Shashi Tharoor: What has the BJP done for the South?

"My larger objective is to change the government in Delhi and to bring about a more humane, caring and inclusive government"

Shashi Tharoor on the campaign trail (photo: @ShashiTharoor/X)
Shashi Tharoor on the campaign trail (photo: @ShashiTharoor/X)

Ashlin Mathew

Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor is campaigning to win the Lok Sabha seat for the fourth time when the state goes to polls on 26 April. The former United Nations diplomat is in a contest against senior CPI leader and former MP Pannyan Rajendran and Union minister of state for electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar.

The Central Working Committee (CWC) member faces a tough election battle in the state capital, where staunch Congress supporters populate the coastal belt where there was a misunderstanding about his point of view on Vizhinjam port. Acknowledging this, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi too visited the Valiyathura-Beemapally coastal area on her campaign trail in Thiruvananthapuram.

With the CPI(M) making the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) a constant theme during the campaign, Tharoor says he would have liked it to be specified in the Congress manifesto too.

The seasoned campaigner knows it is a visibility game, and his whole day is spent on the road atop a modified vehicle, making several stops and speaking to people in by-lanes, alleys and main junctions, canvassing for votes after 15 years of representing the constituency. There’s just a short lunch break to catch his breath in the severe heat.

National Herald caught up with him after the campaigning for the day ended. Edited excerpts from the interview:

There is just a week left until polling in Kerala. How’s your campaign shaping up in Thiruvananthapuram?

It is going extremely well, thank God. I have been at it since 10 March, so six weeks already, and just one more week now. From what I can see, I am being given not the same, [but] a greater degree of affection, response and warmth from the people. I believe that the trust that they placed in me three times, they are inclined to place in me yet again.

The paryadanam (circuit) has been going quite well. We go through alleys and side roads and we always run out of time before we have reached the last point. I will have to do a ‘catch-up’ at the end of the paryadanam to go to all the places we have missed so far. The challenge ahead of us is to reach every nook and cranny of the constituency, as much as possible, to show them that you are there to see them and they are free to see you. And of course it energises party workers, who have to go out and bring out the votes. That is why it is so important to do it.

I remember when I came in 2009, the paryadanam was just one day per Assembly segment, that is seven days. This time, it is two days per Assembly segment, which is one per block, and even then we are not finishing in time.

Who are your core voters and what do you think they expect from you after 15 years?

My core voters are everybody. I have essentially been winning because, for whatever it is worth, my appeal seems to cut across gender, religious and community affiliations. I have votes in the tribal belt, in Technopark, in the fisherfolk community and amongst the elite. That’s the way it should be, as once I am elected, I am everybody’s MP. To me, my job is to serve them all.

I certainly think they want a continuation of service. I have been available and pursuing their various demands and requests and trying to use my development funds intelligently. I was probably among the biggest victims of the two-year cut-off of development funds by the Union government using Covid as an excuse.

Whatever was in my account, I spent on essential Covid supplies when the lockdown was announced. That became a huge talking point at the time. Even Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister from an opposing party, praised me on television for what I had done.

The fact is that I have been here through good times and bad, seen people through crises. I was on the spot and active during Cyclone Ockhi and at the same time, I have been an effective voice for them in Parliament. I have spoken on issues affecting the coastal community, sea erosion, fisherfolk’s livelihood, and I am proud to say that there is no MP of any other party who has spoken on these issues as much as I have. I have tried to bring these issues to the attention of the highest levels of government.

Obviously, the best scenario would be if we come to power ourselves, as then we can deliver a lot of things ourselves, rather than merely requesting a party that may not be sympathetic to the causes we are espousing.

So my first objective is to win my seat, but my larger objective is to change the government in Delhi and to bring about a more humane, caring and inclusive government.

Speaking of the coastal belt, the locals and clergy are upset about Vizhinjam port. Whose project was it and why do they feel they have been mistreated during the protests against it?

