With the Nair community likely to cold-shoulder Shashi Tharoor, the two-time Thiruvananthapuram MP is staring at a possible defeat.
In the late 1990s, popular Malayalam novelist and writer M T Vasudevan Nair made a brief mention in an article he wrote for Mathrubhumi, a leading daily in Kerala, on Chandran Tharoor of Palakkad. Nair mentioned that Tharoor’s son, Shashi Tharoor, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Singapore, was doing a good job.
The Coimbatore correspondent of Mathrubhumi’s rival Malayala Manorama noted this down. K Balachandran, the correspondent, got to know that Shashi Tharoor’s mother lived in Coimbatore, thanks to a contact.
When Shashi Tharoor came to Coimbatore to meet his mother, the Manorama correspondent caught up with him for an interview. It was the first time people in Kerala got to know about Shashi Tharoor, who was born in London, brought up in north India and was residing in the United States.
To his credit, Shashi Tharoor spoke Malayalam with a Palakkad accent that was accepted by Keralites, especially the Nair community. He was seen in better light than V K Krishna Menon, who couldn’t speak Malayalam properly and had to struggle for acceptance by Keralites to win the Thiruvananthapuram (then Trivandrum) Lok Sabha constituency in 1971 as an independent candidate.
Tharoor joined the Congress in the late 2000s and made his electoral debut from Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency in 2009. Apart from other things, two important factors helped him win. One was the votes of the dominant Nair community. The other was Christians, especially Latin Catholics, a fishermen community, and Syrian Christians.
The support of these two communities saw him romp home in 2009 by nearly a lakh votes, garnering 42.29 per cent support of those who exercised their franchise.
Tharoor was renominated in 2014 but he found the going tough. Despite the pro-change and Modi wave, he managed to overcome a stiff challenge from O Rajagopal of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He scraped through by a little over 15,000 votes with his vote share dropping to 34.09 per cent.
Probably, his effort in overcoming Rajagopal’s challenge has got him the nomination this time. Will Nairs and Christians back him this time, too, to send him to the Lok Sabha?
Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency comprises of Thiruvananthapuram, Kazhakkootam, Vattiyoorkavu, Nemom, Kovalam, Neyyattinkara and Parassala assembly segments.
The constituency has been the same since 1951 when an independent, Annie Mascarene, won the seat. Since then, independents have won thrice — 1957, 1962 and 1971 when Krishna Menon bagged it with the support of the communists.
The Samyukta Socialist Party won it in 1967 and since then the Congress has won the seat eight times, including the last two when Tharoor was picked up. Usually, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) allocates this seat to its alliance partner Communist Party of India (CPI), which has won three times, including a bypoll in 2005.
In the 2016 assembly elections, the BJP made its debut in the state assembly with its veteran candidate O Rajagopal winning from the Nemom segment. The LDF bagged the Neyyattinkara, Parassala and Kazhakkootam seats, while the Congress walked away with Thiruvananthapuram, Vattiyoorkavu and Kovalam segments.
There are nearly 14 lakh voters in Thiruvananthapuram with 72 per cent of the electorate living in urban areas and the rest in rural areas. Hindus make up nearly 67 per cent of the population in the constituency, followed by Christians who make up 19 per cent and Muslims the rest. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes comprise a little over 10 per cent in the constituency.
Among the Hindus, the Nair community is the dominant one, consisting of nearly 18 per cent of the total population. This means, within the Hindus they enjoy a good majority.
Thus, the Christians and Nairs contributed in a large measure to Tharoor’s victory in the last two elections. In fact, this seems the key factor that has always helped the Congress until now.
However, it is likely that this time the script might be different altogether. Problem for Tharoor this time is in the form of BJP candidate Kummanam Rajasekharan, who quit as Mizoram governor to take him on. The LDF, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), has fielded C Divakaran of the CPI.
A casual chat with the people in the constituency reveals that the CPI candidate figures nowhere in their list of priority. “Tharoor will find it difficult this time,” is the general refrain across the constituency.
“This time, too, Tharoor will get the support of a majority of Christians because they follow what their clergies say. Maybe, some 2 per cent can switch over to support Kummanam,” says a BJP executive in the party’s Thiruvananthapuram rented premises. He doesn’t want to be quoted as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
“The Nair community will vote against Tharoor despite a couple of the Nair Service Society (NSS) local leaders supporting him. These leaders have all along been with the Congress and hence are acting against the top rung leadership of NSS,” says the BJP executive.
The NSS, an organisation set up for the welfare and advancement of the 14 per cent Nair community in Kerala, is backing the BJP candidates this time. The NSS has a big time influence on the voters of the community, and its support to the BJP is seen as a huge plus.
The main reason for the NSS supporting BJP this time is the controversy over allowing women of reproductive age to enter Sabarimala Ayyappa temple.
In September last year, the Supreme Court removed the ban on the entry of women of this age group into the temple. The LDF government in the state, headed by Pinarayi Vijayan, swung into action immediately to implement the ruling.
The Supreme Court ruling, and the Kerala government’s action led to a huge uproar and protests in the state with women in the forefront. While the LDF is much hated for this, the Congress is also being blamed for not supporting those protesting against the ruling and the Vijayan government’s action.
The Nair community is very religious and rooted to traditions and customs. The community has been among the major forces that have come out publicly opposing the Supreme Court ruling and the way the LDF government has tried to implement it.
“Women and family members of CPI-M cadre also go to temples. The CPI-M men allow their family members to follow traditions and customs. These family members have been hurt by the developments in Sabarimala and they all could vote for Kummanam,” adds the BJP executive.
A political analyst, whose family members are in the CPI-M and NSS, says that Latin Catholics could get “monetary” benefits from Tharoor and hence they would support him.
“Women are deeply disturbed over the Sabarimala developments. Even though the Congress has said traditions and customs would be respected, it has been a trifle late in its reactions,” says S Sukumaran, a tourist cab driver.
“God has been witnessing all that has been happening here. He will punish the CPI-M government. And god is not going to help Tharoor either. Kummanam’s chances are bright,” says S Raghavan, a former employee of Kerala State Road Transport Corporation.
Retired now, Raghavan was a die-hard CPI-M supporter but the Sabarimala events and assault on other Hindu temples has left him bitter. “I will vote for the BJP this time,” he says.
An employee of Trivandrum Devaswom Board (TDB) laughs off the pessimistic outlook for Tharoor, indicating other factors could be at play. But there are many Thiruvananthapuram residents who say Tharoor could find it very tough this time.
Tharoor has compounded his problems by his non-performance in these 10 years, representing the constituency. “There is a dire need for better train connectivity to Bangalore from Thiruvananthapuram. All trains to Bangalore are choc-a-bloc but the demand still is high. Tharoor never took up this issue,” says Balu B, a youth.
The issue was taken up by Minister of State Alphons Kannanthanam, who wrote to the Railway Ministry. When the Railway Ministry wrote back saying there is no space to park trains in Bangalore, he suggested a remedy saying the train could be parked in Mysore.
(The BJP inducted Kannanthanam in the Union Cabinet by making him a Rajya Sabha member from Rajasthan after BJP’s splendid show in the 2016 assembly elections. Besides winning Nemom, the party missed at least three seats by the thinnest of margins.)
“After all this was done and the train service was about to be inaugurated, Tharoor turned up and created a ruckus. The fact is that he doesn’t do anything and if someone does something for us, he comes and stands in the front wanting to claim the credit,” says Balu.
The political analyst says that people in and around Thiruvananthapuram are upset that more projects and industries are coming up in Kochi than Thiruvananthapuram.
“People are comfortable living here and would like more projects like electronics park to come up here. Not much has been done, especially by Tharoor who has failed to bring any major industry here,” says the analyst.
There are more grievances against Tharoor. For instance, when Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari inaugurated the Kovalam-Kazhakootam bypass road in Thiruvananthapuram district, he openly appealed to the Congress MP to take up three other pending road projects.
“The Kovalam-Kazhakootam bypass road has come only because the BJP took interest. Even after Gadkari’s plea, Tharoor failed to follow up on the projects,” says Sukumaran.
But Neyyattinkara Sanal, Thiruvananthapuram district Congress president, says Shashi Tharoor has done a lot of work for the constituency, without elaborating. “He has done a great job for Thiruvananthapuram in the last 10 years. His work will get him elected this time by a higher margin than last time,” he says with confidence.
One of the major problems for the Congress in Thiruvananthapuram is its internal squabbles. Shashi Tharoor has not been getting much support from local Congress leaders, especially member of the Kerala assembly V S Sivakumar.
“Sanal has openly posted on Facebook that local Congress leaders are not cooperating in the campaign for Tharoor. It spells danger,” says another local youth Vipin.
“If you don’t want to be hungry, you need to eat properly. Similarly, if you want to win you need to campaign properly. In the case of Tharoor, I would say he is not eating properly,” says Chuzhal G Nirmalan, who has split from Bharat Dharma Jana Sena to launch Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (Democratic) party.
The Bharat Dharma Jana Sena was launched in 2015 as the political wing of the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, an organisation that works for the development and progress of the Ezhava community, another dominant caste in Kerala that makes up 20 per cent of the state’s population.
But the BJP wouldn’t want to take this all as signs of the contest rolling out in favour of its candidate Kummanam Rajasekharan.
“You never know what tricks the LDF is up to. They can resort to tactical switch voting at the last minute to help Tharoor,” says the BJP executive.
The LDF and United Democratic Front (UDF) have often been charged with defeating BJP through switch voting. For example, the BJP says its Manjeswaram candidate in the 2016 assembly polls K Surendran was defeated by such a strategy.
“At 3 pm, it looked like Surendran will win from the Manjeswaram constituency. At least 3,000 voters who usually vote for the Left parties had not voted at that time, waiting to know the trend. Once they knew that the odds favoured Surendran, they all went and voted in favour of the Indian Union Muslim League candidate who ultimately won,” says a state BJP leader. The Muslim League was part of the Congress-led UDF in the 2016 polls.
Surendran, now BJP’s candidate from Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency, lost by 86 votes then.
“The LDF wouldn’t want to allow the BJP to lead in any of the seven assembly segments making up the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency. Communists know that the Sabarimala issue may not be as lively in 2021 as now. Therefore, they will try their best to undermine Kummanam’s chances,” says the BJP executive.
The CPI candidate in the constituency doesn’t enjoy a good reputation and analysts are keeping their fingers crossed on how those who are against his candidature will vote.
On the other hand, Kummanam is seen as a candidate who has impressed even the Christians in the state. During his tenure as the BJP state chief, he had reached out to the Christian community as part of the party’s efforts to widen its appeal.
The presence of Kerala Congress (P C Thomas) in the National Democratic Alliance could also help the BJP candidate.
Things aren’t looking up for Tharoor with the Nair community turning against him. His non-performance is also a factor.
For the BJP, its work in the last five years by completing long pending projects is likely to help in a big way.
“Keralites have found a sense of belongingness with the Centre in the last five years after a long time. It should help BJP,” says the analyst.