Ending months of speculation, Mullappally Ramachandran, 73, has been appointed as the new Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president. The seven-time Lok Sabha MP and the oldest ever KPCC president has replaced MM Hassan. With his appointment, the long-pending demand for a generational change in the Kerala Congress will have to wait. K Sudhakaran, MI Shahnawaz and Kodikkunnil Suresh have been appointed as working presidents, K Muralidharan chairman of the State Campaign Committee and Benny Behanan the convener of the United Democratic Front (UDF).
When Ramachandran missed out on a berth in the Congress Working Committee in July, it was a clear hint that he was primed for the top job in Kerala. He was the chairman of the Congress party’s Central Election Authority (CEC) that successfully oversaw the election of Rahul Gandhi as the Congress president in December. This appointment marks a thanksgiving of sorts.
Veteran journalist Sunnykutty Abraham says: “It has always been a tradition in the Congress to rehabilitate the Chairman of the CEC to a respectable position and Ramachandran was always destined to be the PCC chief in that sense.”
There were other names in the fray too. Many leaders were openly been lobbying for the top post. KV Thomas had emerged as a dark horse till an untimely showering of praises on Prime Minister Modi put paid to his hopes. But will the appointments of three working presidents pose a new challenge? Will they emerge as new power centres?
Although a Karunakaran loyalist from his Youth Congress days, Ramachandran had later supported the rebellion led by the ‘Correctionist’ (Thiruthalvadi) troika of G Karthikeyan, Ramesh Chennithala and M I Shanavas against their mentor in the early nineties. But Ramachandran has steadfastly stayed away from factional politics for the last two decades. This non-controversial image and being close to AK Antony have come in handy for the ‘journeyman’ leader.
The fact that Ramachandran and the three working presidents aren’t factional nominees is the biggest takeaway from this exercise. K Sudhakaran had been out of favour with the wider ‘I’ faction in the state despite cooperating with them on issues. MI Shanavas was part of the ‘I’ faction once upon a time but does not identify himself with either faction anymore. And Kodikkunnil Suresh too has stayed clear of factional politics despite originally being with the ‘A’ faction.
K Sudhakaran, the only mass leader among the four appointees, initially appeared to sulk as the news broke of his appointment as one of the working presidents. It could also be the thought of working under Ramachandran, a mentor-turned-foe, which might have riled the Kannur strongman, according to one commentator.
Kodikkunnil Suresh, a six-time MP, is the youngest of the working presidents at 56 and was among those lobbying intensely for the position. Suresh has been playing the Dalit card, claiming his appointment would prompt a section of the Dalits to switch loyalties to the Congress. But Sunnykutty Abraham pooh-poohs the claim. “Not a single Dalit vote will switch from the Left to the Congress on account of Suresh’s appointment. I can give it to you in writing. You can quote me on this,” he says.
Abraham’s contention isn’t without basis. Suresh might wave his Dalit card to leapfrog others but he was never been known for raising pertinent Dalit issues. Says one prominent Dalit thinker from central Kerala: “Suresh can’t even articulate Dalit politics. Where is the question of votes shifting? He might currently be the ‘Dalit face’ of the Congress in Kerala; earlier there was MA Kuttappan. Does anybody remember Kuttappan today?”
The 66-year-old MI Shanavas is the surprise pick. As per a reliable source from Congress in Delhi even Shanavas would never have imagined being catapulted to this position out of the blue. In fact, he was looking like losing re-nomination to the Wayanad seat in 2019 with his not keeping good health of late. So, how did Shanavas come into the picture then?
According to highly-placed sources, Shanimol Usman was being considered for one of the working presidents until her candidature was opposed by a member of Parliament from Kerala. At the last moment, her name was struck down giving a new lease of life to Shanavas. However, Usman claims she has no knowledge of her being in contention.
“I would prefer to contest from a winnable seat in 2019 than being saddled with such a tough responsibility at this point,” she said. Before Usman came into the picture, Benny Behanan was the frontrunner but he is supposed to have indicated his preference (apparently at Chandy’s behest) to be the UDF convener than becoming one of the working presidents. Outgoing KPCC president MM Hassan lost a chance to claim the UDF convener’s position in the bargain.
