the problems and challenges of adult education, distance education and enhancing high-quality research by academic institutions.
As Member of Parliament, he is probably the first elected representative in India to issue annual reports on his work as MP, including furnishing accounts of his MPLADS expenditure. In 2012, he published a half-term report followed in 2014 by a full-term report. All the details are in the public domain. And one can access them from www.shashitharoor.in, both in English and Malayalam. Through FB and Twitter, he has been in constant touch and his photographs and videos are instantly uploaded to www.flickr.com/photos/shashitharoor, www.youtube.com/user/shashitharoor In the highly literate state of Kerala, he is the most tech-savvy politician and instantly appeals to the youth and common man. In May 2014, Tharoor was re-elected from Thiruvananthapuram, defeating the BJP strongman O Rajagopal, but by a reduced margin, 15,700 votes, and that at the height of Modi mania.
But this time, unlike in his earlier stint, he had to sit in the opposition benches, both in the state and centre. While Left Front government took charge in Kerala, at the centre Congress lost power.
But Shashi Tharoor has friends in all parties and says his work as an MP is not affected. He was named Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. But he has dropped from the post of Congress spokesperson on October 13, 2014, after he praised some statements of Narendra Modi.
Says N Muraleedharan, the former regional bureau chief of wire service PTI: “Tharoor stands out in the rough and tumble of Kerala politics as he was the only person to quickly move to the centre stage without being a career politician before he entered the electoral arena in 2009. When he was nominated by the Congress as the candidate, many an eyebrow was raised in the party in Kerala, known for perennial factionalism and intense lobbying for spoils of power.
“In the initial phase of the campaign, he did not receive the total support from the local leadership. But he outwitted his adversaries and doubting Toms by meticulously organising the electioneering, largely by himself. He easily adapted himself to the new role and carried out a well-crafted campaign, touring every nook and corner of the sprawling, predominantly rural constituency. He also proved wrong those who thought that he would not be able to communicate with his voters in Malayalam since he had spent much of his life outside the state and abroad.
“Tharoor soon enough evolved a lingo of his own, unpretentious and understandable, and told the people what he could do for them if elected. On the other hand, the rival camps (The LDF and the BJP) mostly harped on his ‘outsider’ tag, which only boomeranged on them.” Analysts have attributed the outcome to Tharoor’s success in steadily expanding his appeal beyond the traditional Congress support base, especially among the less privileged, says Murali.
Despite his penchant for controversies, Tharoor has in 10 years, as an MP and as Union minister under the UPA regime, has grown into an astute politician even as he retains his distinct persona. Over the years, he has also integrated himself with the state party set-up, and, his inclusion as a member in the central manifesto drafting panel shows his standing with the high command.
Tharoor is notable for his eloquence while speaking, as demonstrated by the popularity of his speeches on online platforms such as YouTube. For instance, his speech decrying British Colonialism, delivered at the Oxford Union in 2015, got over 3.9 million views on one site alone, while simultaneously being praised as ground-breaking in various educational institutions in India.
Says Talitha Mathew, a senior journalist in Thiruvananthapuram: “Tharoor seems to be a person of integrity. He elevates the level of discourse whenever he takes part, both in terms of sense and style. Tharoor is seen as more of a theoretician than a doer, but then again, being in opposition, he has not had much of a chance to show his mettle. On a lighter note, when Shashi Tharoor speaks in public, there is a dilemma, whether to concentrate on looking at him or on listening to him! Both actions call for equal focus and attention!” In the last eight or nine years, he has taken care of the constituency well, learnt his mother tongue better and performed as one of the best parliamentarians from the state. He also spent his constituency fund well and even had lined up Barcelona for a twinning arrangement, which apparently fell through because of the non-cooperation of the CPM-ruled civic body.
Shankar Menon, a retired Navy officer and long-time resident of the city, says: “Surviving Kerala was not easy. First of all, he came with the huge baggage of an elite UN under-secretary general who contested for the secretary general’s post with no knowledge of grassroots politics or social work; and second, there were local politicians who were threatened by his presence. But, he overcame both the weaknesses and almost became a seasoned politician.
“However, his wife’s untimely death four years ago became a huge blow to Tharoor both personally and politically. Many even wondered how a grief-stricken Tharoor will be able to survive the gruelling campaign and if he will be fielded by the Congress at all. “Besides the bad publicity of his wife’s death, this time he had two more factors playing against him the “Nadar” caste card played by his left rival, and the candidature of BJP’s O Rajagopal, who apparently was the favourite of the “Nairs”. All the media reported that undercurrents favouring Rajagopal were strong and in the end, he might romp home.
On the counting day it was Rajagopal who kept a healthy lead almost throughout the day, but in the end, Tharoor won in a photo finish. With the result, Tharoor has yet again proved that he is a tough survivor.”
