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23 Apr, 2024 12:06

No Gandhi: India’s main opposition party is struggling. Here’s why

The Indian National Congress, which is challenging the ruling BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the ongoing parliamentary elections, is unlikely to repeat its 2019 success in Kerala’s Wayanad
No Gandhi: India’s main opposition party is struggling. Here’s why

As the incumbent member of Parliament from the constituency of Wayanad in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Rahul Gandhi's filing of his nomination in an open vehicle flanked by the top brass of his Indian National Congress amid a huge media presence was the local Congress’s biggest show of strength recently. In 2019, he won Wayanad, which saw a record turnout of 80.31%, with a record margin of over 4.31 lakh votes. His candidacy from Kerala was instrumental in giving the Congress a thumping 19 of the 20 state’s parliamentary seats. 

But a lot has changed over five years. The Congress party in Kerala seems fatigued as it has been without power for two terms. Gandhi has not been a regular visitor to his constituency; he hasn’t even mentioned the constituency’s name in parliament, his opponents allege. And the presence of both his Congress party and its state opposition – the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) – in the national opposition bloc, called the Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.), has muddied the Wayanad election, to be held on April 26.

RT

Though Gandhi has not said anything, Uttar Pradesh Congress leader Ajai Rai is on record stating that he may also contest from his old constituency, Amethi, that he won in 2004, 2009 and 2014. Uttar Pradesh, with its 80 parliamentary seats, is key to securing a majority in the 543-strength Lok Sabha (lower house). This is another reason for Gandhi to make his presence felt. The Amethi election is on May 20, so he has more than enough time to make an announcement after the Wayanad poll is over, if he chooses.

The Kerala contest is a two-way fight between the ruling LDF, led by the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI-M), and the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by the Congress, except for a couple of constituencies where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has more than a token presence. The BJP has been in power at the national level for a decade, but it has not made significant headway in the state; it has never opened its account in Lok Sabha elections in Kerala. 

In Wayanad, Gandhi’s prime opponent is Annie Raja of the CPI (separate from the CPI-M). The BJP has fielded its Kerala unit chief, K Surendran.

Gandhi’s candidacy was a surprise in 2019; it drew national attention to the South. His fight from Kerala created a wave for the UDF, which campaigned to keep the BJP out of power at the Centre. This time, things are different.

“Rahul Gandhi won’t help the UDF sweep the state’s election this time,” says J Prabhash, the former head of the department of political science at the University of Kerala. “People no longer see Congress as a strong opponent to the BJP. There won’t be a bandwagon effect. Rather, anti-incumbency against the LDF government can also play a role. Also, Rahul Gandhi has not nursed the constituency well.”

‘Wayanad needs an MP, not a guest’

Part of Gandhi's weakness was that in 2019 he lost Amethi. And this time voters won’t be giving their heart and soul to the popular Congress leader. 

“He rarely came to Wayanad,” says Ammini, a tribal activist from Ambalawayal in Wayanad. “What we need is not a guest who lands by flight or helicopter occasionally. He speaks rarely, that too only on farmer issues. He is the MP of all people. He could have done a lot for people, but he didn’t. During the 2019 campaign, he visited some tribal hamlets but didn’t visit even once after winning. The only time was when Viswanathan died [referring to the incident of a tribal man found dead near Kozhikode Medical Hospital in February 2023].”

RT

Gandhi’s attendance in the Lok Sabha was 51% from June 2019 to February 2024, while the national average was 79% and the state average was 83%. He attended eight debates (national average: 46.7; state average: 78.5). He asked 99 questions (national average: 210; state average: 275). He had no private bills to his name (state average: 4.8; national average 1.5).

Amritha Sisna, a young lawyer in Vythiri, felt Gandhi didn’t contribute anything to Wayanad. 

