Can ‘Kerala Model’ Help Revive Congress on the National Stage?
Kerala is one of the rare success stories for the Congress in the last two Lok Sabha elections. In 2014, Kerala was the only state in which the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) could reach double digits – the Congress won 8 seats, Indian Union Muslim League won two, and one seat each went to Kerala Congress (Mani) and NK Premachandran of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.
This time, Kerala was the only state where the Congress’ individual tally was in double digits. The party won 15 seats, including Congress President Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad, while its allies won four.
Reduced to just 52 seats in Lok Sabha, the Congress is looking at Kerala for possible ways in which it can revive at the national stage. Party insiders say that this is partly because both the Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his predecessor Sonia Gandhi have a great deal of faith in leaders from Kerala on organisational matters.
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Here are some Kerala leaders occupying prominent positions in the party:
- AK Antony: Congress Working Committee Member, leads the party’s sub-groups on pre-poll alliances, manifesto and government programmes, and the core group committee.
- KC Venugopal: General Secretary (Organisation), in-charge for Karnataka
- Oommen Chandy: General Secretary in-charge for Andhra Pradesh
- PC Chacko: in-charge for Delhi
- Shashi Tharoor: Chairman, All India Professionals Congress
- TN Prathapan: Chairman, All India Fishermen Congress
These are of course in addition to party president Rahul Gandhi, who is an MP from Wayanad in the state.
Given that it has sent the highest number of Congress MPs among all states, it is likely that the party’s leader in Lok Sabha might also be from Kerala. Mavelikkara MP Kodikunnil Suresh who just won his sixth Lok Sabha election, is the senior-most Congress MP after Sonia Gandhi.
But can the ‘Kerala Model’ be implemented nationally? Let’s look at some of its features that can be implemented with caveats on how the rest of the country is a different ball game from Kerala.
The Congress’ cadre in Kerala may not be as strong as that of its rival, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) but it is definitely better than any Congress unit in the country. The party has effective, functioning offices at the district, taluka, municipality and panchayat level and party leaders interact with people regularly and help “get things done.”
In Kerala, the party has booth-level workers who have a list of voters they interact with and are responsible for. It’s not very different from the Panna Pramukh system of the BJP. The Congress hasn’t even come close to replicating this in most other states.
A great deal of campaigning is door-to-door and greatly dependent on the personal connect of the party cadre or local leader.
The Kerala touch was visible in the Congress’ campaign in the 2017 civic elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Delhi, where PC Chacko is in-charge.
The Congress emphasised on door-to-door campaigning and ensured the presence of workers at every booth, which helped the party improve its vote share substantially compared to 2014. Ideally, the party would like to replicate this approach in other states as well.
Be it the CPM, the Congress or even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the real hero is the political worker.
Workers who are killed in political violence are hailed as martyrs by parties. Even if a party worker dies a natural death, it is expected that local and state level leaders come for the funeral. Such funerals are significant political events at the local level.
One of the main reasons for the Congress’s success in Kerala is its stable pre-poll alliance in the state — the United Democratic Front (UDF), which was formed in the 1970s by Congress strongman K Karunakaran.
The alliance is important because it doesn’t just bring together political parties, but key social groups in the state. The IUML is a party dominated by Muslims of the Malabar region, while the Kerala Congress (Mani) is dominated by Travancore Christians. Both IUML and KC(M) are unbeatable in their respective regions. For instance, IUML has been undefeated in the Malappuram Assembly seat since 1960 and Manjeri since 1967. In fact, KC(M) leader KM Mani represented Pala for a record 52 years.
Even though Congress also gets substantial Muslim and Christian votes, there is no element of competition between allies. Strong pre-poll alliances with seats decided well in advance is a key feature of the Kerala Model that the Congress can replicate in rest of the country.
It is no surprise that the Congress’ committee on pre-poll alliances is headed by a Malayali, AK Antony and that the leader who stuck his neck out in supporting a pre-poll alliance with AAP in Delhi, is another Kerala leader PC Chacko.
