Kannur: The 450-seat Jawahar Library and Hall, hosting the Nehru Memorial Talk, was full by 11.30 am.
Another 300-odd persons, mostly in white shirts and dhotis, were waiting outside to receive the star speaker, Shashi Tharoor.
By noon, the 'Thiruvananthapuram MP' -- who metamorphosed into a charismatic Congress leader from Kerala in the past four days -- arrived at the Library Hall. The enthusiastic crowd immediately raised slogans hailing Tharoor.
By the time Tharoor took to the podium to speak on 'democracy, secularism, and politics in contemporary India', the hall was jam-packed. The people, mostly Congress supporters and workers, filled the aisles in the hall, and the stairs leading to the hall.
Senior reporters covering the Congress in the Kannur district say it is a rare sight to see so many Congress workers gather for an unofficial party seminar. "The Congress usually struggles to assemble 20 workers for its protests in Kannur," said a reporter of an English newspaper. "The crowd is a testimony to Tharoor's acceptance among the middle class in the Congress," said another reporter of a Left-leaning newspaper.
The massive crowd at the event was despite the party leadership taking potshots at Tharoor over the last four days of his tour of Malappuram, Kozhikode, and Kannur districts. The Leader of the Opposition V D Satheesan even called Tharoor a "balloon inflated by the media".
Tharoor on his part trained his guns on the BJP during his 20-minute talk.
The laws brought in by the BJP government, especially after 2019, betrayed the country's Constitution and were intended to target the Muslim community, he said.
He cited the examples of the law against triple talaq that criminalised only Muslim men from deserting their wives, the Citizenship Amendment Act that excluded Muslim refugees from the fast-track citizenship process, and the amendment to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which allows the government to brand anybody as a terrorist and lodge them in prison without bail.
Against this backdrop comes the government's 'bulldozer politics', which again targets only one community, he said.
The prime minister, though holding a constitutional post, performed 'Bhoomi Puja' for Ayodhya temple and the new building of Parliament, said Tharoor.
"Aren't those a message of the government that it is a Hindu government? It is doing all these without changing the Constitution," he said.
Tharoor said the poison of communalism is being injected into the minds of the people. Children exclude Muslim friends while playing and Muslim girls fear ending a phone conversation in a public place with Khuda Hafiz lest she will be identified. "Such things may never happen in Kerala. But these are happening in the Capital city and Uttar Pradesh," he said and added if secularism collapses, democracy will collapse in India. "It is not Hindus who are in danger. Bharat khatre me hai, (India is in danger)," he said, to loud applause.
The talk was well received but party workers were miffed with the Kannur District Congress Committee (DCC) for backing off from organising the event.
"The DCC first shared a poster on our WhatsApp saying it will organise the event. Today, the event was organised by the Jawahar Library," said Thomas Varghese, Iritty Congress Block committee president. He travelled 40km to Kannur to listen to Tharoor.
To be sure, Kannur DCC president Martin George was on the dais. However, Kannur Corporation Mayor T O Mohanan, who is also the working chairman of the Jawahar Library and Research Centre, welcomed the gathering. Tharoor and Mohanan were the only leaders who spoke at the event.
"Tharoor has our backing. Our leadership is not recognising his talent or his influence on the cadre," said Varghese.
Tharoor is the trend now, people want him in the mainstream politics of Kerala, said P P Mustafa, another Congress leader from the hill panchayat. "The people you saw here today came without any invitation. There was no publicity for the event. It was not even an official event of the Congress," he said.
Youth Congress Kannur district secretary Shanil Punad said the party leadership cannot ignore Tharoor anymore because he is injecting vigour into the party. "Most of the party workers were lifeless. They never turn up for party events. But today, ordinary Congress sympathisers are here," he said.
Party leadership's stance irks Tharoor
For the first time in the four days of his tour of Malabar districts, Tharoor was "irritated" by the accusation by party leadership that he was indulging in "factionalism".
"I am a bit irritated by the issues being created in the media," he told reporters after meeting Thalassery Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplany on Wednesday.
"If you look at the various people we met and programmes we attended, what were the sectarian activities?" he asked.
"I do not understand who is troubled if two Congress MPs are speaking at party-related and other events, but not against anyone in the party or its views," Tharoor said.
He also mocked Satheeshan by asking the reporters: "I hope you (media) have not come here to fill up a balloon with air. I am ready to give the needle if the media wants that."
Satheesan said on Tuesday that "balloons inflated by the media will burst if pricked by a needle", referring to Tharoor's popularity among the masses and allies in Malabar.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Pamplany told reporters that people would benefit if someone of Tharoor's calibre was in a leadership position in Kerala or at the Centre.
Raghavan, who is anchoring Tharoor's four-day tour in Malabar, said, "We respect everyone, including the balloon which bursts on being pricked, the needle which pricks it, and the hand holding the needle."
Tariq Anwar, All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of Kerala, has clarified that Tharoor was not carrying out dissident activities. Tariq said that he agreed totally with KPCC president K Sudhakaran’s remarks in connection with the Tharoor controversy. Whether one is a leader or a simple party worker, everyone must observe discipline in the party, Tariq said.