The Sudhakaran impetus: How Congress is aggressing to survive in Kerala

The Assembly election loss for the Congress last year got the party to introspect — and the solution to survival in Kerala, they’ve decided, is the Sudhakaran style of aggression.
Kerala Congress leaders Mullappally Ramachandran and K Sudhakaran
Kerala Congress leaders Mullappally Ramachandran and K Sudhakaran
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Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President K Sudhakaran in January had come down heavily on the state government against its highly ambitious semi-high speed SilverLine Project (K-Rail), saying that the opposition will forcibly remove the survey stones laid for the social impact study of the project. Fast forward to February 3, and the Congress leader softened his stand. "Congress is not against the SilverLine project... The government should be able to convince people, experts and media. We have only demanded that the project should be implemented after addressing the people's concerns," he said.

No one is surprised by this change in stance. A pragmatic politician, Sudhakaran is not known for consistent stands. Instead, what he is known for is being a party strongman, who has been taking on the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) in its fortress in the northern district of Kannur for decades. An aggressive face of the Congress — which is otherwise seen as soft in Kerala — Sudhakaran's elevation as the party chief last year has given a new vigour to the Congress leaders and cadres in the state. And since he assumed the top post in June last year, his style of functioning has been adopted by most of the party — an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

"Our children (youth in the Congress) are not like earlier, they are now determined," Sudhakaran said, reacting to the murder of a 21-year-old Students’ Federation of India member in January. Nikhil Paily, a youth Congress leader, is the accused in the murder of Dheeraj Rajendran in a college campus in Idukki district. Congress spokesperson Shama Mohammed was also quick to react in a similar, unapologetic way about the murder. Shama tweeted: “it was Karma.”

There is even a Facebook page called Sudhakaranism which puts aggressive posts, following the style of the leader who doesn’t hesitate to pick an open fight. "Yes, this is Sudhakaranism. Sudhakaran is strong enough to give courage to retaliate. He is a leader who is capable of taking on Pinarayi (Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan). He (Sudhakaran) is someone different. He is someone who has swung the ocean. He is fire," one of the posts on the Sudhakaranism page reads. This page has numerous similar posts.

A post by one Shabeer Khan, a Congress supporter reads, "This is Sudhakaranism. The old time (of Congress functioning in a soft way) has changed. Now the youth (in the Congress) are strong. We know how to defend and how to give back. The Congress is a semi-cadre party now. The future is Sudhakaranism. Commies (communists) better be cautious."

Even a unit of the Youth League (youth wing of the Indian Union Muslim League, a Congress ally) at Manikkoth in Kasaragod has put out a flex board praising Sudhakaran like a hero with the catchphrase, 'No Compramise’ with a huge photo of Sudhakaran.

Sudhakaran in Kannur

Sudhakaran was picked as the KPCC chief when the Congress in the state was desperate for a transformation after the Assembly poll fiasco in May last year. Many predicted back then that Sudhakaran would make the state a Kannur with what he used to practice in the district.  Kannur, where the CPI(M) is the strongest in the state, is the hometown of Sudhakaran, and also that of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and CPI(M) state Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. Sudhakaran is the MP representing the Parliamentary constituency. He has developed his political image of a strongman by taking on each and every CPI(M) leader in Kannur, including Pinarayi.

Sudhakaran's follower base in Kannur is evident from the huge crowd that awaits him at the Kannur railway station whenever he returns after a political victory. The CPI(M) leaders in Kannur had, before Sudhakaran was chosen as the KPCC chief, resorted to ignoring him by not responding to his comments. Pinarayi Vijayan did the same.

His career 

Sudhakaran started his career with the Janata Party. He joined the Congress in 1987. He had been known for his fierce oratory even back then, targeting CPI(M) leaders.

However his political rivals are not solely the CPI(M) men. Sudhakaran has been equally opposing his own party man N Ramakrishnan in Kannur.

He became the District Congress Committee president of Kannur with the help of KC Venugopal, who is now a Rajya Sabha MP, by managing to foil the pressure from his party rivals in 1991, and continued till 2001. There started the era of Sudhakaran in Kannur. He cornered his arch-rivals in the party, N Ramakrishnan and KP Nurudheen, who had led the Congress in the district until then. Ramakrishnan and Nurudheen believed that aggressive politics is not befitting for the Congress. They also held that CPI(M)'s politics should not be dealt with in the same aggressive way — with an eye for an eye policy.

The party’s acceptance of Sudhakaran’s leadership

"There is no point in criticising the style of functioning of Sudhakaran neither to view him as an individual leader. His actions are that of KPCC chief now. The focus should be how that has boosted the party," Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, senior Congress leader and former Home minister tells TNM.

Thiruvanchoor’s comment is an approval that even the old generation of leaders in the party has endorsed Sudhakaran’s style. 

Also with Sudhakaran in no time tightening his grip on the party, some senior leaders have slowly resorted to silence. The only time the yesteryear strongmen dissented openly was when the District Congress Committee presidents were chosen in August last year. It even caused an open revolt with both Ramesh Chennithala and Oommen Chandy coming out against those chosen by Sudhakaran and Satheesan, the current Leader of Opposition.

However, Sudhakaran and Satheesan managed to de-escalate the situation by meeting Chennithala and Oommen Chandy personally. Post that, the voices from the Congress that are being heard are that of Sudhakaran and Satheesan only, except when Chennithala spoke out about appointments in Universities.

“Sudhakaran with Satheesan brought in energy to the party leadership. The energy has passed on to the younger line of leaders. Sudhakaran is an energetic leader. He has an uncompromising attitude towards the CPI(M). The duo are capable of taking on the ruling front and people are happy about that. The party has become strong and that is what matters,” Thiruvanchoor adds.

An unprecedented choice, a success

So far, the Congress in Kerala had two factions. Former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy  spearheaded the ‘A group’, and former Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala the ‘I group’. These two factions have ruled the party for decades. Party interests always have had to give away for group interests. Factional equations always stood for the two leaders above the larger interest of the party. If a nominee of the duo had been appointed as the party chief, power would have remained with them only. 

The Congress high command, open to the advice of senior leader KC Venugopal who is close to the Sonia Gandhi family, went for Sudhakaran instead — who is not really a part of either faction, even though he was affiliated with the ‘I group’. This, as every political observer says, saw a generation change in the Congress. Sudhakaran replaced Mullappally Ramachandran for the prime post. His elevation happened simultaneously with that of VD Satheesan to the post of Opposition Leader, replacing Ramesh Chennithala. By going for someone who won’t head a group in the party, an era of an open ‘A vs I’ fight has ended in the party. This has given an enthusiasm to party workers. Though both Satheesan and Sudhakaran belonged to the ‘I group’, Sudhakaran has been traversing his own path within the I faction, and Satheesan is not someone largely identified as a group man.

“Normally there is always a confidence that Congress will come back to power after one term of the UDF, but that did not happen. That has shocked leadership and cadres, and morale was at an all time low. At this time, if the belligerent politics that Sudhakaran practises works, the party is okay with it,” a young Congress leader tells TNM.

“There are people within the party who have criticised Sudhakaran's takes, especially after the SFI activist's murder. They don't agree with the aggressive posturing. However, a lot of young cadres feel enthused, and for now, the only interest is party revival. Therefore, criticism of Sudhakaran can wait,” he adds.

The biggest advantage for Sudhakaran is that there is no election to the KPCC chief post in the near future. This lands him with the huge advantage of initiating the process of doing away with the two rival factions within the party. While Sudhakaran has begun the demolition of group equations, he is yet to finish it properly. He will become more victorious if can keep up the vigour by strongly building up the  party at the organisational level.

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