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The Rahul factor

Published : Apr 10, 2019 12:30 IST


Congress president Rahul Gandhi with supporters before filing his nomination papers for the Wayanad seat on April 4.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with supporters before filing his nomination papers for the Wayanad seat on April 4.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the LDF candidate for the Kozhikode seat, A. Pradeep Kumar, greeting the crowd at Kozhikode at an election convention on April 2.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the LDF candidate for the Kozhikode seat, A. Pradeep Kumar, greeting the crowd at Kozhikode at an election convention on April 2.

A keenly fought battle is on the cards, with Rahul Gandhi’s entry galvanising the Congress campaign, while the CPI(M) has left no stone unturned in its bid to win the maximum number of seats.

The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala seemed to have a lot going for it when it launched its campaign early for elections to the 20 Lok Sabha constituencies in the State to be held on April 23.

Given the setbacks they faced in West Bengal and Tripura, the LDF’s constituent parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, had much at stake in this election and had to prepare their cadres well in advance to ensure “maximum votes and maximum seats” from Kerala.

Candidates were selected quickly but with care, their ability to win alone being the decisive factor. Inner-party feuds or irrational electoral alliances did not mar the selection process. The CPI(M) chose to contest in 16 seats and the CPI in four. Coalition partners were placated and there were no protests.

The rival Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) were still struggling with party feuds and coalition troubles. The LDF government in the State had a fairly good record in governance. Left policies in key areas such as health, education and women’s empowerment and its welfare programmes had many admirers in the State. The LDF’s counter to many of the controversial programmes of the BJP-led government at the Centre also stood out in its favour. In every such respect, Left candidates seemed to be enjoying an early advantage.

It was then that the Congress announced, on March 31, that its president, Rahul Gandhi, would be contesting from Wayanad in Kerala in addition to Amethi in Uttar Pradesh—and the election scene in the State changed dramatically. Congress and UDF workers were in raptures as they reckoned that Rahul Gandhi’s entry would be a game changer.

Rahul Gandhi’s entry

For the first time ever, a Congress president and a prime ministerial candidate was contesting from Kerala on an anti-Narendra Modi platform, a factor, they believed, would boost the prospects of all the UDF candidates in the State and also help the Congress win more seats in neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Wayanad in northern Kerala is one of the State’s most backward districts, with a predominantly rural population, continuing agrarian and tribal distress and occasional Maoist attacks. The Wayanad constituency has been considered a safe one for the Congress since 2009 when it was carved out of seven Assembly constituencies spread over Malappuram, Kozhikode and Wayanad districts.

The constituency is one of the many in Kerala where the Muslim and Christian communities make up nearly half of the total population. The Muslim League, the Congress’ main ally in the State, has a lot of clout in many Assembly segments of the constituency. Congress leader M.I. Shanavas, who died in November 2018, won the constituency with an emphatic margin in 2009 but a markedly lower one in 2014. However, in the 2016 Assembly elections that saw the ouster of the UDF government, four of the seven Assembly constituencies voted in favour of the LDF. The Left has also dominated the local body elections in the district.

The Congress’ decision to field Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad is clearly aimed at regaining lost ground in the region and winning the maximum number of seats from the south in this election. Through this move it also sees a great opportunity to triumph over the LDF in Kerala, its long-time and aggressive opponent in the State, even though both are tentative partners at the national level, seeking an alternative to the BJP.

In a rare public display of dismay, the CPI(M) leadership reacted strongly to the Congress’ decision. Minutes after the announcement, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said in Thiruvananthapuram: “If his [Rahul Gandhi’s] fight is against the BJP, he should have contested against that party. In Kerala, the fight is between the LDF and the UDF in the elections. The move can only be seen as a fight against the Left. But we have no anxiety. We are fully confident and will strive to defeat him in Wayanad.”

