Ever since the humiliating loss in the Chengannur bye-poll to the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), Congress in Kerala has been a divided house. Despite allegations of minority communalism and appeasement directed at its principal rival in the state, Congress leaders admit privately to the lapses on their part, and the failure to tap into the massive anti-incumbency sentiment prevailing in the state against the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government.
Although Congress leaders in the state unanimously identify the present crisis to a dying organisation at lower levels, and an ageing leadership on account of nomination politics (necessitated by factionalism), they also plead their helplessness in the face of democracy deficit in the party.
To cut a long story short, the current cycle of crisis in Congress can be traced back to Karunakaran’s departure in 2004 and the new wave of factionalism ushered in by Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala as they assumed leadership positions of the Antony (A) and the Indira (I) factions.
Following the drubbing in the Assembly polls in 2016 and the resignation of PCC Chief Sudheeran on his own volition citing health reasons in 2017, the senior-most vice president of the party, MM Hassan had been holding office as the interim president for a year now.
As discussions were on to zero in on a new PCC chief (following the reorganisation of the party in many states after Rahul Gandhi took charge as party president last December) and a new UDF convenor to replace octogenarian PP Thankachan, the Chengannur bye-poll was announced.
The Chengannur setback
For once, a unanimous candidate was nominated by both factions to contest the Chengannur bye-poll, and D Vijayakumar was chosen for being a popular local face. The fact that Vijayakumar is a practicing Hindu, and an office bearer of temple committees, was assumed to be an added advantage; the party assumed the Nair votes they lost in 2016 could be regained by his candidature.
Instead, the Congress lost minority votes in the bargain after the CPI (M) claimed that Vijayakumar had RSS connections.
In the face of the defeat, Congress finally owned up to its organisational deficiencies and lack of committed workers in the lower rungs as the youth in the state seem no longer interested in working for a party that doesn’t reward merit. While some of the senior leaders claim that Congress was never a cadre party, it still had loyalists in every booth in Kerala till a decade and a half ago. But post Karunakaran’s walk out with his supporters in 2004 – and his son Muralidharan’s exit in 2005 – those loyalists never returned. Even when Muralidharan returned to the Congress following his father’s death in December 2010, the loyalists did not come back.
While Chennithala claims to have rebuilt the party and its base since Karunakaran’s departure, the close shave in 2011 and the huge loss in 2016 tell a different story. If things were acute then, they have become chronic now as the party seems to have lost its capacity to regenerate itself. It seems to have embarked on the path to a slow demise as older leaders refuse to make way for the younger generation, and faction loyalties triumph commitment to the party.
As the voting patterns showed in 2016, the Nair votes commanded en masse by the UDF till Karunakaran’s depature had now been split evenly between the LDF and the BJP, leaving the Congress with a residual share.
The latest flashpoint
Now, the Rajya Sabha seat held by PJ Kurien, a Parliamentarian for three decades and more, has become the latest flashpoint in the party. Having won six Lok Sabha elections in a row between 1980 and 1999, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by Congress in 2005 and again in 2012. While Kurien is still willing, others in the party led by a bunch of young MLAs have been vociferous in demanding that the seat be given to a youngster, or a middle-aged person.
It was pointed out how the Marxists have diligently groomed their younger leaders like P Rajeev by affording him a chance to represent them in the Rajya Sabha, while the Congress seats are always reserved for veterans.
However, the High Command had different plans. The seat vacated by Kurien was granted to Congress’ estranged UDF-ally Kerala Congress (M), which had quit the UDF in 2016 to stay ‘equidistant’ from rival fronts. This follows a hastily arranged last-minute support of the Kerala Congress (M) for the UDF candidate in Chengannur.
It emerged that while the youth leaders and Kurien were lobbying for this lone seat, the trio of Chandy, Chennithala and Hassan kept this deal to themselves – pending the approval of Rahul Gandhi in Delhi as they awaited his return from abroad.
There is strong bitterness among Congress cadre against Kerala Congress for the way they ditched their alliance following UDF’s loss in 2016 – after Congress bearing the brunt of the bar bribery scam involving Kerala Congress Chairman KM Mani in the elections. This re-entry and ceding of the all-important Rajya Sabha seat without placing the matter in any of the party forums has led to severe consternation among leaders and the shrinking rank and file. This is seen as the latest manifestation of the undemocratic decision-making process in the party.
The clandestine deal has also raised fears of the Muslim League and Kerala Congress combining to flex their muscles in the alliance as they seek to consolidate their gains. There are rumours of Muslim League demanding the position of UDF convenor as a powerful ally with 18 MLAs to Congress’ own tally of 22.
One can’t help but recall the phase in the Congress from 1986-1995, when prominent leaders of the Antony faction kept pressing Karunakaran for a “change of style” of his often whimsical and non-democratic decision making. The last episode in that battle, triggered by the denial of a Rajya Sabha seat to Antony factions’s MA Kuttappan in 1994, led to Oommen Chandy’s resignation as Finance Minister and initiation of a bitter public campaign to oust Karunakaran.
The events set in motion on June 16, 1994 finally saw the all-powerful Karunakaran being replaced as Chief Minister by AK Antony – and this could well be payback time for Chandy.
With the banner of revolt raised by young MLAs being followed up by senior leaders across factions, this latest flashpoint could lead to some much-needed democratisation if this pressure can be sustained over the next few weeks. With leaders of various levels shooting off mails to the Congress president in the wake of this crisis, the High Command might soon have to take cognizance of it.
Views expressed are the author's own.