In Kerala’s capital city, a riveting three-way clash is unfolding

Both Rajeev Chandrasekhar and Shashi Tharoor stand to benefit from caste Hindu urban voters in Thiruvananthapuram, while Pannyan Raveendran resonates with commoners.
A collage of Shashi Tharoor, Pannyan Raveendran and Rajeev Chandrasekhar
A collage of Shashi Tharoor, Pannyan Raveendran and Rajeev Chandrasekhar
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In the political battleground of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala's capital city, a riveting three-way clash is underway. On one hand are candidates from the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party – Shashi Tharoor and Rajeev Chandrasekhar – who check most boxes for a Hindu voter base, and on the other a commoner—Pannyan Raveendran of the Communist Party of India (CPI).

Shashi Tharoor, is known for his literary prowess and distinguished career as a former United Nations diplomat, while Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a millionaire industrialist and a Union minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Union cabinet. Both have foreign degrees to flaunt, and are quick in flexing their upper caste Nair credentials. Pannyan Raveendran meanwhile is banking on his ability to connect with commoners and his anti-fascist and proletarian politics.

Tharoor and Rajeev also stand to benefit from caste Hindu urban Hindu voters in Thiruvananthapuram, who continue to display their fascination for the erstwhile royalty. In recent years there have been concerted efforts to generate public display of affection towards the members of the royal family. In 2023 and 2024, members of the former Travancore royal family, Gowri Lakshmi Bayi and her son Adithya Varma, were made to travel in an open jeep as part of a public procession during the Attukal Pongala (public event in which thousands of women cook an offering to the Bhagavathy of Attukal temple, a subaltern deity) in Thiruvananthapuram.

Numerous attendees of the Pongala were seen paying respects to the duo as they passed by in an open vehicle, underscoring a segment of society's enduring reverence for the erstwhile royal family. This gesture, however, stirred controversy, with critics questioning the need to reinvent rituals that pay obeisance to the royal family despite being a democracy.

"There remains a segment of society in Thiruvananthapuram that holds profound reverence for the royal family. It stems from their historical status and prestige; they were the architects of this region," said Radhika, a resident of Kowdiar, where the palace of the erstwhile Travancore royal family still stands.

Radhika subtly explained the enduring presence of caste hierarchy within a distinct segment of the population in the district.

"Thiruvananthapuram is intrinsically linked to the Sree Padmanabha temple culture, which has historically been associated with royalty. Within this context, caste Hindus have traditionally been regarded as superior. However, there exists a significant portion of society comprising of middle-class individuals, government employees, laborers, daily wage earners, and coastal communities. Therefore, the electoral outcomes in Thiruvananthapuram cannot be solely determined by the preferences of the caste Hindu demographic," said a senior journalist.

This is the backdrop against which the candidature of Shashi Tharoor, 67,  Rajeev Chandrasekhar, 59, and Pannian Raveendran, 75, becomes crucial. 

Political dynamics in Thiruvananthapuram

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN diplomat and union minister, from Nair community, has been consistently winning the constituency since 2009. Though Tharoor, who is keen on visiting temples, mosques and churches during campaigns and calls on religious leaders of all hues, he often peddles a stance that resonates well with caste Hindus and Hindutva sympathisers.

Tharoor has been considered unbeatable for a long time and many voters took pride in his status as a global citizen. He is cautious in his comments and has sometimes taken stands contrary to the Congress's official position. He even expressed a desire to visit the Ram Temple one day, posting a picture of Ram Lalla on Twitter with the caption "Siyavar Ramchandra ki jai" after the Mandir's inauguration.

He is also a known admirer of Travancore’s erstwhile royal family and have called on them like other politicians do in Thiruvananthapuram. BJP is hoping that Rajeev Chandrasekhar would be a counterforce to Tharoor in the constituency because of his stature.

"Most probably, he will win from the constituency, but there might be a reduction in his vote share," said veteran journalist and political analyst MG Radhakrishnan. "His supporters come from various demographics including techies, caste Hindus, and youngsters. Even the coastal region has supported him," he said.

Thiruvananthapuram, which has an Assembly constituency they won before, is considered a key constituency by the BJP. According to political analysts, the decision to field Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who is also a Nair, to counter Tharoor was a strategic move. "The BJP will secure their party votes here; whatever impact they have nationally, they will receive those votes in Thiruvananthapuram for Rajeev Chandrasekhar. They are also anticipating additional support due to initiatives like the Ram Temple inauguration and the implementation of the CAA, which could slightly increase their vote share," Radhakrishnan said.

He also mentioned that some caste Hindus, particularly those closely associated with temples and in the tech community, who previously supported Tharoor, might now vote for Rajeev because he ticks similar boxes. "Many BJP-leaning caste Hindus who voted for Shashi Tharoor instead of Kummanam Rajasekharan in the past might now opt for Rajeev," he added.

During interviews conducted by TNM with caste Hindu voters, similar sentiments were expressed.

Moorthy, who runs a tea shop near Padmanabha Swamy temple in East Fort and a royal family loyalist, voted for Tharoor twice. "When O Rajagopal contested in 2014, I voted for him. In 2009 and 2019, I voted for Tharoor. Tharoor is a believer; he never disrespects the region and is an educated man. But this time, I may vote for Rajeev Chandrasekhar. I don't know him personally, but I have been following his campaigns and feel that he can effectively challenge Tharoor," Moorthy explained.

LDF’s Pannyan Raveendran, a 78-year-old CPI veteran and former Thiruvananthapuram MP, is taking on two heavy weight candidates. Though he is from Kannur, Pannyan has spent most of his life in Thiruvananthapuram and is a familiar face unlike Rajeev Chandrasekhar. Some constituents are even unaware that he is a Union minister.

Komalam, a voter from Neyyattinkara, said, “I don't know who the BJP candidate is, we are seeing him for the first time. Many say he, like Tharoor, cannot speak Malayalam. I will vote only for a person whom we commoners can relate to.”

Pannyan Raveendran, known for his humble background and strong connections within Thiruvananthapuram, could benefit if Tharoor's votes are split between him and Rajeev. “Pannyan has a personal charisma. He has been a part of Thiruvananthapuram. When two political heavyweights are contesting and a third person is a common man, there is also a section getting attracted to him. Also, he is a very familiar face with good connections,” said Radhakrishnan. Opinion polls so far have given Tharoor an upper hand.

Disaffection in the coast

In the coastal regions of Thiruvananthapuram, especially those under the Kovalam assembly constituency, Tharoor is facing dissatisfaction. The fisherfolk of Vizhinjam have developed a distrust with Tharoor because of the pro-Adani stance taken by him during their agitation but the community has few choices because they felt alienated by the Left government too though the Congress party was sympathetic.

“The port is the only reason we lost our houses to sea erosion. I will not vote for Tharoor or the BJP candidate this time. I haven’t decided whether to boycott the elections,” said Merlin Rozario, a resident of Vizhinjam.

This region is heavily influenced by the Latin Church, and political decisions of voters are often influenced by church decisions. “The Church is firm on fighting against fascist forces like BJP. The Church has condemned attacks against minorities and attempts to sow enmity between communities,” said Martin another voter.

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