Newsmaker: 13 years an outsider, the curious case of Shashi Tharoor

Thirteen years after he first became the MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor the unlikely politician remains Shashi Tharoor the unlikely Congressman. He has a personality distinctly his own in a party that prefers lining up behind the high command. At the same time, when push comes to shove, the 66-year-old has fallen in line himself, repeatedly.

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And there have been several of those pushes and shoves. In the most recent one, Tharoor was forced to quietly pull out of a seminar being held by the CPM in Kerala after the state Congress objected. Tharoor has also earned the local Congress’s ire for not aligning with the party in opposing the Pinarayi Vijayan government’s ambitious SilverLine project.

This non-partisan approach fits in well with Tharoor’s carefully built image of an intellectual-politician interested more in ideas than power. However, it also means the ever-squabbling Congress in the state and the ever-suspicious Congress at the centre do not know where to fit him in.

“Guest artist” in the Congress, “vishwa pauran (global citizen)”, “rebel” and “outlier” are just some of the descriptions used for the MP by his own colleagues. They have also publicly ridiculed and derided him for his views.

And yet, Tharoor had what can only be called a grand entry into the party and politics in 2009. A former UN diplomat who famously lost the post of Secretary General by a whisker, as well as a prolific author, Tharoor had been embraced by the Congress despite his sometimes critical views on Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. When he won the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the first-term MP had been appointed a minister.

According to those close to Tharoor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s advice for his young colleague at the time was that he should be cautious of jealous colleages. To Tharoor’s friends, that still remains true 13 years later.

The friction has been growing since the Congress’s loss in the Kerala Assembly elections last year, with the CPM bucking the trend to retain power. As the party dynamics changed with the appointment of K Sudhakaran as PCC chief and V D Satheesan as Leader of the Opposition, Tharoor who was in neither camp found himself with few friends. This is despite Tharoor having put in a word with the high command for Sudhakaran’s appointment. 

However, Congress leaders accuse the MP of burning his bridges himself, citing how, soon after Narendra Modi’s 2014 triumph, Tharoor had suggested that we might be looking at Modi 2.0 as the PM had been reconciliatory and inclusive in his statements; and how Tharoor had praised Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mission and taken up the offer to be one of its brand ambassadors, calling it a national cause.

The calls for disciplinary action against Tharoor at the time had eventually resulted in his removal as the party’s national spokesperson.

In 2019, after the Congress registered one of its worst poll performances, Tharoor had suggested that rather than opposing Modi for the sake of opposing him, the PM should be praised “whenever he says or does the right thing, which would add credibility to our criticisms whenever he errs”.

Then came Tharoor’s support for the Centre’s decision to lease out the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport for 50 years to the Adani Group.

Through these run-ins with the state Congress, Tharoor was believed to have the high command’s backing. That changed in August 2020 when he, as one of the G23, put his sign on a letter to Sonia Gandhi seeking sweeping changes in the party.

Clearly enjoying the change vis-a-vis Tharoor, fellow Lok Sabha MP from Kerala K Muraleedharan said at the time that “leaders at the national level” would decide his fate. “You made him a global citizen; we are just ordinary citizens.”

In marked contrast was the state Congress’s silence on P J Kurien, who was also a signatory to the letter.

Tharoor’s initially ambiguous stand on SilverLine, including refusal to sign on the letter by 17 UDF MPs opposing the project, is the new flashpoint. “If you are a party MP you have to follow the party line. Otherwise, you can leave the party, we have told him in clear terms,” Sudhakaran said.

Tharoor has sought to clarify saying he hasn’t expressed support for the rail project but “declined to criticise it before I studied the details”.

Despite the heat on him, Tharoor still enjoys the confidence of the Congress central leadership, particularly Sonia. Sources said it was the Congress president who asked him to keep out of the CPM conference, citing to him Sudhakaran’s public opposition to it.

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