Opinion | Balloon Effect, Tharoor’s Malabar mutiny and a conceptually confused Congress

Shashi Tharoor
While it is good riddance for the Grand Old Party’s national leadership, Tharoor’s newfound liking for state politics has pierced some inflated egos in the state leadership of Congress: PTI

If a balloon is squeezed to get rid of the air, it moves to another space. The Balloon Effect logic is an off-shoot of the criticism of drug policy worldwide – as in shady illicit drugs and their trafficking find new pastures when there is a crackdown, but does not get wiped out.

The Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee is probably dabbling with the Balloon Effect as it tries to crush vanquished Congress presidential candidate Shashi Tharoor, MP, from Thiruvananthapuram constituency, who has probably turned his attention to state politics.

While it is good riddance for the Grand Old Party’s national leadership, Tharoor’s newfound liking for state politics has pierced some inflated egos in the state leadership of Congress.

That is why the question arises as to what Opposition Leader V D Satheeshan meant when he said Congress leaders in Kerala with grassroots support were not inflated balloons.

The reference came when he was talking about Tharoor’s Malabar recce, which is irking the Congress leadership in the state.

K Sudhakaran: Manorama News screengrab

By the Congress leadership in the state, we mean Satheesan, KPCC president K Sudhakaran and the unseen hands of a top AICC aide.

This troika represents the ‘I’ group in the faction-ridden Kerala unit of the party. Its rival ‘A’ group, led by former CM Oommen Chandy, has embraced a pregnant silence on the issue.

I, Me, Myself

The ‘I’ group is a conglomeration of former Karunakaran loyalists now being pulled in different directions by the vaulting ambitions of its leadership.

K Muraleedharan. File photo: Josekutty Panackal/Manorama

Former Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala, the aforementioned ‘I’ leaders and Vadakara MP K Muraleedharan are all in some way or other linked to the group, with loyalty to K Karunakaran as its motif.

Barring Muraleedharan, who is not a staunch votary of the group’s politics now, the rest see Tharoor as a Congressman airdropped by the High Command.

This is an element of truth to it. The group also sees Tharoor as a Congress leader with no grassroots backing.

The reference to grassroots is a way of suggesting Tharoor has not climbed the hierarchy of the party ladder to attain a top leadership position.

This is also true as Tharoor was an international career diplomat who did not dabble with the nitty gritty of petty political terrains in Kerala.

But the issue here is that the so-called ‘I’ group is finding it difficult to accept the new politics espoused by Tharoor – it is popular.

The leadership of both these influential groups has never recognised Tharoor, but he has won the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat thrice without the wholehearted support of local satraps.

It is another matter that Tharoor enjoyed the wholehearted backing of the Congress national leadership then.

Not anymore.

Shifting priorities of all and sundry

Tharoor is probably the only Congress candidate who is equipped to keep the BJP at bay in the Thiruvananthapuram LS constituency. The saffron party has deep roots in the constituency, which is evident from the fact that even Tharoor’s 2009 margin of nearly a lakh shrunk to a mere 14,000 odd in 2014 at the height of the Modi wave.

After his unsuccessful run for the Congress president’s post, if the party is toying with the idea of sidelining Tharoor, as is seen in his obvious omission from the list of the party’s star campaigners in the state assembly poll campaign, it risks losing a perception war.

If the Congress's local and national leaderships collude to drop Tharoor, wouldn’t it be seen as an act of vengeance for daring to run for the party president’s post?

Tharoor’s litmus test

It is a foregone conclusion that the Thiruvananthapuram MP faces an uncertain career trajectory in the echelons of Congress at the national level.

The Kharge-led Congress, still steered by the unseen hands of the Gandhi family lineage, is inimical to Tharoor the politician playing a prominent role nationally.

They would rather wish for a Balloon Effect by squeezing him into the muddy terrain of state politics. This is the scenario in which Tharoor is trying to eke out an opportunity from a crisis.

This is also a scenario detested by the huge bunch of aspiring CM candidates in Congress spanning ‘A’ and ‘I’ groups.

Tharoor can only stay afloat by overcoming stiff opposition from these Congressmen.

Only a handful of Youth Congress leaders are ready to back the Tharoor line for the fear of risking the wrath of the High Command.

So it makes sense for Tharoor to get a leg-up from the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which enjoys significant clout in the Congress-led United Democratic Front.

Tharoor's Panakkad visit is a step in this direction. In the past, there have been instances in which the IUML was given a patient hearing by the Congress leadership when it came to the issue of Congress CM candidates.

Feuding Congress

Only Kozhikode MP M K Raghavan, miffed at getting a raw deal in the new KPCC dispensation, is publicly backing Tharoor.

The ‘A’ group on its part is secretly relishing the tantrums in the rival ‘I' faction vis-a-vis Tharoor’s Malabar foray.

The ‘A’ faction sees a conceptually confused ‘I’ potentially detonating itself before the next LS polls.

It is also glad the High Command doesn’t command the clout it held previously after a series of electoral drubbings.

The ‘A’ faction, which is probably inimical to the High Command, sees a ray of hope in the Gehlot revolt in Rajasthan when the High Command toyed with the idea of Sachin Pilot as the CM.

It visualises a similar scenario in future if it can get a majority of its legislators elected in the next assembly polls.

It seems to be a bit far-fetched calculation, but given a leadership vacuum in the group due to Oomen Chandy’s health issues, this is the best scenario to which it can latch on to.

The Congress leadership in Kerala blames the media for hyping up Tharoor’s Malabar outreach. It should do some introspection.

Its leaders spoke in different voices on Tharoor’s Malabar programmes – Sudhakaran said there is no unofficial ban on Tharoor while Satheesan hinted it would not tolerate anti-party activity from within. These contradicting postures probably gave more fodder for the media than what Tharoor’s Malabar sojourn deserved, thrusting the spotlight again on the Thiruvananthapuram MP.

Cadres and feeder organisations – or whatever is left of that tribe – are now confused.

The dichotomy of these factions and the growing clamour for a fresh approach as the only way to redeem Congress in the state offers Tharoor a little space in the Congress’ political spectrum.

The former career diplomat now needs truckloads of political diplomacy to successfully manoeuvre these political minefields and emerge unscathed.

A tall order, but Tharoor may well grab this chance or risk relegation to the hinterland of Congress.

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