With an aggressive BJP hoping to retain its hold over the Hindi heartland in the Lok Sabha polls, a section of the Congress leaders from southern India want to bolster the Grand Old Party’s chance at victory by convincing party president Rahul Gandhi to contest from a seat in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu, besides Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
On Friday, Congress leaders from Karnataka – former chief minister Siddaramaiah and state party president Dinesh Gundu Rao – urged Rahul to contest the upcoming Lok Sabha polls from their state.
“On behalf of @INCKarnataka I urge @RahulGandhi to consider contesting from Karnataka for the forthcoming #LokSabhaElection2019. He should also be our representative from South India & for that he should choose my state,” Rao tweeted on Friday afternoon. Shortly after, Siddaramaiah too endorsed the demand, saying: “Karnataka has always supported & encouraged @INCIndia leaders. It has been proved in case of Smt. Indira ji & Smt. Sonia ji. We also want our next Prime Minister of India Shri. @RahulGandhi to contest from Karnataka & herald new developmental paradigm (sic).”
It may be recalled that Rahul’s mother and former Congress president had successfully contested the 1999 Lok Sabha polls from Bellary in Karnataka, defeating BJP’s Sushma Swaraj. Two decades prior to that victory, in 1978, Rahul’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi had been elected to the Lok Sabha in a by-election from Karnataka’s Chikmagalur, a year after her party was crushed in the post-Emergency general elections.
While the Congress leadership in New Delhi has so far refrained from commenting on the demand from their Karnataka colleagues, sources told Outlook that the demand for Rahul to contest from a second seat, along with Amethi, have also come from Tamil Nadu.
A senior party leader said acquiescing to the demand from the likes of Siddaramaiah and Rao may not be an easy choice for the party. “While we have no doubt that Rahul can win from any seat that he chooses to contest from, we also have to factor in the spin that our rivals, the BJP, will give to such a development. The moment Rahul agrees to contest from a second seat, the BJP will get a chance to say that he is doing so because he is unsure of his victory from Amethi… and in the southern states, they will rake up the issue of Sonia Gandhi having won from Bellary but then vacating the seat to retain Rae Bareli.”
The Congress has already declared that Rahul and Sonia will contest from Amethi and Rae Bareli respectively – the Nehru-Gandhi family’s bastions in central UP that they currently represent in the Lok Sabha.
Possibly aware of the caution that the central leadership wishes to tread within the poll season, sources say that they have also mooted an alternative – fielding Priyanka Gandhi Vadra from a seat in Karnataka. Recently inducted into the party as general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka has so far not been named as a candidate for the upcoming polls. All speculation of her taking over Rae Bareli from her mother was set aside after the party declared Sonia’s candidature last week. There have been calls from the Congress UP unit to field her from a seat in eastern UP but neither Rahul nor Priyanka have endorsed the demand so far.
Sources in the Karnataka Congress say that if Rahul is unwilling to contest from the state, they would want Priyanka to contest – either from Bidar or Bellary, both constituencies fall in northern Karnataka. Sonia had, in fact, contested and won a Lok Sabha poll from Bellary in 1999, defeating BJP’s Sushma Swaraj but then vacated the seat in favour of Rae Bareli. Bidar, which has a sizeable population of minorities has been the pocket borough of the family of veteran party leader, the late Dharam Singh, who served as Karnataka chief minister briefly.
However, a party leader said Priyanka is not keen on contesting the upcoming Lok Sabha polls at all and wants to focus on getting the party organisation in Uttar Pradesh – the state with 80 Lok Sabha seats – up to shape first. But then, it’s still early days and whether Priyanka finally takes the electoral plunge, irrespective of the seat she chooses for the purpose, is being keenly awaited not just within the Congress circles but also among the party’s arch-rivals in the BJP.
Those lobbying for Rahul to contest from Karnataka or Tamil Nadu believe that his doing so could help consolidate the electorate behind the Congress in southern India, a region where the BJP has not yet made significant in-roads. The only state south of the Deccan that the BJP has ruled so far is Karnataka but, despite emerging as the single largest party in the state’s Assembly polls last year, the saffron party failed to form a government after the Congress and HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) briskly sealed a post-poll alliance with HD Kumaraswamy as chief minister. The Congress-JD(S) pre-poll truck for Karnataka has recently been finalised and leaders from both parties feel that a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family contesting Lok Sabha from the state could help the alliance sweep a majority of the state’s 28 seats.
It is learnt that a section of Congress leaders from Tamil Nadu have been floating a similar demand for Rahul to contest from the state and have also conveyed this to alliance partner DMK’s president MK Stalin. The DMK and Congress had recently sealed their pre-poll alliance in Tamil Nadu, and Stalin had claimed that Rahul would replace Narendra Modi as Prime Minister once the general elections end in May. However, since the Congress has limited, and continually shrinking, presence in Tamil Nadu, no indication of a prospective seat for Rahul has been made as yet. Reports from some southern media outlets have indicated that former finance minister P Chidambaram is keen that if Rahul does contest from Tamil Nadu, he should choose Sivaganga as his seat – Chidambaram has won from the constituency seven times through his son, the controversial Karti Chidambaram lost the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from there.