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When crisis becomes opportunity: Congress in Kerala finds political bearings after attack on Rahul office

Turns tables on CPM over vandalism incident, ruling party's alleged double standards on buffer zone issue

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during his visit to his office at Kalpetta in Wayanad. Congress leader leader K.C. Venugopal is also seen. (PTI Photo)

The Congress, reeling from electoral setbacks elsewhere in the country, got an unexpected shot in the arm in Kerala during senior leader Rahul Gandhi’s recent three-day visit to his Lok Sabha constituency of Wayanad. What would have been a routine visit ended up with the Congress making political capital out of the attack on Rahul’s office by the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student outfit of the CPI(M).

On June 24, more than 100 SFI workers had marched to Rahul’s office in Kalpetta, headquarters of Wayanad district, and allegedly vandalised it while demanding that he intervene to allay the anxiety of people in his constituency in the wake of a recent Supreme Court directive that made it mandatory for every protected forest tract and wildlife sanctuary to have an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of one kilometre from its boundaries.

While the CPI(M) was quick to deplore the alleged attack on Rahul’s office, the incident not only gave the Congress a stick with which to beat the ruling CPM but also energised the party cadre as they took to the streets on the buffer zone issue.

After the SC verdict, the CPI(M) had organised hartals in the hill districts in protest against the buffer zone norms and demanded that human habitats be kept out of the eco-zones. While the Congress was slow to take off, the SFI vandalism recharged the Congress state leadership, which turned the tables on the CPI(M), pointing to a 2019 decision by the Pinarayi Vijayan-led state Cabinet on declaring 1 km around protected forests as ESZ.

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Sensing the outrage among the public in Wayanad against the attack on the MP’s office, the Congress organised a massive rally for Rahul in the district’s Sulthan Bathery area against the buffer zone norms. Though the three-day visit was scheduled earlier, the rally against the buffer zone was planned only after his office was attacked.

The incident also forced the party to take a pro-farmer position at a time when several independent farmer outfits and religious outfits have been leading the protest.

On June 24, more than 100 SFI workers had marched to Rahul’s office in Kalpetta, headquarters of Wayanad district, and allegedly vandalised it. (Photo: twitter/@vdsatheesan)

Over the last decade, the Congress in Kerala has often drawn flak for advocating pro-environment positions that are usually seen as politically imprudent.

During the farmers’ protest against the Kasturirangan report (which wanted 123 villages in Kerala in the Western Ghats to be declared as fragile areas), the Congress was divided over whether to back the farmers who would be affected by the committee’s proposal. Opposition leader V D Satheesan, then a Congress legislator, had often been derided as being part of a group of “green legislators”. The stand taken by these legislators – who even raised a banner of revolt within the party over the Kasturirangan report — had been blamed for the Congress’s alienation from farmers in the hilly regions. The party’s loss in the Idukki Lok Sabha seat in 2014 had been attributed to its tepid approach on the report. The turn of events in Wayanad after the vandalism incident has, however, helped the Congress put that past behind.

The attack on the office in Wayanad happened close on the heels of Rahul being grilled for five days by the Enforcement Directorate in the National Herald case. The Congress used this opportunity to attack Vijayan, saying that the CPI(M) had joined hands with the Sangh Parivar to target the Congress.

During his visit, Rahul drew a huge crowd, matched only by his campaigns for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

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First published on: 04-07-2022 at 06:37:27 pm
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