Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s candidature from Wayanad in the upcoming general elections has been a matter of much discussion and debate over the last few weeks. After many days of speculation, it was announced on March 31 that Rahul Gandhi will indeed be contesting from Wayanad constituency, in addition to Amethi. On April 4, he filed his nomination papers and the subsequent roadshow became a UDF display of
On the one hand, Congress’ arguments for his candidature have been unconvincing – from pointing out Wayanad’s position as being a tri-junction of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, to citing the southern states’ strong feeling against neglect by Delhi. On the other, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been vocal against this decision, asking that Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party clarify whether their main opponents in the upcoming elections are the BJP or the Left. The Left argues that by contesting in Kerala the Congress is sending out the wrong message to the “secular front” that both parties claim to be aiming for. The BJP, meanwhile, has alleged that the candidature exposes Congress’ alliance with the Left to oust the BJP. Either way, the one thing that is certain is that there has been visible discomfort within both the BJP and the CPI(M) led LDF ministry in Kerala.
Neither the Congress party’s justification for Rahul Gandhi’s choosing Wayanad nor the Left’s logic that Congress must field Rahul Gandhi only from a BJP stronghold seems to provide compelling answers to the question: “Why Wayanad?” The answer, I think, lies elsewhere. Anyone who has observed Kerala’s politics in the last few years will know that the BJP has been making steady inroads into the electoral politics in the state, eating into the vote share of both the UDF and the LDF. In an otherwise bipolar political scene where the Congress-led UDF and the LDF have been the main political players for decades, the entry of a third player invariably creates tensions.
The Sabarimala issue in late 2018 was somewhat of a trump card for the BJP, and despite the CPI(M)’s denial, the BJP cashed in on the issue majorly. The Sabarimala issue was also a huge challenge for the Congress, which clearly struggled to straddle its position as a liberal secular party on the one hand and having to politically oppose the Left government and the BJP – both of who had already made their stand on the issue quite clear. The rhetoric at the time from the Left parties was to equate the Congress to the BJP and accuse it of playing communal politics.
The BJP, meanwhile, became the self-proclaimed voice of the Hindu devotees, organising large public demonstrations and campaigns to oppose the government. Come elections, the BJP had an issue to galvanise voters around. Despite BJP State President Sreedharan Pillai claiming otherwise, candidates like K Surendran and Kummanam Rajashekharan have even made it clear that Sabarimala and the Pinarayi Vijayan government’s “attacks” on Hindu devotees are their major poll planks. On the other hand, UDF candidates were finding it difficult to convincingly point out issues on which the Left government could be called out. There was also criticism when many of the senior faces from the Congress like Sudheeran, Ramesh Chennithala and KC Venugopal decided they would not be contesting. In a state where disagreements over candidacy tickets have split the Congress, such reluctance was seen as a fear of defeat. Despite managing to keep their allies like the Kerala Congress and IUML together, there was also the imminent threat that the BJP – riding on the Sabarimala issue – could eat into a major portion of the Congress’ (Hindu) votes. The Left seemed comfortably positioned to do well. As things stood, the Congress in Kerala was on a somewhat slippery slope. This changed with the announcement of Rahul Gandhi’s candidature in Wayanad.
After Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Wayanad on April 4, the UDF in Kerala seems to have gotten a new lease of life. Most importantly, there is a possibility that the Hindu voters who had moved towards the BJP after the Sabarimala issue might swing back, thanks to the Rahul tharangam (wave) that the cadre claims has hit the state. If so, two things are clear. Firstly, this can explain the visible discomfort within the Left. The consolidation of UDF votes reduces the minor advantage that the Left might have had from the Congress voters swinging towards the BJP. Secondly, this means that the candidature isn’t aiming just for victory in the upcoming election but the consolidation of the Congress votes in the state. At least on the surface, Rahul seems to be doing this on secular terms by moving the discourse away from nationalism and religion, towards jobs, education and national integrity.
In this case, despite the Left claiming otherwise, the candidature could indeed be read as the Congress’ fight against the BJP and not the Left; against the BJP’s splitting of Hindu votes in Kerala – something that the Congress stood to lose out more on than the Left. Had Rahul not contested from Kerala, there is a chance the BJP might make major inroads in terms of vote share in Kerala. As committed partners of a secular front, the Left should see Rahul’s candidature as a failed opportunity for BJP’s communal politics to gain even more prominence in Kerala’s relatively secular political culture. Instead of sliding back to rhetoric, they must fight him – and do this based on ideology and issues. If the Congress’ gamble works, Kerala’s electorate will have succeeded in fending off communal politics once again. If not, the slopes of Wayanad will be a difficult one for the Congress to climb back up.
S Harikrishnan is a doctoral research student at Dublin City University, and co-editor of Ala.
Views expressed are the author's own.