On July 7, Shashi Tharoor crossed a milestone in his eventful political career as the longest-serving parliamentarian representing Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency. Tharoor broke the record of Congress' A Charles, who represented the constituency for 4,047 days from 1984 to 1991. Thiruvananthapuram, the VIP constituency that includes the state capital, sent Tharoor to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 2009 on a Congress ticket.
The diplomat-turned-politician then won in 2014 and 2019, braving tough triangular contests which left political pundits confused about the probable outcomes. Now, with three successive victories, Thiruvananthapuram has almost emerged as a fortress of the suave Congress MP. Tharoor, however, believes there is no room for complacency. "I certainly do not take anything for granted, not even the voters' goodwill," he says.
In an exclusive interview with Onmanorama, Tharoor picks up the favourite projects he initiated for Thiruvananthapuram, chalks out his vision for the constituency and expresses the need to shed parochial politics. Edited Excerpts.
Do you believe you could use the best of your expertise for your constituency in the works you have done so far?
I believe I have done so and have, in each of these projects, done my best to leverage my networks both within and outside government, as well as those from my years in the UN and relationships with civil society stakeholders and have, through a collaborative effort, brought groups together and delivered successful results. I had announced when I first contested in 2009 that if I was unable to make a difference, I would not seek re-election. The fact that I have been elected three times shows that the people I represent believe I have been effective in the job they have entrusted me with.
What happened to the much-discussed twin city project? Do you regret the project not getting materialised?
As you know, the proposal to set up a twinning programme between Barcelona and Thiruvananthapuram was a key commitment I had made in my 2009 election manifesto. Why did I think this was in the best interest of our city? For one, I believed strongly that such a project would open up avenues for international cooperation and development. The Barcelona city council had a budget for international cooperation which Thiruvananthapuram would have gotten advantage of. At the same time, as a port city and former host of the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona had great expertise in civic matters such as waste management, city planning, rejuvenation of water bodies and provision of drinking water, which it would share with Thiruvananthapuram, a city that it had many geographical similarities with. Finally, the twin city programme would also have opened doors for tie-ups between the educational institutions of both cities, research aid for institutions like the Regional Cancer Centre, world class football coaching facilities (Barcelona FC!) as well as create strong cultural ties and enhance tourism in Thiruvananthapuram.
Sadly, while the Barcelona council was most receptive to the idea and passed a resolution to this effect after I travelled there and personally held high level meetings with members of the city council including the then Mayor Jori Hereu, (and convinced them to send a high-level delegation headed by Mr. Joseph Roca, Director of the council’s International Relations Department, to travel to Thiruvananthapuram and hold first round of talks with representatives from the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation), petty politics prevailed. The LDF-led Thiruvananthapuram corporation, despite initially being supportive and keen for this project, subsequently failed to discuss the proposal or to pass a similar resolution and sabotaged this initiative.
In fact, as a sign of their interest, subsequent to the passing of their resolution, two more delegations from Barcelona visited Thiruvananthapuram including a cultural delegation of Casa Asia, a Spanish cultural department, which put up exhibitions and performances in the city. A musical and dance performance also took place. But the LDF-led corporation did not wish to see the Barcelona initiative succeed. After I publicly protested against their ineptitude, the Mayor claimed that the corporation did not have the authority to sign such an agreement and would have to send it to the Ministry of Urban Development. I said I would take care of that: in fact MoUD pointed out that there was no issue in the Corporation signing this agreement and it only needed a simple clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs which in itself would not be an issue. Despite this, the LDF-led government did not bother to pass a resolution in the corporation and as a result failed to seize a golden opportunity that would not have cost the city or the corporation financially, but would have given them access to many benefits from Barcelona. After a year, the resolution passed by the city council of Barcelona expired and soon after, the Socialist government within the Council lost the election and the Nationalists who replaced them were uninterested in renewing it.
Was it a hindrance that you always had an LDF-ruled corporation to contend with in Thiruvananthapuram?
As the episode with the twin city proposal demonstrated, the LDF corporation has often sought to resort to petty parochial politics and seem keener to score points against other parties rather than demonstrating an interest in working with all stakeholders towards the larger goal of delivering a better quality of life for the people of Thiruvananthapuram. In that sense, yes, having to deal with an LDF corporation has been at times difficult. The district officials and administration, with whom my office and I work with closely on a number of projects, have often been very reliable and committed partners.
How do you plan a development/welfare project? What's your vision of a Thiruvananthapuram of the future?
I dream of a Thiruvananthapuram with world-class infrastructure, a magnet for higher education institutions, which attracts investors as a good place to do business, ensures a high quality of life for its people, assures decent healthcare, and offers multiple entertainment options for residents and tourists alike. How do you plan to realise something like that? Step by step. But it’s hard when all the authority lies with the city and state governments which are often in hostile hands. I always say, echoing Sree Narayana Guru, “rashtriyam ethaayallum, rashtram nannayaal mathi” (Whatever be your politics, the nation should progress). But I am not sure the other side agrees!
What exactly makes you a darling of the people of the coastal areas? What do you think you can do to make their lives better?
During my time as the MP for Thiruvananthapuram, right from my inaugural term, I have been a passionate advocate for their causes both within the House and outside, pushing the government of the day to listen to their concerns and act on them. I don’t think the issues of the fishing community have ever been raised as often in the Lok Sabha’s Question Hour and Zero Hour, as well as in substantive debates, as I have been able to do. Still, not enough tangible change has come into their lives and I keep on fighting.
Thiruvananthapuram LS constituency can now be called the Tharoor fortress after your three consecutive wins in LS elections. You look invincible now. Did you expect things to pan out this way back in 2009 during your maiden contest? How did you evolve as a pragmatic politician?
I think in politics in particular there are no absolutes or guarantees and just because I have been privileged to receive the backing of the people of this constituency on three occasions doesn’t mean we should now sit back and allow complacency to set in. I am glad I have been able to be effective in this job throughout this time and am honoured that the people of Thiruvananthapuram have entrusted this responsibility to me. But the work continues and I remain committed to picking up on pending projects, initiating new ones and ushering a greater quality of life for the people I represent and the fulfilment of their aspirations. I certainly do not take anything for granted, not even the voters’ goodwill.
A close political aide of mine told me early on that politics in Kerala is like a bank that does not offer savings accounts. You don’t store up savings from good deeds in the past. There is only a current account: the voters want to know, what have you done for me today? So you have to be constantly on your toes.
The journey hasn’t always been easy and as I said during my early days in Indian politics, it was often an agni pariksha. But even as my critics have been quick to attack me, I have learnt the importance of learning from each episode, the importance of picking myself up and of paramount importance, the need to soldier on because we have a duty first and foremost to the people who have put us in the positions that we hold today.
Amid all the perceived negativity surrounding party politics, you manage to practice a positive politics as is evident from your works during COVID times. How was that possible?
The pandemic has increasingly convinced all of us on the importance of working together. It is not realistic to expect the government alone, or the local district administration and civil society, to bear the burden of relief and containment efforts. We are also talking about an issue that directly affects the health of our communities and on a scale that we have not encountered in recent memory. Therefore, I strongly believe that the circumstances certainly require us to suspend parochial politics and embrace the need to find solutions in a bipartisan spirit. By working together, we can certainly achieve more for the people.
There are many who believe you should have been made the Congress' leader in the Lok Sabha. Are you happy with the party's present performance as the principal opposition party at the national stage?
As I have often pointed out, such decisions are taken by the party president through established conventions and processes within the party. For my part, I am proud to continue to represent the aspirations of the people of Thiruvananthapuram, as well as articulate the ideals of the party, and my own ideas, within the Parliament. It is a job that keeps me immensely busy but has also been rewarding in its own way.
Why did your repeated calls for elections to the post of party president go unanswered?
I can’t honestly answer that since I am not a member of the CWC, which is the body that at least in principle discusses such matters. I believe I have made my position on the issue sufficiently clear. Now it is up to the leadership and the CWC to consider some of the arguments I have highlighted.
