Elections

Wayanad: A Loss For INDIA Coalition, No Matter Who Wins

Whether the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi or CPI’s Annie Raja wins, Wayanad has widened the chasm in the INDIA bloc

Photo: PTI
Southern Comfort?: Rahul Gandhi with his supporters before filing his nomination on April 3 Photo: PTI
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Introduction

The battle for Kerala has assumed unique proportions as two longstanding allies--Congress and the Left--have decided to pull political daggers on each other even as they continue to be friends in the INDIA bloc at the national level. As the two go head-to-head, every seat gained or lost could have profound consequences on their bargaining power post polls. The infighting might also give the BJP some much-needed lease of life in the political life of 'God's Own Country'.

Annie, who is the wife of CPI general secretary D Raja, kicked off her campaign in early March and has completed six rounds of campaigning in the constituency. Annie, while meeting plantation workers in Kalpetta city, receives an array of responses. On the one hand, the women are hugging and holding her hands expressing love and solidarity, and on the other, they express fear and grief over the frequent incidents of human-animal conflicts that have made Wayanad unliveable. “Whoever wins, our lives will remain the same. Nobody does anything to save us from the wild animal attacks,” says Rema, a plantation worker. She is equally unhappy with the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government as well as the sitting MP, Gandhi, for their cold-shouldering.

Wayanad is grappling with numerous incidents of human-animal conflict, especially during summer as elephants enter human settlements in search of water. The tragic demise of a farmer recently—chased and fatally attacked by a radio-collared wild elephant—sent shock waves across the state.

But that’s not the only reason Wayanad is in the national limelight. Gandhi won the Lok Sabha constituency in 2019 with a thumping majority even as he lost to Smriti Irani in Amethi. Today, Wayanad finds itself in the spotlight once again: this time it is the battleground for a clash between two leaders of the INDIA bloc. Though the streets may seem deserted during the day, the constituency transforms into a bustling arena of political discourse in the evening. Tea shops, bus stations and even small junctions serve as hubs for lively debates among the common folk, where topics ranging from the Citizen (Amendment) Act, 2019, (CAA) to Gaza are passionately discussed and dissected. It’s a testament to the vibrant political consciousness that is the pulse of Kerala.

“We don’t know politics; our municipality is providing us good support, the Narendra Modi government has done a few good things for the people, but dividing people on the basis of religion is not good,” say Usha and Deepa, two sanitation workers who are team members of Haritha Karma Sena—a collective of sanitation workers formed by local self-governments. Both the women have a definitive opinion about the CAA. “The CAA is the most discussed issue in this election. So the LDF has an edge over us,” says Abdul Hameed, a worker of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in Areekodu, Wayanad. Discussions about the CAA are palpable in every household, a sentiment that has been evident during our house visits, says Hameed. He adds that there is no question of Gandhi losing the election, but even a decline in the victory margin would be a bad sign for the Congress. Women, who outnumber men in Wayanad, are uncertain about whom to support. “This time around, there’s a noticeable difference. Annie Raja is like an ordinary woman—one of us—and I like her. At the same time, I don’t oppose Gandhi,” says Sainaba Ali, a resident of Eranad, which falls under the constituency.

To prevent the IUML’s green flag from being misconstrued or misused by opponents, the Congress opted not to display their flags at Gandhi’s rallies.

Since its formation in 2009, Wayanad has remained a steadfast stronghold of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), with the LDF seldom posing a formidable challenge. With a significant population of Muslim voters and settler farmers (predominantly Christian), Wayanad is one of the safest seats for the Congress, no matter whoever the candidate is. Of the seven assembly constituencies, the UDF won four seats, while the LDF won three in the 2021 assembly elections. However, the announcement of Annie Raja as the LDF candidate, accompanied by a vigorous campaign, indicates a shake-up in the existing dynamics.

In 2019, Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad resulted in a significant surge in minority votes towards the Congress and the UDF in Kerala, leading to a landslide victory, securing 19 of the 20 seats in the state. Out of the 16 seats contested by the Congress, it won 15. Gandhi himself garnered 64.9 per cent of the votes, marking a remarkable swing of 23.7 per cent from the previous elections. The LDF candidate, the CPI’s P P Suneer, suffered a loss of 13.68 per cent in vote share. Meanwhile, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate, Thushar Vellappalli of the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, could only manage to get 7.2 per cent of the total vote share. Gandhi’s victory in 2019 had an impact extending beyond just the Wayanad constituency. Portraying his candidacy as a do-or-die battle for secularism yielded a tremendous response in Kerala. Even the Left bastions were shaken and were won by the Congress.

However, the Congress’s overall national defeat in 2019 left many voters disillusioned, as they had hoped that Gandhi would bring about significant changes. “He is just one of the 20 candidates this time, nothing more. However, he will win as Wayanad is a stronghold for the Congress,” says Rajesh Subramanian, a vendor in Puthuppady, Wayanad.

Gandhi was probably in the know of the electoral mood and has hardly spent time campaigning. He made an emotional appeal after filing his nomination on April 3. “It has been an honour for me to be your Member of Parliament. I do not treat or think of you merely as constituents; I treat and think of you in the same way I treat my little sister Priyanka. In the hamlets of Wayanad, I have mothers, sisters and fathers, and I thank you for that from the bottom of my heart. All the people of Wayanad, regardless of whether if you are with the UDF or the LDF, I have a relationship with you,” he said. But he went back soon after filing his nomination.

Gandhi’s decision to contest also from Wayanad in 2019 had its own impacts. He lost to Smriti Irani in Amethi, the longstanding seat of the Gandhi family. Many observers believe Gandhi’s move to also contest from Wayanad may have influenced the result in Amethi. His candidacy in Wayanad was spun by the BJP’s IT cell and campaign managers as a flight from potential defeat in the Hindi heartland to seek refuge in a Muslim-dominated constituency. This narrative, amplified by right-wing trolls and even Amit Shah, depicted the Indian Union Muslim League’s flag as the Pakistani flag, casting doubts on Gandhi’s patriotism. According to a researcher involved in a WhatsApp-sponsored project on misinformation, during the 2019 Lok Sabha election, there was widespread campaigning featuring thousands of online materials, including memes and distorted infographics. Gandhi became a primary target of right-wing propaganda machinery, exploiting Wayanad’s demographics, which includes a significant Muslim population. The IUML offices were vilified as breeding grounds for terrorism. The pervasive misinformation campaign compelled the Congress and the UDF to take precautionary measures during Gandhi’s rallies this time. To prevent the IUML’s green flag from being misconstrued or misused by opponents, the Congress opted not to display their flags at Gandhi’s rallies. This strategic decision aimed at not giving any opportunity for a false narrative to gain traction attracted strong criticism from the Left.

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Gandhi’s decision to contest against an ally in the INDIA bloc, for the second time, rather than contest directly against the BJP, has strained relations between the Congress and the Left. Left leaders contend that Gandhi should have directly challenged the BJP instead of targeting a partner within the alliance. In fact, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan criticised Gandhi for contesting against his CPI candidate and said that he is not taking on the BJP in the north. This discord has had widespread implications. During the conclusion of Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Mumbai on March 17, Left parties refrained from participation, in stark contrast to their joining the finale of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in January 2023.

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Shahina K K in Wayanad

This appeared in the print as 'Left, Hand Drive'

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