Why Rahul Gandhi Contesting From Wayanad in Kerala Is a Good Move

Rahul Gandhi is more popular than Modi in South. He’s trying to cash in on this by contesting from Wayanad in Kerala

5 min read
Rahul Gandhi with Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy (L),party MP AK Anthony and others. 

Congress president Rahul Gandhi has decided to contest from the Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala as a second seat in addition to his bastion Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.

For some time now, there has been speculation that Rahul Gandhi could contest from a seat in South India in addition to Amethi.

There are two precedents for this – Indira Gandhi contested from Medak in Andhra Pradesh (now in Telangana) in 1980 when she resurrected the Congress after its defeat in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections.

Then Sonia Gandhi contested her first election in 1999 from Bellary in Karnataka in addition to Amethi, which was also seen as an effort to revive the Congress after its worst ever-performance in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections.

With the Congress falling well below even the 1998 tally, it is understandable that Rahul Gandhi wants to contest from both the North and the South to help the party revive across the country.

With this template in mind, Congress state units in Kerala and Karnataka wrote to Rahul Gandhi, inviting him to contest from there. He has finally chosen Wayanad. Here’s why it’s a good decision.

Rahul Gandhi More Popular Than Modi in the South

According to several opinion polls, Rahul Gandhi’s popularity in the south exceeds that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For instance, both the Lokniti-CSDS Mood of the Nation Survey from May 2018 and the India Today Political Stock Exchange from November 2018 give Gandhi a 3 percentage point lead over Modi in South India.

This lead was clear even in a state like Andhra Pradesh where neither Congress nor BJP have much of a presence. According to India Today’s Political Stock Exchange, 44 percent people chose Rahul Gandhi as their choice of Prime Minister against 38 percent who chose PM Modi.

In Tamil Nadu – another state where both BJP and Congress are side players in the rivalry between AIADMK and DMK – 36 percent chose Rahul Gandhi and 29 percent chose Narendra Modi as their choice of PM.

The results from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu also indicate that Rahul Gandhi’s popularity is irrespective of the party’s strength in the two states.

In Kerala, where the Congress has a strong base, Rahul Gandhi’s popularity isn’t surprising. There, 38 percent chose Rahul Gandhi and 31 percent picked Narendra Modi as their choice of PM. Needless to say, this would work to Gandhi’s advantage as he hits the electoral battlefield in Wayanad.

However, Gandhi’s lead over Modi in the South isn’t just due to a personality contest. In the South, there is a sense among many people that Modi’s regime represents a threat to India’s federalism.

By contesting from Wayanad, Rahul Gandhi is clearly sending the message that he stands with the South against any possible assertion from the Centre.

Why Kerala and Why Wayanad?

While there is a clear reason why Rahul Gandhi would choose to contest from South India, the question remains – why Kerala and not any other southern state?

Apparently, there was a concern that contesting from Karnataka would harm the UPA’s chances in Tamil Nadu, given the rivalry between the two states due to disputes such as the Cauvery water issue. Conversely, contesting from Tamil Nadu would have provoked a reaction in Karnataka.

The same holds true of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana as well, which are also facing disputes after the bifurcation. In these two states, there would have been an additional problem that no seat would have been safe for Rahul Gandhi given the weak position of the Congress.

Therefore, Kerala was the only realistic option.

And within Kerala, Wayanad was the most appropriate seat as it shares a border with both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It is perhaps the only seat in Kerala that can have some kind of spillover effect on the two neighbouring states.

Also unlike other seats in Kerala, where the Congress has established leaders, there was a political vacuum in Wayanad. In 2014 and 2009, the seat was won by veteran Congress leader MI Shanavas, who passed away in November 2018. The Congress initially nominated youth leader T Siddique, who expressed his willingness to step aside and invited Gandhi to contest from the seat.

In terms of demographics, Muslims account for over 45 percent of the electorate in Wayanad, tribals account for close to 10 percent of the population, and Christians another 10 percent. By contesting from the seat, Rahul Gandhi would send the message that reaching out to these sections is a major priority for him.

The seat is spread across three districts – it has three segments from Wayanad district, three from Malappuram district and one from Kozhikode district. The Indian Union Muslim League enjoys considerable influence in the area and Rahul Gandhi’s election from there is also his way of giving respect to the Congress’ oldest ally.

Counter Factionalism, Expand UDF

Kerala is one of the few states the Congress expects to sweep in the Lok Sabha elections but it’s main problem in the state has been factionalism. The Congress in Kerala is bitterly divided between the Congress (A) and Congress (I) groups headed by former chief minister Oommen Chandy and Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala respectively.

Both groups locked horns over the Wayanad seat and initially the seat went to Chandy loyalist T Siddique. But the factional rivalry threatened to harm Congress’ prospects in the state. But with Rahul Gandhi contesting from Wayanad, the two groups will be forced to work together. This is likely to help the UDF’s prospects in the state.

There’s another aspect to this. Despite being one of the few states where the Congress still has a strong machinery, there is a perception that the state seldom gets its importance nationally.

Even in their southern expeditions, Indira Gandhi chose Medak in Andhra Pradesh (now in Telangana) and Sonia Gandhi chose Bellary in Karnataka. Kerala somehow didn’t figure as an option. This has changed with Rahul Gandhi. The idea of a de-facto PM candidate contesting from Kerala could help the UDF in the state.

Countering Congress vs BJP Narrative

The BJP hasn’t been able to make inroads in Wayanad, and the contest would essentially be between Rahul Gandhi and CPI candidate Suneer.

By contesting from Wayanad – where the Left will be the main opponent – Gandhi is also sending the signal that his battle isn’t just against the BJP, but also against regional parties.

This is an important message ahead of the elections as it goes against the binary “Modi vs Rahul” and “BJP vs Congress” narrative.

Maximising its tally vis-a-vis regional parties would also give the Congress more bargaining power after elections, in case neither the UPA nor the NDA gets a majority.

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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