The original sinner has been Jairam Ramesh who was backed by Abhishek Singhvi and Shashi Tharoor, but only the latter was served with a show cause notice by Kerala Congress president Mullapally Ramachandran while the other two have been spared by the high command. The la Tharoor affaire exposed the indecent haste of a section of Congressmen in Kerala to turf Tharoor out of God’s Own Country for their narrow political interests.
Their game plan, however, did not work out well. Within 48 hours the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee ate crow; it said the party is “satisfied” with Tharoor’s explanation and thus ended the needless controversy that embarrassed the party and demoralised the cadre at a critical juncture.
Six days ago, at a book launch, former Union environment minister and senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh had said that “demonising” Modi did not help the Opposition. He also said that the “governance model of Prime Minister Modi is not a completely negative story.” Singhvi and Tharoor took to Twitter to back Ramesh, while the Congress high command officially refused to react to their comments, the KPCC jumped the guns and sought an explanation from Tharoor.
Congress sources in Kerala say that they suspect the motive behind the “ill-conceived” campaign against Tharoor is not as a consequence of his so called praise of Modi but a shared “Tharoor phobia” of Congressmen in his home state.
In his tweet, Tharoor had said: “As you know, I have argued for six years now that Narendra Modi should be praised whenever he says or does the right thing, which would add credibility to our criticism and whenever he errs..I welcome others in Opposition coming around to a view for which I was excoriated at the time.”
What puzzled the observers, is that compared to Jairam Ramesh’s comments and Singhvi’s supporting tweet, Tharoor’s tweet has been milder and yet he was singled out for attack. Lok Sabha MP K Muraleedharan, son of late chief minister K Karunarakan, went to the extent of saying that “those who want to praise Modi can go and join BJP”.
Muraleedharan, Ramachandran and CLP leader Ramesh Chennithala belong to the I-faction of the Congress in Kerala while AK Antony-Oommen Chandy helm the A faction. Most of Tharoor detractors are from the I-faction.
It is true that Modi’s approval ratings in Kerala are not flattering, but local intrigues too have played a role in Tharoor (an outsider and a new challenger to the entrenched KPCC mandarins) receiving disproportionate tongue-lashing from his local colleagues. Kerala Congress ecosystem is pregnant with various theories for their obsession with Tharoor — possibility of him emerging a CM face in 2021, a post being eyed by politically ambitious Ramachandran (OBC) and Chennithala (upper caste Nair), bid to appease Muslims (by painting Tharoor as a soft Hindutvaite) and squeeze out a fellow Nair to establish caste hegemony.
In fact, Tharoor’s tryst with the Congress began in December 2008 when he was a special invitee to the three-day party conclave in Kochi as part of Rahul Gandhi’s talent hunt exercise (a year after Tharoor unsuccessfully contested the post of UN Secretary General) much to the consternation of entrenched local Congressmen.
The London-born Tharoor, originally from Palakkad but an outsider in Kerala till he quit his UN job as Under-Secretary General in 2007, presented a paper at the delegates session chaired by Rahul and spoke on terrorism; his presence at the dais rankled many a Congressmen.
In early 2009, he joined the Congress and as the party brass contemplated fielding him from Palakkad or Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency, KPCC’s dirty tricks department swung into action. Soon anonymous hands distributed selective excerpts, page numbers marked, from Tharoor’s book: “India, from Midnight to Millennium” to media persons hoping that critical references to Congress leadership in the book will scuttle his chances of getting a party nomination but in vain. Rest is history. Tharoor won from Thiruvananthapuram thrice — 2009, 2014 and 2019 substantially improving his victory margins.
Party sources say while Tharoor depended heavily on party machinery in 2009 and 2014, by 2019 he had established himself as a popular leader in Thiruvananthapuram winning over almost all sections of the electorate. He micromanaged his election without much help from local leaders and created a base for himself as he undertook several welfare and development schemes for the constituency.
In his reply to the show cause notice Tharoor inter alia said: "I have been a strong critic of the Modi Government and I hope a constructive one... I have used the power of my pen and my credibility as an author to write the most comprehensive, and most successful, critique of the Modi government's first term, The Paradoxical Prime Minister. This is not the work of someone who seeks to "justify" Mr Modi in any shape or form."
It was Tharoor who had singed BJP with his caustic comment last year that “if a BJP government was re-elected in 2019 it would pave way for the creation of a Hindu Pakistan”. While a stung saffron party assailed Tharoor, ironically the AICC capitulated to BJP’s mind games and distanced from Tharoor’s statement and even advised him to be cautious. Instead of show-causing its leaders, it is high time the Congress top brass learnt the art of ideological balancing and dealt with Modituva in real time.
(The author is a senior journalist and political commentator. Views are personal)