By Zoya Hasan
Congress president Rahul Gandhi has decided to contest from Wayanad in Kerala as a second Lok Sabha seat in addition to his Amethi constituency in Uttar Pradesh. He has acquiesced to a demand that emanated from Congress leaders in Kerala who feel that his presence will lift the party’s prospects in three States as Wayanad is at the tri-junction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In 2009, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala had won 16 of the State’s 20 seats, and is looking to repeat the sweep in 2019.
But the question is, why did Mr. Gandhi acquiesce to the demand of the Kerala unit of his party to contest from Wayanad even at the risk of jeopardising Opposition unity? One reason for choosing a seat in the south is that he enjoys significant popular support in the region. Also, this seat has been won by the Congress in the last two parliamentary elections, though with a reduced margin in 2014; it’s not exactly a safe seat but the chances of the Congress winning it would be high with Mr. Gandhi in the fray. Furthermore, the Congress claims that this is part of his outreach to south India. An important reason, however, is that the Congress depends heavily on the control of government for the consolidation of the party, so that when it is not in power, the party feels paralysed. The main goal in the circumstances is restoring the primacy of the Congress after its spectacular defeat in 2014. It seems alliances matter but not at the expense of its push to maximise its individual tally by building its own base.
A series of other questions arise too. The Congress’s opponent in Wayanad is not the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has hardly any presence in Kerala, though the party is fielding a candidate from there. Its main opponent is a party in the Left Democratic Front (LDF), the Communist Party of India (CPI), which is in the forefront of the fight for a secular alternative to the ruling BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). True, the Congress-led UDF will be contesting all 20 seats in Kerala, but the Congress president pitting himself against the Left Front in one of these seats gives an impression that the Congress perceives the Left parties to be its main rivals, as much as the BJP, against whose candidate Mr. Gandhi is pitted in Amethi.
We do not need cutting edge theory or psephological analysis to see that it’s a mistake for the Congress chief to contest from Wayanad in the context of what lies ahead in the 2019 elections. If the idea is to strengthen the Congress in south India, then Kerala is a curious choice because the party is already quite strong there. Even if we accept the argument that the Congress president going to Wayanad can have a ripple effect across neighbouring States that purpose could have been served by contesting from Karnataka. In the past, Indira Gandhi chose Medak in Andhra Pradesh (now Telangana) and Sonia Gandhi chose Bellary in Karnataka as second seats. Kerala didn’t figure as an option. This has changed with Mr. Gandhi contesting from Kerala.
By contesting from Kerala, Mr. Gandhi is sending a double-edged message: he would be supporting the southern States against any intrusion by an overpowering Centre, but he’s also opposing the Left, despite the priority to fight the Right in this critical election. This is complicated messaging, and is not the best way to differentiate between the BJP and the Congress. It actually dilutes the party’s aggressive stand against the BJP and undercuts Opposition unity, which is needed to prevent Hindutva forces from returning to power in 2019. For this, parties have to recognise that the primary fault-line is political mobilisation along religious lines promoted by the Hindu Right, which needs to be confronted. Mr. Gandhi’s candidacy in Wayanad does not counter this basic contradiction.
It is useful to put this change of narrative in the historical context. Post-1991, the most progressive phase of the Congress was under the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, from 2004-09, when it passed a slew of landmark rights legislations with the support of the Left parties inside and outside Parliament. The Left had a significant role in the formation of this alliance and its common minimum programme. However, the policy of welfarism that defined UPA-I began to wither away under UPA-II (2009-14) after the withdrawal of Left support in 2008, leaving the government free to pursue neoliberal economic policies. It is worth stressing that the UPA-I period when the two formations came together was undoubtedly good for the Congress, but it was also good for the Left parties. At a broader level, the coordination was conducive for growth, signalling that social welfare is not incompatible with economic growth. The decision of the Left Front to withdraw support from the UPA over differences on the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal ended this social compact, which hastened the Left’s decline, as it went down from 60-odd seats in 2004, to about 30 in 2009, and then to single digits in 2014.
Mr. Gandhi’s Wayanad gamble complicates this further and could contribute to further erosion of the Left. It’s only in Kerala that the Left Front is actually in power, but here too there are fears that anti-incumbency could work against it. But even if the Left parties don’t win many seats in the elections, their support is crucial for the Congress’s redistributive politics as this paradigm shares a natural affinity with the Left and the multitude of people’s movements that have emerged across the country, particularly on issues of farmers’ and workers’ rights, joblessness, atrocities on Dalits, and against cow vigilantism and mob lynchings, even as the Congress often failed to raise its voice against the same. These demonstrations and protests have shaped the political discourse against the Narendra Modi government on the ground in the last five years. It is here that the interleaving of the Congress-Left narrative is to be located. The Wayanad decision marks a rupture in this narrative to some extent.
Mr. Gandhi’s controversial decision has drawn sharp criticism from the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led LDF, which is irked because the Left parties were counting on Kerala to make up for potential losses in West Bengal and Tripura. But a more judicious strategy, though counter-intuitive, would be to not get drawn into a bitter war of words over the Congress letdown. It is the time to try to take like-minded people and forces along, which has the additional advantage of pinning down the BJP to the extreme right of the political spectrum.
The Congress too must avoid a vitriolic campaign against the Left Front and instead restate that it is a firm ally in the wider struggle to safeguard pluralist India against Hindutva majoritarianism in this watershed election. The party has taken the lead in attacking the BJP, which has catapulted it to the centre stage of opposition nationally, even as it aligns with regional parties in some States, and continues to battle others, as in West Bengal, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. This contradiction is the central challenge of this election, which has complicated the emergence of even State-level alliances against the BJP because many parties that are opposed to it are also opposed to one another in the States. Given the exigencies of national politics, it is important for these parties to focus on cooperation so that they are able to form an alternative secular government, should the NDA fall short of an absolute majority on its own, which is not unlikely.