Rahul's road to Wayanad to pave Congress' future in southern India

Last Updated: Tue, Apr 02, 2019 14:53 hrs
Rahul Gandhi (PTI photo)

In a surprising move, Congress chief and Prime Ministerial hopeful Rahul Gandhi will contest the upcoming Lok Sabha elections from his usual constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh as well as from Wayanad in Kerala in a bid to boost the party’s position in South India. Senior Congress leader AK Antony, in a press conference announced the decision and said, “In a way it'll satisfy the requests of three southern states” speaking to the geographical nature of Wayanad linking Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Kerala has 20 Lok Sabha seats and this move has been met with criticism from the left. In 2014, Congress won 8 seats and this move is seen as a way to improve on their previous performance. South India is clearly a priority for the Congress. Electorally, it sends 130 MPs to the Lok Sabha and is certainly better placed than the BJP. However, the Indian Express editorial points out that this move shows a sign of weakness on the Congress’ part –

The choice of Wayanad, a so-called safe seat, is unlikely to have an impact beyond Kerala, where the Congress is contesting 16 seats. It is a telling comment on the Congress organisation that it needs to field a Gandhi to energise party workers and establish its national credentials vis a vis voters.”

Seeing this decision, CPI(M) member and former General Secretary Prakash Karat said, “It goes against Congress' national commitment to fight BJP…their priority now is to fight against the Left in Kerala.” The CPI(M) at its 21st party congress declared “While the main direction of the struggle is against the BJP, the party will continue to oppose the Congress…” Their decision to align with the Congress in West Bengal in 2016 seemed to backfire for them as they lost the status of being the principal opposition in the state to the Congress.

In 2004, the CPI(M)-led Democratic Front won 18 out of 20 seats in Kerala. This was unprecedented, and at the time, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) was the main political adversary. Contesting two seats could be an insurance policy, but also a way of expanding the map. In 2014, Rahul Gandhi won Amethi quite easily, but by a lower margin than 2009. Viju Cherian, in a column for Moneycontrol offers a critique of this decision by Rahul Gandhi –

It is unlikely that Gandhi would lose from Wayanad. However, the confusion and indecisiveness on the part of Gandhi and the party for more than two weeks to decide on the Wayanad seat reflects poorly on the Congress President’s ability to take a quick decision.”

The two districts are different politically. In addition to expanding to the party’s footprint and appealing to a wide base of the electorate, its also a way for the Congress to look at the election from a geo-political lens. It’s also not unprecedented; Indira Gandhi, whose stronghold was Rae Bareli in 1967 and then again in 1971 switched to Chikmagalur in Karnataka in 1978. In 1999, Sonia Gandhi contested Amethi and Bareli. Despite the criticisms, columnist Swati Chaturvedi writes in favor of this move taking into consideration favorability, location and history –

Gandhi has outshone Modi in all opinion polls in the South. Both Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi are now in the game of delayed gratification and building up the Congress for the long term. If one concedes that the Congress, however muddled, is still in the game of being a major political party with the goal of winning elections, then Gandhi's move is smart politics.”

Currently, the party does not hold any assembly seats in the constituency of Amethi and BJP leader Smriti Irani is active there despite her loss to Gandhi last time around. Assuming he wins both seats, he will have to give up on which will then undergo a re-election. The Hindustan Times editorial lays out the geographical strongholds in South India –

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 the Janata Dal (Secular), and Tamil Nadu as a part of the DMK-led alliance.”

As Sugata Srinivasaraju points out in The Wire, the voting trends in South India for the Congress have been mixed. In Karnataka the party won 9 seats in last time and has ceded ground to the BJP, it got 2 in Andhra Pradesh and didn’t get a single seat in Tamil Nadu.

The BJP faces an uphill battle in general in the south, as it has for quite some time. The strategy is clear in putting on a united front against the Hindutva brand of politics the BJP bets on in the heartland. The BJP’s criticism of this move by Gandhi is arguing that he’s contesting from a seat that has a lower percentage of Hindus.

They have fielded a candidate to run against Gandhi in Wayanad. Thushar Vellappally is the man who will try and defeat Rahul Gandhi. He is the president of the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, an ally of the NDA. This party was formed in 2015. His father, Vellappally Natesan, is a main stay in Kerala politics. Natesan is the General Secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) in the state which plays a major role in representing the Ezhava community. He supported the Chief Minister’s initiative of organizing the Wall of Women in January.

The Congress will serve itself well on forming alliances like it did in Tamil Nadu. Kerala has proven to be tougher ground. Rahul Gandhi’s move to contest from Wayanad is seen as a backup and as a sign of how important the southern states will be.

More columns by Varun Sukumar