Can Congress hold its traditional sway in Kerala this Assembly polls? Experts weigh in

Congress has come to power alternatively since 1970, but 2021 may buck that trend.
Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala
Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala
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Congress is losing its influence across India, barring one state — Kerala. Unlike other states, Congress has a unique sway over Kerala. Congress leads one of the two main political alliances in Kerala,  the other being CPI(M)-led LDF, with the UDF coming to power every alternate term since the 1970 Assembly election. Congress leaders in Kerala have, however, never relied on the national leadership for its growth in the state, except in times of crises. The people have voted for Congress because of a set of tall leaders, such as K Karunakaran, AK Antony and Oommen Chandy.

However, going by the current political climate within the Congress in Kerala, this trend is unlikely to work in their favour in the 2021 Assembly election on April 6. This year, the selection of candidates involved months of negotiations within the party and the national leadership in New Delhi. When Congress finally announced the list of candidates, there was ample chaos and the Congress in Kerala saw mass resignations, with leaders such as PC Chacko alleging groupism and factionalism within the party.

This crisis in the Congress is primarily due to a lack of leadership, many experts say. This scenario, incidentally, is evocative of the party’s national existential crisis.

The crisis at the national level was touted to have little or no effect on the voters in Kerala until the state started preparing for the 2021 Assembly election. Until the latest and brewing discontentment hit the party, many were confident that the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) will keep with the trend unique to Kerala and come to power in the upcoming election.

Amid the crisis and a host of pre-polls indicating a second term for the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), experts have warned that if the Congress fails to resolve its affairs at the earliest, its future looks bleak in the southern state.

Watch: Why the Congress is seeing mass resignations in Kerala

“If UDF does not win, the future of Congress will be sad,” said Jacob George, a senior journalist and political analyst.

According to a woman journalist in Kerala, who has extensively covered the Congress and other political parties, "People want a choice to change, irrespective of the performance of the incumbent government,” and so they vote between LDF and UDF every new term. “For example, there weren't many controversies when CPI(M)'s VS Achuthanandan-led government was in power (2006-2011). It was not a non-performing government either. The veteran leader was, in fact, an icon among many Malayalis, irrespective of politics. Yet, the CPI(M) did not get the continuity. That is the kind of pattern one sees in Kerala,” said the journalist who did not wish to be named.

The leadership factor

Congress has been able to maintain a foothold in Kerala because of its own powerful leadership. They look to the high-command only as a redressal avenue. In other scenarios, the leaders take their own decisions. For example, during the Sabarimala controversy, the Congress in Kerala took a stand different from the national leaders. Ramesh Chennithala recently remarked that Rahul Gandhi need not comment on local issues when the Congress leader appreciated the LDF government’s COVID-19 efforts.

“Besides, the Congress has strong secular credentials in Kerala. For almost a quarter of a century, the party did not have a Christian leader until AK Antony and Oommen Chandy came into the picture. Leaders such as Karunakaran and Oommen Chandy had good relationships with people from all communities. Even members like Savithri Lakshmanan, who maintains Hindutva ideology, have found a space in the Congress. The presence of such leaders have maintained the secular image of the Congress,” said Liz Mathew, a journalist with the Indian Express, who writes on BJP.

According to J Prabhash, a political analyst and former Head of Department of Political Science, University of Kerala, there are only a handful of tall leaders in the Congress party's state politics. “Kerala Opposition leader Ramesh Chennaithala is no match for a leader like Oommen Chandy,” he noted.

Why Congress politics is unique in Kerala

In the 1967 Madras Assembly election, when the Congress was defeated, the Dravidian parties came to power and have been holding the fort since then in Tamil Nadu. Even in West Bengal and Odisha, too, the Congress could not come back after the defeat. In Kerala, the Congress came back as it has grassroots level support, said Jacob.

According to J Prabhash, a political analyst and former Head of Department of Political Science, University of Kerala, unlike other states, where disgruntled party members defect to rival parties (recent examples: Jyotiraditya Scindia and Khushboo), in Kerala, the members form splinter groups within the party: Kerala Congress (A), Kerala Congress (Mani) Jose faction, Kerala Congress (Mani) Joseph faction, et al. 

According to the 2011 Census, 54.73% of Kerala's population are Hindus, 26.56% are Muslims, 18.38% are Christians.  “In other states, Christians are not a powerful demographic population. A sizable section of these Christian minorities voters in Kerala are with the Congress. The Muslim voters are aligned with IUML, an ally in the UDF, followed by the Congress party,” he said.

Besides, some minority voters rally around the Congress just to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at bay. “Even though the BJP at the Centre holds a majority of Hindu voters, in Kerala, Congress maintains a strong Hindu vote base,” said Jacob George.

Watch: How K Karunakaran's govt fell within a month due to a missing student

However, with Pinarayi Vijayan firmly positioning himself as an anti-fascist force and opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA0 and National Register of Citizens (NRC) unequivocally, many minority voters are expected to drift to him. This means that traditional Muslim votebanks of UDF's Indian Union of Muslim League (IUML) and the Congress will take a hit.

What the unresolved crisis could translate into

Can the party’s uniqueness in Kerala save it this time? “Congress is organisationally weak and dysfunctional. And amid such organisational crises and factionalism within the party, only a strong leader, who can command respect from all camps, can lead the Congress in Kerala,” said Prabhash.

Political experts concurred that the Congress party’s national failure will, to some extent, reflect in Kerala. “Congress party’s politics and ideologies have an acceptance in Kerala. However, Congress not being in power is not the issue, but the absence of strong leadership,” said the senior journalist. 

“People do not vote for the Congress in Kerala during an Assembly election by assessing Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi. That factor comes into play during the Lok Sabha election. The success or failure of the party is closely linked to the leaders and his/her strategy,” said Liz.

“Effective and central leadership is essential to parties worldwide. CPI(M) does not have leadership issues and have done ample development work, which stands them in good stead,” pointed out Prabhash.

If Congress does not close ranks with its party members, it will spell trouble for the party, he noted. “If Congress does not learn a lesson from the party’s national debacle and loses this election, it will be difficult to make a comeback in the state. The Indian National Congress will probably lose Kerala from its clutches,” he said.

This, experts said, could pave the way for BJP to come up as the next force in Kerala.

“If Congress disintegrates, it will reduce to a small party. The BJP and CPI(M) will become an alternative, which is why the former is already wooing Christian voters,” said Liz.

Echoing a similar view, the senior journalist said, “India is turning into a theocracy, which Kerala does not want. They believe Congress is the only answer. Congress workers and supporters are looking up to leaders like Oommen Chandy for some hope. So, they have not written them off completely.”

Watch: TNM in conversation with Oommen Chandy

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