By P. Sreekumaran
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: It may sound a bit hyperbolic. But it is an undeniable reality. The Congress, which heads the United Democratic Front (UDF), is at war with itself. The list of candidates for the Assembly elections, announced on Sunday, has triggered an avalanche of protest, the like of which the Congress in the State has not witnessed hitherto. The ferocity and the scale of protests have shaken the party to its core.
A stunned state leadership is on the difficult job of limiting the damage. But the trail of bitterness created by the manner of candidate selection is set to impact the prospects of the Congress-led UDF in general and the Congress in particular. That is for sure. Senior Congress leader from the State PC Chacko set the ball rolling by resigning from the party in protest against the list packed with the loyalists of the A and the I groups, led respectively by former chief minister Oommen Chandy and Leader of the Opposition, Ramesh Chennithala.
Ignoring the warnings and the directives of the Congress High Command, the list is replete with candidates owing allegiance to Chandy and Chennithala. And it is in protest against the duo calling the shots in the matter of candidate selection that leaders like Chacko have left the party. Chacko has since joined the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). He has also declared his intent to campaign for the victory of the Left Democratic Front (LDF).
This was only the thin end of the wedge. State Mahila Congress State president Lathika Subhash administered a rude shock to the Congress leadership by quitting all her party posts and tonsuring her head to register her strong protest against denying a seat to her. The angry act, at the headquarters of the Mahila Congress in Thiruvananthapuram, was also against the failure of the party leadership to give better representation for women. Lathika has decided to try her luck from the Ettumannur, the constituency, from where she wanted to contest, as an Independent candidate. Needless to say, this will, in all probability, harm the prospects of the UDF candidate Prince Luckose who belongs to the PJ Joseph faction of the Kerala Congress. Many Congress leaders tried to talk Lathika out of her decision, but she refused to budge from her stand.
The Congress list of 92 boasts just 10 women candidates, making a mockery of the party’s promise to give adequate representation to women – just one seat more than the number of women the party fielded in the 2016 assembly election. True, the Congress list contains new and fresh faces, but women’s representation has fallen far short of their expectations. Of the 92 candidates, 44 are debutants. Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president Mullappally Ramachandran has claimed that more than 55 per cent of the candidates are fresh faces. As many as 46 nominees are in the 25-50 age group, he said, adding that 22 are aged between 51 and 60. Both Oommen Chandy and Chennithala are on record that this was the best list the Congress has come out with in recent years!
In a move that could have a crucial bearing on the prospects of Congress candidates in Kannur district, Kannur MP and KPCC vice-president, K. Sudhakaran has strongly criticised the way Chandy and Chennithala lobbied for inclusion of their loyalists in the candidates’ list, denying a chance to many deserving and better candidates. Sudhakaran also said he was no more interested in the post of working president. He is not resigning the post immediately to avoid causing further embarrassment to the party. But the composition of the list teeming with candidates of poor quality have, he opined, dashed his hopes of the Congress-led UDF wresting power from the Left Democratic Front (LDF). Sudhakaran’s disillusionment is shared by many other Congress leaders across the State.
The only saving grace for the Congress is the last-minute decision to field K. Muralidharan, Lok Sabha MP from Vadakara, to wrest Nemom from BJP. Earlier the High Command had tried to persuade Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala to contest from Nemom, but both refused to leave their constituencies of Puthuppally and Harippad. It was then that the High Command zeroed in on Muralidharan who readily agreed to take the BJP lion in its own den. The BJP candidate from Nemom is senior party leader and former Mizoram Governor, Kummanam Rajasekharan. With the entry of Muralidharan, Nemom has become a super star constituency, and will witness a battle royale. The CPI(M) has fielded senior leader from Thiruvananthapuram, V. Sivankutty, from Nemom.
Meanwhile, group rivalries have come out in the open in the tussle for seats. Just one example would suffice to illustrate the ferocity of group rivalry. The Congress has fielded Sajiv Joseph, who belongs to the I group, from Irikkur constituency in Kannur district, a sure seat of the Congress. The A group has taken strong exception to the decision, saying that Irikkur seat has always been represented by a leader of the group. But Congress leadership has ruled out replacing Sajiv with a candidate belonging to the A group. All attempts to put down the rebellion have failed. And A group leaders have made it clear that they would boycott the election campaign of Sajiv Joseph. Consequently, the Congress is in real danger of losing the seat to the LDF candidate this time around.
Likewise, Oommen Chandy insisted on fielding his long-time loyalist, K. Babu from Tripunithara constituency in Ernakulam district. Babu, a minister in the erstwhile Oommen Chandy Cabinet, had lost to CPI(M)’s M. Swaraj in 2016 assembly election battle. Babu’s candidature was opposed by many Congress leaders, including KPCC vice-president, Sooranad Rajasekharan, on the ground that a case against him is still pending, and he continues to be under the corruption cloud. His candidature would also have an adverse impact on the prospects of party candidates in neighbouring constituencies. But Babu managed to get the ticket as Chansdy put his foot down. Another Chandy loyalist T Siddiqque also succeeded in getting the ticket from Kalpetta in Wayanad district, again thanks to Chandy strongly backing him. A prominent Chandy confidant who failed to make it to the list is KC Joseph, who had been winning from Irikkur in the last few assembly elections.
In another case, former Palakkad DCC chief A V Gopinath has threatened to leave the party in protest against ignoring him in the matter of candidate selection. Senior Congress leader A K Antony, Oommen Chandy and Mullappally Ramachandran talked to Gopinath and advised him against taking any hasty step. But Gopinath has refused to be mollified so far. What is worrying the Congress leadership is the speculation that Gopinath is reported to be in touch with local CPI(M) leaders, with whom he shares a cordial relationship. If he decided to quit the party, it could have serious consequences for the party in Palakkad district.
The most prominent ally of the Congress, the Indian Union Muslim League(IUML) is also facing problems over candidate selection. There were open revolts against IUML candidates in Kalamassery in Ernakulam district and Thirurangadi in Malappuram district. True, the IUML leadership has managed to overcome the problem. But the open rebellion against the decision of IUML chief Hyderali Thangal, who has the last word in all matters including candidate selection, has left a trail of bitterness. The problems plaguing the IUML emboldened minister for higher education KT Jaleel to claim that this time the LDF will win at least 7-8 seats in Malappuram district against the four it bagged in 2016.
The unprecedented turmoil roiling the Congress has undermined the confidence of UDF leaders. They still put on a brave front, and claim that the UDF will wrest power from LDF. But the revolts, the large number of resignations and protest marches have put a big question mark over the Front’s chances of achieving it. The open admission by aggressive and confident leaders like K Sudhakaran that he has lost hopes of pulling off a victory shows the depth of the despair in the Congress-led UDF. No wonder, the LDF leaders are saying that the UDF is now an utterly demoralized Front! (IPA Service)