Rajeev Chandrashekhar is modern, moderate. But tragically loyal to bigoted BJP

There are few seats more significant than Thiruvananthapuram. Kerala’s capital, represented for the past fifteen years in the Lok Sabha by Shashi Tharoor, is the site of a contest whose outcome will affect all of us. General elections in parliamentary democracies are essentially a parade of simultaneous local referendums. But what happens in Kerala’s capital on 26 April will have national ramifications. The voters of Thiruvananthapuram will have to ask themselves not only who is best equipped to advance the interests of their city; they will also, as inhabitants of a state whose dizzying religious diversity makes it a perfect microcosm of India, have to answer who is best suited to defend our country’s endangered pluralism from the depredations of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Consider Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the BJP’s candidate in Thiruvananthapuram, whom I met last week for a piece I was commissioned to write by a British broadsheet. Chandrasekhar struck me as a decent and disciplined man. The son of a former Air Force officer, he was educated at a series of Kendriya Vidyalaya schools, before attending the Manipal Institute of Technology and the Illinois Institute of Technology. In the early 1990s he joined British Physical Laboratories, a consumer electronics company founded in the 1960s by his father-in-law, where he worked on the telecoms side of the business. An early beneficiary of the openings created by PV Narasimha Rao’s economic liberalisation, he became a member of Bangalore’s burgeoning guild of billionaires by the mid-2000s. His foray into politics—he has been a member of the Rajya Sabha for the past 18 years, serving two six-year terms as a right-of-centre independent from Karnataka, before migrating in 2018 to the BJP, which in 2021 made him a junior minister for Electronics and Information Technology—was no doubt driven by a passion to help others. What else could a magnate who had every material possession, from a fleet of luxury cars and palatial properties to a private jet, want?

Two decades ago, Chandrasekhar could put forward a coherent answer to that question. But the man seeking election to Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram is straining under the burden of marketing himself in a state that has traditionally radiated contempt for his party. Chandrasekhar told me that he is “very secular”. So what is he doing in a party that is so nakedly communitarian? His response was to claim this his party is inclusive—that it does not differentiate between Indians on the basis of faith, and that the prime minister is committed to sabka saath, sabka vikas (with all, for the progress of all). This is not a persuasive answer. It is a regurgitation of an infantile and infantilising fable, an invitation to endorse fiction and embrace denial, and an insult to the intelligence of the electorate of Thiruvananthapuram and the people of India.


Chandrasekhar claims to be a modern, moderate, modernising figure. And yet he pledges allegiance to a political party animated, as the Prime Minister’s speech in Rajasthan on Sunday demonstrated yet again, by bigotry and reactionarism. To elect Chandrasekhar to Parliament is not to fortify the lived secular reality of Thiruvananthapuram, a city whose history of social harmony shames the rest of India. It is to reinforce, numerically, the sectarian superstructure he serves by virtue of his membership of the BJP. His pitch to voters that Thiruvananthapuram will be represented by a minister if he is elected amplifies his party’s hubris. What use, voters ought to ask themselves, is a minister if his principal duty is to augment a government that is committed doctrinally to pulverising the secularism he brandishes as a virtue before Thiruvananthapuram’s electorate?

Also read: BJP can’t win over Kerala by giving it a bad image. Best to leave the state alone

‘Attractive candidate’

Chandrasekhar, having lived most of his life outside Kerala, has surrounded himself with experts who know the terrain well and have their ear to the ground. His campaign is chaired by the distinguished former diplomat TP Sreenivasan. There are also, alarmingly, some less pleasant characters involved, formally or informally, in the effort to elect Chandrasekhar. One of them is Pratheesh Vishwanath. Formerly a member of Pravin Togadia’s Antarashtriya Hindu Parishad, Vishwanath is the founder of Hindu Seva Kendram, an organisation which claims that “Hindus in India”—a country run for the past decade by a Hindu-first party—“are facing an existential crisis”. In 2021, Vishwanath, in a video assailing “Islamic jihadi dogs”, echoed the notorious Burmese chauvinist Ashin Wirathu’s wisdom about Muslims: “we cannot sleep with stray dogs.”

When I asked him about Vishwanath, Chandrasekhar was quick to say that “everyone is entitled to their point of view” in a democracy. But why would a secularist associate with such a man? Chandrasekhar told me that, as a politician, he engages with all kinds: “in public life you associate yourself with hundreds of thousands of people. I don’t have to agree with everything all hundreds of thousands of people say or think or believe in.” It’s difficult to fault this attitude, and Chandrasekhar was emphatic to me that Vishwanath is not a friend of his. And yet I am not convinced that he would allow himself to become connected to any degree with a Muslim who espoused similarly radical views.

Chandrasekhar is in many ways an attractive candidate. His record of achievement as a private businessman sets him apart from the windbags who predominate his party. And his aspiration to emulate Singapore’s port-led model of development in Thiruvananthapuram is not without merit. But all of this is eclipsed by his political affiliations. These general elections are of existential importance for our republic. Chandrasekhar’s own explanation to me of what it means to be secular (“we respect everybody’s faith, and our constitution guarantees every Indian fundamental rights, regardless of caste, creed, gender, religion, and that is exactly what secularism is”) is in jeopardy from a prime minister who pits Indian against Indian in the name of faith. By electing Chandrasekhar, whose loyalty to the BJP is impossible to reconcile with the ecumenical worldview he claims to espouse, the people of Thiruvananthapuram will not gain a new champion of their accepting and cordial way of life. They will succeed only in depriving India, at the most critical moment in its history, of the most dogged defender of the ideals that have made Kerala the pride and envy of the rest of the country.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *