“If Congress wins, they can make the country a superpower; Rahul Gandhi contesting the elections can impact the whole electioneering of south India, not just Kerala,” PK Kunhalikutty had told TNM in an interview ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Overwhelmingly confident of his own victory as well as that of the United Democratic Front, he correctly judged Rahul Gandhi’s standing in the Wayanad constituency, while the Congress-led UDF swept 19 out of 20 seats in Kerala. But it failed to make an impact in the rest of the south or at gaining power in the Centre.
A pragmatic politician, Kunhalikutty’s shift to national politics was ambitious. Infamous after he was alleged to be involved in the ice cream parlour sex scandal that unsettled the then UDF government, he first contested for the Lok Sabha from the Malappuram constituency in 2017, while he was the MLA of the Vengara constituency in the district, the party’s fortress. The seat fell vacant after the death of his party colleague E Ahammed.
In the 2019 general elections, he was elected once more. But as Kerala gears up for Assembly elections next year, Kunhalikutty is aiming to get back into state politics. In a high-powered meeting of the party on Sunday, IUML supremo Panakkad Hyderali Shihab Thangal declared that Kunhalikutty will be in charge of the upcoming state elections. However, at the meeting, it was also announced that ET Muhammed Basheer would be in charge of the party at the national level.
The local body elections in the state, a curtain raiser for the Assembly elections, will be held in October.
Kunhalikutty, the national general secretary of Indian Union Muslim League, has been revelling in his role as an undisputed leader in the party, even though Panakkad Thangal family holds the reins.
In the UDF coalition as well, Kunhalikutty enjoys huge support of its allies. The IUML is the second-largest constituent of the UDF, with 18 legislators. Kunhalikutty is known as a troubleshooter in the coalition and his return to state politics would strengthen the party’s negotiating power in the UDF. If the Assembly election results don’t deviate too far from the general trend of the UDF and Left Democratic Front (LDF) gaining power in alternative elections, the stars would be aligned for Kunhalikutty and the IUML.
Kunhalikutty is among the most popular leaders of the IUML, as well as that of the UDF in the northern (Malabar) region of the state. In the southern part as well, he has been identified as a popular leader of the coalition, next to Congress leaders Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala. He also maintains the image of a secular leader in the IUML.
With Kunhalikutty, the IUML could even negotiate for the creation of a deputy chief ministerial post for the party. If that post was to be formed, it would likely be assumed by Kunhalikutty.
It was the late KM Mani, founder leader of the Kerala Congress (M) — the second largest ally of the Congress in the UDF — who had earlier demanded the creation of a deputy CM post. Mani’s son, Jose K Mani, the heir to the party, has yet to master the equations of coalition politics. As a result, Mani’s void has made Kunhalikutty more powerful in the UDF. He is equally close to the Congress leaders as well as others in the coalition, while he can claim the same with some of the prominent Left leaders.
“His presence would make UDF more powerful even at a time when the UDF’s mass popularity rests mostly on two leaders — Ramesh Chennithala and Oommen Chandy. Kunhalikutty’s shifting to state politics could actually boost the UDF and its winning probabilities. His relations with the allies could come in handy for the Congress when they need to negotiate,” a source who closely monitors the IUML in Malabar told TNM.
If the position of deputy CM is not achievable, the IUML through Kunhalikutty could ask for a plum post in the cabinet, like that of Finance Minister in the absence of Mani, who was UDF’s FM for five terms.
It was Kunhalikutty who got the IUML the fifth cabinet berth by pressuring the Congress in the previous UDF government, from 2011 to 2016. Mani’s absence and the factional feud in the KC(M) could also come in handy for IUML, allowing them to demand for seats in the Assembly elections. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the IUML had demanded one more seat than the traditionally set aside four seats, though the Congress didn’t yield.
Despite having years of experience as a minister in Kerala, Kunhalikutty failed to make an impact as MP. The party chose him as the replacement for E Ahammed.
Ahammed could prudently develop his image as a politician of national importance. A former minister of state for External Affairs, Ahammed had maintained good relations with national leaders. “Kunhalikutty could come nowhere near Ahammed in Delhi. Ahammed had cordial relations with many of Muslim countries too. He speaks English and Urdu fluently and is very good at communicating,” a political analyst told TNM.
When IUML sent Kunhalikutty to Delhi, the source added, “It was even said that he would build a party office in Delhi. And it’s understood that the Thangal family had told him not to pave the way for a by-election by himself.”
Kunhalikutty was also expected to be a leader to coordinate minority and Dalit voices in the Nationalist Democratic Alliance regime and would raise his voice for them. However, he failed in that endeavour too. He missed the session in December 2018, where the House discussed the Triple Talaq Bill. He and his party colleague, PV Abdul Waha, a Rajya Sabha MP, couldn’t cast their vote in the vice-presidential elections of the party as their flight was delayed in August 2017.
But Kunhalikutty’s image as a mass leader among the party workers turned out to be helpful — even above his party senior colleagues like ET Mohammed Basheer and KPA Majeed as well others like MK Muneer, the party’s leader in the Assembly.
“This image should have had an impact on Thangal. It’s also rumoured that Congress with Oomen Chandy had also put pressure for it,” the source added.
After all for IUML, a party born and rooted in Kerala, it’s not uncommon for senior leaders to swap as state and national leaders, barring a few like Ahammed.
The Youth League had opposed the selection of Kunhalikutty as candidate for a second time as it “deters the chances of the youth.” While the league has not responded to Thangal’s latest announcement as yet, some party workers have raised their voices on social media.
It won’t be easy for the party to convince them of its decision. However, given Kunhalikutty’s strong return to politics after being accused in ice cream sex scandal, along with the party’s structure, where only a few names are at the centre, there is unlikely to be an impasse.