Centre vs State
The Kerala unit of Congress has asserted its autonomy vis-a-vis the national leadership time and again. But unlike other such assertions, these are always based on policy and not personality. Therefore, they never lead to a full-fledged rebellion.
For instance, when the UPA government opened up big retail to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in 2012, the-then Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy opposed it.
“Lakhs of people are engaged in retail business in the State. FDI will affect them. Second, even in villages we have a very good retail system. So, at this stage, we don’t think FDI in retail will be a good step in Kerala," Chandy had said back then, making it clear that the state always comes first.
The same thing happened in the Sabarimala issue. While the central leadership hailed the Supreme Court’s judgement — which allowed the entry of women between 10 and 50 years of age — the state unit opposed it in the name of upholding tradition. The IUML and KC(M) backed the state unit on this.
However unlike BJP, the UDF did not support protests on the issue. While the Congress faced flak for taking a progressive position at the Centre and a conservative one in Kerala, several voters, particularly privileged Hindus, seem to have appreciated this. This partly halted the rise of the BJP in Kerala in the Lok Sabha elections.
The Congress’ ability to behave like a regional party has helped it maintain its hold in Kerala.
Congress: The Preferred National Option
In the recent Lok Sabha elections, the Congress suffered in many states due to people voting differently in state and central elections. Many people who had voted for the Congress in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Gujarat shifted to the BJP at the Lok Sabha level.
In Kerala, however, the pattern has been the reverse. In the last three Lok Sabha elections, the Congress has done much better at the national level than at the state level.
Take a look at the vote share of the Congress and its main rival, CPM in all Assembly and Lok Sabha polls since 2006.
In the 2006 Assembly polls, the CPM had a healthy 6 percentage point lead over the Congress but in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress got a 10 percentage point lead. In 2011 Assembly polls, even though the Congress came to power, the CPM polled more votes than it. But again in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress took a 10-point lead.
In the 2016 Assembly elections, the CPM got 3 percentage more votes than the Congress but it fell behind by almost 12 percentage points in the recent Lok Sabha polls.
This clearly shows that many floating voters who might pick CPM and its allies during state elections, vote for the Congress during national elections. The Congress would ideally want to be the national choice of regional party voters in several states, especially Uttar Pradesh, but it hasn’t been able to reach that stage so far.
The Congress was able to achieve this to some extent in Delhi, Telangana and Tripura in the Lok Sabha elections, where it managed to win over a significant chunk of votes from AAP, TRS and Left Front respectively.
However, it won’t be easy for the Congress to replicate the Kerala Model at the national level due to certain unique factors that exist in Kerala but not in other states:
- Kerala has far fewer first-time voters than other states, making it much less susceptible to BJP’s campaigning techniques aimed at this demographic. The average voter in Kerala is older and has more established voting patterns and a longer history of interacting with parties at the local level. The is not the case in most other states.
- The second demographic factor is of course, religion. Muslims and Christians together account for over 40 percent of Kerala’s voters, giving the Congress a natural advantage. In the Lok Sabha elections, 70 percent Christians and 65 percent Muslims in Kerala voted for the UDF according to the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey. On the other hand, BJP got over 35 percent of the privileged Hindu vote. The Congress may not get this demographic advantage in other states.
- Kerala is smaller and better connected compared to other states and the role of money is much lesser than many other states. Therefore, the Congress’ relative paucity of funds compared to the BJP doesn’t harm it as much in Kerala as it would in other states.
- With the Left being its main opponent in Kerala, the Congress in Kerala gets a chance to occupy a broad political space from centre-left on one hand to conservative right wing on the other. It becomes the natural option for minorities as well as privileged Hindus, both sections that have traditionally been wary of the Left. In many other states, however, the Congress doesn’t get this space, with privileged Hindus firmly behind the BJP. The only state where it has managed to do this to some extent is Punjab in the 2017 Assembly polls. The Congress won over the support of both Sikhs who were angry with the Akali Dal as well as Hindus who were wary of the Aam Aadmi Party. (AAP)
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