How optimistic are you about the Congress' chances in Kerala in the coming assembly polls and the next Lok Sabha polls, though four years away.
I am certainly optimistic of our chances in both the state and nationally. For one, whether it is in Parliament in New Delhi, or across the state of Kerala or even on virtual platforms like social media (as has often been the case during the pandemic), I believe the Congress has played an indispensable role in holding the government – whether at the Centre or in the State - accountable, in highlighting the flaws of their policies and decisions and in constantly reminding those in power of the dreams and aspirations of the people of this country.
So I believe that nationally and within the state we have served as an energetic and dynamic opposition capable of holding the government’s feet to the fire, and at the same time is in a position to contribute in terms of ideas on matters of policy-making. A strong opposition is indispensable to any democratic society – and all the more so in India, given what we are going through with a fundamental challenge to the very foundations of the republic. The Congress is the only party with the experience, credibility and nationwide footprint to challenge and counter the divisive rule of the present central government. We will continue to resist the BJP’s incessant attempts to undermine the democratic, pluralistic and inclusive heritage that our forefathers gave their lives for. I think this is a realisation that is shared by the people of the state as well and I am confident that they will look to the Congress party for leadership both in the state and in the centre when the time comes.
You have a long list of projects that you had initiated for your constituency. Could you pick a few favourites from among them and tell us what makes them so?
It’s hard to pick a few over the others but two projects that I am personally very proud of are the 4-lane NH Kazhakootam- Karode Bypass and the upcoming Vizhinjam International Transhipment Port. The bypass project had been lying dormant for 40 years before I took over and I am pleased that today the project offers vital connectivity in my constituency, linking 5 out of the 7 Assembly segments, and has begun to boost economic growth and investment in the region. Similarly, with the commencement of commercial activities in the port, there is likely to be significant economic benefits including jobs for the people of my constituency and will also drive the rise of related industries in the region. But there are other small interventions that have been just as critical.
For instance, I am proud that I was able to organise stops for four express trains in Parassala. Locals had been clamouring for the stops for 27 years without luck. This meant that people who spent nearly 100 rupees taking a two-hour bus journey to Thiruvananthapuram city for work were able to get there in one hour for ten rupees. These are the small initiatives that make such a difference in people’s lives. More recently, even prior to the official announcement of the lockdown, on the evening Parliament adjourned, I had requested the prime minister, in the presence of the Lok Sabha Speaker, to amend the rules to permit MP funds under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) to be used for essential supplies to combat Covid. On the first day of lockdown, the Speaker called me while I was at lunch: my proposal had been accepted, a revised order would be issued. My team in Thiruvananthapuram and I immediately swung into action, eliciting, from the local chapter of the Indian Medical Association and the District Collector, information about what supplies were in short supply and urgently needed. We then immediately issued purchase orders under MPLADS for these essential items—9,000 kits of Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare workers, 3,000 rapid-testing RT- PCR kits from the only lab in India approved to make them (Mylab in Pune) and 250 non-contact thermometers from Hong Kong. The Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences in Thiruvananthapuram was doing cutting-edge research into a new RT-LAMP testing system for Covid: I allotted Rs 1 crore to the institute for the purchase of test kits, which gave them the confidence to go ahead with their development and internal testing. Sadly, their final product has been pending ICMR clearance for over four months, which I think is most unfortunate on part of the government given the immense need for cheaper and faster test kits. And finally, with every rupee left in my available funds, I purchased a thermal face-detecting scanner to be installed at the airport and the railway station to quickly detect passengers arriving with fever. No sooner had that order been placed than the prime minister announced the suspension of all MPLADS funds for two years: instead of being allotted by the local MP on the basis of awareness of local conditions and needs, they would now be sequestered by the Central Government, a reinforcement of a pattern of centralisation that has become all too apparent under the Modi regime.
Then there were the efforts to help Keralites stranded abroad and wanting to come home. They reached out to me in large numbers, from 27 countries (at last count)—ranging from students in places as far apart as Haiti, Ukraine and the Philippines, to fishermen stranded in Iran by the lockdown, to businessmen unable to return home from what was intended to be a short business trip to a foreign country.