“Rahul Gandhi’s tremendous victory last time should be attributed to other factors like the hope that the Modi government could be defeated,” she said. “Also we in Wayanad realized too late that he had not brought change to Amethi. He has not made a single contribution to Wayanad as MP. He visited the constituency as if he were a king. He was received and accompanied not by local Congress leaders but by the state’s senior party leaders. He ate from a local shop, met a handful of people, but has not worked among the common folk. Other people’s representatives have done a better job. In 2019, we thought Congress would win and Rahul Gandhi would be the PM; that hope is not alive anymore.”

Trolls and memes pop up during his rare visits with some claiming that even wild elephants frequent human settlements more often than Gandhi does. His tea shop visits have also led to criticism by political rivals as merely an eyewash.

The last time Gandhi enthused the state unit’s rank and file was with his Bharat Jodo Yatra’s Kerala leg in September 2022. The Congress, however, still has nostalgia for the Gandhi family and being next to a family leader, be it Sonia Gandhi (his mother and past party president) or Rahul during their visit is a matter of prestige. 

“Both the Congress and its allied IUML (Indian Union Muslim League) are hugely loyal to the Gandhi family,” Amrutha says. “The youth had widely backed Rahul Gandhi in 2019. But he has failed to effectively intervene in Wayanad’s recurring human-animal conflict or other issues. He has raised none of this in the Parliament.” 

Wayanad grapples with escalating wildlife encounters, including fatal incidents involving elephants and tigers. The district has lost 41 human lives to elephant attacks and seven to tiger attacks over the last decade. 

Annie Raja too flayed Gandhi for his poor performance in Parliament saying even if he could not become prime minister he could have at least mentioned his constituency in Parliament, as it has only four letters in Malayalam, Kerala’s language. 

RT

2019 success 

The Congress’s 2019 campaign promises – that it would come to power, that Rahul might be PM, and that it was “the last bus to take” (i.e., the last chance to beat the BJP) – are being repeated this time but with less fervor. 

Even his persona is not as charismatic as it was five years ago. He stepped down as the Congress president soon after the 2019 elections, forcing Sonia to be interim head. Two years later, the Congress got a non-Gandhi president after 24 years, when Mallikarjun Kharge emerged as the winner in the party’s organizational election. 

Within a year, in July 2023, I.N.D.I.A., a bloc of 26 opposition parties to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, was formed. It is led by the Congress; but the CPI-M and its ally the CPI are constituents. The communist parties asked Gandhi not to contest from Kerala where the Congress and the Left are opponents. They suggested he contest in Congress-ruled Karnataka next door, where the BJP is the main opponent. However, he did not do this.

RT

Being part of a single bloc has diluted the UDF’s claim that only the Congress can take on the BJP. Hence any anti-BJP feeling in Kerala can help either the UDF or the LDF. The LDF, for its part, is trying to exploit the fact that Congress leaders have joined the BJP, saying that a vote now for the Congress is a vote for the BJP in the future. 

The Congress has retaliated by reiterating an allegation of a nexus between the CPI-M and BJP. Campaigning in Kannur, in south Kerala, Gandhi wondered: “Why is the ruling party at the Centre not attacking [Kerala] Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan? Two chief ministers are in jail. How come this is not happening to the CM of Kerala?” 

The Kerala CM drew Gandhi’s attention to the Emergency (a 19-month suspension of civil and political rights by the then PM, Indira Gandhi – who is Rahul’s grandmother) while responding. 

“Rahul is worried why the Kerala CM is not questioned and why he is not taken into custody,” he said. “It was your grandmother who jailed us all when she suppressed the country. For how long? One and a half years. We’re not afraid of threats of jail.”

“If the UDF won, it would be a vote against the LDF and not because of Rahul Gandhi’s charisma,” J Prabhash says. “The CPI(M) has strong leadership but there is anti-incumbency and allegations against the CM and his family. The UDF does not have strong leadership in the state and neither does the BJP. Hence the least unpopular will emerge the winner.” 

From Kerala’s vantage point, Gandhi’s candidacy from Wayanad is neither a political message to rival parties nor has it captivated local voters. No wonder he might also be thinking of Amethi.

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