Between the BJP trying to make inroads into the Kerala electorate and the CPM using the anti-BJP emotions to strengthen its own base is the Congress, stuck in a time-warp of its own. The party with just 22 seats in the state Assembly is bracing for what are considered to be stormy organisational elections which would see the appointment of the new president and members of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC). If the heavy defeat in the Assembly elections last year was not enough, the recent vigilance inquiry ordered by the CPM-led LDF government in the solar scandal, in which several top leaders of the Congress have been named in a judicial commission report, has dealt a serious blow to the party.
“The leaders named in the solar scandal report are unlikely to figure as contenders for KPCC chief. The truth is that there is no clarity,” said Sunnykutty Abraham, political commentator and former COO of Jaihind TV, run by the state unit of the Congress.
“I think they are waiting for the report to be made public. And then there could be a decision,” said Abraham referring to the judicial commission report which has been submitted to the government.
For the KPCC chief’s job, alongside demands for a leader with a ‘clean image’, what’s integral to understand is the nitty-gritty of the factional politics of the Congress’ state unit. The party’s two chief groups are the ‘A’ group (stands for A K Antony) but now led by former chief minister Oommen Chandy and the wider ‘I’ group (stands for Indira Gandhi) headed by Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala. There are other smaller factions led by those who do not associate with either of the major factions. Since Chennithala is the present LoP, the ‘A’ group faction headed by Chandy wants the KPCC post for themselves. With Chandy facing ‘solar’ heat himself, his election to the post is ruled out. Benny Behanan, a Chandy loyalist and general secretary of the KPCC, was seen as the candidate of the ‘A’ group but his alleged involvement in the solar scam is also seen as hurting him.
“The problem is that old leaders of the party are not making way for younger leaders to come up. Look at the BJP. The old guard there has vanished. In the Congress, big groups still exist. Organic changes are not happening within the party,” said Jacob George, a political journalist who has covered the Congress extensively.
“If the Congress crumbles, the BJP, which is trying to carve its space, could move in. Minorities are fearing that. There’s not a lot of space for three parties in Kerala’s political landscape,” added George.
Also at play are regional and religious equations. Since Chennithala belongs to a Hindu Nair family, the party would ideally want to grant an Ezhava or Christian leader the state president’s post in order to strengthen its grip especially in central Kerala. A leader like K V Thomas, MP from Ernakulam and an influential member of the Church, could be a nominee. Thomas could also neutralise the BJP’s attempts at wooing the Church through the appointment of Alphons Kannanthanam as a minister at the Centre.
Other contenders being talked about are K Sudhakaran, the party’s big leader in the CPM stronghold of Kannur, and V D Satheeshan, the KPCC vice-president and a member of the ‘I’ group.
The recent ‘hartal’ called by the Congress in Kerala against the policies of the state and Centre was seen as an indication of the party trying to find space in the discourse. A victory for the Congress-ally Indian Union Muslim League, in spite of a significant reduction in votes, in Vengara has managed to offer temporary relief to the party.
But political watchers say imminent course-correction steps are necessary for the party.
“It’s only because of the leadership that the party is in such a condition. BJP is making progress at the cost of the Congress. It’s the UDF (Congress-led coalition) that’s facing erosion of votes, not the LDF,” said Abraham.