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Shashi Tharoor emerging as a centrepiece in Congress's faction war in Kerala

Shashi Tharoor | Twitter Shashi Tharoor | Twitter

Infighting and factionalism are not new to the Congress in Kerala. However, even three months ago, nobody would have imagined that Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor would emerge as a centrepiece in a faction war in the grand old party’s Kerala unit. The former United Nations diplomat is someone who has made many surprising moves in his decades-old career. And, his latest move, especially how he is trying to win the support of Malabar and the Muslim League, can bring a lot of complex outcomes in Kerala politics.

It was in late August that Tharoor’s intentions to run for the post of All India Congress Committee (AICC) president became public. Tharoor sought the support of Kerala leadership. However, only a few leaders like Kozhikode MP M.K. Raghavan and Indian Youth Congress state vice president K.S. Sabarinadhan declared open support to him. The state leadership including KPCC president K. Sudhakaran, opposition leader V.D. Satheeshan, and senior leaders like Ramesh Chennithala and Oommen Chandy followed the ‘official line’—by openly declaring support for Mallikarjun Kharge, who was deemed the candidate of the ‘High Command’—in the elections. Mavelikkara MP Kodikkunnil Suresh even asked Tharoor to withdraw from the fight. 

On the poll day, Raghavan had told THE WEEK that he stood with Tharoor knowing very well that he would face some “losses”. “I have given a written promise to Tharoor two months before that I will stand with him. Many other leaders also have given such promises. But they all flipped later,” he had said then. He, however, predicted that when the results came, it would surprise the state leadership and that many who have not openly declared their support for Tharoor, especially young leaders, would cast vote in favour of him. When the results were announced, Tharoor lost, but with 1,072 precious votes in his pocket. 

It was evident that Tharoor received ample support from Kerala—which had 310 votes, which was thought to be a divide between the decades-old “I” and “A” factions and the relatively new K.C. Venugopal faction—as Raghavan had predicted. However, the state leadership and faction leaders tried to play it down. While congratulating Kharge on the win, Satheeshan said that Tharoor will continue with activities to “strengthen the party”. Exactly a month later, Satheeshan’s tone sounds different. Without naming Tharoor, Satheeshan said that his activities are weakening the party.

Tharoor’s four-day ‘Malabar tour’—kicked off on Sunday—and the news reports that he is getting active in state politics was the trigger point for this new season of infighting in Kerala’s Congress. The tour began with a row over the cancellation of a Youth Congress seminar in Kozhikode—on the topic, ‘Sangh Parivar and Challenges of Secularism’—in which Tharoor was invited as a speaker. Youth Congress district leadership decided to step back from the event allegedly because of the pressure from some top leaders. Reportedly, an ‘undeclared ban’ also was put on Tharoor’s Malabar programmes. Raghavan, who is now the close confidante of Tharoor, defied the diktat by organising a grand seminar on the same topic under the banner of the Kozhikode Jawahar Youth Foundation. He also asked the party to launch an inquiry to find out who is responsible for the “ban” order. 

Meanwhile, Vadakara MP Muraleedharan—who has been sidelined by the current party leadership—came in support of Tharoor. “I know who is behind these ‘ban’ moves,” he said. “It has been imposed by those who are desirous to be chief minister candidates. I have no such desires, hence I am not bothered by Tharoor’s activities.” 

Interestingly, Muraleedharan was in the anti-Tharoor camp during the AICC presidential polls. 

The comments forced KPCC president to come out with an instruction that the party leaders should stop “public statements on the subject”. There were speculations that Muraleedharan’s comments were aimed at opposition leader Satheeshan, Chennithala and K.C. Venugopal (who is also trying to increase his clout in the state politics). Satheeshan’s initial response to the comments was that the KPCC president’s words were final and that they reflect the party’s “collective will”. The whole row brought to light the disarray in the I-group, which has had multiple power centres ever since Chennithala was removed from the post of opposition leader.

On Tuesday (Nov 22), Tharoor met the top leadership of the Congress-ally Muslim League at Panakkad in Malappuram. After the visit, he said that he is not intending to create any new group in the party and that his visit of League leaders was not anything unusual. However, Satheeshan reacted to it by making a strong statement—clearly aimed at Tharoor and Raghavan—that he will not “tolerate any kind of factionalism” and that he will not allow anybody to weaken the party. Notably, the District Congress Committees are keeping a distance from Tharoor’s programmes. When Tharoor visited the Malappuram DCC office as part of his programme, KPCC general secretaries from the district Aryadan Shoukath and Alipatta Jameela were absent.

Meanwhile, Raghavan is pitching Tharoor as a “blessing to the land” and an able leader to lead Kerala. Observers say that there are a lot of people on the United Democratic Front and outside who wish to see Tharoor become the official CM candidate of the party in the 2026 assembly elections. And, they say that this whole Malabar-centric campaign from the Tharoor camp was an intelligent move. 

“The Congress has a political leadership vacuum in Malabar,” says political observer N.P. Chekutti. “For many years now, it is leaders from south Kerala who are dominating in Congress. Even though Sudhakaran is a leader from Malabar, he is essentially an ‘outsider’. It was because of the infighting between the south leaders, and because of external pressure that Sudhakaran was made the KPCC president. The leaders from the southern part do not understand the political priorities of northern Kerala. The politics of the southern part is essentially based on caste and community. Whereas in the northern part it is essentially class-based politics. South-based politicians do not understand this properly. So, Malabar is looking forward to having someone who is originally from the northern part of Kerala to earn a heavyweight post in the Congress.”

Chekutti says that the Muslim League leadership also wants someone who can bring the UDF back to power. “For them, Shashi Tharoor (who hails from Palakkad which is in north Kerala) is a much better option,” he says. “He enjoys a huge acceptance, especially from the youth, the intelligentsia, and from women segment. The politically non-committed floating population would support Tharoor. Also, the people are now fed up with the traditional leadership of both the LDF and the UDF. So, Shashi Tharoor, who still has an ‘outsider’ tag, may be able to attract the votes and revive the UDF. A lot of people in the Congress and their UDF allies are seeing this. His secular credentials and stature are all taken seriously by the Muslim league. However, the Congress leadership is seeing his activities as a conspiracy of some vested interests.”

Notably, this whole fighting is getting shaped at a time when the Congress leadership is in defence for some controversial statements—that were interpreted as soft-Hindutva statements—from KPCC president Sudhakaran. “Tharoor is unambiguously anti-Sangh Parivar and secular. So, if he is serious about the leadership tussle, he may [have a chance],” says Chekkutti. 

Tharoor has announced that he is standing for a united Congress. But, Satheeshan and other leaders who nurture the dream of CM post, know well that he can pull off a group realignment—with young leaders in the party pitching for him—and a power shift in the party. And, his actions and statements are aimed at stopping this political churn at the very starting point itself.

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