The 2021 state elections are very important for the Congress party, and especially the Gandhis. A complete rout will embolden the dissidents and could force the Gandhis to opt out of the race for Congress President. A decent performance is more likely to strengthen the family’s claim over the top post.
Out of the 5 states which go to polls, the party is in power only in Puducherry, and there too, the government failed in a trust vote recently.
The party is in contention in Assam and Kerala, while in Bengal it has been relegated to the third position by the BJP. In Tamil Nadu, it is a minor player piggybacking on the DMK.
The initial opinion polls suggest that the party is trailing in both Assam and Kerala. The DMK-led alliance is leading in Tamil Nadu.
Congress Past Performance in Kerala
The Congress party is likely to hold internal organisational elections after the five state elections, and elect a Congress President by June 2021.
The Gandhis have been facing a lot of heat from the rebel G-23 camp in the Congress, which has been demanding elections for the post of President, CWC and other positions.
The G-23 has been highly critical of the functioning and leadership abilities of Rahul Gandhi, who is touted to succeed his mother Sonia Gandhi as the next Congress President. Rahul needs a win under his belt to have a moral claim over the chair.
Rahul is an MP from Wayanad in Kerala, and has recently been spending a lot of time in the state campaigning for the party, to boost its prospects. On the other hand, Priyanka Gandhi has been focussing her efforts on Assam.
The party had swept the 2019 general elections in Kerala, bagging 19 of the 20 seats. Rahul’s candidature from the state provided a push to the Congress’s fortunes.
After this performance, the party’s victory in the state elections 2021 was considered as a done deal. The fact that Kerala exhibits a strong trend of alternate governments provided strength to this assertion.
Congress Recovery in Kerala: How Rahul Gandhi Amended His Mistakes
Kerala has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country. This, together with the alleged involvement of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in the gold-smuggling case provided ammunition to the Congress.
However, the Congress received a shocker during the local body polls wherein it lost to the CPIM-led LDF, despite conditions in its favour.
Rahul’s inability to unite the various factions of the party, lack of fresh faces, dynastic politics, wrong judgement / call on ally the Kerala Congress (Mani faction) among other reasons were responsible for this loss.
However, learning from his mistakes, Rahul quickly brought back former chief minister and AICC General Secretary Oommen Chandy, who had been voluntarily keeping off after the loss in 2016, to the forefront of the leadership in the state.
The Congress is contesting the state elections under the combined leadership of Oomen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala (Leader of Opposition) and Mullapally Ramachandran (State President).
The decision over who would be the chief minister (if the UDF wins) would be taken after the elections. This strategy was successfully followed in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2018.
Rahul brought back Chandy to keep the Christian voters in good humour, which can influence the outcome in 45 seats.
The party’s candidate list, campaign strategy and manifesto all have Rahul’s Midas touch. In line with his strategy of promoting young talent, the party has given many tickets to fresh faces.
Will Kerala 2021 Polls Be a Rahul vs Pinarayi Contest?
“Our leader Rahul Gandhi was keen on young faces and at least 55 percent of our candidates are fresh ones,” said the Leader of the Opposition, Ramesh Chennithala, after ticket distribution in Kerala.
In continuance with the welfare manifesto of the 2019 general elections focussing on uplifting the poor and the downtrodden, the Congress-led UDF has promised Rs 2,000 monthly pension to homemakers, five kg free rice to all white card holders and 5 lakh homes for the poor.
With state elections becoming more and more ‘presidential’ style, the Congress is attempting to make it a Rahul Gandhi vs Pinayari Vijayan contest.
The CM is also referred to as ‘Modi in a mundu’ because of his strong leader image, and larger-than-life persona.
In Kerala, the election narrative is as much around the personality of the CM as it is about the issues on the ground. Rahul is ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in popularity ratings in Kerala, and this is what the party wants to encash.
Why Gandhis Must Win State Elections to Retain Power Within the Party
From the looks of it, Rahul Gandhi is not shying away from a contest against Pinayari Vijayan in Kerala either. A lot is at stake for Rahul in the southern state. If he manages to lead UDF to victory and cause an upset, his stature in national politics will receive a boost.
If the UDF loses in Kerala, then it can mar Rahul’s chances of becoming Congress President again. If Congress loses in Kerala but wins in Assam, then there may be a clamour in the party to choose Priyanka Gandhi for the top post.
If the party loses badly in all states, then it will be difficult for the Gandhis to claim the top chair.
The 2021 state election results is bound to have host of ramifications for the grand old party.
The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)