Shashi Tharoor wants to become Kerala's Chief Minister. Will Congress hand him the mantle?
When Shashi Tharoor entered politics in Kerala just before the 2009 elections to the Lok Sabha, much was made of his background and skills as a diplomat. Tharoor had just lost an election to become the United Nations Secretary-General, and speculation was rife that he would contest from Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency. The public image and knowledge of Tharoor was unlike that of any other ‘technocrat’ that entered politics in Kerala. In many ways, he was the trailblazer.
Tharoor, a member of the Tharoor Swaroopam that was once petty rulers of Palakkad. Belonging to the Nair caste, Tharoor was a political trump card for Congress not merely because of his professional achievement or intellectual prowess, he also belonged to a caste that forms a major part of its base in the state. For the Lok Sabha seat of Thiruvananthapuram, he was a perfect candidate. Thiruvananthapuram has long been perceived as a Nair dominated seat; add to this his ability to command the respect of the ‘urbane’ middle classes, Tharoor was the perfect fit for the capital city of Kerala.
His initial entry into politics however was not without its controversies. Sukumaran Nair, the Secretary of the Nair Service Society (NSS) that is premier representative of the community’s interests, was not particularly pleased with Tharoor. He described Tharoor as a “Delhi Nair” and not a “Kerala Nair” who he argued was being ignored by the Congress.1 This pejorative, if it can be described as such, is a window into how he was perceived in the state.
That the same man who described him as “Delhi Nair” to turn around more than a dozen years later and describe him as a “Kerala Puthran” (son of Kerala) and “Vishwa Pauran” (Universal Citizen) recently2 is an achievement in the tactical flexibility of Sukumaran Nair and the perceived impact Tharoor will make after he announced his entry to state politics.
Tharoor As A Gamble
Those backing Tharoor view him as a sort of all-encompassing panacea to the political developments in the state that have occurred in the past decade. For the uninitiated, let me briefly cover the state’s political history, though my piece on the two-front politics (written in December 2020) does a pretty good job.
Kerala has been dominated by two-fronts, the United Democratic Front, led by the Congress (I) and the Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) since the late 70s. The major constituents of the two fronts have long been ‘fixed’: the UDF was a coalition of the broadly conservative, anti-Communist plank in the form of Congress, the Muslim League and the various Kerala Congress factions. Meanwhile, the LDF consists of the CPM, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and factions of the Kerala Congress. The two-front politics always followed a template that became quite repetitive. Smaller parties were always in the lookout for a better deal, and it would be often that a party would switch fronts just before the Assembly elections, as it became a near certainty over the years that the incumbent would not return. The LDF came close twice to retaining power and breaking a pattern that began in 1982: in 1992, when Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination delayed the elections, and in 2011 when V. S. Achuthanandan lost out on retaining power by a margin of 3 seats in the 140-seat assembly.
This spell of two front politics sharing power back and forth has been broken by Pinarayi Vijayan’s stupendous re-election victory in 2021, winning a massive 99 seats. Few if any predicted such a decisive victory for the LDF, it was thought to be a close election considering the Kerala voter’s general antipathy towards incumbents. The COVID-19 response by the State Government and the welfare measures of the State Government however provided a decisive edge for the LDF Government’s re-election.
The once-in-a-century shock provided by the pandemic to the electorate had broken a 40-year political pattern. The certainty of the leadership provided by ‘Captain’ Pinarayi Vijayan contrasted with the unknown knowns of the ‘leadership’ within the Congress.3
Congress had in wake of the historic defeat rejigged the leadership by appointing K Sudhakaran, the Kannur MP and strong man from Malabar as the State President and Advocate V.D. Satheesan as the Leader of the Opposition. Style (Sudhakaran) & Substance (Satheesan) was doubtlessly the ideation of the Congress in its appointments. In this process, it had effectively cast out retirement for Ramesh Chennithala, and Oommen Chandy had long since ceded his position due to his health.
The new leadership did not inspire particular confidence, having to keep together a disgruntled Muslim League, firefighting factional disquiet and now, the challenge to their leadership in the form of Shashi Tharoor. The forces that shape the UDF establishment too, view Tharoor as the panacea to the perceived leadership deficit that failed them in 2021.
The Answer Lies in the Factions
To understand Congress in Kerala was to understand the two factions - ‘A’ Group and the ‘I’ Group. These two main factions have dominated the State unit of the Congress since the formation of two-front politics, one being led by K. Karunakaran, a famous Indira Gandhi loyalist and therefore the leader of the ‘I’ group, and A.K. Antony, the leader of the eponymous ‘A’ group. These factions were later taken over by Ramesh Chennithala (elevated as ‘I’ group leader by Sonia Gandhi) and Oommen Chandy respectively following the exit of both leaders to political wilderness and the Central Cabinet respectively.