The next day, addressing a public meeting at Vaikom near Kottayam, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said: “We want to defeat the BJP for the sake of India. Defeating and weakening the Left will only strengthen the BJP. The BJP recognises that the Left is the only force that is consistently fighting it. That is why we are being targeted in Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. Now, with the Congress president coming here with the declared aim of defeating the LDF, the people of Kerala will have to show him that the priority is to defeat the Congress in Kerala and the BJP in India.”

In a press release, former CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat said that the decision went against the Congress’ stated commitment to fight the BJP. “But the people of Kerala know very well who is fighting the BJP. Who is taking a firm and consistent stand against them. I don’t think there will be any confusion on that,” he said.

Subsequently, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, in a blatantly communal tone, alleged that the “flight of Congress leaders” from “Hindu majority areas to minority dominated areas” was a sign that they were afraid of Hindus. During a rally in Wardha, Maharashtra, Modi claimed that the Congress had coined the term “Hindu terror”, referring to the Samjhauta Express blast case, and insinuated that Rahul Gandhi had decided to contest from a seat “where the minority is in a majority” out of fear.

Amit Shah remarked that Rahul Gandhi feared that he would be held accountable by the people of Amethi.

Congress leaders, however, had the following justifications. One, geographically, Wayanad lies at a junction where Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu meet, so Rahul Gandhi was, in a sense, heeding requests from party workers in all three States. Two, Rahul Gandhi’s presence would create a UDF wave in Kerala and help the party surge ahead in the other southern States. Three, the move expresses solidarity with the people of south India, who feel left out from many of the Modi government’s decisions.

Releasing his party’s manifesto in New Delhi, Rahul Gandhi explained his candidature from Wayanad thus: “The people of south India feel that Prime Minister Modi is treating them with enmity. There is a strong feeling that they are not included in the decisions of the BJP government. We wanted to tell them that we are with them. I am contesting from Kerala to tell them I am with them.”

No one was in any doubt about what these statements truly meant. The Congress and the Left parties cannot afford to lose even a single seat in the State to each other. Moreover, in an election that is witness to extreme polarisation of voters into pro- and anti-Modi camps, the fight in Kerala, which has a sizeable minority population in many constituencies, is all about which party or front can convince voters that it is the best alternative to the BJP at the Centre.

State demographics

Kerala’s demographic composition is such that in any constituency, minorities constitute between 15 and 60 per cent of the voters. Besides, Hindu votes are not an easily accessible chunk for any party to reap benefits on its own. This often prevents parties from promoting a blatantly divisive religious agenda for electoral benefits.

Muslims constitute an estimated 25 per cent of the total voters and in at least ten of the 20 constituencies they account for 15 to 63 per cent of the electorate. Christians constitute an estimated 18 per cent of the total voters and make up 14 to 37 per cent of the electorate in the other ten. Hindus form nearly 57 per cent of the voters, with about 24 per cent belonging to the Ezhava community, 16 per cent to the Nair community, 10 per cent to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and the others forming the rest.

Ever since the BJP began to make inroads into Kerala, its incremental but limited growth has crowded the turf in a State where the vote differential is very small. In 2014, the UDF, with 42.08 per cent of the votes, won 12 of the 20 seats while the LDF, with 40.23 per cent, won eight.

The NDA got 10.84 per cent of the votes in 2014 and the closest it came to winning was in Thiruvananthapuram, where veteran leader O. Rajagopal, now the sole party MLA, lost to two-time MP Shashi Tharoor by 15,470 votes after polling 2,82,336 votes. A controversial LDF-supported Independent, Bennet Abraham, polled 2,48,941 votes to come third. The BJP polled the most number of votes in four of the seven Assembly segments of that constituency.

In the Assembly elections in 2016, Rajagopal made history when he won from Nemom (part of the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency) against both the UDF and the LDF candidates. There were widespread allegations then that Congress votes shifted to him. In the coming election, too, the BJP is pinning much of its hope on Thiruvananthapuram, where Kummanam Rajasekharan, the former Governor of Mizoram who was the State BJP president just ten months earlier, is pitted against Shashi Tharoor and the CPI leader C. Divakaran.

