The road to power in Delhi, political wisdom in India goes, passes through Uttar Pradesh. Prime ministerial candidates have often sought a mandate from a constituency in India’s most populous state. On Sunday, the Congress decided that in addition to Amethi, it will explore a route for its party president via Kerala. While it is debatable if it will have enough fuel in the tank to make the long journey, for now Rahul Gandhi seems to have decided where there is a will, there is a Way-anad.
For the better part of March, a chorus was building up in favour of Gandhi contesting from one of the south Indian states. It started with Karnataka for historical reasons. Indira Gandhi had won from Chikamagular in 1978 and Sonia Gandhi made Ballari her own in 1999. The Tamil Nadu unit of the Congress followed suit and so did Kerala. Even as the BJP fired its barbs that Rahul was running away from Battleground Amethi, it became certain that it will be Wayanad for Rahul Gandhi when the Congress delayed announcing a candidate.
Wayanad which came into existence after delimitation in the 2009 election has been won both times by the Congress. Its two-time MP MI Shanavas passed away in November 2018. The LDF has allotted this seat to the CPI while the BJP has given away Wayanad as part of its Kerala alliance to the Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS).
Even though Shanavas’s margin of victory came down from 1.53 lakh in 2009 to just about 20000 votes in 2014, the Congress is not losing sleep over it. In the Congress book, Wayanad is counted as a safe bet.
So how does Rahul’s decision to choose Wayanad play out in the political theatre of Kerala, south India and nationally?
The LDF in Kerala is miffed and chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has called the Congress decision a move against the Left. He has reason to be annoyed because Wayanad is bound to have a ripple effect along the entire Kerala coast. It will energise the Kerala rank and file of the Congress that since Sunday afternoon has a spring in its step. Its workers who see Wayanad as a gamechanger of sorts in the context of Kerala politics, are celebrating on the streets, taking out bike rallies. The more ebullient ones are talking in terms of a sweep of the 20 seats.
In a column in NDTV.com, CPI(M) politburo member Brinda Karat however, writes that the Congress under Rahul Gandhi has lost the plot and asks what is the message he is sending out with this decision.
From a Congress perspective, the prospect of Rahul Gandhi representing Kerala in Parliament would help the UDF in constituencies where there is a tight contest with the LDF. This is because unlike other parts of the country, there exists in Kerala an affinity for the Gandhi family. The `Pappu’ narrative does not find traction in Kerala.
The LDF has reason to be worried because if it fails to win seats in Kerala, the Left presence in the next Lok Sabha will be next to nothing. Vijayan’s fear would be that the national political narrative between now and 23 April when Kerala votes, will make Wayanad and by extension, all of Kerala about the Congress and the BJP. More so if the BJP decides to field one of its candidates instead of the BDJS and gets its big guns to campaign against Gandhi.
In the public mindspace, it will threaten to marginalise the Left in its last bastion. With elections due in Kerala in two years and the state’s tradition of alternating power between the LDF and the UDF, the Left could well be without power anywhere in India.
By fielding Rahul, the Congress has tried to seize lost ground in Kerala. Since the Sabarimala face-off, the Left was trying to edge out the Congress by making it seem that the fight in Kerala was between the LDF and the BJP. The state Congress attempted to make its voice heard by taking a position in sync with the BJP on Sabarimala, even though its national leadership was not amused.
The BJP would often taunt the Congress saying Kerala me kushti, Bengal me dosti, referring to the Congress fighting the Left deep south but allying with it in the east. Rahul’s Destination Wayanad has given the Congress relationship with the Left a jagged edge.The warts will show up in the Rahul-Sitaram Yechury equation the next time they share a stage at the national level. Already former CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat has said the decision goes against the Congress party’s resolve to fight the BJP. Vijayan has called Gandhi’s Wayanad decision a defensive move.
Karat and Vijayan are right. Wayanad is a constituency that is probably the safest in Kerala, if not all of south India. The BJP is non-existent here. Wayanad is not a show of political courage, it is playing it safe. To use a Modism here, it is not a 56 inch decision.
“If Gandhi wanted to represent south India, he should have contested from a constituency where the BJP is strong,” said Vijayan.
Indeed. If Gandhi had chosen a seat in and around Bengaluru or say, even Kanyakumari to make it geographically significant and taken on the BJP in any of these constituencies in a direct fight, it would have galvanised the entire Congress in the Peninsula and perhaps even beyond. By choosing Wayanad, Rahul has restricted the Congress gains within the Kerala borders. At best, it may have a marginal effect in a few seats across the border in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
But Wayanad is not simply a south story. In the coming days, expect the BJP social media warriors to paint Gandhi’s Wayanad contest in minority appeasement colours. According to the 2011 census, in Wayanad, the Hindus are 49.48 per cent of the population while Muslims are 28.65 and Christians 21.34 per cent. Gandhi’s move would be interpreted as seeking refuge in a constituency where minority is the majority.
Such a narrative won’t have a bearing on how Wayanad or Kerala votes but would play out on the national stage especially the communally sensitive areas in the Hindi belt.
It is this big picture the Congress will need to worry about.