The factionalism became so rampant and fractious, with a parallel ‘factionless faction’ developing. Its heyday was when V. M. Sudheeran who was then KPCC President led a crusade against alcohol in the 2010s.4 V.D. Satheesan had started off his career as the leader of the 'I' group, before disassociating himself from factionalism and fashioning himself as an "ideal legislator". K. Sudhakaran too started off as the leader of the 'I' group but became too big for Chennithala. He became a self-styled political leader who projected himself as someone having the "strength" and "courage" to take on the Communists in their fort of Kannur. K.C. Venugopal (KCV) too was a leader in the 'I' faction. However, since he was elevated to national politics, he has risen to prominence of his own sub-faction that became a law unto itself in the 2021 elections. He attracted both 'A' and 'I' leaders to his surprisingly simple pitch: he is the General Secretary (Organisation) of the AICC. What that implies is of course straightforward enough.
KCV’s shenanigans led to quite a lot of drama. The 2021 election results became the proverbial nail that broke the camel, completely breaking both of the factions of the KPCC. Oommen Chandy’s inability to secure factional interests and Chennithala’s political incapability ended established practices of intra-party dealings in Congress.
The 2021 defeat for the UDF also dented the pipe dreams of more than a few aspirants who wished to re-enter power politics. In the run up to the 2019 elections to the Lok Sabha, more than a few anticipated some sort of Congress led coalition coming into power. The denial of that golden opportunity by Modi's steamroller and then by Pinarayi's Teflon5 led to more than a few dreams being crushed. That Modi cannot be overcome in 2024 by the uncrowned Prince of Wayanad is quite clear to anyone, including the political masterminds that populate Kerala's Congress party. This disaffection and thirst for power can only be quenched realistically by winning the State Assembly Elections that are expected in 2026. They however find no real confidence in Sudhakaran and Satheesan.
The style and substance of Sudhakaran and Satheeshan has yet to deliver narrative victories for the Congress in the state. Instead, it seems to be a directionless house that has failed to take Pinarayi Vijayan’s trudging government to account. The faux paus committed by Sudhakaran and Muslim League’s run in with CPM has not let the state congress leadership “settle”. Satheesan was earlier a lawyer in the Kerala High Court, who comes across as a well-meaning politician but does not command the gravitas or charisma, while Sudhakaran (who has neither in short supply) comes across as a befuddled senior leader who has become unsure of his footing.6
Tharoor’s run for Congress President appeared in the horizon during September 2022, and it initially seemed that his push for the nomination would be well-received by KPCC leadership. This was clearly not acceptable to the head honchos in the Congress, who viewed any challenge to the family approved nominee as a challenge to the hegemony of the Gandhi family itself. Predictable backtracking by the Kerala Congress leadership notwithstanding, Youth Congress leaders rallied in support for Tharoor as the Congress President. For them, a vote for Tharoor was a vote against the leadership of the state party.
Moreover, Tharoor had so far been bereft of any hangers-on to his leadership in the state. Mostly because he was a one-man show that involved himself sparingly in state politics, whose real acuity lay in Delhi’s elite circles. He had till then mostly kept away from the internal mechanics of Congress politics in Thiruvananthapuram or elsewhere in the state. He might be a three-time MP of the constituency, but he has no “base” to speak of; he grew up outside the state and left the country as a young adult before returning. He had not grown up the Congress ladder, he was parachuted in. He does not have the baggage of political remarks, relationships and indulgences.7
Tharoor As A Trojan Horse
Tharoor’s lack of political associations within the state has become a unique advantage, attracting all manners of those disaffected with the KPCC. That he commands the respect of the average Congress worker for his Stephanian accent and knowledge is a great benefit. They are not marketing a product that the public has rejected en masse, and all indications are that Tharoor enjoys a latent popularity and attraction because of his image - that of a polished diplomat well-versed with the world in general.
Tharoor’s “entry” to Kerala politics was made around a month after his unsuccessful contest to become Congress’s National President. His choice to involve himself in state politics and aspire for the Chief Minister’s chair is ultimately a pragmatic one. It was always doubtful that Tharoor would enter the BJP; any hope in this regard from his fans within the BJP has been dashed time and time again. Ideological barriers seem time and time again problematic for Tharoor to overcome.
If he is to stand within the Congress then, he has no hope of a Ministership. His path then lies only in state politics and becoming Chief Minister. He is in his late 60s, and has only served as a Minister of State for External Affairs. Becoming Chief Minister of Kerala is no small upgrade.
More than Tharoor, it is the leaders surrounding him and arguably the average Congressman that is enthused by him. His ‘Malabar Tour’ meeting who’s who of Malabar was arranged by M.K. Raghavan, the three-time MP of Kozhikode. Raghavan would be key to any future Tharoor campaign, having been a lifelong Congressman from Malabar. TN Prathapan, the first-time MP from Thrissur has already expressed his desire to re-enter state politics. K. Muraleedharan, the son of K. Karunakaran and Vadakara MP, disavowed Tharoor before taking a full ‘U’ turn and endorsing him as a future Chief Minister. Ernakulam MP Hibi Eden, too, endorsed Tharoor.
These MPs would have found themselves stuck in no-man’s place in Delhi. Not everyone can adapt the way NK Premachandran has. A Delhi assignment for a Congressman was one of immense prestige when climbing up the ladder of power; now it has become protests in front of the Gandhi Statue in Parliament in the heat and cold of Delhi; something normally that their fellow Communist MPs are traditionally used to. Finding a great limitation in their career prospects, it is eminently sensible for these MPs to back Tharoor’s jaunt into state politics. He is a Trojan horse for their interests as well; and in effect his image represents the best option for the forces backing UDF as well.