Born in London in 1956, Dr Tharoor was educated in India and the United States, completing a PhD in 1978 at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. While there, he received the Robert B Stewart Prize for Best Student and also helped found and served as the first Editor of the Fletcher Forum of International Affairs, a journal now in its 39th year. Tharoor was also awarded an honorary D.Litt by the University of Puget Sound and a Doctorate Honoris Causa in History by the University of Bucharest. In 1998, the World Economic Forum in Davos named him a Global Leader of Tomorrow.
Interestingly Tharoor has been a strong proponent of the Presidential form of Government for India. Why? In one of the interviews, he had said “I believe our parliamentary system has created a unique breed of the legislator, largely unqualified to legislate, who has sought election only to wield (or influence) executive power. It has produced governments obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance.
“It has forced governments to concentrate less on governing than on staying in office and obliged them to cater to the lowest common denominator of their coalitions. In a Presidential system, on the other hand, you have an executive that is not victim to the shifting sands of the legislative support and thus, you would have a government focused on governance rather than on extending their tenure in power. And India, as you will agree, is in urgent need of steady governance more than anything else.”
Tharoor has also been fiercely independent in his views. On praising Modi, he says “Merely because I am an Opposition MP does not mean I should not praise the Prime Minister. When Mr Modi says something that sounds right, I acknowledge it. When he says something wrong, I criticise it. Like the day I signed up for Swachh Bharat, I had written a piece... my position is the same. Cleaning up India is a national objective. I don’t see this as a political objective. When the PM reaches out and says let’s do this together, it seems to me that it is entirely appropriate for us to do it. When it comes to political convictions, I don’t agree with many of the things Mr Modi stands for.”
During the recently unprecedented floods, though Thiruvananthapuram was not affected, he volunteered to be the goodwill ambassador for his state and mobilise aid from abroad.
But there are charges that he did not do enough for the affected people and instead stayed away, travelling abroad. But it must be said though as an MP representing an opposition party his hands were tied and the ruling Left Front cold-shouldered him and did not make use of his international contacts and goodwill.
Apart from this, over the years his performance has been quite impressive.
“The Kazhakkoottam-Karode NH bypass road has been my most satisfying achievement as an MP. This project had been lying dormant for over 40 years and had been constantly written off. This 4 lane connectivity to the state capital offers tremendous development possibilities to this region,” he says
This has been a dream project but mired in controversies. “My involvement began in 2011 when the UDF government in the state nominated me as a director in the board of VISL and entrusted me with the task of finding the right development model.
After much dilly-dallying, the project took off on December 5, 2015, but the BJP had come to power in the Centre and the project execution was handed over to the Adanis. Though Tharoor says a lot of work has been completed and he is “eagerly looking forward to the see the first ship would dock at Vizhinjam in 2019”, not many are impressed.
M Vijayakumar, who is presently the chairman of the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) also criticises Tharoor for not doing anything to Thiruvananthapuram city or to promote tourism in the state. “There have been two main demands still lying unfulfilled—one is to set up a bench of the Kerala High Court here. It is at present in Kochi unlike in other states where High Courts are in the capital cities. And, secondly, we need a separate railway zone for Kerala. At present, it is in Southern Railway zone with its headquarters in Chennai. This has been pending for the last 20 years. A separate zone here would help to create employment potential. Tharoor could have easily made it possible when he was an MP of the ruling party and also a minister but he has not done anything.
“And, when he was a minister in charge of Human Resources Development he did precious little to establish an IIT or AIIMS here, which are long pending,” charges Vijayakumar.
There are details, to the minutest level on his website, and it runs to several pages, on how Tharoor has spent his MP Lad funds. Besides his responsibilities as an MP, privately also Tharoor has been contributing to the society through The Chandran Tharoor Foundation (CTF), set up in the memory of his late father, Chandran Tharoor, “a noble and selfless individual whose generosity was legendary among friends, family and strangers”
CTF aims to help the weaker sections of society through modest grants in the areas of relief for persons in distress, educational and health care assistance, and miscellaneous services to improve the quality of life of vulnerable groups. Based in Thiruvananthapuram, its activities are mainly centred in south Kerala.
It has also given free Onam and Ramzan ration kits to poor families, cooking utensils to flood-affected families, so on.
“CTF intends to initiate a campaign to provide good quality toilet facilities for girls in government schools to ensure that no child has to abandon her education merely because of the want of a basic amenity at school. The CTF has accordingly identified “e-toilets” as the way forward. These toilets operate electronically using solar power and flush economically, gauging the quantity of water required by the amount of time the user spends in the facility.
With such an impressive record, Shashi Tharoor is confident of getting renominated in 2019 and making it a hat-trick. But the BJP is trying to desperately unseat him and is looking for a strong candidate against him.
The recent meeting between superstar Mohanlal and Modi gave rise to the speculation that Mohanlal could be a possible BJP candidate against Tharoor. But the latter has strongly denied that he is contesting for or joining the BJP.
Even if he contests, he can only give a close fight but the Keralites may not be swayed by cine glamour, says a political analyst. As of now, Shashi Tharoor seems to be going strong.