Imagine the Congress and the BJP in a tennis match, circa January 2018. The Congress is on the verge of being eclipsed in a fierce encounter. Translocate the scoreline to the political court. Karnataka, Puducherry and Punjab are the only states with the party. Yet, by the time the year ends, the Congress has fought back fiercely, managing to stall the BJP, and winning three big states (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh) besides retaining Karnataka, albeit in a coalition.
The wins, in a sense, gave the Congress the verve to stand up and fight another round. And, if they hope to achieve anything substantial in the forthcoming elections, much depends on the south of India. Once upon a time the party treated the south like its fief, even when it was losing its grip on the north. But that is history. Today, it needs to strain every nerve to win a chunk of seats that could make a difference when the chickens are counted after they are hatched.
One unexpected move is undoubtedly the party’s young chief Rahul Gandhi jetting in over the Vindhyas, all the way across the Deccan plains through the thick jungles of Western Ghats to try his luck in the “wild green” constituency of Wayanad in Kerala. So sudden was this move that it broke into the humdrum of Kerala’s electoral landscape and unsettled the friendly Left’s beehive, to an extent that Gandhi himself has been stung by the venom.
But Congress mandarins, who feel it is a masterstroke, have brushed aside the Left’s attack, as Wayanad serves a twin purpose. One, being a Congress stronghold it will ensure safety for Rahul in the event of a calamity in his original constituency, Amethi. Two, contesting from Wayanad will send a signal of inclusiveness the party wants to remind a country entangled in a climate of polarisation.
It is okay for a party to come up with short-term plans and strategies to put one past the opponent but the demonetised-1000 rupee question is, whether this will work? Yes, for Rahul personally, the chances of winning Wayanad are bright. Despite the Left’s ferocious bark, the bite might not follow. For, ultimately the two are friends and there is enough bonhomie for a quiet understanding not to inflict any wound on Rahul.
Once upon a time, the Congress treated the south like its fief, even when it was losing its grip on the north.
If the party, either because it wanted to camouflage its real reasons for choosing Wayanad or it genuinely believes it would send the correct signal, was expecting to create a wave with Rahul’s entry in Kerala that looks unlikely. Leave alone the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, such a move does not seem like having any impact on the rest of Kerala. Logically thinking, why should it? The Left, even if it lets Wayanad go without a fight, is not going to lie on its back and chill while the Congress romps through the state. It is a matter of survival. Already in a tight corner across the country, Kerala is perhaps the last bastion of the Left Front and it certainly is not going to give up without a fight. And, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has already shown that he is a tough nut to crack considering the way he stood by the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala, taking on both the BJP and the Congress successfully.
Well then, how will it play out in neighbouring Karnataka? The state brought out the best in the Congress in the aftermath of the May 2018 elections when it successfully checkmated the BJP using a strategy perfected by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, of converting defeat into victory, as in Goa, Arunachal Pradesh etc.
Undoubtedly, by all accounts, it was Gandhi’s personal intervention that made it possible. He managed to unite the snake-mongoose like rivals in the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) and until now the coalition ihas not gobbled up by the poachers in the BJP. In other words, the game is entirely different in Karnataka. Since it is a snake-mongoose coalition held together by external forces sitting in 10, Janpath and Padmanabhanagar, the depth of the “forced marriage” continues to remain suspect.
In the 2014 elections, the BJP walked away with 17 seats, the Congress was left with nine and the JD(S) had to rest content with two. Ahead of the polls in Karnataka, there are signs that all is not well in at least two constituencies—Mandya and Hassan—where the grandchildren of the JD (S) patriarch H.D. Deve Gowda are hoping to win.
After years of enmity between the JD(S) and the Congress, party workers at the grassroot are unable to comprehend the not-so arcane calculations of their leaders who are now hugging each other in public. It is time they are quickly made to understand the ethereal visions of the Gowdas and Gandhis, else the coalition is in trouble. And, the BJP may again run away with a majority of seats. If the Gs and Gs manage to convince their supporters, Karnataka stands to bestow a bumper prize on the coalition.
For Rahul, the chances of winning Wayanad are bright. Despite the Left’s bark, the bite might not follow.
That leaves us with the sad story of the Congress in Telangana and a truncated Andhra Pradesh. Whoever would have imagined that the Congress which steered the final course of partitioning Andhra Pradesh would today all but cease to exist in both states? Andhra’s anger against the Congress is understandable as it always resisted a divorce with Telangana. Today, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, the son of the late satrap Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy, has cornered the spot that belonged to the Congress. That chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party is an ally of the Congress is small consolation.
Naidu in the past has allied with the BJP, so that makes him a suspect friend. The Congress is paying a long-term price for sidelining Jagan when his father died in an accident. It funks political logic, as the Congress is no stranger to dynastic politics, and could have easily accommodated Jagan. Whether Rahul contests in Wayanad or had chosen Narasaraopet is going to make no difference to its comatose state in Andhra. Jagan has offered a sliver of hope by opening the possibility of supporting the Congress if it backs the demand for special status category for his state, but that may not matter much during the elections.
Perhaps the most enigmatic of them all is Telangana. A party that probably expected its leaders to be walking on a bed of roses on the streets of Hyderabad for having facilitated a separate Telangana is clawing desperately to be seen, leave alone counted.
Telangana’s local chieftain K Chandrashekhar Rao has all the reigns in his hand and is likely to gallop not just to victory but emerge even as a possible prime minister in the event of a coalition in Delhi. Rahul would need to do much more than a Wayanad to make his presence felt here.
Tamil Nadu is perhaps the coolest of them all for the Congress, notwithstanding the harsh summer elsewhere. Riding piggyback on the DMK and its leader M.K. Stalin, a Rahul Gandhi fan, the Congress by all accounts seems set to sweep all the 10 seats it is contesting. Unless one T.T. V. Dinakaran skews the pitch for everyone in the fray. But that story is for another day, er...May 23.
(The writer is an Associate Editor with the news website www.thefederal.in)