Why 2021 Assembly poll is a now or never situation for the Congress in Kerala

The party miscalculated some situations, including the Kerala Congress (Mani) infightings and the gold scam allegations against the Pinarayi Vijayan-government.
Why 2021 Assembly poll is a now or never situation for the Congress in Kerala
Why 2021 Assembly poll is a now or never situation for the Congress in Kerala
Written by:

“The Congress in Kerala is not a crowd but a united gathering,” Mullappaly Ramachandran, president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), once described. Well, for the outsiders, on the contrary, the Congress in Kerala would largely look like a crowd without standing as a united force. The lack of unity is an old problem rooted in the factional feuds within the party.

UnIike most of the other states in the country, the strength and root of the Congress party had not been questioned for long in Kerala. For decades, Congress has been coming to power in alternative terms. And their prime rival remained the same — the Left.

However, its setback in the Kerala civic body polls held in December 2020 had come as a major shocker for the Congress leaders and the party sympathisers alike. The Congress and the United Democratic Front (UDF) it leads expected the local body polls to be a cakewalk.

After UDF's’ landslide victory in the Lok Sabha elections (by winning 19 out of 20 seats) in Kerala; the turbulent media attack on the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) over the gold smuggling scam and its alleged link to the office of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan- a victory in the local polls seemed easy for the Congress.

Read: LDF sweeps Kerala local body polls, Pinarayi thanks voters for reposing faith in LDF

But the calculations went wrong and the lack of trust and kinship within the Congress leadership deserves a gigantic portion of the blame.

Winning General polls and the ensuing laxity

For Congress, the Lok Sabha polls were a ‘now or never’ situation, for the political environment in the country had transformed drastically with the growth of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). There was a time when the party used to win by its social capital, built on the Gandhi legacy. But, it ceased to be that way long back when the BJP changed the dynamics of national politics.

This made the Congress in Kerala to work as a team, to show its strength in the Lok Sabha election campaigning. But more than this, the people in Kerala, who were not ready to buy the idea of the BJP finding a foothold in Kerala, massively voted for the Congress as a national alternative. The candidature of Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad, too, was a boost to the Congress in Kerala.

However, with the victory, Congress let its guard down and sat back, letting its normal political strategy run its course, including starting to ‘work hard’ right before an election.

KC (M) parts ways with UDF

Central Travancore— comprising Pathanamthitta, Kottayam and Ernakulam — is the foundation of the Church in the state, with Kottayam being Kerala Congress (Mani)’s stronghold. Reigned by the late party patriarch KM Mani, the KC (M) has been an ally of the Congress-led UDF for decades until the infightings (recently over the party's two-leaves symbol) caused a major schism in the party. 

The split, which was imminent even when Mani was alive, became wide open soon after his death in April 2019. Finally, the Jose K Mani faction of the KC (M) switched to the LDF in October 2020. 

Read: Kerala Congress (M) Jose K Mani faction joins LDF

Congress made two miscalculations here. The party was wrong in assessing the damage that would be caused by KC (M) faction moving to the Left league. The KC (M) party dominates in 32 Assembly seats in Central Travancore, while the Left has no strong roots. Pinarayi Vijayan, who had always stood for KC (M)’s entry to the Left Front, rightly assessed its added strength and welcomed the Jose Mani faction to its fold. As a result, the Congress' loss proved to be the Left's gain.

Riding on the back of KC (M), LDF won the Pala municipality for the first time ever, securing 17 seats in the local body. The UDF, on the other hand, won only eight seats.

Read: Kerala Local Polls 2020: LDF wins in Pala municipality for first time ever

Congress in Kerala was also wrong in assessing that it would get the Church’s support even if Jose K Mani walked out on the alliance. PJ Joseph, the leader of KC (M)’s rival faction who remained with the UDF, couldn't win the trust of the Christian voters.

The sole leader of the Congress, who could keep the Church close to the party, has been former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. However, in Mani's absence, Oommen Chandy either overlooked it or remained passive to retaining the Church support. 

Oommen Chandy’s re-entry adds to leadership dilemma

After the 2016 Kerala Assembly Elections, the mass leader of the Congress, Oommen Chandy, chose not to be the Opposition Leader. The 'A' faction in the Congress, led by Oommen Chandy, won fewer seats than the 'I' faction led by Ramesh Chennithala, who is the current Opposition leader.

Oommen Chandy, a master in political equations, anticipated that the UDF will be back to power and he can assume the CM post again. It proved wrong. Being the leader of A group, Chandy knew that Chennithala’s I group, which has more Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs), would create trouble for him if he became the Opposition leader. 

Chandy also mostly remained passive in the last five year because of his ill-health. 

Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Chennithala has been proactive with his attacks on the ruling government — largely confined to routine press meets — without a ground reality checking of its impact.

Besides, when Chennithala and Mullappally Ramachandran fervently attacked the Pinarayi Vijayan government during the gold scam controversy last year, it appeared as an individual show of strength rather a synchronised effort to take on the government. During an assessment meeting post the Kerala local body polls, Congress MLA Shanimol Usman lambasted the state leadership, questioning what they did other than holding useless press meets.

Meanwhile, in September 2020, with a series of interviews to the media, Oommen Chandy made a powerful re-entry when he celebrated his five-decade-long tenure as the MLA. This added to the leadership dilemma, as that too appeared as the show of strength of a single leader and not the party’s effort.

"Oommen Chandy’s A group works as a different party within the Congress party. Its leaders want him to be the former CM. Though he may cite health issues, Oommen Chandy could well claim the post if the Congress wins the Assembly elections, given the pragmatic politician he is. However, this could again court a leadership fight in the party," a source in the Congress told TNM.

However, will Oommen Chandy be projected as the CM candidate in the 2021 elections? The Congress this time seems to be playing it tactically. "If no leader is projected as the CM candidate before the voting, the party could gain by winning the support of both sections of people, that is, those who back Chennithala and those in favour of Oommen Chandy," the source added.

By hinting that KPCC President Mullappally Ramachandran, too, will be in the poll front, the party could win a share of Ezhava community votes.

"After all, caste equations always matter in seat-sharing. Chennithala's candidature can appease the Nair Service Society, while Oommen Chandy's presence can consolidate the Christian community. The Christian voters have always stood with the Congress when it had been in power at the Centre. Unlike in the past, where certain things like the support of the Church came effortlessly, the Congress now has to make solid, carefully weighed moves to not to lose that section of voters,” the source added.


Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute