Will Kerala Witness a Rahul Gandhi Wave This Lok Sabha Election?
Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad is an important moment for the party in Kerala. The Kerala unit is one of the most resilient state units of the Congress. The party has strong roots in Kerala and behaves more like a regional party whose main focus is the state. The party’s base and cadre strength has remained intact even when the party weakened at the national level. The party won 11 seats in Kerala in the anti-Indira Gandhi wave in 1977.
Even in the 2014 Narendra Modi wave, Kerala is perhaps the only major state where the Congress managed to give a strong pushback. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) won 12 out of 20 seats – the only state where the UPA could reach double figures. The Left Democratic Front won eight seats and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to open its account, though it did put up a good fight in Thiruvananthapuram.
Today, there are at least four leaders from Kerala occupying important positions in the Congress: AK Antony, KC Venugopal, Oommen Chandy and PC Chacko.
Despite the strength of the Congress in Kerala, the state has more or less remained outside the radar of the top leadership. In Congress’ 134-year history, it has had just one president from Kerala – C Sanakaran Nair – way back in 1897.
But this time, Kerala has been pushed to the forefront of the Congress’ national plans, with Rahul Gandhi contesting from Wayanad. Contrary to what the BJP alleged, Gandhi’s decision to contest from a seat in Kerala had nothing to do with it being a safe seat. It is a less safe seat than Amethi, if Congress’ margin last time is anything to go by.
The main purpose it served was to channelise the anti-Modi sentiment in the South and maximise seats for the Congress. There is another aim: The desire to make Rahul Gandhi into a national mass leader.
One of the ways a leader can establish his mass popularity is by contesting outside his core area. The idea is that if he indeed is a mass leader, his entry in another area will impact not just the seat he is contesting but several seats in the region. For instance, Narendra Modi contesting from Varanasi in 2014 did contribute to the BJP sweep in Uttar Pradesh.
Sonia Gandhi contested from Amethi in 1999 and Rahul Gandhi contested in 2004, which did revive the Congress to some extent but it was limited by the party’s structural weakness in Uttar Pradesh. Will Rahul Gandhi contesting from Wayanad lead to a Congress sweep in Kerala?
Rahul Gandhi is Hugely Popular in Kerala
According to CVoter’s tracker, there are only four states where more people chose Rahul Gandhi over Narendra Modi as the most suitable candidate to be prime minister. The other states are Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab.
But Kerala is where Gandhi’s lead over Modi is the highest. When asked who they would prefer as the next prime minister between Modi and Gandhi, 65 percent chose the Congress president while 24 percent chose Modi.
Even in terms of approval rating, respondents in Kerala expressed a greater satisfaction with Rahul Gandhi than those in any other state. According to CVoter, 53.7 percent respondents in Kerala said they are extremely satisfied with Gandhi, 12.1 percent said they are somewhat satisfied while 21.8 percent said they are not at all satisfied. His Net Approval Rating is around 44 percent.
On the other hand, 57.3 percent respondents in Kerala said that they are not at all satisfied with Prime Minister Modi, 26.5 percent said they are very much satisfied and 16.1 percent said they are somewhat satisfied.
The situation seems favourable for a strong performance by the Congress in Kerala. Gandhi’s entry into the state and the people’s support for him as the next PM could give the party an added advantage.
Add to this a pattern that has been observed in the past two elections. In the 2014 and 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress did better than in the 2011 and 2006 Assembly polls, indicating that many Left or undecided voters at the state level voted for the Congress at the Centre.
This could have been due to two reasons. First, many voters may have chosen the Congress as the party best placed to keep the BJP at bay at the Centre. Second, this could also be due to the individual popularity of CPM strongman VS Achuthanandan, which gave the Left an advantage at the state level.
Most surveys have predicted a decisive lead for the UDF in the state. Even by conservative estimates, the Congress-led alliance could win 13 out of 20 seats in the state but according to some surveys, it could go up to 17 our 18 seats as well. Based on the pre-poll surveys by Mathrubhumi and Manorama, this is what the battleground in Kerala looks like.
While the UDF is decisively ahead in several seats like Gandhi’s constituency Wayanad, Congress bastions like Ernakulam, Indian Union Muslim League strongholds Malappuram and Ponnani and Kerala Congress (Mani)’s turf Kottayam, many seats are not so predictable.
For instance, Attingal is a Left bastion and the LDF has been winning the seat continuously since 1991. The same goes for Palakkad, which the Left has been winning since 1996. The seat is a known Left stronghold and it has elected CPM stalwarts like AK Gopalan and EK Nayanar. However, this time, the BJP is expected to make an impact in the seat, which had made it a confusing one to call.
There are two other seats where the BJP is expected get a substantial chunk of votes: Thiruvananthapuram and Pathanamthitta. In Thiruvananthapuram, the party has fielded senior leader Kummanam Rajasekharan against sitting Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. In the 2014 elections, BJP’s O Rajagopal had given Tharoor a scare. This time, the BJP fancies its chances of winning the seat.
In Pathanamthitta, the epicentre of the Sabarimala agitation, BJP’s K Surendran fancies his chances against Veena George of the LDF and Congress’ Anto Antony. Being at the forefront of the agitation protesting the entry of women into Sabarimala, Surendran hopes to consolidate Hindu votes in the seat.
Rahul Gandhi’s entry has helped the Congress in several ways.
- It has helped control factionalism in the party’s Kerala unit that is divided between the “A” group and “I” group, led by Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala. Now all the factions are working together to ensure a UDF sweep in the state.
- It has helped the Congress neutralise to some extent, the criticism it faced due to its ambiguous stand on the Sabarimala issue, with the state unit opposing the entry of women and the central leadership supporting it.
- Being the strongest challenger to Modi at the national level, Rahul Gandhi’s presence is likely to help the UDF consolidate the votes of Muslims and Christians in Kerala. As it is minority communities tended to prefer the UDF but this time, they are likely to support the alliance even more overwhelmingly.