With the appointment of three working presidents, there might be no room for vice-presidents (currently, there are five) in Kerala, if Rahul Gandhi’s instructions were to be followed. Although nothing is cast in stone, a leaner organisation is being mooted unlike the ‘jumbo’ committees constituted under VM Sudheeran beginning with 2014. Just as the appointments of the president and working presidents were not done on factional lines, it is assumed the rest of the committee would also be nominated on the same yardstick. The three working presidents are likely to be allocated the three regions—Malabar, Central Kerala and South Kerala. Although Shanavas has been based in Malabar for a decade, he hails from Kottayam originally and would be allocated central Kerala with Malabar for Sudhakaran and South Kerala for Suresh.
The appointment of former PCC president K Muralidharan as the chairman of the State Campaign Committee marks his return to a leadership position in the party following years in the sidelines. It is certainly a sign of the central leadership’s regard for his abilities and the maturity that he has lately displayed. Muralidharan is probably the only Congress leader with a pan-Kerala appeal in the state today, apart from Oommen Chandy.
Benny Behanan’s appointment as the UDF convener is the only position bestowed on a factional leader. Behanan has been Oommen Chandy’s staunch lieutenant in the ‘A’ faction and was a casualty in ticket allocation during the tug-of-war between Chandy and VM Sudheeran in 2016. With Chandy’s responsibility as a general secretary likely to keep him away from Kerala on a regular basis, Behanan is expected to marshal his faction. Although caste equations have also been balanced out in the rejig, Christian representation is limited to Behanan. Mullappally Ramachandran and K Sudhakaran hail from the Thiyya/Ezhava community (even as Ramesh Chennithala continues to be the Nair representative as the Leader of Opposition) and this prompted the Syro-Malabar Church-run Deepika daily to write: “The Latin Christians keep voting for the Congress but their representatives continue to get a raw deal in the party for leadership positions.”
The spirit of unity and collective leadership seems to be the biggest message being passed on by the central leadership through this exercise. Although these positions haven’t been allocated on the basis of factional loyalties, there were many exchanges back and forth to ensure the factions were taken into confidence.
Kerala politics is in a state of flux. Post the flood, Pinarayi Vijayan has tightened his grip on power. The vote banks in Kerala are shifting. Traditionally, CPI (M) has won the Hindu votes and the Congress used to tap into the minorities. But the emergence of BJP as a third option and their winning 15% votes in 2016 have changed the equation. Realising that a section of Hindu votes (especially Nairs) are gradually switching to the BJP, CPI (M) has begun to woo the minorities. It has often accused Congress of peddling a "soft-Hindutva" line.
The new leadership has their task cut out. The Congress organisation is in shambles across the state, and needs major overhauling. The party has been on a downward spiral in Kerala following the drubbing it received at the hands of the LDF in the 2016 assembly elections. The Chengannur by-election result made it worse, and the uncertainty over appointment of a new president had left the party rudderless. With BJP breathing down their neck in many parts of the state, Ramachandran will need to quickly devise a strategy to prevent erosion of their vote bank.
Revisiting the tried-and-tested policy of community appeasement seems to be the only strategy for now. While Nairs and Ezhavas did ditch the Congress recently, the reasons vary. Last week, Mullappally Ramachandran chose to play safe when he was asked about the nuns’ protest seeking justice. A lot of people, especially youth, have lately been voting on the basis of issues than on the directives of community leaders, and that makes it incumbent on leaders to articulate their positions.
To counter Pinarayi Vijayan’s aura as a strong leader, the cadres had been demanding either K Muralidharan or K Sudhakaran as President. But the central leadership seems to have played safe by nominating multiple faces. The first challenge going forward is the Lok Sabha elections. But the larger test is to displace the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government in 2021. For that, the new leadership will have to fortify their organisation to booth level and regain public confidence. Time will say if Mullappally Ramachandran can usher in an era of unity and reposition the party as the only alternative in the state politics.