The NSS’s endorsement has to be viewed in this lens: an attempt to remain relevant and get ahead of the curve on the move to crown Tharoor. The current Secretary’s blue-eyed boy, Ramesh Chennithala, has fallen by the wayside. Tharoor’s endorsement is an attempt by Sukumaran Nair to continue to remain relevant to Congress’s internal dynamics. Sukumaran Nair termed his praise of Tharoor as “correcting a mistake” that he made when Tharoor entered politics. Tharoor was invited to NSS’s primary event of the calendar, the birth anniversary celebrations of Mannathu Padmanabhan, the founder of NSS. The signalling is unmistakable.
That he was already met by the who’s who of the Muslim community makes his pretensions even more viable. That Satheesan made a rather snarky remark on “inflated balloons” only tends to strengthen Tharoor. The petty move to cancel a prior arranged Youth Congress event shows that the current Congress state leadership does not have much confidence in their own abilities.8
Tharoor’s future as the UDF CM candidate in 2026 firstly hinges on his ability to manage the internal politicking of Congress that has killed more than a few pretenders. He should ideally learn the lessons Chennithala has learnt the hard way in the past decade. Chennithala’s jab in January already made Tharoor backtrack on his public ambitions. No amount of external goodwill and public support is beneficial in dealing with the vicious systems within the state Congress. Not to mention an intervention by the uncrowned Prince (and KCV) can destroy all his options within the Congress. At which point… well, too early to say.
A Blank Slate
Tharoor can be modelled and aspirations cast on him with no real limit as he is largely unknown in the state’s politicking. He has a tough balance to execute, and the pressures on him are already showing. He aspires to be a rational critic of the Modi Government. However, the past decade has taught the UDF and LDF that going full anti-Hindutva and anti-Modi will pay the highest dividends among the minority communities and Kerala’s intelligentsia.
Tharoor reversed course on Sabarimala when he rightly sensed that the Hindu community would not take lightly to the desecration of one of their holiest sites. Regardless of the baiting of ideologically committed liberals, Tharoor has taken electorally pragmatic positions.
He has been on the wrong end of things when it came to the BBC Documentary controversy, redeeming himself by dismissing Anil Antony. He would likely have to cut down on his praise for S. Jaishankar (Minister of External Affairs) too if he wishes to become Kerala’s Chief Minister. Being dogmatically and irrationally opposed to the Modi Government is an essential prerequisite to Congress politics in the state. It is based on retaining the Muslim vote that has powered it through time and time again, which the Communists have made a significant dent in the past couple of elections. They can count on Rahul Gandhi’s presence in Wayanad and its national profile combined with CPM’s insistence to shoot itself in the foot and the BJP state unit’s incompetence to power it through in 2024. In 2026 however, it will run into the same problems it faced in 2016 and 2021.
The reason for the Congress’s failure in the state has a lot to do with the movement of their electoral base. Congress has been at its core a coalition of conservative and elite interests against the Communists. This meant that its base was a combination of Nairs and Nasranis (Upper Class Catholics) in South Kerala. This has been broken with a substantial part of the Nair vote moving towards the BJP in the post-2014 phase. That base is not returning to the party any time soon. The movement of the Kerala Congress (Mani) to the LDF has affected its base among Christians as well. With the BJP keen on co-opting Christians on an anti-Islamist plank, the competition for its base is tightening. The nationalist rhetoric has also been co-opted by the BJP, leaving it at a disadvantage there as well.
These structural deficiencies in its base are not easy to overcome; the polarisation of Hindus and Christians against Muslims is not easy for the Congress to bridge. It should be kept in mind that the Congress has for some time depended on the “soft” BJP vote, which chooses to vote against Communists that are perceived as the “greater” evil. The greater pressure on Congress to satiate anti-Hindutva and anti-Modi rhetoric may help it retain some amount of its minority base; but it risks further alienating the Hindu vote. A careful balancing act is needed.
Is Tharoor the man for this? He is yet to convince. But ultimately, only time will tell.
He definitely ought to improve his Malayalam though, first.
3Pinarayi being described as a ‘Captain’ set off its own rather amusing set of controversy. The Kerala Chief Minister’s personality cult has set disquiet within the party, where it sits in unease with the party’s supposed stances on the same. As for Congress, there were arguably three main contenders: Leader of Opposition and Blue-eyed boy of Sukumaran Nair, Ramesh Chennithala, Former CM Oommen Chandy, Super PM(in-waiting) KC Venugopal.
4KPCC stands for the “Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee” and is essentially the state unit of the party.
5The Kerala Chief Minister faced multiple allegations of corruption and misuse of public office during the 2021 elections which did not affect him at all.
7This is not to suggest that these are negatives, but these prior relationships can encumber claims for political leadership.
8The event was successfully conducted even though it was officially cancelled.
Thank you to Aishwarya Ajayan for her inputs and editing.