Shashi Tharoor stresses his local Kerala roots
By John Mary in Thiruvananthapuram
As the opening of India's election looms, former UN undersecretary-general and poll candidate Shashi Tharoor is sweating it out in the southern state of Kerala.
The Congress party could have nominated Mr Tharoor, 53, author, peacekeeper, refugee worker and human rights activist, to the upper house.
But, he says, he wants to earn his spurs by winning a direct mandate from the people and enter the Lok Sabha (Lower House).
London-born Mr Tharoor made a high-profile, but unsuccessful, bid to become UN secretary-general in 2006 and is a prolific author and columnist.
He is facing a four-cornered contest in Thiruvananthapuram, the state's capital city.
Mr Tharoor's image makeover for Congress has been from the flamboyant diplomat in a business suit to a white-shirted boy next door.
The lightness of dress is a blessing as he sets off on a gruelling campaign from dawn till dusk, sometimes on foot, sometimes in an open van.
On the day I met him, he started off by worshipping at a Shiva temple, offering thulabharam - a ritual in which the devotee is weighed against his preferred religious offering.
Mr Tharoor offered about 70kg of sugarcane jaggery, costing 2,400 rupees ($48).
His car stops by the national highway and he melts into a crowd of children at a Muslim orphanage, asking them about their favourite cricketers.
Mr Tharoor's local aide then ushers him to two nearby churches of different denominations and the statue of Dalit reformer, Ayyankali.
As the motorcade sets off again, a young Congress worker calls from the election van, trumpeting the candidate's accomplishments and urging voters to choose the hand symbol of Congress on the electronic voting machine.
Mr Tharoor has been courting the poorer communities
Some people emerge from their homes in the Nadar community area. A smiling Mr Tharoor delivers an impromptu two-minute speech.
"I am not a newcomer here. I've a house here - my mom lives here. I'll use all my contacts to bring in investments to my constituency. This is a vote for a stable government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh."
The crowd is more curious than enthused and there are signs the community is gravitating towards the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Dalit leader Mayawati.
Mr Tharoor stops to pat a child lifted by her mother to garland the candidate.
His Anglicised tone of the local Malayalam language also evokes curiosity.
In a recent TV talk show he said in response to rival taunts: "The election is not a test of my Malayalam proficiency. I can understand what people want. And I am confident of conveying this in parliament in a language that I know quite well."
Mr Tharoor's main rival is lawyer and Communist Party of India candidate P Ramachandran Nair, whose predecessor, Pannian Ravindran, won the seat in the previous election by a margin of 70,000 plus votes.
The BSP's Neelalohitadasan Nadar is popular with the poor community and poses a threat.
The leftists have been attacking Mr Tharoor, branding his foreign policy positions pro-West and pro-Israel.
"If I enjoyed US support, why did they veto my bid for the top UN post," asks Mr Tharoor?
The Congress machinery may not be a match for the leftists
Critics say a piece he wrote in the Jewish newspaper Haaretz in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks showed an admiration for Israel's actions against Hamas in Gaza.
Mr Tharoor says his argument was against India using Israeli-type surgical strikes on Pakistan, a nuclear country.
He also points out his efforts while in the UN to come to the aid of Muslims during ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
Mr Tharoor is popular among the middle class, women and youth.
His other advantage is the unpopularity of the three-year-old Left Democratic Front government in the state.
But Mr Tharoor has suffered from a Congress party machinery that leaves much to be desired and is no match for that of the leftist parties.
If he does win, there is a strong possibility he will be a federal minister in any Congress government.