Analysis | Saffron-hearted Thiruvananthapuram falls for Tharoor's charm again

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A caricature of Shashi Tharoor on a hoarding in Thiruvananthapram. Photo: Facebook/@ShashiTharoor

Early this January, causing serious resentment in the BJP, former Union Minister and BJP stalwart O Rajagopal had said that Congress leader Shashi Tharoor was invincible in Thiruvananthapuram. During most of the counting on Tuesday, it looked like BJP candidate Rajeev Chandrasekhar was determined to mock at his senior's prophecy.

At one point, when nearly 60% of the votes were counted, Chandrasekhar was ahead of Tharoor by over 25,000 votes. Even in 2014, when Tharoor fought Rajagopal and had faced his toughest-ever electoral test, the BJP candidate had at no point led Tharoor by more than 15,000 votes.
One thing was clear: It was Tharoor who was near fatally hurt by the low voting percentage in urban areas of Thiruvananthapuram.

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But just when it seemed that a Chandrasekhar victory was a mere formality, Tharoor rose from the ashes. When the votes of four Assembly areas -- the coastal zone of the otherwise urban Thiruvananthapram, Kovalam, Neyyatinkara and Parassala -- were picked up for counting, Tharoor edged past Chandrasekhar, and then quickly pulled ahead. He won by a margin of 16,077 votes, stronger than the 15,470 he had with O Rajagopal. He also secured 37.19% of the votes, more glowing than the 34.09% he won in 2014.

The Latin Catholic and Muslim communities seemed to have rallied behind Tharoor in a big way. His persuasive charm had softened the Latin church's disapproval of his stand during the Vizhinjam agitation.

If at all anyone was in doubt about the Latin church's preferences, it pulled out a surprise just a week ahead of voting. The church said the Centre and the state together have frozen its accounts in the name of the Vizhinjam agitation, making it impossible for the church to feed even its old and ailing priests. Even the most indifferent laity member would have found it hard to resist the emotional pull.
The unsaid message was loud and clear: Vote Tharoor.

As for the Muslim community, it looked like it had forgotten Tharoor's seemingly anti-Hamas remark during a pro-Palestine rally in Kozhikode. Instead, he was celebrated for his sharp and reasoned critique of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's repeated assertions that no Congress MP had spoken against the CAA have clearly fallen on deaf ears.

Nonetheless, Tharoor's vote share this time (37.19%) came down by nearly 4% as compared to 2019; down from 41.19%.

Chandrasekhar might have failed to thwart Rajagopal's prophecy but he got the better of his senior on one count. He set a new record for BJP's vote share in Thiruvananthapuram: 35.52%. Rajagopal's 32.32% has been the highest till now.

Tharoor's repeated triumphs in Thiruvananthapuram is considered a political marvel. It has been observed by political pundits that the constituency, with its temple culture and its undying obsession with the erstwhile Tranvancore royals, was the perfect hunting ground for the Sangh Parivar.

Another factor that could potentially give the BJP a rich harvest is the predominance of RSS sympathisers in the Nair Service Society (NSS); Nairs are the dominant sub-group in Thiruvananthapuram.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar. Photo: Manorama

If the BJP is still not able to chest the ribbon, Tharoor alone is the reason. His global image and educated charm have consistently transcended political affiliations. Even in 2014, the year the Modi wave swept across the country and Tharoor was battling charges of wife slaughter, the former united Nations under secretary general managed to sneak through.

In 2019, Tharoor exceeded his own expectations. He gave himself a victory margin of 30,000 but ended up with close to a lakh; his 99,989 margin was near similar to the 99,998 he achieved in his breakout victory in 2009.

Tharoor's stature could also draw traditional Left votes to his kitty. Ever since he became the Congress candidate, the CPI vote share in Thiruvananthapuram had shrunk: 30.74% in 2009 (down by over 20%), 28.50% in 2014 and 25.60% in 2019. This time it was no better: 25.72%.

With the fall of the CPI, the BJP had taken on the role of the challenger. In 2009, BJP was not a force to reckon with. However, in the subsequent two elections (2014 and 2019), at the height of Modi's popularity, Tharoor was pitted against two of the most respected names in Kerala's BJP: O Rajagopal and Kummanam Rajasekharan, a man revered for his simplicity and his environmental activism. Tharoor's personality was strong enough to outclass them both.

Therefore, to bring in Chandrasekhar as Tharoor's opponent in 2024 was a master stroke. Chandrasekhar's cosmopolitan aura and his business successes nearly neutralised Tharoor's 'super achiever' magnetism. On top of it, Chandrasekhar launched an aggressive development-themed campaign that caricatured Tharoor as a non-performer.

He also used his clout as a Union Minister to give the impression that he could provide quick solutions to long-pending issues like sea erosion. His campaign worked hard to draw support along the coast and southern regions of the constituency, areas where Tharoor enjoyed unquestionable support.

In hind sight, Chandrasekhar's professionally-run campaign was just not enough to undo Tharoor's by now legendary spell over Thiruvananthapuram.

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