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Shashi Tharoor creates history

By T P Sreenivasan
Last updated on: May 17, 2009 11:10 IST
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Shashi Tharoor has created history by winning the Lok Sabha seat from the Kerala capital, Thiruvanathapuram, by an unprecedented margin. Never before has any one not born in the city or not educated here or not proficient in Malayalam registered an electoral victory in the state.

V K Krishna Menon and K R Narayanan claimed victories on the basis of their accomplishments abroad, but they had their places of birth and educational institutions in Kerala to speak of and they spoke reasonable Malayalam.

More significantly, Tharoor has never worked for India or represented India at any international forum. He came, he saw, he conquered.

I was not surprised when Shashi told me more than a year ago that he intended to seek the Congress ticket for Thiruvanathapuram. I knew from his various moves since his leaving the United Nations that he would seek political fortunes in India in one way or another.

He visited Kerala many times, held meetings with political leaders, set up an academy of communications and was generally seen and heard. He had said long ago that India always mattered to him and that he hoped that one day he would matter to India.

But I had many doubts as to whether his quest for a political role would be successful. I told him that he had to overcome several hurdles, which had been built by vested interests in the political system to prevent new entrants.

Dynasty, party hierarchy and money power were powerful deterrents, I said. I told him that it would be an uphill task even to get nominated by the Congress party and the fact remained also that no Congress candidate had won in Thiruvanathapuram for several years.

Shashi had no ready answers, but he seemed well aware of those challenges and determined to meet them as they came. He had a sense of mission and nothing would stop him.

In the days that followed, I saw closely how he tackled each issue and overcame his many opponents. Several Congress leaders were sceptical about his chances of success on account of his lack of experience and past record of disapproval of Congress icons.

Efforts were made to get him to contest in a Communist stronghold, Palakkad, which eventually went to the Left Front. At one stage, Shashi himself seemed to be reconciled to contesting from his ancestral constituency.

In the end, it was the strong position taken by the Congress high command that clinched the Congress seat for him. Once he got the Congress ticket, his transformation was complete and he became a professional politician with gusto. He dressed himself in the Congress uniform of white khadi, merged into the Congress mainstream and conducted himself as a traditional Congress candidate, including hugging babies and throwing garlands to the crowds.

He followed the directives of the local Congress leadership, even though he was aware of the murmurs of protest among them and went about charming the electorate. Not many knew who he was or what his achievements were, but even in the poorest localities, he was welcomed like a new messiah, untainted by corruption or nepotism.

He turned his lack of proficiency in Malayalam into an advantage by using a few words with electrifying effect. "If you elect me, I shall work for you wholeheartedly. I shall try and turn Thiruvanathapuram into a city of international standards," was his refrain. He did not have to say more and his transparency and sincerity of purpose won him an army of admirers, among them many young people, who were attracted by his pleasing personality.

The Left Front strategy was to discredit Shashi in every possible way rather than counter his message of change in Indian politics and his vision for his constituency and his country.

A former diplomat, currently a leftist commentator on international affairs, was brought in to hatch one theory after another to paint him as pro-US, pro-Israel and anti-Muslim. Shashi's writings over the years were dissected to demolish his image. A 700-word article about Israel, in which Shashi had argued that India could not emulate Israel in dealing with Pakistan, was shown as evidence of his love for Israel.

Of course, the article was not publicised, but its many interpretations were given by ministers and 'intellectuals.' At the same time, Shashi's admiration for M F Husain was projected as anti-Hindu.

Shashi was not shaken by any of these; he simply brought out the facts of his position without disowning what he wrote in the past. He had his record at the United Nations and his many articles on contemporary events to show his objectivity and convictions. His campaign team merely had to invite attention to those to prove the Left Front wrong.

Perhaps, Thiruvanathapuram was the only constituency in India where the nuclear deal and policy towards the US were made into election issues. I was amused that I had to debate foreign policy with a former colleague on a Thiruvanathapuram beach with bewildered fishermen watching us!

Shashi, having declared his wealth, did not seek campaign contributions from the public and found the money for the campaign himself. This made a remarkable impression on the public mind and assured them that he will not serve the rich campaign contributors. He had his supporters around the globe, some of whom camped in Kerala to work quietly for him. They kept away from the party campaign, but worked away on their laptops through night and day to spread the word around in favour of Shashi Tharoor.

The NRI excitement over Shashi's candidature resulted in their relatives back home extending support to him. The cyber space was agog with campaign slogans. Facebook, Orkut, Twitter and other modern means of communications among young people must have helped him in various ways.

Shashi Tharoor and the Congress party coming together was a recipe for success. If Shashi had chosen to contest on his own on the basis of his personal accomplishments, he could have presented an agenda for change and made a splash, but like some of the other Independent stars, he would have made a point, but not gone any further.

But once he made the necessary changes in his perspectives to come to terms with the Congress ideology, the way was clear for him to claim victory. In the ultimate analysis, he can take the credit for taking the right decisions at the right moments in the last few months.

No one has played a more decisive role in his victory than himself.

In giving a massive mandate to Shashi, Thiruvanathapuram has not only elected a Member of Parliament, but also a minister. There is a clear expectation that his talents in foreign affairs and his contacts around the globe will be put to productive use by the prime minister.

The fact that the Congress will not have too many pressures on Cabinet formation in the present scenario has raised these hopes further. But whether this happens or not, Shashi is sure to make an impact in New Delhi.

Shashi did not overplay the 'change' card as Barrack Obama did, because he was seeking to get elected on the ticket of the grand old party of India. But he does represent the urge for change -- change from an old generation to the new, from corruption to cleanliness in politics and from inefficiency to effective action.

He has already created history; he should now proceed to prove that change is possible.

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T P Sreenivasan