Congress President Rahul Gandhi with senior party leaders in Kochi, Kerala (file photo)
With Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s entry into the Lok Sabha fray in Wayanad, the task seems to be cut out for both the CPM-led LDF and the BJP-led NDA in the battle for Kerala’s 20 seats
Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad in north Kerala had perhaps been the most anticipated political decision of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. With the announcement finally coming through on Sunday, March 31 after a week of uncertainty, the political situation in Kerala as well as the two states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka is all but set to take a decisive turn.
While Rahul’s entry into south India is being ridiculed by the Bharatiya Janata Party as an attempt to choose a safe seat fearing the electoral outcome at Rahul’s home seat of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, the top brass of the Congress party say this had been a well thought-out strategy to further strengthen the party’s electoral chances in the south.
“There is a particular reason why Wayanad has been chosen by the Congress president and it’s got to do with its geographical location. This hilly constituency is a tri-junction between Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. On Karnataka side you have the Mysore part and on Tamil Nadu side, the Nilgiris. So there is no better constituency where Rahul’s impact would be felt pan-South,” top Congress leader AK Antony told media persons while making the announcement in Delhi.
Political pundits are of the opinion that the Congress strategy to suddenly ‘look south’ is very much in line with the need of the time.
If the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance needs to form a government at the centre, then it has to get somewhere close to 150 seats. For that to happen, the Congress party individually needs to cross 100 seats, or at least come very close to it.
For such a scenario to emerge, the party needs to win big in south India, and thus needs to give the voter the perception that they are the number one party and not the BJP.
Hence the decision to field none other than its prime ministerial candidate from the south. Wayanad being a safe and sitting seat for the Congress, the final call went in the constituency’s favour even after the initial reluctance from Rahul Gandhi.
“By fielding Rahul Gandhi, the party obviously wants to ensure that it gets maximum seats in south India. But more than that this is certainly a perception game where the Congress wants to thwart the attempts of the BJP to show itself as a pan-India party. Now by making the party president stand in the south, the Congress hopes to challenge the BJP not only electorally but also perception wise among the voters,” senior journalist and political commentator Sunnykutty Abraham told The Lede.
Senior Congressmen are already fighting hard to set the agenda post the announcement. “There has been a strong perception that the southern part of the country has been neglected by this BJP government. It has been a long-term demand by the southern states that Rahul Gandhi should contest from there. Wayanad will have a representation of all the three big states in the region, namely Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. That is why the Congress president opted for Wayanad,” AICC General Secretary and Alappuzha MP KC Venugopal told mediapersons.
The Congress now hopes to bag 20 out of 20 seats in Kerala, a feat not impossible considering the momentum that Rahul Gandhi’s candidature would bring and also going by the latest opinion polls which show the Congress-led UDF on a very strong wicket in Kerala, even before the announcement of Rahul’s candidature.
But many senior Congress leaders feel that the real impact would be seen in Karnataka, where at the moment the BJP and the Congress-JDS alliance is predicted to almost evenly share the 28 Lok Sabha seats. Even a minor swing with the arrival of Rahul in the bordering constituency could mean a clear victory for the UPA in the state. The UPA is also hopeful of making gains in Tamil Nadu, with Congress ally the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Congress leaders now hope that its ‘southern strategy’ involving Rahul Gandhi would find enough numbers to come close to power in a post-poll scenario of electoral alliances.
Left parties in the dock
While the BJP is still testing the waters on what impact Rahul’s candidature in the south could bring, the immediate casualty of this Congress strategy is the Left front.
In Kerala, the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and its partners in the Left Democratic Front (LDF) could very well get wiped out given the momentum that Rahul’s candidature has created.
An already struggling Left, that had been facing a backlash from the Hindu community post the Sabarimala controversy, was hoping for a consolidation of minority votes in at least north Kerala. But Rahul’s candidature has completely turned the tables.
“The biggest impact of Rahul’s candidature in Wayanad will be on the minority vote bank. Let there be no doubt there will be a tremendous consolidation of the votes among the minority communities who still look up to Rahul as their PM candidate. This will happen across Kerala and will seriously hit the CPM which was hoping to get minority votes this time round,” noted political journalist Roy Mathew told The Lede.
