Shashi Tharoor’s chief ministerial ambition is by now clear and there is nothing wrong about it.
In politics, like in business, one cannot be blamed for being ambitious.
What is important is how realistic and judicious one’s ambitions are.
In Tharoor’s case, a dream to be the head of a state like Kerala is judicious – just because the circumstances are on his side.
He has all the right to believe that he deserves to be more than a mere Congress MP on the opposition benches forever.
With there’s no certainty over the party’s immediate chances at the national level despite seemingly earnest attempts at a revival,
Tharoor is now playing the pragmatic politician by shifting focus to the state politics.
Perhaps it’s the new normal in Congress. Everyone is a Gehlot there. Why shouldn’t Tharoor also be one?
But unlike the Rajasthan chief minister who refused to enter the election fray for the party’s once coveted president post, Tharoor gave it a try to grab it.
He won too, not the poll but a perception battle.
That has given him the fuel to proceed with his all-out efforts to position himself as a forward, in his own words, and push himself out of the side bench.
Hence, it’s the season of 'Tharoor Unleashed' in Kerala politics these days.
Intriguing are its ramifications for himself and his undeclared rivals within the organisation.
After completing his Malabar tour which ruffled some feathers in the party, he is attending a series of events in central and southern Kerala.
A far-away election and too many for CM chair
Congress had only two CM faces when it fought the assembly elections last year and suffered a shock defeat – Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala.
The rout in the elections forced the two veterans who headed the rival A and I factions to sidestep as the party’s high-command effected a leadership change bringing in K Sudhakaran as PCC chief and V D Satheesan as leader of the opposition.
So that made it two plus an ailing Chandy and sidelined Chennithala.
Then there’s the all plausible rumour about K C Venugopal keeping an eye on the Kerala throne. The AICC general secretary (organisation)’s evident proximity with Rahul Gandhi makes him a formidable power centre within the state unit.
It is into this musical chair that Tharoor has thrown himself now.
And no wonder, Tharoor at the moment looks taller among the lot with his image of being an unusual politician that appeals beyond party circles. That, however, doesn’t mean that he is the most eligible dreamer.
He is not beyond criticism. “He was meeting Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and building up a pro-development image even when the entire Congress machinery was up in arms against the SilverLine project and creating a valid narrative on its environmental and economic impacts,” a Congress leader said, repeating his criticism against the Thiruvananthapuram MP which he made, off the record, during the Congress presidential election.
Lessons for Satheesan
Though there are more players on the ground, by the end of the day, the controversy over Tharoor’s Malabar trip looked like a power struggle between him and the opposition leader.
Satheesan only gave fodder to the narrative with his suggestive remark that Tharoor’s Malabar trip amounted to be factionalism.
He went on to say that ‘media inflated balloons’ will burst soon. Satheesan, in a smart move, tried to quell the controversy with an emotionally appealing address to a section of party followers in Kochi.
He claimed that he was being made the villain in the story by the media.
“Satheesan’s ‘balloon’ remark was not aimed at Tharoor. It was a direct criticism at the media which, we believe, were behind the entire controversy. Satheesan issued the statement on the need for maintaining party discipline as a committed leader. It actually gave him an edge in the perceived contest between the two,” a source close to the leader of the opposition said. Asked about Tharoor emerging as a potential CM candidate and a direct threat to Satheesan’s claim, the source expressed doubts over how long an unconventional politician like Tharoor can go forward.
An AICC functionary, on the other hand, said there was a trend of leaders toning down their criticism of Tharoor after seeing the overwhelming support he has been getting wherever he goes. “They know that any remark against him could backfire,” the leader said.
Tharoor has made his state leader pitch at a transition stage in the Congress’ state unit.
The much publicised reforms announced by Sudhakaran after taking charge as PCC chief has not made much progress. Satheesan made tall claims about eliminating the factionalism culture but there was only a realignment of groups.
In between, the opposition party and the front led by it could gain politically by capitalising on the anti-SilverLine agitation and winning the Thrikkakara bypoll rather impressively.
It also made gains in the local body bypolls. Congress MLAs have also performed very well in the assembly under the leadership of Satheesan who has proved his calibre as a legislator multiple times.
But still, Tharoor, like many maybe, feeling there is a leadership vacuum in the party. Understanding this perception problem could be the biggest lesson the leadership could learn from the ongoing Tharoor episode.
“Tharoor wouldn’t have positioned himself as a CM material when Oommen Chandy was active.
Now he could be nurturing such an ambition as he sees a chance there. Satheesan’s criticism of Tharoor sounded like a reflection of his insecurity.
Now, if he wants to outsmart someone like Tharoor, he should focus on emerging as a state leader. He has time on his side for that,” a political analyst said.
A senior Congress leader, even as admiring Tharoor’s talent and acceptability, said he has got his timing and method wrong. “Let him attend any number of programmes anywhere. That’s good for the party. Our only argument is that he should inform the lower committees of the organisation whenever he goes to a place for a programme. That will give the ordinary party workers a sense of recognition. That’s a long held practice within the party,” he said.
The leader, a former minister, said Tharoor was making strategic mistake by overlooking the local leaders of the party if he has ‘bigger ambitions’. “The assembly polls are four years away, and it’s too early to make any pitch as a CM face,” he said.
The Tharoor camp’s plan could be different. They want to start it early and big.
“Let there be some noise now and it will fade eventually. However, we can keep the narrative alive and amplify it when the right time comes,” a young Tharoor follower said.