They have been strongly supportive of me so far. I got involved with the port because of the local community demanding it. It was supposed to be a dream project of the state since it was articulated by a minister called M.V. Raghavan in 1992. I got involved with the port because of the local community demanding it.

When I first came, V.S. Achuthanandan of the CPI(M) was in power and he brought out two tenders for the port. But all the valid bids turned out to have Chinese affiliations, so they were denied permission by the Central government.

Then Mr Oommen Chandy came to power and he was determined to pursue it and we got no bidders at all. He said I had to use all my contacts and get it done for my constituency. And by sheer coincidence when I was in a queue for a flight, I saw a few places ahead of me Mr Gautam Adani. I asked him why his company hadn’t bid for the Vizhinjam port and he asked why he should bid for it.

I gave him all the arguments during the course of the flight; explained all the pros and cons for India and for the local population. He said okay and said he would ask his office to purchase a tender document and bid, which is what he did. In fact, the only viable bid came from his company and the port project started.

Initially, everyone was enthusiastic, including the church and the local people. We had done two years of environmental impact assessment before the environment ministry of the UPA government would approve the project. In their assessment, there wasn’t supposed to be any serious consequences. However, when the port was being built, a combination of the ongoing problem of coastal erosion and the negative effects of the construction of the breakwaters for the port did erode the coast.

Some coastal communities felt grievously affected, some homes toppled into the sea. All of this became a serious problem.

I had spoken to then chief minister Oommen Chandy and he had, in consultation with me and the local MLAs, taken the issue to the Cabinet and approved an emergency compensation budget of Rs 476 crore. But by the time he had spent around Rs 100 crore of that money, the Congress lost that election and the Communists came to power.

The Communists showed no interest in helping the coastal people and the result was that they actually took the rest of the fund and spent it on other things. And that is why the coastal community was aggrieved.

When they started their agitation, they came up with a list of demands, of which the last demand was that the port should be stopped. That was the only demand from which I stepped aside. On everything else, I supported them fully and I supported in particular their legitimate claim to compensation for losses incurred of homes and livelihood. They should be compensated urgently by the state government as part of their obligation.

However, I was the only one to state that I was not in favour of shutting the project down and all the others bypassed that issue by simply stating they supported the agitation. No party in India was prepared to support closing the port, however.

I have this habit of speaking the truth, which often can do me ill. But they do understand what I said, because the fact is that I have stood by them in every issue. This is the only occasion on which, unfortunately, there was a difference of opinion.

Anyway, de facto they are not pursuing that demand. Their main demands remain the other ones, in which I have supported them.

They were upset during the agitation because the Left Front government cracked down on them ruthlessly. The police behaved abominably, and on top of that, they slapped FIRs and cases against the archbishop, the vicar-general, the bishop and other senior priests, including the parish priest.

Shashi Tharoor campaigns with Priyanka Gandhi
Shashi Tharoor campaigns with Priyanka Gandhi

That has had severe consequences. For instance, the auxiliary bishop of the diocese was unable to get a passport as he has a criminal case against him. The CPI(M) government’s refusal to withdraw the cases and complaints has obviously antagonised the clergy and the fishing community very severely.

The issue is far more complicated than merely ‘Shashi Tharoor did not support us on the port’. They have a far bigger problem with the Left Front government and they have an issue with me  not having supported one of their demands openly. But I supported all of their other demands and continue to support them. I have spoken to the clergy and the local population and held meetings and I’m hoping there will be greater understanding of my stand. I think my message has been heard and my record speaks. We’ll have to see when the votes are counted.

Your opponent Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s affidavit seems to have several discrepancies and complaints have been filed. Any comments?

I think both the Congress and the LDF have raised this issue and it is for the competent authorities to look into it. But whether or not the system has enabled him to do it or not, it still affects his credibility in the constituency. A man known to be so affluent can literally avoid paying taxes through creative accounting.

