10/05/2017 4:58 PM IST | Updated 11/05/2017 9:24 AM IST

Why Scandal-Mongering Cannot Shake Shashi Tharoor's Political Standing In Kerala

One needs real thick skin and enormous grit to survive in politics.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

When Congress MP Shashi Tharoor sought a second term in the Thiruvananthapuram assembly constituency in 2014, the biggest threat to his candidacy and to a possible win was the mystery surrounding the untimely death of his wife Sunanda Pushkar a few months earlier. With vicious campaigns from the opposition and a section of the national media that called his wife's death a 'murder' and suggested Tharoor's involvement in it, he was on a sticky wicket.

Still, Tharoor won. That, too, despite an additional attempt by both the Left parties and the BJP to communally polarise the votes away from him. Clearly, voters in Thiruvananthapuram trusted Tharoor more than the opponents who tried to vilify and outsmart him.

Nearly three years later, when the newly-launched Republic TV dug up the vilification campaign yet again, Tharoor seemed to have gained a stronger ground. The story failed to have any traction across the country, except in the BJP circles, and Tharoor's Twitter tick-off of the channel and its main anchor made more impact than the purported exposé.

Instead of the allegations redux of foul play by Tharoor in his wife's death — that the channel also calls a 'murder' — what resonated across various forms of the media were Tharoor's contemptuous tweets and designer phrases. His "exasperating farrago", which has become a trend by itself on social media, and his dismissal of the TV channel as a "third-rate" "digital equivalent of a toilet roll" have found more media space than Republic TV's story.

Tharoor's "exasperating farrago" comment has become a trend by itself.

It was too easy a win for Tharoor against the talking heads on Republic TV who assumed investigative, forensic, legal and moral competencies by looking at some old, non-cogent fragments of 'evidence', even as he maintained his earlier stand that the police and the judiciary are the competent institutions to handle the case. He also said he has completely cooperated with the police and that he doesn't want to answer the allegations of the media.

It's openly speculated that besides the desperate viewership game of any new TV channel, the motive behind the reemergence of the Tharoor story is to discredit him in the Thiruvananthapuram parliament constituency ahead of the 2019 elections. The needle of suspicion is on the co-promoter of the channel and BJP Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who was recently named the NDA vice chairman for Kerala. A section of the Malayalam media and many on social media felt he could be the next BJP candidate from Tharoor's constituency.

Instead of allegations of foul play by Tharoor in his wife's death, his contemptuous tweets and designer phrases resonated across social media.

Whether there's any merit in this insinuation or not, it hasn't worked at all and might even backfire. The Tharoor story made zero impact in Kerala and hasn't been picked up by even the most popular Asianet News channel owned by Chandrasekhar himself. In fact, Asianet News broadcast Tharoor's short, impromptu press conference in full where he ridiculed Republic TV.

If at all anybody wants to discredit Tharoor for political reasons, it has to be done locally and none of the channels or print media would do it. Even at the height of the controversy in 2014, when Tharoor appeared a little cornered, the local media were sympathetic to him. The only exception then was Kairali People TV that fronts for the ruling CPM. The channel did try its best to portray the death as 'murder' and suggest Tharoor's involvement, but its prime news show ended up being a parody. This time around, even People TV didn't touch it because the CPM and its chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan are under relentless attack from Asianet News. Vijayan even took Chandrasekhar's name in the state assembly and alleged he's running news channels for political propaganda and for promoting his own career.

Shashi Tharoor's confidence, despite crushing adversities, and the all-round support he receives is a rare success story for lateral political entrants in India, particularly in Kerala. Senior officials harbouring political ambitions are quite common in the United Nations and some do take the plunge, but fail to sustain it because, as Winston Churchill famously said, "Politics is almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times." One needs real thick skin and enormous grit to survive in politics — Tharoor either came with it or developed it over a period of time.

Tharoor's confidence and the all-round support he receives is a rare success story for lateral political entrants in India.

Tharoor had to face a hostile local Congress unit when he first landed in Thiruvananthapuram, but took the city by storm by winning the 2009 elections with a margin of 100,000 votes. He was an instant hit in Thiruvananthapuram and became a regular face in the developmental and socio-cultural circles in his constituency and the rest of the state. As he proudly claimed, he is the first Indian MP — and the "only one for a long time" — who has published an annual report on his performance. At the end of the first term, he also published a five-year report. He's one of the most popular parliamentarians the state capital has ever produced; had it been easy to dislodge him, the local Congress itself would have done it much earlier. In fact, his only vulnerability comes from his own party and the hedge against it is his popularity.

If the BJP is indeed backing the vilification campaign against Tharoor to discredit him and create space for one of its hopefuls, it exposes a unique weakness that is sure to affect its prospects in the next elections — lack of election-worthy leaders. Except for a handful, who have contested and lost every possible election, the party doesn't have leaders. It may have improved the vote-share, and in 2019 it may get even better, thanks to the CPM encouraging a split of its anti-votes. But without convincing candidates, its chances are still bleak.

Can a bottomless war-chest help? Not in Kerala.

Reading the unequivocal public response would be of tremendous help to both Chandrasekhar and the BJP. Chandrasekhar is a smart parliamentarian with a clear role in politics who has proved himself to be extremely competent during the 2G scam. Hence, he shouldn't resort to shortcuts, but create a genuine socio-political context for himself in Kerala. Strategy does work in politics, but not a TV channel with little credibility because, as the recently concluded season of American TV series Homeland vividly portrayed, news can be convincingly faked by a motivated maverick and a resource-rich ecosystem.

But, in the end, it will backfire.

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