By Harihar Swarup
Why Congress President Rahul Gandhi chose to contest from distant Wayanad constituency in Kerala when his traditional bastion of Amethi is safe? Congress leaders claim that Wayanad is near the tri-junction of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and Rahul can simultaneously wield influence in these states.
The strategy seems to be on these lines: The Congress needs to better its tally in Parliament and maximize its gain from south India, which sends 130 MPs to the Lok Sabha, and where it seems better placed than the BJP. The presence of Rahul Gandhi is expected to enthuse cadres and lift the party’s campaign. The party’s focus on improving its own strength, even at the cost of upsetting potential allies, in this case Left, may be understandable at a time when it faces an existential crisis. However, the choice of Wayanad, a so-called safe seat, is unlikely to have any impact beyond Kerala where the Congress is contesting 16 seats.
The party has progressively lost ground in Tamil Nadu after rise of Dravidian parties in the 1960s and the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, a Congress stronghold until 2014, may have dealt a fatal blow to its fortunes in the region. Meanwhile, the BJP has become a force to reckon with in Karnataka. In short, the Congress no longer has any seat in the major southern states where it can be sure of success without the help of regional allies. The faction-ridden Kerala unit is unsure of retaining core voters in wake of a strong challenge from a cadre-based party like the CPI-M and rising BJP. It is a telling comment on the Congress organization that it needs to field a Gandhi to energize party workers and establish its national credentials vis-a-vis the voters.
Even more than the Congress, the Left is battling for relevance and is banking on Kerala to provide the numbers in Parliament. A resurgent Congress in Kerala can wreck its anti-BJP narrative and diminish its return from the state. It’s the fear of its own washout in Kerala that has roused the CPI-M leadership to loudly criticize the arrival of Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad.
In 2014, Rahul had faced a stiff contest in Amethi. The feisty and hyperbolic Smriti Irani, who lost to Rahul, has kept up the pressure with repeated visits to the constituency. To confound the picture for Rahul, Congress had lost all four seats in Amethi in the 2017 assembly polls.
Rahul is not the only leader who has contested from two seats. Prime Minister Narendra Modi too contested from Vadodara and Varanasi in 2014. Indira Gandhi also fought from Chikmagalur in Karnataka in Karnataka in 1998 and Medak in Andhra Pradesh in 1980, and Sonia Gandhi’s preference for Bellary in Karnataka, in 1999.
In Kerala, one person known as Vellappally Natesan formed the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) in 2015, ostensibly with the backing of Sangh Parivar. Surprisingly, he is the new poster boy of Chief Minister and CPI-M leader Pinarayi Vijayan as chairman of the ‘Renaissance Protection Samithi’, son Thushar has been named the BJP-led NDA’s candidate for Wayanad Lok Sabha seat.
Thushar, BDJS’s state unit president, will take on Rahul Gandhi and CPI’s P PSuneer from the seat.
Rahul’s motivations are clear. The Congress knows that South is one region where it will do better than the BJP. Despite the BJP’s efforts, Karnataka remains the only state where it is a serious player. In contrast, while the Congress is weak in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it is a strong contender in Kerala on its own, Karnataka with Janata Dal (secular) and Tamil Nadu as part of DMK-led alliance.
The Congress has also sought to construct an ideological platform in the south, which hinges on how the BJP is intensive to the region’s languages, culture and specificities. By contesting from South, Rahul is signalling that he respects the region. He is also seeking to maximize the Congress’s seat in Kerala particularly, and the South in general. At the same time, the party could have calculated that given the BJP’s Smriti Irani’ challenge in Amethi, it is best to have back-up seat. (IPA Service)