That is something that will affect how people in a place like Thiruvananthapuram will feel about him, as obviously we are all brought up to be tax-paying citizens and good law-abiding citizens. So, it is a peculiar thing that a man known to be as affluent as him makes no contribution to the national exchequer whereas the BJP keeps touting ‘desh bhakti’, patriotism.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s campaign in Thiruvananthapuram has targeted you repeatedly. He has the government machinery behind him. How are you working to counter this?

I’m not working to counter it. I’m just relying on my own tried-and-tested team from my own party and going around meeting people directly. He may be campaigning expensively, but I’m campaigning extensively. That‘s the main difference.

From the Congress manifesto, which of the promises do you think matter most to your voters?

We have tackled all the issues of nyay, justice for the people. Obviously the youth, women, workers and farmers are all part of the population in my constituency.

Farming may not be a very big occupation here, but there are some farmers. And the other three constituencies are fundamental. Almost wherever I have been, there are INTUC workers at the junctions, so labour rights are important. Youth rights are important as young people increasingly feel they have no hope when they finish their studies. The third issue is that of the rights of women, who are very important in Kerala. They constitute a majority of the population here. So, all the demographics matter.

On other matters, there is a constituency for whom the decision that we would roll back anti-people laws is important. By and large, I am convinced that our manifesto will strengthen our hand. Our broad experience has been that people need a manifesto, but they do not necessarily read it that carefully and closely or vote on the basis of that alone. There are other factors that also come in.

But, certainly, our manifesto is an impressive document. 

Is there anything more you would have liked to add to the manifesto?

I was on the manifesto committee, so the draft that went from the committee I fully subscribe to. There were some changes made in the working committee meeting. Ironically, I’m a member of the working committee too, but I did not attend that meeting because my campaigning had already started.

So, I’d rather not comment on specific changes. But in Kerala, one issue that has been important is the question of the CAA. In our draft of the manifesto, it was clearly mentioned in the list of laws that we would repeal or amend. From the point of view of a Kerala politician, the decision to remove that list of 26 laws and simply say in one sentence that “we will repeal or amend all anti-people laws” has been exploited by the CPI(M) and the Left in their campaign against us.

I am not too alarmed by it. But, that is one thing perhaps that one might have wished had been left in there. Still, at the end of the day, the Congress party has never accepted the idea that there will be any element of religion in the citizenship law.

Why is it that the South mostly defies the BJP? Why do they get defeated in most of these states?

There is no doubt that the BJP is trying to make inroads into the South. The prime minister’s recent peregrinations in the region are a clear indication of that, and since they have peaked everywhere else in 2019, this is the only region left where they hope they can grow.

The more relevant question is: what have they done for the South? Aside from national schemes that are applicable anywhere, the BJP has literally nothing to point to in Kerala in their 10 years of rule at the Centre. They made three promises to the state and broke all of them.

They promised Kerala an AIIMS; no AIIMS has come. Their AYUSH minister, in response to me, promised us a National University of Ayurveda; they established it in Gujarat instead. In their budget of 2015-16, they explicitly accepted my request to upgrade the National Institute of Speech and Hearing in Thiruvananthapuram into a National University for Disability Studies. Despite this solemn commitment in Parliament, when they established such a university, they decided to do so in the North-East.

After three broken promises — a batting average of zero, which is apparently their idea of ‘exemplary’ performance — why would any Keralite trust any promise by the BJP?

There is a need to understand why Mr Narendra Modi’s BJP has little to no appeal in the South. Investor interest in India is dictated, in many ways, by the openness of a society, its education and literacy levels and the maintenance of social harmony, in all of which the South scores highly.

Our society has been shaped in an environment where decades of social reforms have led to a flowering of civic consciousness among followers of the three major religions: Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Literacy levels and living standards are much higher than in the North.

Our history has also been different: for instance, Kerala has welcomed followers of every faith for millennia, and all [faiths] have come in peace here and not by the sword. So the narratives that the BJP harps on in the North — communalism, religious division, chips on the shoulder over historical events, nativist social cleavages — don’t pass muster here.

Ironically enough, for a party that claims to be focused on vikas, the region that actually enjoys the highest development in real terms in India is the least receptive to the BJP’s agenda.

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