When Shashi Tharoor moved into a hill top house up a narrow by-lane in a quiet residential area in Thiruvananthapuram, prior to his contesting the parliament elections in 2009, the excitement among the people was palpable. The local residents were pleased that an internationally renowned UN diplomat and brilliant author, who had the additional qualification of being suave and handsome and genuinely articulate, had come into their midst, elevating the pot-holed by-lanes of Palace Garden to instant stardom. Taking up residence in Thiruvananthapuram was a precursor to, or rather a pre-requisite for, Tharoor’s seeking a ticket to contest the elections. And such was his charm that long before he quietly vanquished his detractors in the Congress Party, who were many, and made himself the favored nominee of the party High Command for the Thiruvananthapuram seat, there were considerable sections of people, especially youngsters, who had made up their mind to vote for him in case he contested.
But winning the party ticket did not mean that it would be a cake walk for him in the election. Much needed to be done and his credible victory with an impressive margin was the result of really hard work put in by Tharoor, says former Ambassador T P Sreenivasan in his book Mattering to India: The Shashi Tharoor Campaign.
Sreenivasan has based his title on a flamboyant quote from Tharoor himself. ‘India has always mattered to me. Now I want to matter to India,’ Tharoor had once said.
Being a close, long-time friend of Tharoor, what Sreenivasan has attempted is an intensely personal narrative on the runup to the elections and the many factors that led to Tharoor’s impressive victory with a huge margin. Sreenivasan was both an observer of and participant in many of the events recounted in this book.
Born in London, brought up mostly outside the state and working for long outside the country, Tharoor was in every way a rank outsider as far as Malayalees were concerned. His link to Kerala was mainly through his ancestral family in his native village of Kollengode, Palakkad district. But he had a far better link to educated Malayalees through his many books and countless articles on matters of interest to Kerala.
Srenivasan explains how such a virtual outsider, who was not proficient in the local language and had never lived in Kerala, overcame the several impediments he faced and generated a veritable Tharoor wave. With a team of aides, which included some of his friends and well-wishers from abroad, Tharoor slowly but steadily worked his way up , neutralizing opposition and enlarging his support base. The campaign was hectic in the sense that on many days Tharoor was up and about for 22 hours a day, leaving just two hours for a catnap.
The book, which makes absorbing reading, gives rare insight into the manner in which Tharoor successfully overcame opposition to his candidature from within the Congress and outside. This included how he managed to negate the threat from two strong contenders for the party ticket, former MP V S Sivakumar and Vijayan Thomas, who was the main support base for the party’s television channel. According to Sreenivasan, Tharoor mollified these two with the help of the Congress High Command. Once he was sure of the party ticket, Tharoor sought to neutralize opposition from BJP leader and former Union Minister O Rajagopal who was most likely to be the BJP nominee. Though Rajagopal would not have won the seat he was sure of garnering a good chunk of the votes, reducing Tharoor’s chances of victory. Srenivasan says that it was through the good offices of Mata Amritanandamayi that Tharoor ensured that Rajagopal, her disciple, opted out of contest.
Statistics of the poll results apart, Sreenivasan has included guest essays from two journalists and some people involved with the campaign to supplement his views. Many of Sreenivasan’s articles on Tharoor during and after his abortive bid for the top post in the UN also find a place in the book. It has a Foreword by Dr Babu Paul, former Chief Secretary, Kerala, who does not conceal his fascination for Tharoor. ‘There is a certain charisma about the man. It is as if there is a magnet implanted somewhere in his thoracic cavity,’ he says.
Though the book was probably planned after his victory in the polls and his elevation to the Union Council of Ministers as Minister of State for External Affairs, by the time it was out Tharoor was embroiled in a series of controversies from Twitter to IPL and was out of the ministry.The book makes a detailed reference to these events, as also to his subsequent marriage to Sunanda Pushkar, in an epilogue which sums up the sordid resignation drama thus:
“The glittering image that Tharoor brought with him after his elitist and western upbringing and his life in rarefied circles dazzled many people. His apparent ability to play down that elitism and be one with the people in dress, food and language made him an instant hit. His impeccable image gave the impression that he would be the harbinger of change in Indian politics, which had become corrupt and inefficient. But the messiah image was marred when his elitism manifested itself in his five- star life style and fondness for fame, wealth and other pleasures of life. He is perceived today as clever and shrewd but not much different from others before him. He may well return to prominence and political leadership, not because of the promise that he will change the system, but because he is far less guilty than many others who have flourished in politics with fewer talents and skills.
In George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan, the executioner says after burning Joan of Arc at the stake that we have heard the last of her. Warwick, another character in the play, responds: ‘The last of her? Hm! I wonder!’
“We have not heard the last of Shashi Tharoor.”
The review first appeared in The New Indian Express, Thiruvananthapuram on 28th June 2011
Mattering to India The Shashi Tharoor Campaign By T P Sreenivasan, Pearson Pp 165, Rs 550