THE MOUNTAIN PASS that takes you from Kozhikode to the scenic and tranquil Wayanad, once a spice destination for Englishmen who later built tea and coffee plantations, is called Thamarassery Churam. It is a name immortalised for Malayalis by a movie character, a driver (played by the late comedian Kuthiravattom Pappu) who claims to have steered a heavy vehicle to safety after a brake failure on this 14-kilometre stretch. Thamarassery Churam, for Generation X, was one of the most tortuous mountain passes in popular imagination. Things have changed rapidly since then. A ride to this tourist hotspot on the Western Ghats is now a breeze. That is exactly what local Congressmen feel about Rahul Gandhi’s victory from the seat: it will be a breeze. For them, what matters more in this Congress seat is the margin of victory.
When the official announcement of Congress President Gandhi’s candidature from Wayanad came out, C Jayaprasad almost missed it. As general secretary of Wayanad’s District Congress Committee, he was looking forward to a final word on the matter. The confirmation from the party high command had come after a long wait. When former Congress Chief Minister Oommen Chandy first hinted at it, social media received it with scepticism. In Kerala, however, it was expected to energise the party. This is the first time Gandhi would be contesting from south India and there is potential for a spillover into other constituencies. And the Congress in the state did need some energising. The Sabarimala issue, which saw a standoff between Ayyappa devotees and the LDF state government keen to allow young women’s entry into the temple, had pushed the party to the wall. The Congress had been muted and even accused of being a B-team to the sangh parivar.
However, despite the rumours there was no formal announcement about Gandhi’s Kerala foray for weeks. That day Jayaprasad was in the middle of a meeting in Kalpetta where there was no television when someone informed him that Congress leader AK Antony was talking to the press. He rushed to the nearby party office to see Antony finally confirm Gandhi’s nomination with these words: “Wayanad is at the junction of three southern states. It borders Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Congress units of all three states wanted Rahul Gandhi to contest from one of their constituencies. Hence, Wayanad is the best choice.”
Jayaprasad says he doesn’t really have words to express his excitement but does have a number in mind. “Our target is to achieve a lead of four lakh votes,” he says. In that same Kalpetta meeting, besides Jayaprasad, there was the DCC president of Kozhikode, T Siddique, who had been the Congress nominee in Wayanad until Gandhi made his decision. He also says that a lead of 400,000 votes is what they will be looking at.
Leaders of the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by the Congress, now expect a Rahul wave and some even think that all 20 seats of Kerala are within their reach. Political observers, however, feel there is over-optimism. “Rahul Gandhi’s entry into the Kerala election arena will boost the morale of Congress workers in Kerala and possibly the neighboring southern states too, but I do not see it as a factor that may radically alter the region’s established voting pattern,” says veteran journalist and columnist BRP Bhaskar. “It might strengthen UDF which is otherwise very weak in the state but a wave is unlikely to happen,” says Sunny M Kapikkad, a prominent Dalit scholar and author.
The suggestion to bring Gandhi to Kerala was the culmination of a dispute between different groups in the party. Oommen Chandy wanted his man T Siddique to be fielded from Wayanad but another group headed by Ramesh Chennithala did not want to lose a seat that had been held by their man, the late MI Shanavas. “I do not know whose idea it was to approach Rahul, but it has proven to be a masterstroke as far as our party is concerned. Nobody can blame anybody now,” remarked a senior Congress leader who wished to remain anonymous.
Many in the Congress weren’t clued in about Gandhi’s decision. Before the announcement, on March 29th, when I met Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, on his campaign trail, he had said that the speculation around Gandhi’s candidature was “quite unfortunate”. “The KPCC wanted him to contest but I think they had taken Rahul’s consent for granted,” he added.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), which leads the ruling LDF, finds itself in a peculiar position. In the run up to the election, it had toned down criticism of the Congress in the interest of opposition unity against the BJP. However, with Gandhi challenging them in the state, punches aren’t being held back anymore. CK Saseendran, the CPM’s sitting MLA of Kalpetta, which is a part of the Wayanad Parliamentary constituency, dismisses any Gandhi effect. “This is Kerala and voters will not be carried away by stardom. This constituency consists of tribals and settler-farmers who directly bore the brunt of the economic policies of the previous United Progressive Alliance [UPA] and the present National Democratic Alliance [NDA] Government. By choosing Wayanad where BJP is insignificant, the Congress has made it categorically clear that they are incapable of leading a secular coalition against the NDA. The voters will understand this failure.”
‘Rahul Gandhi contemplating to contest in a second seat from Wayanad, Kerala. His message to the nation: The Left is equally an enemy to be fought as BJP in this LokSaba election. Not surprised! Come and feel Kerala, how it is different from Amethi,’ tweeted the state’s Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac. Deshabhimani, the CPM’s mouthpiece in Malayalam, called Rahul’s entry a ‘Pappu strike’ which the newspaper’s resident editor disowned later as a ‘lack of diligence’.
UDF leaders, meanwhile, are demanding that the LDF withdraw their candidate in Wayanad to bolster the fight against the BJP. The Left maintains that Gandhi will desert the constituency if he wins from Amethi since he has already made it clear that Amethi is his karmabhumi. “I feel sorry for Rahul Gandhi who heeded to the words of the group managers of his party and set off to contest from Kerala. Voters are well aware that he won’t stay here. They will not risk going to vote once again in the next six months. This is not a contest between two individuals but ideologies and I am confident of winning the fight,” says PP Suneer, the LDF candidate of Wayanad.
