A few minutes before 11 am on Sunday when former defence minister A K Antony and Congress general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal were to take the microphone at the AICC headquarters in New Delhi, news had reached most district bhavans of the party in Kerala that president Rahul Gandhi has agreed to fight from Wayanad parliamentary constituency alongside Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
The moment, Antony declared the same on television, cameras beamed live visuals of jubilant and ecstatic Congress workers erupting in joy on hearing the news. It was something they had wanted to hear desperately over the past couple of weeks.
In doing so, the national party leadership has eventually bowed down to the interests of the Kerala unit about Gandhi contesting from a seat in the state where it has big stakes. This will be the first time that a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family will fight from Kerala.
Gandhi’s candidature in Wayanad certainly points to a clear advantage for the Congress and the larger UDF that it heads, especially in the Malabar region, where it faces tough contests against the ruling CPI(M) and its allies. In the 2014 elections, the UDF had captured five of the seven constituencies comprising of parts of the Malabar region, including surprise wins in seats like Vadakara and Kozhikode where the Left has a strong organisation.
But two years later, when the Assembly elections came around, the Left did exceedingly well in these parts, sweeping districts like Kozhikode and Kannur and making clear inroads into UDF strongholds. Even two out of three constituencies in Wayanad district were snatched by the Left. The UDF’s saving grace happened to be the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) which held sway in Malappuram district where it has its core voter base.
With the bashing it got in the 2016 polls, the Congress-led UDF will now be keen to extract revenge and repeat its performance in the 2014 polls. With Gandhi expected to campaign in Wayanad feverishly, the party hopes to get a ripple effect in surrounding seats as well.
By nominating strong leaders like K Sudhakaran in Kannur and K Muralidharan in Vadakara, the party hopes to win these seats, even if by narrow margins. With the exception of seats like Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur and Pathanamthitta, where the BJP will force three-cornered contests, the fight elsewhere will be largely bipolar. The national leadership of the Congress may have a cordial relationship with the Left in Delhi, but Gandhi fighting from Wayanad underlines the bitterness the local Congress unit shares with the CPI(M).
It also goes without saying that the Congress depends heavily on the organisational heft and the iron grip that the IUML has in these parts of the state. Wayanad is considered a safe seat for the party because it comprises of a large minority voter base, over 50 per cent, that tends to vote for the IUML and itself.
In fact, Ernad, Thiruvambady and Nilambur seats, that fall under the Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency, have leanings towards the IUML. In that way, the BJP is right in alleging, that if not for the help that it gets from the IUML, the Congress would find itself in a quandary, even in Wayanad.
The decision of Gandhi to fight from Wayanad is certainly bad news for the Left in the state, which has been wanting to assert it’s position in the state especially in the backdrop of the floods and the agitation around women’s entry in Sabarimala. While the BJP does not stand a chance in Wayanad, the contest would primarily be between Gandhi and the CPI candidate PP Suneer.
In fact, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan repeated his charge on Sunday that Gandhi is coming to Kerala to fight the Left, not the BJP. The step sends a wrong political message nationwide, he quipped. He added that the Left will put up a strong fight against Gandhi even if it is open to supporting him for prime-ministership.
Finally, with the news on Wayanad, the BJP has found the apt ammunition to lash out against Gandhi. BJP president Amit Shah claimed that Gandhi has ‘run away’ to Wayanad fearing a possible loss against BJP’s Smriti Irani in Amethi.
BJP state president PS Sreedharan Pillai repeated the same charge in Thiruvananthapuram and quipped that Gandhi chose Wayanad for its large minority voter base. As for the NDA candidate there, it is not clear whether it will stick to Paily Vathiattu of the BDJS, who’s clearly a greenhorn. There are reports that BDJS chief Thushar Vellappally may himself move to Wayanad from Thrissur to take on Gandhi.
All 20 constituencies in Kerala go to polls on April 23.