Thiruvananthapuram: The Thiruvananthapuram constituency is as inscrutable as Da Vinci's Monalisa. No political party can ever be sure of what the electorate thinks; it can feel spurned or yearned for at the same time.
It is one constituency that has chosen candidates from almost all castes and religions. There was a Brahmin (Easwara Pillai, an independent who defeated Pattom Thanu Pillai in 1957). There was a Tamil Chetty Pillai (P S Nataraja Pillai). There was a Latin Christian, who was also a woman (Annie Mascarene). There were Nadars (A Charles and Neelalohitha Dasan Nadar). And there were Nairs (Karunakaran, K V Surendranath and P K Vasudevan).
There was also an Ezhava (P Vishwambharan), though the community has no decisive presence in the constituency.
Before one is tempted to croon a paean to the secular leanings of the electorate, here is the other side. Thiruvananthapuram is where the BJP fancies its chances the most.
Right-wing tendencies that had lain generally dormant have already been given expression.
This is also the place where both the LDF and the UDF had successfully exploited the complicated Nair-Nadar caste axis. If A Charles was used by the Congress to shore up its Nadar base, Neelalohithadasan Nadar was employed by both the UDF and the LDF to both exploit and neutralise the Nadar factor.
This is also where the NSS has its strongest presence in the state.
The constituency saw Nair women turn out in large numbers for the 'namajapa' protests steered by the NSS leadership after the Supreme Court ordered that women of all ages could enter Sabarimala.
Though there are no census figures to prove this beyond doubt, Nairs seem to constitute a decisive force in Thiruvananthapuram. Seven of the 13 MPs Thiruvananthapuram had elected since 1957 were Nairs. The CPI had won four times in Thiruvananthapuram, and on three occasions the candidate was a Nair -- M N Govindan Nair, K V Surendranath, and P K Vasudevan Nair.
The other winner was Pannyan Raveendran in 2005.
This time, the NSS has taken a decisively anti-LDF stand. Both the Congress and the BJP, who are with the faithful in the Sabarimala debate, are hoping to cash in on the pro-faith sentiment among devotees. While campaign posters of Kummanam Rajasekharan has pictures of Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple (the second best option after the chief electoral officer banned the use of Sabarimala pictures) in the background, those of Shashi Tharoor have shrewd Hindu associations.
Scramble for the Hindu tag
One of Tharoor's posters that extol his global standing as an author has two parts.
On the right is Tharoor's smiling face and on the left are arranged his innumerable book covers. But right next to his face, where a viewer's sight gets automatically directed, is the cover of his book “Why I Am a Hindu'.
The BJP leaders have already seen red.
If he has to win, Tharoor knows he has to push back the BJP advance with all the might that he could summon.
In 2014, he was given a deadly scare by the old BJP warhorse O Rajagopal, who swept the northwestern parts of the constituency, its urban core made up of Thiruvananthapuram, Kazhakuttom, Vattiyoorkavu and Nemom.
From nearly one lakh in 2009, Tharoor's victory margin shrunk to 14,430 votes. The Christian-dominated coast and the Nadar-dominated western fringe of the constituency came to his rescue.
In the 2016 Assembly elections, Rajagopal won from Nemom, making him the first BJP legislator in Kerala's history. The BJP threatened to take over Vattiyoorkavu and Kazhakuttom, too, but analysts say last minute “vote re-engineering” pushed them to second place in these two constituencies.
At ease in two worlds
Congress sources said his performance as an MP alone would save the day for Tharoor. “You don't even have to meet him in person or even visit his office to get things done. You just have to mail him, and if the grievance is genuine he will see to it that it is attended to,” a top Congress source said.
Then, there is also his image as a global Indian. “His is the kind of success that middle class parents are enamoured of. They want their children to look up to him. He has kind of pushed the limits of middle-class aspiration,” said psychoanalyst Dr Oommen John.
“Though a high-flying elite who belongs more in the company of wine-swilling heads of state and diplomats, Tharoor has manged to convey the impression that he has blunted the class barrier. Despite his heavily accented Malayalam, the poor and the coastal folk along the fringes of Thiruvananthapuram seem to be at ease with him,” he added.
Capital's right-wing soul
The question is will this be enough when he is taking on a primal force that has been gathering strength over the years, waiting for the right moment. “Thiruvananthapuram is unlike any other constituency in the state,” said political scientist J Prabhash. “It has a natural right-wing bend. Life in Thiruvananthauram has always centred around Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple ever since Marthanda Varma made himself the servant of the deity, Padmanabha Dasa, and surrendered the royal riches to the temple,” he said.
It was in the 1998 elections that the BJP won more than 12 percent votes for the first time. The candidate was Kerala Varma Raja, the brother of Goda Varma Raja. The palace influence was unmistakable. “It is this admiration, perhaps even nostalgia, for the royal family and the temple that has almost imperceptibly manifested as a liking for the BJP. The visions of a strong ruler that Narendra Modi had conjured up in 2014 tipped the scales heavily in favour of the BJP,” Prabhash said.
It is therefore no coincidence that the areas where the BJP has become the dominant force are also the places (Thiruvananthapuram, Nemom and Vattiyoorkavu) where native Thiruvananthapuramites, as opposed to the floating population who had come to the capital in search of jobs, reside.
Kummanam's serene appeal
Now, Kummanam Rajasekharan looks just the right candidate to take forward this advantage. The former Mizoram governor, because of his spartan life and his various environmental battles, seems to have acquired as much standing as O Rajagopal himself. This is not all. His arrival has also put on hold infighting within the Thiruvananthapuram unit of the BJP. Even disgruntled elements like P P Mukundan have been tamed. “The RSS, like no where else in the state, has taken complete control of Kummanam's campaign. Once the RSS is in charge there is no room for internal squabbles,” said P Ashok Kumar, a BJP state executive member.
As it stands, the main fight is between Tharoor and Kummanam. CPI's C Divakaran can put up a far creditable performance than Dr Bennet Abraham, a doctor who was controversially made candidate by the CPI and came a miserable third last time. Divakaran, though he is said to be a master at turning things around, will have to exorcise the Bennet ghost.
Divakaran was one of the CPI leaders an internal enquiry by the party had accused of taking money from Dr Bennet for his candidature. All the CPI leaders who had won from Thiruvananthauram before – PKV, M N Govindan Nair, K V Surendranath, and Panniyan Ravindran - were also known for their integrity and simple living. The anger of the NSS, and its leadership's public spat with the LDF, in the Sabarimala issue will also be heavily loaded against him. Divakaran's only solace is a strong Left trade union base.
Thiruvananthapuram has yet another peculiarity. It can be very impatient with its Parliament representatives. No candidate, except A Charles and Shashi Tharoor, was given a second chance. However, this streak of irreverence is balanced by its admiration for towering personalities. V K Krishnamenon, the diplomat and politician who was widely considered the second most important man in the Nehru cabinet, won in 1971. So has chief ministers K Karunakaran and P K Vasudevan Nair. Shashi Tharoor, too, was given a rousing welcome when he returned from the UN, and nearly dumped the next time.