Despite a freak accident that required six stitches on his head and a seemingly tough three-cornered contest, former union minister Shashi Tharoor is his pleasant and affable self when we catch up with him. Asked to spell out the secret of his confidence, he points to the composition of his constituency. “One example that I often highlight is that of the Palayam junction in the city, where almost adjacent to each other one can find a mosque, a church and one of the oldest Ganapathi temples in South India. That is a reflection of the social fabric that all of us in Thiruvananthapuram are immensely proud of. The same is true for the Congress as well,” he asserts.
While casting their vote on April 23, his constituents will have to make two key choices, he points out. “The first is this: Who can be their best voice in New Delhi? Who can ensure that their apprehensions, afflictions and aspirations can be raised clearly and effectively not just in Parliament but within the highest levels of the executive at the Centre? There is also a larger choice that the voter must make and that has to do with the future of our country. How the people vote will go a long way in determining the future of the national discourse in the country,” he goes on to add.
National Herald’s Ashlin Mathew caught up with Shashi Tharoor. Edited Excerpts from her conversation with the two-term MP:
Poll surveys indicate a tough fight here in Thiruvananthapuram. Your margin of victory in the last election was also narrow. What are your main challenges?
I am not unduly bothered by any of the surveys that have come out so far. I have been a strong voice for the city on the national and international stage and have helped convey the aspirations and apprehensions of my constituents and have worked to find lasting solutions to their concerns.
BJP’s Kummanam Rajasekharan, for instance, does not have a single popular electoral win to his credit and hasn’t spent too much time in the city. His term as the Governor for Mizoram was also rather uneventful. Divakaran, on the other hand, has been a MLA for a few terms but even so, the demands of the office of an MP are considerably different. As a result, while I am sure it will be a good contest, I am confident that the voters of Thiruvananthapuram, who have supported me for the last 10 years will once again repose their faith in me.
There is a refrain that you are not always around and that you are not rooted in this place…
This so called ‘refrain’ is a baseless myth. If one did indeed ask the common man in the district he or she would tell you that I have always been extremely approachable and hands on when it comes to hearing their issues and have been with them in both good times and bad. When Cyclone Ockhi hit our state, I was on the ground, covering our coastal areas which were the worst affected, helping coordinate relief efforts and liaising directly with the Defence Minister and other authorities in an attempt to save time and mitigate the damage that was being inflicted on the residents. The same was true during the floods that struck the state in August last year. At the same time, I have consistently taken up issues that matter to the city and its people, and have raised them in Parliament or even by meeting with the concerned Ministries directly.
There were reports that you were unhappy at the non-cooperation by several local Congress leaders. Has the situation changed since then?
I am not sure where this complaint has come from, since it wasn’t made by me either verbally or in writing. Some channels and media outlets claimed that I had written a letter in complaint but neither they nor the purported author of the letter has even seen a copy of this complaint.
As I have stressed before, I am very happy and fortunate to have had the wholehearted support of the state unit of the Congress party right from the leadership to the very last worker on the ground. Yes, with the nomination of my good friend K Muraleedharan for the Vadakara Lok Sabha constituency, we lost a sitting MLA from one of the 3 assembly segments in Thiruvananthapuram that was under the Congress which was a slight challenge. But even in his absence, the other two MLAs— M Vincent and VS Shivakumar--have done an outstanding job in propelling the campaign forward.
There are hints people here make of a tacit understanding between the Left and BJP to ensure the victory of Kummanam Rajasekharan…
If there is such an understanding it would be shocking to say the least. Despite all the faults one can pick with the Left, one thing that I have admired about them is that they are equally aware and have spoken vociferously against the communal dangers that will present themselves should the BJP manage to open their account in Kerala, let alone in the capital of the state.
At the same time, the unfortunate reality is that the candidate from the Left for the Thiruvananthapuram elections is at best in a position to contest for the second place, not to win.
The challenge then is that every vote that goes his way, will split the anti-BJP vote in the city and present an advantage to the BJP candidate.
Therefore, in effect, under the current circumstances, a vote for the Left would mean a vote for the BJP and I am hopeful that the intelligent voters of Thiruvananthapuram will recognise this danger and wholeheartedly support my bid to repel the BJP from the capital city.
Rahul Gandhi is contesting from Wayanad. Is there really a ripple effect ?
I can tell you that in Kerala for instance, it has had an invigorating effect among our workers and we are already seeing a ripple effect of this ‘wave’ spreading across neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
But arguably, the implications of his decision have not just been prompted by a strategic choice to energise the Congress worker but by a larger sense of duty and commitment, at a time of unprecedented strain on the spirit of cooperative federalism that has held the country together right since its Independence in 1947.
Under the leadership of the BJP led Central government, with its narrow-minded Hindi-Hindutva-Hindustan mentality, relations between the southern states and the federal government have steadily deteriorated, no doubt partly because of cultural factors such as its drive to impose Hindi across these states or the ban on the slaughter of beef which is widely consumed in the South. But there have also been larger issues in recent times such as the changing of the terms of the 15th Finance Commission that threaten the economic security of the South as well as the future of its political representation
It is in this context that Rahul Gandhi has made a bold statement of intent to suggest that he can be the bridge that repairs this growing North-South divide within the country. It also signals that he has the confidence to win elections in both the north and south. Can Narendra Modi make such a claim?
Are your voters sufficiently convinced that it is in their interest to re-elect you? What have you done in these 10 years?
There are many reasons why I believe that I am most the suitable candidate. For one, as the MP for the city, major infrastructure projects such as the NH Bypass (which was dormant for nearly 40 years after the foundation stone was laid in 1971) were revived and pursued actively due to my persistent and vigorous efforts. Similarly, the Vizhinjam International Transhipment Port project - another example of a project that was at a standstill until I reinvigorated the process by persuading Gautam Adani personally to bid - is also progressing well. I continue to follow it closely as a Director on the Board of VISL (Vizhinjam International Seaport Ltd), and will push for the development of ancillary facilities in the port areas, such a cruise terminal, a fish-processing plant and a Marine Academy.
Another key achievement has been ensuring that 18 additional trains were allocated to Thiruvananthapuram in the last 10 years, which has provided greater convenience and connectivity to the lives of the residents. In addition to large-scale infrastructure development projects cited earlier, I have also commissioned a slew of smaller MPLADs-funded development projects based on constituents’ feedback and requests, ranging from the installation of high-mast lights and free WiFi across the constituency (as one of the first MPs to do so in Kerala) to the PET bottle recycling machines and reverse osmosis plants at the Central Railway Station.
To return to the connectivity front, I also obtained a record Rs. 72.75 crores for seven road projects in the constituency from the Central Road Fund, and lobbied with every plausible airline to start or expand operations to our airport.
A few other initiatives that I will be taking up would include my commitment to redouble my efforts to secure funds from the Union Government towards a special financial package for our fishing communities to procure modern fishing equipment thereby raising their income levels, bring in additional Kendriya Vidyalayas and Jawahar Navodya Vidyalayas to the constituency, develop an international-standard cultural hub in the city and promote platforms.
In case you are re-elected, what would be your agenda for the constituency?
For one, there is a need to fulfill the vision I expressed under UPA of making Thiruvananthapuram a ‘knowledge city’, developing an ecosystem of research institutes and educational institutions that will feed off each other to create a true knowledge hub in the state capital. At the same time, there are more down-to- earth concerns like the major problem of drinking water, of which there is an extreme shortage at the moment. Job creation is another area that will have to be addressed.