When constituted in 2009, Wayanad was one of the safest seats for the UDF in Kerala. The constituency consists of three Assembly segments each from Wayanad and Malappuram districts, and one from Kozhikode district. In 2009, despite having K Muraleedharan, a former KPCC president, rebelling and contesting as an NCP candidate, Congress’ MI Shanavas won by a majority of 1,53,439 votes, almost half of the total votes cast and about 20 per cent more than the CPI. Muraleedharan got 12 per cent while the BJP got under 4 per cent.
But in the next election in 2014, the Congress vote share dipped to 41 per cent and Shanavas won by a slender margin of 20,000 votes. The LDF increased their tally by 7 per cent and the BJP by 5 per cent. In the 2016 Assembly elections, four of the seven Assembly segments of Wayanad went to the CPM.
In the present contest, some equations have changed. The Loktantrik Janata Dal, which was part of the UDF earlier, is with the LDF now. PV Anwar, an independent candidate who won 37,000 votes in 2014 and later became the MLA of Nilambur with LDF support, is contesting from Ponnani constituency as the LDF candidate.
“Voters are aware that Rahul won’t stay here. They will not risk going to vote once again in the next six months. This is not a contest between two individuals but ideologies and I am confident of winning the fight,” says PP Suneer, LDF candidate from Wayanad
CK Janu, the leader of Adivasi Gotra Mahasabha, got 28,000 votes as an NDA candidate in the 2016 Assembly election. She has been moving closer to the LDF off late. These numbers would indicate that the UDF is not on a firm wicket in Wayanad. But that was before Gandhi’s decision to contest from here.
Three Assembly segments—Ernad, Nilambur and Wandoor—in Malappuram district are responsible for making Wayanad a UDF stronghold. The Indian Union Muslim League has a watertight vote bank there and were particular about Gandhi contesting. Not just the BJP, even the LDF now accuses Gandhi of being a candidate backed by Muslim outfits like the Welfare Party of India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi says Gandhi fled from the Hindi heartland to a minority- dominated constituency fearing Hindu backlash. But according to the 2011 Census, the dominant religion in Wayanad district is Hinduism; they make up 49.48 per cent of the population. Muslims comprise 28.65 per cent, and Christians, 21.34 per cent. Whatever impact Modi’s remark might have on the Congress in northern India, in Kerala it served to boost the UDF’s morale. The apprehension of a possible swing of minority votes towards the Left is now over with Gandhi’s entry. “By contesting in Wayanad, Rahul is giving a clear message that he is committed to protecting minorities in India,” says IUML youth leader PK Firoz. “This is a fitting reply to the aggressive Hindu nationalism promoted by BJP.”
“Rahul Gandhi should not have yielded to the vested interests of Congress leaders in Kerala. He is a prime ministerial candidate who is supposed to lead the secular coalition against Modi and BJP. By contesting against the Left, he has shirked this responsibility,” says MB Rajesh, LDF MP who is contesting in Palakkad for the third time. He adds that this might even prove fatal to the UDF. “Voters in Kerala are politically alert and will not trust the Congress to lead a secular coalition in this scenario.”
THE BJP IS NOT EVEN CONTESTING IN Wayanad. It has given the seat to Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a coalition partner that has less than 4 per cent vote share in Kerala. BDJS leader Thushar Vellappally, the NDA candidate in Wayanad, says Gandhi’s candidature shows his lack of confidence in north India. “But he cannot expect an easy walkover here. UDF has only a slender lead of 2 per cent votes in this constituency. Muslims in this constituency will not fall for the illusion created by UDF. The poor performance of the sitting MP for ten years will be counted here.”
For the BJP unit in Kerala expecting to increase its vote share across the state and even win a couple of seats, the dramatic turn of events is a jolt. The party was banking on the Sabarimala issue to polarise Hindu votes. All political parties are somewhat clueless on how Sabarimala will impact the election. Nair Service Society (NSS), a powerful caste group, had turned hostile to the government over it. Nairs constitute 11 per cent of the population. The NSS poll strategy is to publicly support the NDA in two constituencies, Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram, and the UDF in the rest. Meanwhile, LDF was expecting a large shift of minority and Dalit votes towards them. The support of Ezhavas, a backward caste that makes up 23 per cent of the population and is traditionally loyal to the Left, would be crucial for the LDF.
Some in the Left think Gandhi’s presence might help their cause. In the past, the BJP strategically shifted its votes to the UDF in order to defeat the LDF. Thanks to Gandhi, they will not do it this time. “This time BJP would maximise its votes and not help UDF as in the past. Simultaneously, with their national leader in the fray, the UDF will also not cross-vote in favour of the NDA. LDF will be the beneficiary in such a scenario,” says a MLA and state-level leader of CPM.
“When you support me, you are actually casting your vote for Lord Ayyappa. This is the time to let Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan know what he has done to devotees,” says K Surendran, BJP candidate in Pathanamthitta, during a public meeting on April 30th in Thiruvalla. His words are followed by thunderous applause and the large crowd shouting slogans. Surendran, leader of the violent agitations ‘to protect Lord Ayyappa’ after the Supreme Court order, had been remanded in jail for three weeks. BJP thinks that Surendran’s image as a leader who was imprisoned to protect Hindu beliefs, will transform into votes. Ignoring Election Commission’s instruction not to use the Sabarimala issue in the campaign, Surendran repeats it in all public meetings. For NDA, which had only 14 per cent vote share in the state, Sabarimala is the trump card. Pathanamthitta is where the Sabarimala temple is located. At least, BJP hopes to win this constituency. It was always unlikely to happen and with Gandhi entering the picture, the probability has declined even further.