Only a month after his defeat to Mallikarjun Kharge in the race for Congress president, Shashi Tharoor embarked on a tour of the northern districts of Kerala. The Thiruvananthapuram MP’s ‘Malabar Tour' commenced on Sunday, November 20, and concluded on Wednesday. For someone who landed in the state’s politics as an ‘outsider’ in 2009, after he lost the United Nations Secretary General elections in 2006, it has been a rewarding journey for Tharoor so far. The former diplomat has metamorphosed into a pragmatic politician who knew that he would gain considerable mileage from contesting the Congress presidential election and that it would eventually help him emerge stronger in politics. He has now diverted his attention to state politics, with the aim of becoming a powerful leader of the Congress in Kerala.
Tharoor, who has always stood as a brand of his own, does not belong to any faction of the state unit of the Congress. He has not endorsed the traditional group equations in the party, but has kept equal distance from the I-group headed by former Opposition Leader and Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala, and the A-group led by former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Neither of the current power centres of the party — Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president K Sudhakaran or Opposition Leader VD Satheesan — have accepted him as one among them. Tharoor, despite his global fame as a writer and orator, has remained as Thiruvananthapuram MP and not a Kerala leader, at least in the eyes of the party heavyweights. For an ambitious careerist, Tharoor has never relented to the definitions given him by his party colleagues, instead evolving himself above them in national politics and now trying the same in the state.
Tharoor aims big. And since he did not make it to the Congress’ chief post, he chose to make it louder in the state unit. Speculations and even news reports suggest that Tharoor is eyeing the Chief Minister post. He did not become a three-time MP without anyone to back him within the party. Three-time Kozhikode MP MK Raghavan and Youth Congress state vice president and former MLA KS Sabarinadhan have been vocal in supporting him. They were among those who seconded Tharoor’s contesting the AICC (All India Congress Committee) presidential election. Raghavan is the one coordinating the Malabar Tour while the Youth Congress had organised a debate in which Tharoor was invited to give a lecture during the tour. The event was later cancelled due to an alleged red signal from the Congress top brass. However, that did not deter Tharoor.
This could perhaps be the first time a leader of the Congress or any other political party has embarked on a tour that is not orchestrated by the party. Tharoor’s senior colleagues like Chennithala, former state chief Mullappally Ramachandran, and many others have taken out state-wide campaigns from one end to the other, under different names like Aiswarya Kerala Yatra and Janamaha Yatra. It is not like those leaders lacked the individual political aspirations to travel in open vehicles under the scorching sun, but their campaigns were also rallies organised with the blessings of the party. Those rallies were hence eventually perceived as party rallies. Tharoor’s tour, on the other hand, is conceived and carried out by himself with his supporters, who are a minority in the party. He seems to be leaving no stone unturned to make the tour a louder statement from him, more for his colleagues rather than for the public.
The Malabar Tour was, in fact, his way of telling the party leadership to face the 2024 Lok Sabha elections or the 2026 Assembly elections with him as the party face. For this, he is projecting his acceptance among certain sections of people as a secular, pro-development leader with a global vision and an elite intellect. This, he seems to believe, will help win over the hearts of people, which would make more Congress leaders line up in favour of him, eventually making him stronger than his contemporaries.
But it is the same contemporaries that Tharoor has to deal with as he begins his journey to become the Congress’s face in Kerala and sustain it. After Tharoor began the tour, Satheesan said that no sectarianism or parallel activities would be allowed in the party, warning that such moves would be dealt with seriously. Satheesan added, "the state unit of the Congress is on a comeback path after two consecutive debacles in the Assembly elections and it is not healthy enough to bear any parallel activities by anyone."
Satheesan and Sudhakaran are among the two prominent Chief Minister aspirants in the Congress who are eyeing the next Assembly elections. Tharoor joining the gang will not go down well with the other leaders, even though the former has said that no one needs to fear him and that he fears none. Tharoor has played it down with the same ease with which he landed in the state’s politics — with no previous experience, without any open allegiance to any faction, and having never been a mass leader — yet securing a three-time win. His tour is no exception, it is meticulously planned.
In Malappuram, Tharoor met the leaders of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) at the residence of Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal, terming it a courtesy call. In Kozhikode, he had dinner with the Bishop Remigiose Inchananiyil of Thamarassery diocese. After the tour, Tharoor will be inaugurating Nair Service Society’s (NSS) Mannam Jayanthi (birth anniversary of social reformer Mannath Padmanabhan) celebrations in January next year. The anniversary is held every year at Perunna in Kottayam, the headquarters of the NSS that has appropriated Mannam as their leader. NSS’s invitation of Tharoor is yet another loud sign for leaders of the Congress in Kerala.
The party’s high command in Delhi has a history of favouring Tharoor. He was made a minister following his first electoral victory and has been made chairman of parliamentary standing committees. Chennithala said in a recent interview that Tharoor has been given his due as minister and chairman of the committees. None of this ever threatened the power equations in the Kerala unit. These equations are what Tharoor will now have to overcome to emerge victorious in the state.