Voters unlikely to get swayed by hollow chest-thumping: Tharoor | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Voters unlikely to get swayed by hollow chest-thumping: Tharoor

Apr 24, 2024 01:27 PM IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fielded Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar and CPI Pannyan Raveendran against Tharoor, making it a three-cornered fight

Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala is due to go to the polls in the second phase of the Lok Sabha elections on Friday with Congress leader Shashi Tharoor hoping to retain the seat for the fourth time. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has never won a Lok Sabha seat in Kerala, has fielded Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar. Pannyan Raveendran is the Communist Party of India (CPI)’s candidate, whom Tharoor succeeded as Member of Parliament (MP) in 2009, making it a three-cornered fight. In an email interview with HT, Tharoor spoke about his prospects, opponents, and electoral issues in his constituency. Edited excerpts:

MP Shashi Tharoor on the campaign trail in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram. (X)
MP Shashi Tharoor on the campaign trail in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram. (X)

Congress and CPI are allies in the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) but are part of rival blocs in Kerala. You have said that this “divides anti-BJP votes” in the state. How do you see your chances then?

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Putting up a candidate against me is something the Left has done every time, and I can’t criticise them for that, since I took the seat from them in the first place. My point has been that devoting their entire campaign to attacking me is a tactic that can only help the BJP because it does divide anti-BJP votes. When it comes to my chances, however, this is unlikely to sour my optimism. Wherever I’ve gone in the course of the last 50 days or so of campaigning since my candidature was announced, I’ve seen nothing but affection, warmth, hand-waving, smiles, and of course, when I’ve got into conversations with people, the assurances they give me. I’m very confident that the faith they have placed in me three times will again be placed in me a fourth time.

What do you make of Chandrasekhar’s campaign? He also seeks to appeal to the professional class. Could voters’ minds change?

On the nature of contestation in the constituency, I have maintained that it is a three-cornered contest. I’ve always respected my opponents and their ability to put up a strong campaign, be it the CPI candidate (I took the seat from his party in my first campaign) or the BJP candidate (the BJP came second in both 2014 and 2019), but I also remain completely confident in my ability to once again succeed. With reference to the professional class, they are aware of the many efforts I have made to safeguard their interests – from the rapid modernisation of the Technopark, and Airport, to the ease of connectivity through the NH-Bypass. Combined with my strong and visible track record of service in my 15 years as their MP, and my stands on national and global issues, my voters are unlikely to get swayed by hollow chest-thumping.

You have been an MP for three terms now. Could anti-incumbency work against you?

Anti-incumbency settles in when there is a lack of performance, and my terms as MP have seen anything but that. My primary concern has been the well-being of my voters, and those who have seen me in action for 15 years have had multiple reasons to appreciate my services to the constituency, besides the stands that I have taken on national issues in Parliament, and on the world stage. As for my achievements for the constituency over the last 15 years, I have released a 68-page report (available in the public domain) that lays them out in full detail for all to assess.

What is the status of the defamation notice Chandrasekhar sent to you and your counter?

Complaints from the BJP’s side are being made with the objective of being projected as a distraction. This won’t help. Voters in this constituency are aware of the reality and the real issues. I am confident they will vote on such a basis. ECI has already acted on the BJP’s complaint. Sadly for the BJP, they didn’t get what they wanted. My lawyers have already issued a reply to the BJP candidates’ subsequent legal notice. I am informed that additional complaints have been filed in Kerala and Delhi. So I’ll contest them and we will take appropriate legal recourse as required. These proceedings will take their own course and I trust in the judicial process to address the matter impartially and appropriately.

What are the key electoral challenges in Thiruvananthapuram?

The key electoral challenges are the conventional ones expected by a sitting MP in a political campaign – baseless remarks, misinformation campaigns, and the like. I was one of the first MPs to post my performance report on my public accounts to ensure that fake news against me was not peddled incessantly. I have had to spend a lot of time debunking frivolous and untrue allegations about my stances on many national and international issues: from nonsense like one side claiming that I have not done anything for the coastal community or the other accusing me of being anti-Palestine and anti-Muslim. But most of the actual so-called “obstacles” to my victory, are highly exaggerated. I have no doubt that the people of Thiruvananthapuram, acknowledging my service over the past 15 years, are going to repose their faith in me again.

Thiruvananthapuram is a majority Hindu constituency and the BJP is appealing to that. What do you make of it?

People elect a government to look after their welfare, not just their religion, and when they vote in their self-interest they will vote the BJP out of office. BJP wants anything but that and hence wants to make the predictable communal appeal. They are hugely mistaken because the politics of communal hatred has no appeal in the entire South, let alone Thiruvananthapuram. Our society has been shaped in an environment where decades of social reforms have led to a flowering of civic consciousness among followers of the three major religions: Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Literacy levels and living standards are much higher than in the North. Our history has also been different: Kerala has welcomed followers of every faith here for millennia, and all have come in peace and not by the sword. Our voters (Hindu or otherwise) know the importance of substantive issues – unemployment, price rise, and communal hatred being key among them – and they realise those are the responsibilities of the Union government. The BJP is destined to fail here.

Latin Catholics in the state have been demanding a caste census. Is that something you will work towards?

