Four Reasons Priyanka Vadra's Wayanad Debut Might Not Give Congress The Lift It Expects In Kerala

Venu Gopal Narayanan

Jun 18, 2024, 01:04 PM | Updated 02:48 PM IST

Congress leader Priyanka Vadra.
Congress leader Priyanka Vadra.
  • Priyanka Vadra’s candidacy for Wayanad has lit a fuse within the Congress in Kerala and presented an excellent growth opportunity to the BJP.
  • With former Congress president Sonia Gandhi choosing to shift to the Rajya Sabha via Rajasthan, her son Rahul Gandhi choosing to retain the Rae Bareli seat, and his sister, Priyanka Vadra, choosing to contest his vacated seat of Wayanad, the first family of the Congress has franchised itself to three states now.

    On the face of it, and as the results of the 2024 general election show, these shifts may seem like clever moves, as all three individuals possess an undeniable ability to attract and consolidate a sizable portion of the identity vote.

    While their focus so far has been primarily on Muslims and Christians, this time their net has extended to successfully include Dalits and tribals as well — two communities that had, for the most part, started bidding adieu to the Congress some decades ago.

    In 2024, 33 of the party’s 99 wins were in seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. A full 28 of these victories were gains, of which, rather significantly, 18 were direct gains from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

    A slight degree of anti-incumbency plus a more effective consolidation of vote banks have led the Congress to believe that their old ways of claiming the spoils by triggering fault lines in society are working well again.

    But is that really true? Will the brother’s replacement in Wayanad by the sister lead to a majestic resurgence of the Congress in India’s original laboratory of secularism?

    It probably won’t, for a number of disparate yet interconnected reasons.

    First, the state of the Congress in Kerala.

    The party is riven by factionalism and bad blood. Mud slinging and backbiting are its first and often only orders of business on a good day. The rest of the time, the party’s Christian faction tries to pull down the Hindu lot, with the sporadic, tacit assistance of the Muslim League. Everyone wants to be chief minister, whether the popular mandate is at hand or not.

    This is a condition severely distinct from the iron grip the first family wields in Delhi, which manifests itself acutely because voting patterns vary widely between assembly and parliamentary elections in Kerala.

    And it is set to raise its head again. The reason is that K Muraleedharan, son of former chief minister K Karunakaran (the last Hindu chief minister of Kerala), is sorely miffed.

    Muraleedharan had won the Vadakara Lok Sabha seat in 2019 by a decent margin and was all set for a repeat performance in 2024 when he was rudely shunted to take on Suresh Gopi of the BJP in Thrissur, after Muraleedharan’s sister Padmaja joined the BJP earlier this year.

    He had hoped to return to the Lok Sabha via Wayanad, but with Priyanka Vadra’s name being announced, Muraleedharan now finds himself out in the cold.

    Equally miffed is T N Prathapan of the Congress. He won well in Thrissur in 2019, and his team had already started putting up his posters on the walls of Kerala’s cultural capital when shocking news broke that he had been passed over for the seat’s candidacy by Muraleedharan.

    One of the two may have to be mollified with a Rajya Sabha seat, but only one, because the Congress doesn’t have the numbers to send more in elections to the upper house, which are due soon.

    Second, the state of the Kerala Congress (KEC) of Jose K Mani, a party of Christians with sizable pockets of support in the state, particularly in Central Travancore.

    For long a loyal Congress ally, Mani’s switch to the Left coalition in 2020 took the wind out of the Congress’ sails and helped the Left win a second term in the 2021 assembly election.

    In 2024, however, the KEC was unable to carry its weight for the Left, not even in its ostensible bastion of Kottayam; the KEC candidate lost to a rival Christian faction allied with the Congress and trailed in six of seven segments.

    The situation was worse for the KEC in adjoining Alappuzha, where it won three assembly seats in 2021, and its allies, the Left, swept the balance four.

    But in 2024, the Left candidate came in second in all seven segments, including, crushingly, in those three segments that the KEC won in 2021.

    Now, there are rumours that the KEC may leave the Left and return to the Congress fold. But other rumours say he may be nobbled by the BJP.

    The problem is that Mani is desperate to go to the Rajya Sabha, and if the Left does send him there, they could end up with eggs on their faces if he ends up supporting the BJP.

    It is not beyond Mani to do this because he has done it before — he blithely shifted from the Congress to the Left in 2020 after having been elected to the Rajya Sabha with the support of the Congress.

    It is a cleft-stick situation, exacerbated by the fact that a part of the KEC could still split, like it has so many times before, and join the Congress, irrespective of whether the Left finally decides to send Mani to the Rajya Sabha or not.

    Third, the Congress’ efforts at Hindu tokenism.

    When they lost in 2021, the party suddenly realised that it needed the Hindu vote to win and promptly started promoting Hindu leaders who had been smouldering on the backburner, courtesy Abrahamic fiat. But this approach has limits.

    As it is, the winnability of Congress Hindu candidates has been declining since 2011, after the party’s core Nair vote base started shifting in droves to the BJP. This is an inexorable, irreversible process.

    Senior Congress leaders like K Sudhakaran, Ramesh Chennithala, and V D Satheeshan know that their positions are only going to get more dire; in Alappuzha parliamentary constituency, the BJP came within 1,345 votes of knocking the Congress off pole position in the Haripad assembly segment — Chennithala’s seat.

    These leaders also know that they are thus becoming increasingly dependent on Christian and Muslim votes for their victories (a prime example being Shashi Tharoor, who won the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat by a whisker in 2024 only because these votes came through for him in the crucial assembly segment of Neyyattinkara). Such a fatal dependency would only increase if the KEC, or sections of the KEC, returned to the Congress-led coalition.

    Equally pertinently, they can see how Muraleedharan and Prathapan were treated by the Congress leadership and how the candidacy for the Vadakara seat was given to Shafi Parambil, a Muslim import from Palakkad, because of pressure from the Muslim League.

    What the league and the church say, the Congress does without question, whether it suits its Hindu constituency or not. Fair enough, but this also means that we may see more Congress leaders and more of the Nair vote moving to the BJP.

    Fourth, the state of the Left in Kerala.

    Anti-incumbency continues to rise. Pinarayi Vijayan remains incapable of fixing the state’s pathetic finances. The knives are out in the Left after their deplorable showing in the general election.

    And, worst of all, for the very first time, sizable portions of the Left’s core vote base have finally started shifting to the BJP, not just in places like Alappuzha but even in Marxist fortresses like Kannur.

    Now, if the KEC were to leave the Left or splinter, or if the minority vote consolidates further effectively under the Congress coalition, and anti-incumbency pushes more of its core vote to the BJP, then the Left is dead in the water.

    Can it recover? It is difficult but not impossible; Vijayan is a canny politician. But as of date, the Left is staring into a void, which includes the unthinkable — defections to the BJP.

    Putting it all together, Priyanka Vadra’s candidacy for Wayanad, a contest which she should win in all probability, has lit a fuse within the Congress in Kerala and presented an excellent growth opportunity to the BJP.

    As this author wrote on social media in early May, when Rahul Gandhi chose to contest from Rae Bareli, “Hope he wins both seats. That’s when the real fun will start.”

    Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.

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