In successive elections in Kerala, the BJP on its own has won 6.3 per cent to 10.84 per cent of the total votes polled. In the 2016 Assembly elections, however, it formed an alliance with four partners: the newly formed Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), claiming support among the Ezhavas, the largest backward caste group that forms nearly a quarter of the State’s population, the tribal leader C.K. Janu’s Janathipathya Rashtriya Sena (JRS), the Kerala Congress (P.C. Thomas group) and a splinter group of the Janathipathya Samrakshana Samiti (JSS). The alliance managed to win 15.8 per cent of the votes but all its candidates except Rajagopal lost, and soon the alliance partners began to drift apart. Janu rejoined the LDF; Thushar Vellappally, president of the BDJS, remained a reluctant partner, with his father Vellappally Natesan, leader of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), an Ezhava social organisation, often complaining openly about “the BJP ditching its partners after the elections”.

Thushar Vellappally has now been nominated by Amit Shah directly, which caused some resentment in the State party, to fight the high-profile battle in Wayanad. For the BDJS leader, this was an opportunity to put his fledgling party in the limelight. The LDF opponent in Wayanad is the CPI’s P.P. Suneer, convener of the LDF Malappuram district unit. The Left had earlier alleged that there was a secret Congress-Muslim League-BJP understanding in five constituencies, on the basis of the sizeable vote difference for the NDA in the Assembly election in 2016 when compared with the Lok Sabha election in 2014.

The allegation has been raised again by CPI(M) State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who said that an unholy alliance was in place this time too in Kannur, Kozhikode, Vadakara, Ernakulam and Kollam (important constituencies for the Left) where, like in 2014, the NDA has fielded “weak candidates” in return for a possible behind-the-scenes support for the BJP’s candidate in Thiruvananthapuram.

An interesting feature in this round of election is that nine sitting MLAs are in the fray, an indication of how desperately the two prominent parties want to win the maximum number of seats in a crowded space with the BJP too in the fray. Among the nine MLAs, six belong to the CPI(M) and three to the Congress; this promises a keenly fought contest in almost all constituencies—and a string of Assembly byelections later if the MLAs go on to become MPs. The CPI(M) has also fielded all its sitting MPs except the veteran leader P. Karunakaran in Kasaragod. The Congress is also fielding all sitting MPs, except Mullappally Ramachandran (MP from Vadakara and now the PCC(I) president) and K.V. Thomas, veteran leader and MP from Ernakulam. The young Congress MLA Hibi Eden replaces Thomas and is pitted against former CPI(M) MP P. Rajeev.

Although the Congress took its time to finalise the candidates, with leaders fighting among themselves as usual, the final choice did come as a surprise, being the best list of Congress candidates in recent times. The Congress is contesting in 16 seats. Among its UDF partners, the Muslim League is contesting in two and the Kerala Congress (Mani) and the RSP in one each. The BJP has fielded 17 candidates, and the BDJS three.

Campaign issues

As the first phase of campaigning began, three major issues dominated the discussion: the controversy over the entry of women between 10 and 50 into the Sabarimala temple, the continuing political violence in northern Kerala, and the management of the great flood of 2018 by the LDF government.

“Kerala too with Modi: for protecting our beliefs, for development” is the campaign theme of the BJP-led alliance, a way of flagging a key issue the party believes it can use to sway voters with. The BJP stands to gain the most from the Sabarimala issue, if at all, especially in constituencies where it fancies its chances, such as Thiruvananthapuram, Pathanamthitta and Thrissur, and increase its vote share in other constituencies, especially in the south.

The party has led a consistent campaign against what it termed the State government’s “motivated attempts” to implement the Supreme Court’s order lifting the ban on young women at the hill shrine, the police action at the temple against “believers”, and the “reluctance” of the authorities to go on appeal against the court order.

