Shashi Tharoor’s political ambitions can put the Congress on test

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor is received by party workers during an event in Kannur on November 23, 2022.
| Photo Credit: The Hindu

Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor’s recent hectic five-day Malabar tour that has got the Congress’ Kerala leadership hot under the collar is intricately connected to the party’s Delhi intrigues and the events that followed his unsuccessful run in the party’s presidential election. 

In a deeply one-sided election, with the party’s machinery standing firmly behind the present president Mallikarjun Kharge, Mr. Tharoor got more than 11% of the votes, making him a claimant for the party’s high table. But Mr. Tharoor’s supporters feel that the Congress has steadfastly refused to recognise his claim. 

They cite two instances. First, he was denied a berth in the steering committee formed to replace the Congress Working Committee (CWC). The party claimed that the decision was dictated by the party’s constitution, which appoints the existing CWC as the steering committee till a new body is elected, in order to ensure a seamless transition of power. Even if one buys this argument, Mr. Tharoor’s supporters say, the party has no cogent explanation for why Mr. Tharoor was kept out of the star campaigners list for the Assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. 

The presidential elections proved to Mr. Tharoor and to the party that he has a constituency beyond the Congress — especially among middle class centrist voters, for whom the Congress might not always be the natural electoral choice. A Kerala MP succinctly encapsulates the problem. “Mr. Tharoor was never identified as a grassroots leader, but the presidential elections has changed that perception. Clearly, he has a wider acceptance among the Indian electorate. The party, therefore, has to figure out a niche to fit him, otherwise like a loose peg he will keep rattling the party,” said the MP.  

New options

While fighting for his space within the Congress, on the strength of his newly-found public support, Mr. Tharoor has also spoken about having “options” — options that he can explore when the need arises. But his public engagements and pronouncements so far indicate that the BJP is not on this list. 

The Kerala leadership, meanwhile, is left lamenting Delhi’s inability to contain Mr. Tharoor. Having tip-toed around the fractious party unit in Kerala for the last decade, no one saw him as a stakeholder in the power structure in the State, despite winning three straight elections. This surprise especially turned into a shock when Muslim League chief Panakkad Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal laid out a red carpet for him, while the influential Nair Service Society also cozied up to him. And importantly, it generated a lot of media interest and a lot of social media traffic.  

A visibly irked leader of the opposition in the State V.D. Satheesan warned against “parallel political activity”. He went on to add, without much explanation, that “Congress leaders in Kerala with grassroot support were not inflated balloons to burst”. 

Potential CM face?

The response to Mr. Tharoor’s Malabar campaign from both within and outside the party has raised an obvious question: will Mr. Tharoor try to position himself ahead of the next Assembly elections in the State as a Chief Ministerial face? The Assembly elections are still four years away, giving Mr. Tharoor ample time to ramp up his campaign. Sources close to Mr. Tharoor say that he is not willing to sit idle till the Congress can make up its mind to offer him space.

For now, the central leadership is not ready to step in between Mr. Tharoor and the State leadership. The party’s State in-charge, Tariq Anwar, who reached Kerala on Saturday to inaugurate the new office of the Kozhikode District Congress Committee, claimed that “all is settled”.

“Mr. Tharoor has the freedom to go and speak anywhere. All we ask of him is to adhere to party hierarchy and line,” he told The Hindu.

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