Persistently reviled by its rivals and insiders alike for the agonizing wait its young and non-dynastic grassroots workers must endure before getting a shot at electoral debuts, is the Congress party attempting a course correction? Party leaders privy to the ongoing candidate selection process for the four poll-bound states insist there is now a concerted effort to make a “generational shift” while fielding nominees; particularly in Kerala and Assam.
Over the past week, the Congress party announced a bulk of its candidates for the Kerala, Assam and West Bengal assembly polls while its nominees for the assembly polls in Tamil Nadu and the union territory of Puducherry are likely to be declared over the next couple of days. While as a junior partner in large Opposition alliances in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the Congress, admittedly, “doesn’t have the luxury to experiment” much with its candidate selection process, party sources say in Kerala and Assam the “changing demographic profile” of its contestants is distinctly visible.
“If you look at our list in Kerala, almost 55 per cent of the 86 candidates declared so far are fresh faces; 46 candidates are in the 25 to 50 years age group and these include 13 Indian Youth Congress (IYC) members who are presently serving in our state or district units. Similarly, in Assam, out of the 28 candidates declared till now, five are serving IYC office bearers,” IYC president Srinivas B.V. tells Outlook.
Congress leaders say the push for younger candidates, prospected from Congress’s frontal organisations like the IYC and the All India Professionals Congress (AIPC), came from former and likely future party Chief Rahul Gandhi. “In Kerala and Assam, we are the main Opposition party and are contesting the largest share of seats. Rahul was very insistent that the party give a chance to the youth, particularly those from IYC and other frontal organisations, who have been involved in our grassroots campaigns, agitations and public outreach. Additionally, the feedback we got from voters in Kerala was that the party must field fresh, younger faces,” says a senior party leader involved with screening candidates for the Kerala assembly polls. Another party leader says the selection criteria – winnability, grassroots and youth connect, participation in Congress’s field campaigns, commitment to the party ideology, among others – is an extension of what Rahul had, in a limited manner, experimented with during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
“Contrary to all the baseless criticism about Rahul impeding the rise of other younger Congress leaders, he has consistently tried to push young leaders who have worked hard at the grassroots to contest assembly and Lok Sabha polls. In the 2019 elections also, while he gave state-level leaders a free hand at selecting most candidates, Rahul had put only one condition – leaders from our frontal organisations who have been working hard should not be sidelined. As a result, in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, IYC leaders Hibi Eden, Ramya Haridas, Dean Kuriakose, S. Jothimani were given tickets and all of them won,” a Rahul confidant tells Outlook. He adds that it is “unfortunate” that achievements of leaders such as Eden, Jothimani, Haridas – “all of whom have no political lineage to boast of and have come up through sheer determination and struggle” – never make headlines and nor does Rahul’s support for them, while “everyone only talks about Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora, Jitin Prasad or Sachin Pilot – all of whom came from famous political families and didn’t have to work hard to earn their place in the party”.
Congress insiders say that much before the candidate selection process began for the ongoing assembly elections, Rahul had urged party leaders in the poll-bound states to “give newcomers a chance; break the image-trap of the party having no new leadership and appeal to the youth”. Since Rahul is now a Lok Sabha MP from Kerala’s Wayanad and, thus, visits the southern state frequently – evidently more frequently than he toured Amethi – party sources say he was “deeply involved in the candidate selection process for Kerala”. In Assam, while Rahul reportedly stayed out of the day-to-day deliberations on party candidates, the fact that his confidants Gaurav Gogoi and Sushmita Dev belonged to the north-eastern state ensured that “younger leaders and those involved with IYC or Mahila Congress activities got a chance to contest the polls”, albeit not in the same way as Kerala, says a party leader.
In Kerala, the Congress has fielded only three veterans who are above 70 years of age – former chief minister Oommen Chandy (77) from his traditional Puthupally seat, former minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan (71) from Kottayam and legislator K. Sivadasan Nair (72), in Pathanamthitta’s Aranmula constituency. Another 15 seniors, including Leader of Opposition and Haripad MLA Ramesh Chennithala (64), who are in the 60 to 70 years age bracket also figure in the party’s list of candidates.
The highlights of the party’s candidate list in Kerala are names such as Aritha Babu from Kayamkulam constituency in Alappuzha, Dr Sarin P from Palakkad’s Ottappalam seat, AM Rohith in Malappuram’s Ponnani, Dr S.S. Lal in Kazhakoottam (Thiruvananthapuram) among several others – all party workers who have either been associated with the IYC, the state’s vibrant student politics landscape or other frontal organisations of the Congress. State IYC leaders Shafi Perambil and K.S. Sabarinadhan who had successfully won the last assembly polls from Palakkad and Aruvikkara respectively have also been re-nominated to contest. Babu, who’ll face-off against sitting CPM MLA U.
Pratibha in Kayamkulam, belongs to a marginalized community and, as Kerala Congress president introduced her while declaring her candidature, “sells milk every day to make a living and support her family”. Sarin had cleared the Indian Audit and Accounts Service (IA&AS) in 2009 but resigned from the central service in 2016 to work with Congress in Kerala. Lal worked with the World Health Organisation in the past before his association with the AIPC that is headed by Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor.
In Assam, the Congress had fielded a large number of new faces in the 2016 assembly polls too but many of them, like state Youth Congress vice president Angkita Dutta, came from well-entrenched Congress families with parents or spouses who had previously held a party or legislative posts. However, in the BJP wave that swept Assam in 2016, a majority of these new faces were cast aside by the voters.
This time around, the Congress list is a mix of new and old faces; veterans and youngsters, leaders like Dutta, daughter of the late Anjan Dutta who was the state Congress chief in 2016, and Augustine Engshee, a district youth Congress leader who can boast of no political lineage. Among the Youth Congress members who have made it to the candidate's list in Assam are also Sachin Sahoo (Patharkandi), Sibanath Chetia (Digboi) and Subhramitra Gogoi (Sibsagar) while IYC leaders are also hopeful that their colleagues Ratul Patowary and Altaf Mandal may also be given a chance to contest the polls from Dharmapur and Golakganj seats for which the party is yet to announce its nominees.
“The candidate lists in Kerala and Assam show Rahul’s faith in the youth and his desire to encourage newcomers and outsiders to enter electoral politics. It doesn’t matter to Rahul whether you come from a political family or not, his only advice to us has been to believe in the party ideology, work hard among the people and expose the crony-capitalist, communal and fascist agenda of the BJP,” says Srinivas, adding that the trend of identifying Assembly and Lok Sabha candidates from IYC and other Congress frontal organisations is likely to continue from now on “under Rahul’s guidance”.
Srinivas also accepts the criticism of the party not fielding enough women candidates in the poll-bound states. The absence of enough women candidates in Congress’s list in Kerala has already caused some public embarrassment to the party. The denial of ticket to state Mahila Congress chief Lathika Subhash from the Ettumanoor constituency since the seat was given by the Congress to an alliance partner has triggered some protests by a section of the Mahila Congress members in Kottayam. Subhash resigned from the Congress and tonsured her head in protest; declaring that she would now contest as an independent to avenge the insult.
Srinivas says the Lathika Subhash episode is unfortunate but adds that Rahul has been discussing ways of increasing women’s representation for some time now. “Rahul has already told us that in the IYC we must have 33 per cent reservation for women; once we achieve that across all state units, it will perhaps also be easier for the party to mentor potential candidates for the future,” he says.