The CPI(M) has countered the BJP campaign by posing it as an issue kindled by “upper-caste patriarchal interests” and launched a counter campaign “to restore the values of Kerala’s early renaissance movements”. The “Women’s Wall” organised by the LDF government from one end of the State to the other, with leaders of prominent backward caste and Dalit organisations and parties given prominent roles, proved to be an effective electoral strategy against any adverse reaction to the Sabarimala issue triggered by the BJP.

Political violence

One of the most prominent CPI(M) candidates in this election is its former Kannur district secretary P. Jayarajan, himself a victim of the culture of never-ending political violence among cadres of the CPI(M) on one side, and mainly the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP on the other. Jayarajan is also an accused in some prominent cases of murder and violence involving his party workers and supporters against political rivals.

His candidature, as well as the election eve twin murder of two young Congress workers in Kasaragod, brought back to centre stage the issue of political violence that continues to rock northern Kerala, and the involvement of the ruling party cadres and leaders in it. The impact is likely to be felt in the constituencies across northern Kerala.

The biggest challenge that the LDF government has faced so far is the devastating floods of August 2018, and the LDF can legitimately take pride in the way its government handled the rescue and immediate relief works. However, the opposition has tried to raise the issue of delay in rehabilitation works that followed and the inadequacy of compensation to victims. More seriously, it has alleged that the heavy toll during the floods made it a man-made disaster caused by dam mismanagement and lack of vigil on the part of the government.

On April 3, just as the election campaign was gaining steam, newspapers published a report of the amicus curiae appointed by the Kerala High Court—to help it in a series of petitions against the State government on the issue. The report seemingly concluded that “the sudden release of water from the dam had worsened the impact of the floods in Kerala”.

The Chief Minister said that the report was only the findings of an advocate of the court who did not have the expertise to come to such a conclusion and that it was not the verdict of the court itself. The government’s role in managing the flood situation had been praised even by international agencies, he added.

Although several issues are being raised, Congress leaders now believe that Rahul Gandhi’s entry as a candidate in the State will override all of them and lure the hesitant, undecided and apolitical voters to their party.

They believe that his arrival has changed the character of the Congress campaign itself, from a weak one led by feuding local leaders to one spearheaded by a strong, popular national leader, the most familiar anti-BJP campaigner at the national level and, therefore, “the better alternative” to Narendra Modi and the BJP at the Centre.

Naturally, leaders of the Left do not agree. Pinarayi Vijayan, while inaugurating a campaign rally for the Left-supported independent candidate and MLA, P.V. Anvar, in the Muslim League’s shaky stronghold of Ponnani, said: “The country and the people will not benefit if the alternative is a government that implements the same policies as that of the BJP. The policies of both the BJP and the Congress are the same. Both have the same economic policies. Both are on the side of liberalisation. Both are for corporates. Both are against the poor, the farmers, the workers, the ordinary people. Both are against the majority of people. Both have made attempts to communalise issues. If the country is to benefit, we need an alternative to both the BJP and the Congress. We need a secular government with alternative policies.”

On April 4, huge crowds greeted Rahul Gandhi during a road show in Wayanad, with Priyanka Gandhi and senior UDF leaders, soon after he filed his nomination papers. Later, he told the media: “I know that the CPI(M) and the Congress are locked in a fight in Kerala. And, this fight will go on. But I want to make it very clear to my brothers and sisters in Kerala, in the Congress party, and the CPI(M), that I understand the CPI(M) totally. I understand that they have to fight. I am not going to say a word against the CPI(M). I am here to send a message of unity, and I am here to send a message that south India is important and I fully understand that the CPI(M) has to attack. So, I will absorb all their attack with happiness, but from me, you will not hear a word in my campaign against the CPI(M).”

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 26, 2019.)



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