Tharoor as MP: An acid test for professional netas (Comment)

April 8th, 2009 - 9:24 am ICT by IANS  

Rahul Gandhi By Aswakumaran Vinod Kumar
The protests by Youth Congress activists in Thiruvananthapuram against the candidature of former United Nations undersecretary general Shashi Tharoor and a last-ditch fax message to the Congress high command by a Christian clergy urging the nomination of a Congress leader belonging to their denomination goes to show how very little has changed, or will change, in Indian politics.

This is more so in the case of Kerala where a party like the Congress has to brainstorm over innumerable winnable variables including caste, religion, group calculations, and allegiance to any of the top leaders as well as previous experience to decide the suitable candidate - with least significance for his or her competence to win and lead the people, their education or their vision for the state and the country.

By normal political standards, Tharoor should be an outcaste in the Congress party. This is not to say that the party never had professionals in its ranks. It had a few retired bureaucrats and academicians in its rolls, some even becoming union ministers.

But barely has it seen a man with international experience and a global vision. For, Tharoor had left the state early, gained good schooling and higher education outside the state (Kerala’s acclaimed educational system has now decayed), and rose up to become UN undersecretary general as well as aspiring to the highest post in the world organisation.

Tharoor’s contribution to polemics on Indian social and political structures was mostly restricted to English newspapers which had little exposure in Kerala. Hence, when Tharoor makes an entry one fine morning into Thiruvananthapuram’s Technopark, sets up a professional development centre and then approaches the Congress for a seat, the average Congressmen would naturally be bamboozled.

The Kerala unit of the Indian National Congress is a unique experience. A political rally by the Congress or its feeder wings in one of Thiruvananthapuram’s arterial roads, if covered by a lensman from a high platform, would give an interesting view. The front row would resemble a troop surge with leaders jostling for space to ensure his or her imprint in next day’s newspapers. Behind this formidable row, one would barely see a few ordinary party workers raising slogans and keeping the tempo. Being a cadre-less party, even a district unit of the Kerala Students Union or the Youth Congress would have around 10-20 vice presidents and another 20 general secretaries, besides the army of joint secretaries and treasurers.

Each student or Youth Congress leader is there because of his caste, religious background or allegiance to a particular group or prominent leader. Some even manage to be in Kerala’s Youth Congress leadership while residing in Delhi. It has been decades since Congress feeder organizations in Kerala have had an organizational election.

The party’s new radical face, Rahul Gandhi, tried a paradigm shift recently by undertaking a talent search and appointing a new Youth Congress president for the state, only to be revoked by the AICC in a matter of a few hours thanks to pressure from local satraps. No surprises then that the party had to prepare a list of over 60 probables for 20 seats, with some candidates considered for more than three constituencies. The final selection process was delayed for over three weeks as each prominent leader checkmated candidates recommended by the other.

Amidst such hectic political manoeuvring, it would surprise many that Tharoor got a nomination from Thiruvananthapuram. In a constituency prone with caste-based political equations, Tharoor would have to fight it out purely on merit. With a strong Nair population in the urban areas, Christian Nadars dominating the south, and Ezhavas and Muslims in the north, vote swings are unpredictable in this constituency. For a change, one cannot expect the young voters to massively vote for this handsome, high-profile candidate, as even their political allegiances are highly polarized and dedicated.

What then would be Tharoor’s fate? As calculated by the party, he would have to rely on the urban areas with progressive-minded professionals and young voters who are fed up with the traditional politicians of yore, who had given inspiring speeches but have consistently failed to deliver. Being a Nair would be an added advantage to Tharoor. But beyond such caste calculations, Tharoor candidature and victory would symbolise reforms in the political system and the way in which representative and party politics is practised in this country.

Thus, if Tharoor manages a win, it will mark a renaissance not just for Kerala politics but also for the future of party politics in India. It would kindle the hopes of many politically-inspired professionals and educated youth to join active politics and aspire to contribute directly to the country’s governance and policy making.

(08.04.2009-The author is a New Delhi-based policy analyst and a keen observer of Kerala’s political scene. He can be contacted at

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