What’s Shashi Tharoor up to in Kerala?

After challenging the establishment in the presidential poll, Shashi Tharoor is making some noise in Kerala. Is he trying to “pilot” a new project? Or will his home state experience Rajasthan-like quakes?

In a sense, Kerala had been a politically sorted state for decades. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front or LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) had alternately ruled the state since 1980. But in 2021, history was made when the left, led by CPM chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, returned to power, widening the rifts in Kerala’s Congress.

But now something else is changing in party unity. The warring factions do not come together because there is a sense of unity. The reason for this is party leader Shashi Tharoor. But what did the Thiruvananthapuram MP do?

Voices began to rise against Tharoor when he announced a four-day tour of the Malabar region of northern Kerala from November 20. At first glance, his programs look harmless:

Tharoor has spoken about his new Nehru book, unveiled the bust of writer T Padmanabhan, met sculptor Manoj and Bishop Vargheese Chakkalakal, visited historian MGS Narayanan, spent time with students, interacted with doctors and lawyers, and had meals with friends and supporters .

But that is not everything. Firstly, this is Tharoor’s first trip, some 400 km from his constituency in southern Kerala, with such involvement. This also comes after the October Congress presidential election, in which he lost to Mallikarjun Kharge, who was believed to have the support of the Gandhis, but received more than 1,000 votes.

The election not only showed Tharoor’s substantial popularity, but also cemented his anti-establishment image, making the oldies in the party increasingly wary of him.

Many thought that Tharoor would not sit still and that he could turn to his home state, where his popularity would have increased after the presidential election. Many thought he could talk about the Congress revival by positioning himself as the new leader in Kerala, although he never said anything about it.

So when Tharoor announced his trip to Malabar along India’s southwestern coast, the buzz grew more glaring in the Kerala Congress, where many already viewed the “rise” of the so-called Tharoor group as a threat.

Those who fought each other to become the Congress CM candidate in the 2026 Kerala polls started to speak against him with one voice.

Now let’s move beyond what seemed like Tharoor’s innocent engagements. On November 20, according to “instructions from above”, the local unit of the Congress prevented the youth congress from giving its lecture in Kozhikode ‘on Sangh Parivar and challenges to secularism’.

However, Tharoor got another pro-congress host and the lecture turned out to be well attended by congressional staff.

Tharoor did not stop there. Flanked by his supporters and Kozhikode Congress MP MK Raghavan, he met with senior leaders of UDF ally, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML).

Tharoor also visited the Malappuram district office of the Congress where many leaders stayed away from his post but others showed up. He also called upon veteran Congress leaders Cyriac John and KP Unnikrishnan. He later addressed a seminar in Kannur.

WAR OF WORDS

Congress leader VD Satheesan, leader of the opposition in the Kerala Legislative Assembly, said the party would not tolerate any move by a “media-created balloon” to revive factionalism in the state unit.

“The party recently organized many strikes and movements in the capital Thiruvananthapuram, but the local MP (read Tharoor) was missing,” said Satheesan, representing Kannur constituency where Tharoor was addressing a seminar.

K Muraleedharan, MP from Kerala’s Vatakara and former head of Kerala Congress, hit back saying those who want to become the party’s CM candidate feel threatened by Tharoor’s activities in the state.

Knesset member Raghavan also called the withdrawal of the Youth Congress hosting Tharoor’s speech a conspiracy and demanded an internal investigation. “Only Tharoor can bring Congress back to winning ways in the state,” he said.

THAROOR’S DEFENSE

And all the while, Tharoor has not minced words, though he has done so tactfully. “Some are calling this tour a divisive tactic. I’m not interested in creating a group within the state congress. I just want to unite it,” Tharoor reportedly said in his defence, referring to how the party unit has split into camps led by some former prime ministers and their supporters.

Tharoor is said to have said he sees no need to make an issue of two UDF MPs meeting with an ally’s leaders. “The meeting at the residence of IUMLKerala President Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal in Panakkad on November 22 was purely a courtesy call as I was on my way to an event in the district,” media reports quoted him as saying.

Thangal has also defended Tharoor saying he is a tall leader and his family has close ties with the MP. “He is invited to all important events. When he was here, he came to meet us. He is not just limited to Thiruvananthapuram,” Thangal said.

WHAT IT ALL MEANS

The short answer is that Kerala could see a Rajasthan. First a brief overview of Rajasthan. Congress leader Sachin Pilot’s camp raises the tone again for him to replace Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.

Pilot had rioted once before in Rajasthan, only one of two states after Chhattisgarh where the Congress has its prime minister.

It is true that Tharoor may not have sweated it out across Kerala as Pilot did in the 2018 Rajasthan polls, but few can argue that the former UN diplomat has failed to properly represent his state on national and international outings.

Tharoor’s consecutive election victories from Thiruvananthapuram are proof that he is an effective grassroots politician. And too many leaders should ideally become a problem of abundance, rather than intensifying uncertainty-driven factions.

Also, the Congressional high command needs to send a message that it doesn’t blame someone just because he took over the establishment in the presidential election or was previously part of a pressure group that pushed for reforms such as decentralization in the party.

And Kerala has no Congress CM to replace. The state won’t go to the polls until 2026. But politics in the southern state is complex. The UDF must defeat the LDF, whose main constituent, the CPM, was Congress’s ally in West Bengal’s elections last year.

The CPM and Congress could also be part of a national anti-BJP bloc in 2024 when India votes to elect its new government.

This explains the CPM’s taunt before the Congress when it became clear that Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra spent 18 days in the southern state and only two days in Uttar Pradesh, leading to a counterattack by the grand old party.

As the Congress struggles to strike such delicate electoral balances, halt the exits of key leaders and halt a cycle of polling defeats, Rajasthan-like tremors in Kerala will only deepen the existential crisis.

Tharoor has made his intentions clear. “I am not afraid of anyone. No one should be afraid of me. I want to take these things with a sporting spirit. Some people wanted me to sit on the side seat. But I want to play forward,” the congressman said.

If there was any confusion about what Tharoor is up to in Kerala, his latest tweet may shed some light. It includes a quote from Harry S. Truman about the dangers of a leadership period. The ball is now clearly in Congress’ court.

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Cover Illustration: Vani Gupta/India Today.

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