As our manifesto declares, my party has vowed to conduct a nationwide census to identify and enumerate castes, sub-castes, and their socio-economic condition, and amend the Constitution to raise the 50% cap on quota for marginalised groups. If we can do a proper census on these grounds, we will not only find out which caste people belong, but what they’re earning and what opportunities they have - there may well be a significant correlation between marginalisation and caste as also between opportunities and economic prosperity on the one hand and caste background on the other, in which case, we need affirmative action programmes. If you go the BJP route and just invent your own numbers to give benefits as you wish, that violates the basic principle of social justice, which it is our primary motive to uphold.

Chandrasekhar has promised the fisher community concrete houses. Where do you stand on that?

Promising big and delivering little has been a feature of the BJP’s term in power, especially on housing. The average voter will turn right around and ask Mr Chandrasekhar what the status of Kerala is under the current pucca [concrete] housing scheme – the PMAY [Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana]. Will he first address the irregularities that have plagued the scheme, many of which have been flagged by the CAG [Comptroller and Auditor General]? Or, for that matter, what safeguards the government has implemented (or plans to) to prevent them in the future, including in our state? I doubt that he will. Therein, the voters find their answer.

Thiruvananthapuram faces water scarcity and does not have a master drainage plan. Coastal protection in the face of rampant development is also a major issue. In your three terms, how have you worked on these issues and what do you intend to do if you are re-elected, especially as climate change worsens?

I have worked very dedicatedly on the coastal belt. From my meagre MP funds, I have allotted 1 crore to build seawalls in two fishing villages in Pozhiyoor which have been completed now. In 2022, after the government released a draft Ecological Sensitive Area (ESA) Notification on Western Ghats (including the villages of Kallikadu, Amboori, and Vazhichal from our constituency as ESA) risking the displacement and livelihoods of a significant number of constituents, I immediately reached out to the Union minister for environment, forests and climate Change and pointed out that the inclusion of these three villages was flawed.

I was successfully able to convince the Union government in subsequent meetings to exclude our three villages in the revised notification that was issued subsequently: a move that will allow residents of these villages to continue with their way of life without the threat of disruption or displacement. Even during Cyclone Ockhi, I was at the Poonthura parish hall as the cyclone erupted.

I stayed with them through the rescue process and argued for better compensation in Parliament and outside. These are just some instances of my track record of consistently raising the concerns associated with the impact of climate change in the coastal area of my constituency. I will continue to do so with the impassioned vigour that these issues merit. As for water scarcity, this is a matter for the state government to address, within the ambit of relevant central schemes if necessary. The MP has no role other than to draw the Centre’s attention to the matter, which I have repeatedly done.

You have served as the chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology for three years and you are up against Chandrasekhar, a technocrat and the minister of state for information technology. Congress, in its manifesto, has promised to amend the Digital Personal Data Protection Act and the Press and Registration of Periodicals Act to eliminate “backdoor censorship”. It has also promised to withdraw the Broadcasting Bill. What do you make of that?

A Committee from which I was defenestrated for asking too many uncomfortable questions, you might also add. I think the Congress’ stance is a very progressive one – prioritising privacy, freedom of speech, and personal data – something that the BJP has sought to feast upon by granting itself wide-reaching powers.

On the Digital Personal Data Protection Act in particular, I have voiced my grave concerns publicly, in both my spoken remarks and my writings. I had noted ruefully that the bill made no provision for any parliamentary oversight, besides emasculating the already weakened RTI Act and providing for an overweening, government-controlled Data Protection Board.

The concerns on the Press Registrar General’s extraordinary powers (including the power to cancel registration) under the Press and Registration of Periodicals Act as also the mandate to transfer his power to any gazetted officer of the government, including a police officer, to enter the premises of a periodical for verification is intrusive action and can amount to censorship by other means. The Congress solutions on the subject, as you can thus see, are well thought-out and focussed on protecting the citizen from the BJP’s disdain for accountability.

The Congress manifesto has talked about restricting government powers for the surveillance of journalists. How will that be done especially when multiple surveillance institutions and laws (like NATGRID, Aadhaar, NETRA, etc) were set up under Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, especially in the wake of 26/11?

It was broadly agreed that 26/11 necessitated the institutionalisation of laws that could ensure greater security against looming terrorist threats; however, it took a party as self-serving as the BJP to make the transition to using it for the state’s draconian whims and fancies. The misuse of governmental power over journalists – illustrated by our fall on the Press Freedom Index – is proof enough.

We have highlighted some very concrete steps to rectify this state of affairs in our manifesto (like an amendment to The Press Council Act, 1978, legislative avenues to curb monopolies in the media, the cross-ownership of different segments of the media, and the control of the media by business organisations – with an aim of referring cases of suspected monopolies to the Competition Commission of India, etc).

We plan to re-evaluate and re-calibrate laws that are impinging on journalistic freedoms in a way that can balance freedom of expression with the demands of national security. And people need to realise that this is something that is very possible. The BJP now just feeds the national security argument as eyewash rationalising surveillance measures which are otherwise grossly unnecessary. Clearly, the Congress mindset is to recognise and adapt from past experiences and provide greater space for an independent and fearless media to flourish.

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