There is no abatement to the internal wrangling in Congress’ Kerala unit. The bickering was triggered by the abrupt decision to forgo Congress’ claim on the Rajya Sabha seat falling vacant, in favour of Kerala Congress (Mani). There was a spontaneous backlash that cut across factional lines as nobody in the party could come to terms with the sudden decision taken by three leaders – Oommen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala and PCC President MM Hassan with Rahul Gandhi’s approval – in the most undemocratic and surreptitious fashion.
This particular Rajya Sabha seat had become a contentious issue as a number of Congress MLAs had demanded the nomination of a young new face. With Parliamentary opportunities becoming the monopoly of a chosen few, that suggestion had been gaining currency when this “travesty of a decision” (in the words of a young Congress leader this writer spoke to) was taken by the factional leaders and PCC chief. No sooner had the protests led by the youth brigade and party cadre been almost contained, the senior leaders in the party began venting their anger and frustration in public.
PJ Kurien, whose Rajya Sabha seat was the original bone of contention, held a press conference at his home in Thiruvalla on June 9, where he lashed out at Oommen Chandy. Ramesh Chennithala was spared much of the criticism as he paid Kurien a visit in the nick of time and “tendered an apology”, as the latter claimed.
The Political Affairs Committee (PAC) of the state Congress – a body formed to democratise the decision-making process in the party – held a meeting on June 11 that saw tempers fraying. The trio of Chandy, Chennithala and Hassan came under severe criticism from PJ Kurien, PC Chacko, Shanimol Usman and VM Sudheeran for offering the prized Rajya Sabha seat to the Kerala Congress (M) on a platter. Oommen Chandy chose to stay away from the meeting, ostensibly on account of a meeting in Vijayawada next day as the newly-appointed general secretary in-charge of Andhra Pradesh.
Similar scenes were witnessed in the KPCC Executive meeting held the next day as Sudheeran launched into a tirade. As if that weren’t enough, he emerged out of the program and held forth on the matter to the waiting press, defying the gag order of the PCC chief. The following day (June 13), Sudheeran held a press conference at his home running into two hours, where he levelled serious allegations against Oommen Chandy and the factionalism prevailing in the state Congress. PJ Kurien held yet another press conference on June 14 in the national capital, where he repeated all his previous allegations.
Rather than responding to the serious allegations levelled against him by Sudheeran, Chandy has adopted a more pacifist approach to deal with the issue diplomatically. The ‘A’ faction that owes allegiance to Chandy has formally written to the party high command to complain about the “breach of discipline” by senior leaders.
So what is prompting senior leaders to keep the heat on Chandy? As far as Kurien is concerned, the primary reason seems to be the denial of the Rajya Sabha seat itself. He had been lobbying to retain the seat as he could probably continue as the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha if he were re-nominated. The other serious contender was PC Chacko, currently Congress’ in-charge of Delhi.
As for VM Sudheeran, he has been hurting since his untimely resignation as the PCC chief and was probably waiting for an opportune moment to get back at Chandy. Sudheeran had to endure a tough time as the party president as the two factions got together to scuttle his efforts to keep factionalism in check. It is another matter that Sudheeran is oblivious of his own failings and of his role in the decimation of the Congress in the 2016 Assembly elections. It might require a larger analysis to examine these allegations of Sudheeran against Chandy.
Sudheeran vs KM Mani and the larger political context
Sudheeran has also been training his guns at the Kerala Congress and its chairman KM Mani. In an interview to a TV channel last week, Mani continued to harp on his “equidistant” philosophy. That was a stance Mani and his party resorted to after they moved out of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in the wake of the loss in the Assembly elections. Mani’s repetition of that policy, even after returning to the UDF fold, has set alarm bells ringing. Mani also went to claim that nobody was politically untouchable as far as he was concerned and their continuation in UDF is predicated upon the respect and consideration they receive from Congress. This ambivalent stance has again raised doubts about whether KM Mani might desert the UDF in favour of the BJP/LDF in future.
Sudheeran has also been drawing attention to the political fallout of the decision to surrender the self-respect of the Congress by “awarding” the Rajya Sabha seat to KC (M). It is widely perceived that BJP could end up as the beneficiary of this largesse by the Congress. There is a larger context to this.
In 2011, when the UDF managed a narrow victory by 2 seats (72-68) against the LDF in the 140-member Kerala Assembly, the smaller allies had demanded a bigger share of the pie. With the Muslim League winning 22 seats, they demanded and got away with a fifth berth in the Cabinet, against the consensus reached in the PCC. With ministers from minority communities making up 60% of the Chandy cabinet, the UDF began to be portrayed as a “minority government” controlled by the triumvirate of Chandy, KM Mani and Muslim League’s PK Kunjalikkutty. It also led to demands by the Nair and Ezhava outfits to have their nominees in key positions and in charge of major portfolios. In the end, this became a major talking point for the BJP.
With KM Mani now back in the UDF with Kunjalikkutty’s mediation, the combined seats of the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (M) is two more than the Congress’ 22. This has once again raised fears of the two parties combining to emerge as a major pressure group in the alliance.
With senior leaders lashing out again and again, the silence of AK Antony is telling. It is not difficult to make out that these leaders have the blessings of Antony. He has long been the arbiter of factional disputes in the state and the high command’s counsel in these matters. Still, Antony was kept out of the loop on this crucial Rajya Sabha decision and was informed only at the last moment.
With factionalism in the state Congress continuing despite losing its relevance and the party itself is in a state of crisis, this revolt might be the beginning of a much-needed cleansing process in the party.