When former United Nations diplomat Shashi Tharoor won his second Lok Sabha election from Thiruvananthapuram last May at a time when the Congress was badly mauled across the country, it was expected that he would emerge as a credible voice for his party in Parliament.

With the Congress reduced to a mere 44 members in the Lok Sabha, the party was depending on younger and articulate members like Tharoor to corner the numerically stronger Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government.

But seven months after he pulled off an incredible victory in Kerala, Tharoor became an embarrassment for the Congress after the controversy over his late wife Sunanda Pushkar’s death last January resurfaced this week.

Tharoor finds himself in the proverbial eye of a storm after the Delhi police announced that Sunanda Pushkar had died an “unnatural death” and followed it up by filing a murder case against unknown persons. The latest twist in this case has cast a new shadow over his political career. And this time, Tharoor may find it difficult to extricate himself out of this mess.

Grim political future 

Although Tharoor has not been named in the case, the questions it raises have put him on the defensive. This is bound to be exploited by the Opposition camp in Kerala as well as his political detractors in the Congress. The Left parties in his home state have already demanded Tharoor’s resignation while his own party in the state is watching carefully from the side lines, waiting for him to slip.

“For the present, his political future looks grim,” remarked a Congress leader from Kerala. “Don’t forget, he is not very popular in his own party.”

It is no secret that the Congress unit in Kerala has never been enamoured with Tharoor. Not only does he not belong to any faction in the party, he has always been viewed as a paratrooper who had been foisted on the state by the Congress leadership. On his part, Tharoor made no secret about his proximity to party president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

And it was because of his influence with the Congress party’s First Family that Tharoor was appointed a minister in his first term and subsequently managed to survive a series of controversies that dogged him from the beginning of his political career.

Often courting controversies

He initially created a stir with his tweets and for staying in a five-star hotel at a time when the government had announced an austerity drive, for which he was publicly upbraided. He was eventually removed as Union minister in the Manmohan Singh government following a row over the payment of sweat equity to his wife in the Kochi Indian Premier League team. But he was re-inducted into the council of ministers over two years later.

In fact, when Sunanda Pushkar was found dead in a hotel room last January under mysterious circumstances, there were murmurs that Tharoor would be asked to step down as minister till the police investigations cleared him and that he would be marginalised by the party. But Tharoor stayed put and was fielded again for the 2014 Lok Sabha election from his old constituency.

“Tharoor may have survived so far but everything changes when it comes to murder,” remarked another Congress leader from Kerala, pointing out that the conservative state has little tolerance for murder and sex scandals. “Even a senior leader like P J Kurien faced a harrowing time when he was named in a sex scandal.”

The Congress has not disowned Tharoor yet but it will find it difficult to stand by him if the situation escalates. So far, party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi, in a carefully worded response, maintained that a citizen is presumed innocent till proved guilty. “A First Information Report is the first step and not the end…let the whole process be completed,” he emphasised while calling for “balance and restraint” by the media.

Cosying up to BJP

But even before the police came out with its dramatic announcement, Tharoor had spoilt his copybook with his periodic pro-Modi statements over the past six months. These were seen as a clear sign that he was cosying up to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, perhaps with an eye on the investigations into Sunanda Pushkar’s death.

Not only did Tharoor praise the Prime Minister in a signed article for “his inclusive and conciliatory language”, he eagerly accepted Modi’s invitation to become one of the brand ambassadors for the prime minister’s Swacch Bharat Abhiyan. In fact, there were murmurs that Tharoor could even jump ship and join the BJP.

Predictably, the Congress was not pleased with Tharoor’s adulation for Modi. The Kerala unit of the party immediately swung into action and dashed off a complaint to the Congress leadership. Tharoor paid the price when he was subsequently removed from the panel of party spokespersons.

It is to be seen if Tharoor lives up to his reputation and survives this latest controversy. Or whether his short-lived political career will prove to be just that: short-lived.