A testimony to the CPM’s minority backing comes from Ponnani, otherwise the bastion of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a key ally of the Congress. Early this month, IUML leaders were caught on CCTV footage appealing to the separatist organisation SDPI to bail them out as more and more Muslim votes were getting consolidated for the Left. Rahul’s entry will break all these equations in favour of the IUML.
It’s no wonder Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has strongly criticised Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad, saying it would send a wrong political message to the electorate.
“If Rahul Gandhi’s primary fight is against the BJP then why is he fighting elections from Wayanad where his primary fight will be against the Left front. Has he diluted his stand against the BJP? What will be the message that he will be sending out hereon?” asked Pinarayi Vijayan in Thiruvananthapuram.
Political pundits say Vijayan’s words reflect the desperation in the ranks of the CPM against this strategic decision by the Congress. That the Congress took the call despite attempts by the central leadership of both the CPM and the CPI to reach out to both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, as confirmed to The Lede by top Congress sources, to deter Rahul from contesting at Wayanad, comes as a rude shock to the Left.
That the top brass of the Left including Vijayan and party general secretary Sitaram Yechury had been putting pressure on Rahul Gandhi through other Congress allies in the UPA was well known from the statements they had been making since the initial speculation that Rahul would contest from Wayanad started doing the rounds in Kerala.
“The Left got this terribly wrong and at the moment they have a lot of egg on their face. Top leaders like Vijayan should have kept quiet while this speculation was going on. But perhaps the Left leaders thought they would be successful in dissuading Rahul from coming to Kerala, which was why they had sounded so confident before. Now this decision has blown up on their face. If they had said it’s Congress internal matter, it would have ended there. But now they have nicely played into Congress hands,” says CR Neelakandan, Kerala state convenor of the Aam Admi Party.
Vijayan however put up a brave face even after the Congress made it very clear that in 2019 what matters more is their own existence, rather than saving the last bastion of their once valuable ally.
“We will fight to ensure that Rahul Gandhi is defeated at Wayanad. The Left is well equipped and fully confident about it,’’ added Vijayan.
Many say that it would indeed be a tall order for the Left across the state. Even a minor swing of one or two percentage vote share usually has a big impact in Kerala. With Rahul’s entry, that could multiply many times.
BJP cries appeasement politics
Meanwhile for the BJP, which hopes to open its account in the state, Rahul’s entry comes as a setback, though not to the extent that the Left faces. Already state BJP leaders have set the tone, calling this an attempt to win a safe seat with the help of the minority vote bank.
“It is only because Rahul Gandhi is so sure of a loss in Amethi at the hands of Smriti Irani that he is now running to Wayanad to win with the help of the minority Muslim vote bank. It is appeasement politics of the worst kind and they are going to win with the help of the Muslim League. Even the Left will be complacent there to help Rahul win,” BJP state president PS Sreedharan Pillai told media persons on Sunday.
Meanwhile the NDA is thinking of changing the present candidate in Wayanad. It was a seat given to Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, a key ally of the BJP in Kerala. But with Rahul’s entry, there is a consensus among the BJP and the BDJS that a strong candidate should be fielded against him. Even the entry of a BJP national leader cannot be ruled out.
“We have not decided anything at the moment. But there is a consensus that we should have a strong candidate in Wayanad to take on Rahul Gandhi. The BDJS has no issues in handing over the seat to the BJP if such a need arises. Our aim is to defeat Rahul Gandhi,” said Thushar Vellapally, BDJS president and state convenor of the NDA.
The BJP will also be wary of how Rahul’s arrival will have an impact on some of the key constituencies like Ernakulam, where it has fielded Union Minister Alphons Kanananthanam, Pathanamthitta where it has fielded K Surendran who was at the forefront of the Sabarimala protests, and Thiruvananthapuram, where former Mizoram Governor Kummanam Rajasekaharan has got the party ticket, are fighting some of Rahul Gandhi’s closest men.
With Rahul’s entry, the task at the moment seems to be cut out for both the NDA and the LDF in Kerala.