The Congress has sought to justify its decision to field party president Rahul Gandhi from a second seat — Wayanad in Kerala — as a step towards reinforcing its image as a pan-Indian party. Congress chiefs have undertaken similar journeys to southern India in the past. However, Rahul Gandhi’s choice of Wayanad, unlike Indira Gandhi’s decision to fight from Chikmagalur, Karnataka in 1978 and Medak, Andhra Pradesh in 1980, and Sonia Gandhi’s preference for Bellary, Karnataka in 1999, is more a reflection of the Congress’s shrinking footprint and lack of confidence among party cadres in retrieving lost ground.
The strategy seems to be this: The Congress needs to better its tally in Parliament and maximise its gains from south India, which sends 130 MPs to the Lok Sabha, and where it seems better placed than the BJP. The presence of Rahul Gandhi is expected to enthuse cadres and lift the party’s campaign. The party’s focus on improving its own strength, even at the cost of upsetting potential allies, in this case the Left, may be understandable at a time when it faces an existential crisis. However, the choice of Wayanad, a so-called safe seat, is unlikely to have an impact beyond Kerala, where the Congress is contesting 16 seats. The party has progressively lost ground in Tamil Nadu after the rise of the Dravidian parties in the 1960s and the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, a Congress stronghold until 2014, may have dealt a fatal blow to its fortunes in the region. Meanwhile, the BJP has become a force to reckon with in Karnataka. In short, the Congress no longer has any seat in the major southern states where it can be sure of success without the help of regional allies. The faction-ridden Kerala unit is unsure of retaining its core voters in the wake of a strong challenge from a cadre-based party like the CPM and a rising BJP. It is a telling comment on the Congress organisation that it needs to field a Gandhi to energise party workers and establish its national credentials vis a vis voters.
Even more than the Congress, the Left is battling for relevance and is banking on Kerala to provide the numbers in Parliament. A resurgent Congress in Kerala can wreck its anti-BJP narrative and diminish its returns from the state. It’s the fear of its own washout in Kerala that has roused the CPM leadership to loudly criticise the arrival of Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad.