Ending weeks of speculation over whether or not he will contest the upcoming Lok Sabha polls from a second seat in southern India, aside from his traditional constituency of Amethi in UP, the Congress, on Sunday, declared that party president Rahul Gandhi will be contesting simultaneously from Wayanad in north Kerala.
The announcement has been pitched as the Congress president’s “fight to espouse the aspirations of the people of south India” and a “befitting reply to those forces who attack the culture, language and way of life and the deep connect between the people of north and south India between which (sic) the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have created a deep divide”.
Congress media cell chief Randeep Surjewala told reporters that Rahul’s decision to contest from Wayanad “is a message to the people of southern India that they are deeply valued and respected… that their culture, language, way of life, food habits… is important to the Congress and to India and it is also a fight against those forces who seek to divide the country.”
The need for such a strident justification from the Congress for Rahul’s decision to contest from two seats arises out of the counter-narrative that the BJP has been spinning since rumours began over the possibility of the Nehru-Gandhi scion contesting from another constituency aside from the family’s pocket borough of Amethi.
The BJP in general and Union minister Smriti Irani, the party’s candidate against Rahul in Amethi, in particular, have been claiming that the Congress is on a desperate search for a “safe seat” for its president since his defeat from the family bastion that he has been representing since 2004 is imminent. Irani had alleged that the campaign from Congress leaders of the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka demanding Rahul’s candidature from their respective states was a “manufactured” one.
Irani had unsuccessfully contested the 2014 Lok Sabha seat from Amethi. While she lost, Irani, riding on the pan-India anti-Congress, pro-Modi wave, had succeeded in drastically reducing Rahul’s victory margin from Amethi. Over the past five years, she has visited Amethi regularly and criticised the lack of development in the district despite it reposing faith, “election after election”, in the Nehru-Gandhi family and in Rahul. Her assiduous campaigns in Amethi, juxtaposed with Rahul’s occasional visits to his constituency, have cultivated a perception that she could give the Congress president a tough electoral fight in the upcoming polls even if she ultimately fails in wresting the seat.
The BJP, however, seems to have itself taken the punch out of its attacks on Rahul’s hunt for a second seat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had successfully contested the 2014 Lok Sabha seats from Varanasi in UP and Vadodara in Gujarat, recently decided that he will enter the poll fray only from Varanasi this time.
Surjewala was quick to respond to the ‘Rahul hunting for a safe seat’ query from media persons, on Sunday, when he asked if Modi’s decision to not contest from Vadodara meant that he was unsure of his prospects from his home state of Gujarat.
Congress sources say that in the event of Rahul winning from Amethi and Wayanad, there is “no doubt that he will retain the Amethi seat”. And this is where the second reason for the delay in finalizing Rahul’s candidature from a second seat came in.
A senior party leader said: “There are two narratives that we expected the BJP to build if and when Rahul decided to contest from a second seat. First, which we saw over the past few weeks, with the BJP claiming that Rahul is scared of defeat in Amethi and is looking for a safe seat. The second… if he wins from both seats, he will retain Amethi and ditch the voters of whichever southern state he contests from.”
That the Nehru-Gandhi family has no commitment to the people of southern states and its members only look south when they are in desperate need of a safe seat is an argument that the BJP could have built on with some ease. Rahul’s grandmother, the late Indira Gandhi was the first member of the Nehru-Gandhi family who tested her electoral luck from a southern constituency. She won the 1978, post-Emergency election from Chikkmagalur seat in Karnataka after having lost from Rae Bareli a year earlier to Raj Narain. In the 1980 general elections though, she decided to give Chikkmagalur a pass, but contested from Medak, then in undivided Andhra, aside from Rae Bareli. Indira won from both seats but vacated Medak soon after. Rahul’s mother, Sonia Gandhi, too contested simultaneously from Amethi and Karnataka’s Bellary in 1999. She won from both but chose to retain Amethi.
The Congress seems to have spent the past few weeks working on various arguments that could deflate the BJP’s criticism of Rahul’s decision to contest from two seats.
On Sunday, when former Kerala chief minister AK Antony, finally announced that Rahul will be contesting from Wayanad, the script played out fully. The weeks prior had seen Congress leaders from Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu all requesting Rahul to contest from their respective states. Antony justified Rahul’s decision to chose Wayanad by stating that the geographical location of the constituency situated in the Western Ghats best fulfilled the demands from the leaders of the three states.
“Wayanad is the trijunction of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka,” Antony said, explaining that while the district fell within Kerala, it shared borders with Tamil Nadu’s Theni and the Nilgiris on one side and Karnataka’s Chamarajnagar district and Mysore region on the other side.
Congress sources say that another consideration for the party while locking in on the Wayanad seat for Rahul was that it feels that the BJP remains on a strong wicket in the northern and central Indian states. “The Congress is in a strong position in the southern states because we have a strong presence in Kerala and Karnataka and a formidable alliance in the two states and Tamil Nadu,” a senior Congress leader said, adding that “Rahul’s decision to contest from Wayanad will boost the victory prospects of the party and its alliance partners and help us offset some of the losses that we will have in the BJP stronghold states of the north.”
The Wayanad seat
The Wayanad seat, carved out of Mallapuram, Kozhikode and Wayanad districts in 2009 was won by the party's MI Shanawas in the past two elections.
The demand for Rahul's candidature from here, however, was also a bid by Kerala Congress leaders to gloss over their factional feuds. With the recent demise of Shanawas, Congress leaders Oommen Chandy, Mullapally Ramachandran and Ramesh Chennithala had been fighting to have one of their loyalists nominated as the party candidate from Wayanad. Chandy's confidante, T Siddique had initially been told to contest from Wayanad but he bowed out.
The Congress is fighting the Lok Sabha polls in Kerala with its allies in the UDF coalition. Of the 20 seats in the state, the Grand Old Party will be contesting on 16 seats while allies IUML is fielding candidates on 2 seats. Kerala Congress (Mani) and RSP have got one seat each. The state goes to polls on April 23, the third phase of the seven phase election.