Ending days of suspense over the selection of the Kerala Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leader, the party has appointed V D Satheesan to the post. The move is being seen as a strong message by the party’s central leadership to end the prolonged factionalism in its state unit. The new appointment also indicates a generational shift in the party, say observers. Sources said that though the high command was under pressure from state leadership against a change of guard, senior leader Rahul Gandhi wanted to induct fresh faces and usher in change.
The recent development is significant as it’s the first time that the high command has gone against the recommendations of the senior leadership of the party’s A and I groups, which are in the driver’s seat in Kerala.
The delay in deciding the CLP leader was attributed to the factional fight between the local A and I groups of the party. The job was then entrusted to the high command to choose between the main contenders— former Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala and Congress vice president V D Satheesan.
The high command's decision largely hinged on a report submitted by Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha, and AICC general secretary M. A. Vaidyalingam. Both the central leaders had held meetings with all the newly elected 21 Congress MLAs individually and sought their opinion on the matter. It is believed that the majority of MLAs voted in favour of Satheesan as the new opposition leader. Sources said that party general secretary KC Venugopal also played a key role in the leadership change.
The development also signals a restructuring of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) in the near future. Senior leaders said that the central leadership is aware of the challenges, as the CPM-led LDF has emerged as a strong force after its emphatic poll victory. A panel headed by Ashok Chavan is expected to give recommendations regarding leadership changes in the KPCC. A section of party leaders have been rooting for senior leader K Sudhakaran to replace incumbent KPCC president Mullappally Ramachandran.
The uncertainty in deciding the Opposition leader even three weeks after the announcement of the results has come as a major embarrassment for Congress, which suffered a massive debacle in the Assembly election.
Though the second Pinarayi Vijayan led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government assumed office this week, the Congress-led United Democratic Front had been dragging its feet on the selection of a leader. The new Assembly is slated to hold its first session on May 24 and 25.
While Ramesh Chennithala was hopeful of retaining his position, the young brigade in the party apparently wanted a change of guard. Sources said that majority of the young members were in favour of selecting 56-year-old V D Satheesan while Chennithala had the support of former chief minister and veteran leader Oommen Chandy. Interestingly, Oommen Chandy is the leader of the A group faction while Chennithala leads the rival I group. Satheesan too belongs to the 'I' group of the party, though he prefers to distance himself from group politics. Satheesan, was elected from the Paravur constituency in Ernakulam district for a fifth consecutive term.
Many party insiders were of the opinion that Congress may become irrelevant as an Opposition party if it fails to do a course correction in the coming days.
“The dismal performance of Congress in the Assembly election is symptomatic of the rot in the leadership. Congress will implode if it doesn’t attempt leadership change. We need young leaders at the helm,” said a Congress leader who supports Satheesan in the new role. Many senior leaders including K Muraleedhran and Raj Mohan Unnithan had earlier attacked the leadership and called for revamping of the state unit in the wake of a massive drubbing in the polls.
The supporters of Chennithala argued that the leader succeeded in turning the heat on the previous LDF government by exposing many scams and corruption charges against it. Knives were out in the open after the UDF was reduced to 41 seats from its previous tally of 47 in the 140 seat Assembly. The internal bickering among multiple groups has also intensified after the polls as leaders have been trying to shift the blame on each other for the poor performance.
A fact-finding report by AICC general secretary and Kerala in-charge Tariq Anwar has also attributed infighting among the leadership as the main reason for the defeat of Congress in the state.
Political commentators say that V D Satheesan has a tough job ahead as he is going to face Opposition from both A and I groups. Speaking to reporters, Satheesan made it clear that his priority is to work above group interests. Observers cite the experience of senior leader V M Sudheeran, who quit the post of KPCC president owing to tussles between the two factions. The Congress leadership brought in Sudheeran— who has a clean image—at the helm of the party in 2014, to put an end to factionalism. Though Sudheeran failed in curbing the feud, only time will tell whether the new effort will bear fruit this time.