Thiruvananthapuram: The most striking thing about Shashi Tharoor is his smile, and the man probably knows it.
The smile isn’t entirely spontaneous, but it does make Tharoor look boyish. Tharoor smiles at everybody who passes by because he thinks he has to. He smiles, it appears, even at the afternoon sun of what he still calls Trivandrum, the old name of Thiruvananthapuram, the constituency he wants to represent for the Congress in the 15th Lok Sabha.
Khadi dhoti tied tightly around his waist, the man who couldn’t be United Nations (UN) secretary general is all out to prove to the voters in the Kerala capital that he has always been an insider and shall remain what he describes as an “authentic Malayalee”.
“I speak simple Malayalam and I have my roots here. My mother lives in this city. My ration card is from here,” says Tharoor, who shifted to Thiruvananthapuram recently.
A graduate of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi, in history, Tharoor has been a successful writer, columnist and international diplomat, losing out to the current UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in 2006 in a closely fought election.
Tharoor, who separated from his first wife, journalist Tilottama—she lives with their sons Ishaan and Kanishk in New York—and is married to Christa Giles, a senior UN official, is inside a campaign vehicle making its way through the streets of Thiruvananthapuram, waving to crowds and hurling white starched towels occasionally when someone who looks poor passes by.
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The desire to establish his credentials as a local boy who made it big runs deep.
“I am running for the Lok Sabha to earn the right to represent the people. To be in politics…you have to be able to establish a connect with the people…for that reason without Malayalam you can’t run a Lok Sabha election from here,” he says.
For sure, he sounds like a political oddball, a breakaway from the usual mould of politicians Kerala sends to Parliament. Still, in this general election, Tharoor is simply the most high-profile candidate from Kerala, a state where the staple political diet includes language jingoism and anti-American rhetoric.
The fact that he is a member of the advisory board of Coca-Cola India Foundation, the corporate social responsibility division of the US-based multi-national company, has spurred protests in Palakkad, his home district, where a Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada had to be shut earlier over local protests. Tharoor’s comment that it was unfortunate that the project didn’t take off didn’t go down well with either the communists or the Congress officials in the district from where he was initially expected to contest—the protests allegedly forced the former UN under secretary general to choose Thiruvananthapuram.
“As regards the Coca-Cola plant in Palakkad, the Kerala high court judgement is the last judgement on the subject,” Tharoor says, declining to speak any more on the topic.
In his writings, including the book that made his name as a writer, The Great Indian Novel, and a play 22 Months in the Life of a Dog (a parody of the emergency declared by the Congress’ Indira Gandhi), Tharoor has been critical of the party he now seeks to represent. The man himself sees no contradiction in this, though.
“I should stress that I was writing independent opinions before, now I am a member of a party and I am bound to discuss my views,” he says. And there may have been no other option, he admits.
“The Left is a reflection of the 19th century ideology. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has given encouragement to worst forms of intolerance and bigotry in our country.”
The outsider debate
The day Tharoor’s name was announced as the Congress’ Lok Sabha candidate from Thiruvananthapuram, several Congress workers took to the streets protesting, what they termed, “thrusting an outsider on the constituency”.
One of the Congress’ candidate-aspirants, Vijayan Thomas, initially threatened to stand as a rebel candidate before opting out of the race.
“There were concerns that the Congress candidate, if he or she is an outsider, would help the Left parties sweep the polls. The perception has now changed,” a Congress leader admits on condition of anonymity.
Worries within the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), however, seem to have eased over the past month, in the run-up to the vote on 16 April, the Congress leader adds.
Tharoor isn’t the first diplomat the Congress is fielding in Kerala.
The late V.K. Krishna Menon, India’s ambassador to the UN, was the first.
But unlike Tharoor, who speaks in Malayalam, Krishna Menon campaigned exclusively in English, says the Congress leader.
T.P. Srinivasan, a former ambassador to the UN, says it is only apt that Tharoor chose the Thiruvananthapuram seat. “Thiruvananthapuram has a long tradition electing people, like the late defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon, who have done well abroad to Parliament. So there’s a lot of logic in his coming here to contest election and I am trying to help him out.”
Tharoor’s global image, though, cuts both ways.
“What appeals to my mother is the fact that he can speak in Malayalam though he looks like a foreigner, fair and sharp-nosed… To me, Tharoor is the best candidate here because he is a globally recognized personality and he can use his influence to bring development to the people of this constituency. He is a good debater and can use such abilities in the Lok Sabha,” said Reeja Thampi, a homemaker who voted for the Left in the 2004 polls.
But Pradeep Kumar, an autorickshaw driver, who has traditionally voted for the Congress, says: “Tharoor may win, but I won’t vote for him because he can’t connect with us. He has no touch with people at the grassroots.”
At a glance
• Born on 9 March 1956 in London.
• Educated in India (St Stephen’s College, New Delhi) and the US. He earned a PhD from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1978 and received the Robert B Stewart Prize for best student.
• Served as UN under-secretary general for communications and public information.
• Married to a Canadian. Tharoor is the father of twin sons.