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Congress President Election: Shashi Tharoor's 1072 Votes Tell An Important Story

Who voted for Shashi Tharoor in the Congress Presidential Election? What's next for him?

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We have already discussed why Mallikarjun Kharge being elected Congress president is historic as well as what can be expected from his presidency. But there is another aspect that needs to be examined in the election - what does the result mean for the defeated candidate - Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor?

Though his loss was a foregone conclusion, there are four aspects that we need to look at more closely:

  1. How well or badly did Tharoor do?

  2. What does it actually mean when people say Tharoor was not the 'official' candidate?

  3. Who actually supported Tharoor and what do their votes signify?

  4. What next for Tharoor?

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1. How Well Did Tharoor Do?

Tharoor secured 1072 delegate votes, about 12 percent of the total number of valid votes polled. This is a decent number if one compares it with how losing candidates have fared in the past two elections.

  • In 2000, Jitendra Prasada could manage just 94 votes compared to Sonia Gandhi's 7448.

  • In 1997, Sharad Pawar got 882 votes and Rajesh Pilot 354, against Sitaram Kesri's 6224.

Tharoor did slightly better than Pawar in percentage terms and much better in absolute terms. He fared much better than Pilot and Prasada on all counts.

For a leader who has been in active politics only for the last 13 years and having no organisational experience, it is creditable that Tharoor did better than stalwarts like Sharad Pawar, Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada - all of whom had considerably more experience. In terms of clout within the party too, Tharoor is nowhere near where Pawar or even Pilot was in 1997.

He managed to accomplish this despite not enjoying the backing of either his state unit - Kerala - or the G-23, of which he was also a part.

His campaign 'Think Tomorrow, Think Tharoor' was catchy and the fact that he released a manifesto also showed that he had a certain vision for the party.

Could he have done even better? Possibly.

Maybe too much focus on the media and on opinion outside the party, may have proven counter-productive.

Tharoor came to be seen as a candidate favoured by 'outsiders', especially media houses hostile to the Congress. This may have also gone against him.

But all in all, it can't be denied that Tharoor may have exceeded the expectations of many in the party.

2. Tharoor Wasn't an 'Official' Candidate: What Does That Actually Mean?

There is a lot of chatter about Kharge being the 'official' candidate and not Tharoor. But what does this actually mean? The Congress' critics and sections of the media have simply defined 'official' as 'backed by the Gandhi family'.

But that is a superficial understanding of the Congress.

Internal democracy is almost non-existent among all political parties in India. It is nothing close to the primary system of the US or internal elections in parties in the UK.

Individuals and interest groups do compete within parties in India but none of it is through internal elections. It is mostly negotiated through factionalism and internal push and pulls. The Congress follows the same structure, though it has held three elections in the last 25 years.

A comparison between the 1997 election and the 2022 one is important to understand the nature of the Congress.

The 1997 election is important because it was one in which the Gandhi family had absolutely no role. Sonia Gandhi was yet to get into politics. PV Narasimha Rao was the tallest leader in the party at that time. And yet the result was a landslide in favour of Sitaram Kesri.

Kesri's rivals, as we discussed above, fared much worse than Tharoor.

The point here is that irrespective of whether the Gandhis are there or not, the Congress as a structure behaves in a certain way. Interest groups do coalesce around a candidate who is most convenient to them.

In both 1997 and 2022, interest groups coalesced around a particular candidate.

It is actually about convenience and not loyalty to the Gandhis. Kesri was a convenient candidate for several interest groups within the Congress - for some it may have been because of loyalty to Narasimha Rao, for others it could have been to prevent someone like Sharad Pawar from wielding inordinate power.

Kharge's election is similar. He was backed by a diverse set of people - most G-23 members, Rahul Gandhi loyalists, Sonia Gandhi loyalists, state satraps etc.

Rival factions in the same state - such as Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, or Bhupesh Baghel and TS Singh Deo in Chhattisgarh - all backed Kharge. For many of them it stemmed out of genuinely having a good equation with Kharge. For others, especially in the G-23, it was a battle they chose not to fight, despite Tharoor being a co-signatory to their letter.

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3. So Who Supported Tharoor?

Some of the prominent leaders backing Tharoor include Mohsina Kidwai, KL Chishi, Karti Chidambaram, Mohammad Jawed, Saifuddin Soz, Salman Soz, Pradyut Bordoloi and Sandeep Dikshit. None of them are in any major decision making body in the party. A lot of support Tharoor got was from delegates who also belonged to the All India Professional Congress, of which Tharoor was the head.

The Congress hasn't released state wise votes polled by Kharge and Tharoor. But we can get an indication of where Tharoor did relatively better from the list of 60 delegates who proposed his nomination.

This is the state-wise break up of delegates who nominated Tharoor:

  • Kerala: 13

  • Jammu and Kashmir: 10 (all from the Valley)

  • Nagaland: 10

  • Uttar Pradesh: 9

  • Tamil Nadu: 7

  • Uttarakhand: 4

  • Delhi: 2

  • Assam: 1

  • Jharkhand: 1

  • Punjab: 1

  • West Bengal: 1

  • Bihar: 1

If one sets aside Kerala, which is Tharoor's home state, about 90 percent of the remaining delegates come from states where the Congress hasn't been in power on its own since 2014.

Tharoor seems to have had less support in states where Congress is either in power or is the main Opposition: such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Telangana, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Assam etc.

Tharoor did better in states where Congress is a marginal player or a smaller partner to a regional party. This is not surprising because the desire for 'change' or a shaking up of the status quo may be the highest among Congresspersons in such places.
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4. What Next for Tharoor?

Though in an internal letter, Tharoor did allege some irregularities in the voting process in Uttar Pradesh, he said after the results that Kharge's win was the "win of the party".

It is clear that Tharoor very much sees a future for himself within the Congress. To be honest, BJP and CPI-M also aren't parties he is ideologically compatible with and it won't be easy for him to retain Thiruvananthapuram without being part of one of these three parties.

But by securing over 1000 delegate votes, Tharoor has proven his point that there is a constituency for change within the party. And 1072 is just the delegate count. Among party workers and volunteers, it is possible that an even larger chunk want change in the status quo as well as a younger leadership.

Mallikarjun Kharge could accommodate Tharoor in some way in order to send a message of unity and to avoid alienating this section. This could be as part of the Congress Working Committee, as an office bearer or as leader or deputy leader in the Lok Sabha.

Despite his defeat, Tharoor actually comes out of the election with an enhanced profile.

Unlike a few of the G-23 members who had been criticising the party publicly and yet went and backed Kharge, Tharoor played with a straight bat and was open about his ambitions. Also, he presented himself as an 'issue-based critic' and not someone who is out to harm the party.

This may be the beginning of an interesting new phase in Tharoor's career, depending on what the new party leadership does and how the MP himself plays his cards.

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