Tharoor is still a star, but will caste factor spoil his party?
He makes no big, flashy speeches, instead asks people to evaluate him on the basis of what he has done in his constituency in the last five years and vote for him to repeat his performance for the next five years.
In an election, in which ostentation and noise are restrained, thanks to the hawk eyes of the Election Commission, union minister Shashi Tharoor’s campaign cavalcade in Thiruvananthapuram is simple, but lively and adequately loud - an open jeep in which he addresses and greets people, a pilot vehicle that belts out tailor-made election songs and public announcements, and a few that follow him.
However, there are festoons, posters, street-corner receptions and a lot of energy and enthusiasm. And people are gathering to wave at him throughout his journey - on small alleys and byroads in the peripheral areas of Neyyattinkara in suburban Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday.
The title song that plays in a loop goes something like this: “Sashi Tharoor, the pride of India….” And every now and then, his vehicle has to stop and he has to address people. He makes no big, flashy speeches, instead asks people to evaluate him on the basis of what he has done in his constituency in the last five years and vote for him to repeat his performance for the next five years. “I have fulfilled my promises, now please vote for me to serve you for the next five years,” he says in clipped Malayalam.
In a three (and four, if one considers AAP’s Ajit Joy) cornered contest, in which he is pitted against the Left’s Bennet Abraham (CPI) and the BJP’s O Rajagopal, Tharoor is a star. Although he is fighting for a second term, people - a large number of them women and children - gather to greet him wherever he goes. The extra attention of women was evident in the last elections too, and their support helped him win with a margin that was two votes short of 100,000.
This time too, he has a huge advantage - Thiruvananthapuram is one of the strongest seats for the ruling UDF (United Democratic Front) and the Congress, thanks to his contribution towards its development and the overall pro-UDF wave in the state. According to two pre-poll surveys - one by Asianet News and the other by Lokniti-IBN, there is no anti-incumbency wave in the state and the UDF is likely to win the majority of the seats. While Asianet News poll predicted 11 out of the 20 for UDF, including Thiruvananthapuram, the IBN forecast tally is 11-17 seats.
Tharoor’s success is not just his charisma and popularity with women, but the systematic way in which he approached his responsibility as a member of parliament. As he proudly claims, he is the first Indian MP - and the “only one for a long time” - who has published an annual report on his performance. At the end of the term, he has also published a five year report. There is a lot that he has done for the constituency. I asked shop-keepers, auto and taxi drivers and ordinary people in the constituency about him and majority of them were unanimous in their view that he has done quite a lot.
“I think we are ahead,” Tharoor tells me as I clamber on to his open jeep on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. “You should have seen the response in the coastal belt last night. It was extraordinary,” he says. “Five years after I contested from here last time, I never expected so much enthusiasm, it’s unbelievable”.
Tharoor’s weakness, perhaps the only weakness he has to be mindful of, is the caste card that the Left is playing. His Left opponent, a CPI candidate, is a Nadar, an electorally influential community in the constituency. About 18 percent of the population of the Thiruvananthapuram constituency are Nadars, who are both Hindus and Christians. And in three assembly segments, their numbers are substantial (50 percent or more).
The Thiruvananthapuram constituency was once the stronghold of a Congress Nadar candidate called A Charles, who had won three consecutive terms, riding on the caste support. From 1980 to 1991, Nadars won back-to-back and their supremacy was broken only in 1996 by a CPI candidate. Since then, no Nadar has won an election here.
“The blatant communal campaign practised by both the sides (the Left and the BJP) is a new low in our politics. I am sure it won’t prevail.The overwhelming majority of Thiruvananthapuram voters will not be seduced by this message of identity politics and character assassination. These are the only weapons in their armour. There is tremendous level of enthusiasm, ” he adds.
And how will it translate in terms of votes? “I’m not not in the business of predicting numbers, but people are responding to my message. My message is that I have kept my promise and brought in considerable development work that I can point to.”
Although he doesn’t respond to any of the rivals’ nasty allegations on the death of his wife Sunanda Pushkar, he dismisses them as desperate character assassination. But will they influence the voters? “I don’t think it will work. We are getting an amazing response from women voters,” he adds.
Personally, Tharoor finds the campaign more challenging because he is “five years older” than last time and he misses his wife. “But the party workers are more accommodating.”
In the evening of the day I met him, he was in Attingal after his gruelling campaign, translating Rahul Gandhi’s speech. No wonder, since he has begun the campaign, Tharoor has been clocking 20-hour days. He does admit that his joints have taken more wear and tear, but there is no time to rest even as his well-oiled support machinery comprising some smart young men are putting out messages and photos on the social media and planning his itinerary even as he is on the go.
Tharoor’s victory in 2009 was spectacular - he dominated every single assembly constituency. Will it be a near-repeat this time or will the Nadar factor spoil his party?
Unlikely, because last time too, a Nadar candidate tried his luck and ended up third, even in the Nadar dominated assembly segments. However, if one adds up the Nadar and Left votes, there is some reason to worry. But electoral politics is not simple arithmetic.
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