On March 31st, a little before afternoon, the Congress made an announcement which put the Left parties in Kerala on the back foot and gave the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) one more reason to attack the Congress. Former defence minister AK Antony and Congress leader Randeep Surjewala announced that Congress President Rahul Gandhi would be contesting this general election from Wayanad, in addition to his traditional seat of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
The Wayanad seat, since it became a Lok Sabha constituency in 2009, has been with the Congress; given this, Wayanad is a ‘safe seat’. Gandhi will not have to spend considerable time there and can go ahead with his national responsibilities of strengthening the party across India.
The choice of a seat in South India can be seen as an effort to strengthen the party south of the Vindhyas. Of the five states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, the Congress is a respectable force only in Kerala and Karnataka. In the other three states it cuts a sorry figure, especially in Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, the BJP has been slowly and steadily expanding its footprint and this is happening often at the expense of the Congress. Keeping all this in mind, Gandhi’s candidature is expected to be a shot in the arm for the state units in the southern states.
The decision to field Gandhi from Wayanad could be seen as the Congress’ ambitions to strengthen its position in the state, especially in the northern Malabar region where the Left is a force to reckon with and the Congress, at present, is relegated to a distant third after the communists and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML).
There could be many reasons behind the Congress’ decision to field Gandhi from Wayanad — while most of it is positive and shows a confident grand old party, don’t ignore the negative aspects.
The fact that it has antagonised the Left parties in Kerala — and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has expressed this a few times — should not worry the Congress. In a peculiar political contradiction, the Left, which opposes the Congress at the state level, join hands with the grand old party at the Centre to oppose the BJP. Gandhi’s Wayanad candidature shows that they are at the opposite ends of the ring in the state.
This will put to rest the BJP’s theory that the Congress and the Left have a ‘secret understanding’ in seats where the BJP is in a three-cornered fight in Pathanamthitta, Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur.
Even though the Left is understandably upset with the Congress for fielding Gandhi from Wayanad, it does not have many options before it. The Left cannot get into a ‘secret understanding’ with the BJP — this is because if the BJP manages to win at least one seat in Kerala (and if it did, it would be the first time the BJP will be winning a Lok Sabha seat in the state), Vijayan will be held responsible for giving the BJP a lifeline in the ham-handed way in which his government dealt with the Sabarimala protests. Thus, in the Congress, the Left has a Hobson’s choice.
The BJP has an unexpected advantage because of Gandhi’s arrival in Kerala. Almost 50 percent of the population in the Wayanad seat are Muslims and the IUML has great influence in this constituency. BJP leaders have claimed that Gandhi is ‘uncomfortable’ of contesting from just Amethi, and he has ‘ran’ to Wayanad. PS Sreedharan Pillai, BJP’s Kerala President, told me on Sunday that it was unfortunate that the “Indian National Congress, which claims that its rich tradition draws back to the time of the freedom movement, has decided to take the help of a party (Muslim League) which divided the country”.
Similarly, Surjewala’s statement that Amethi is Gandhi’s “Karmabhoomi” and he will never leave it is bound to dull the enthusiasm of Congress voters who would have expected that Gandhi would represent them in Parliament. Now, even though the Congress is making a song and dance of Wayanad seeing its first Nehru-Gandhi candidate, in all likelihood he will abandon it post-election. Expect the ‘a vote for Rahul is a vote wasted’ chorus to grow louder.
Also, with the national focus now on the southern state, it will give the BJP in Kerala much-needed attention as it takes on two large parties and inches towards upsetting Kerala’s bipolar electoral politics.
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. An indecisive leader seldom instils confidence in the electorate.