WAYANAD — The best road to travel between Sulthan Bathery and Nilambur, the two biggest towns in Wayanad district in Kerala, passes through the Nilgiris constituency in Tamil Nadu where the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) A Raja faces a tough fight from the AIADMK-BJP candidate M Thiyagarajan.
The DMK isn’t fighting alone in Tamil Nadu—it’s part of a secular alliance that includes the Congress, CPM and CPI. The sight of the flags of all the coalition members tied together along the Gudalur and Panadalur taluks of the Nilgiris is a complete contrast to the picture in Wayanad, where Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s entry as a candidate has given new life to his party in Kerala and backed the state’s Left parties into a corner.
While Kerala’s ruling CPM and ally CPI have been attacking Gandhi and the Congress for distracting from the fight against the BJP in the state, some voters say they are perplexed by the difference in the party’s political positions in Kerala and neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
“We are a bit confused about the ideological differences the Left parties are raising against Rahul and Congress in Wayanad. My extended family involving traditional CPI(M) sympathisers live in Gudalur and they will vote for DMK along with Congress workers this time. A little away in Coimbatore, my party’s candidate PR Natarajan is fighting BJP directly with the support of both DMK and Congress. I have many family members living there too,’’ said M Dinesh, a taxi driver from Kalpetta in Wayanad, a card-carrying communist who campaigns against Gandhi when he’s not working.
The Congress in Kerala was expected to cede some ground to the BJP after its flip-flops on the Sabarimala issue. But Gandhi’s surprise entry has rejuvenated party workers and is expected to lead to consolidation of votes behind the party.
The BJP, anyway, has nothing to lose in Kerala—it has not won a single seat in any Lok Sabha election till now and it was only in 2016 that it managed to win a lone Assembly seat.
Instead, it is the CPM, which was praised for its handling of the devastating 2018 floods and became a darling of liberals for its tough stand on implementing the SC order on women entering Sabarimala, that is expected to lose out. From a record 43 seats in the 2004 general election, its tally had dipped to 9 in 2014. This time, say political observers, even that may be a stretch.
The dissonance produced by the demands of electoral politics is not just in Tamil Nadu. Though Left parties are numerically weak in many parts of Karnataka, they have significant followers in both Mysore-Kodagu and Chamarajanagar constituencies, especially among Malayali migrants. In both the constituencies, Congress is fighting against the BJP with the support of Janata Dal (Secular), a party that is an alliance partner of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala.
But the situation in neighbouring states has not led to any toning down of the criticism against Rahul by the Left parties in Wayanad and other parts of Kerala, where the fight is between Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), pushing BJP to the third position.
While the Congress president said that he would not utter a single word against the CPI(M), keeping the door open for a post-poll grand alliance of the Left and secular parties, LDF leaders aren’t paying attention to these considerations. Veteran CPM leader and former Kerala chief minister VS Achuthanandan has already resurrected his old “Amul Baby” insult for Gandhi, while the resident editor of the party mouthpiece Deshabhimanihad to backtrack after the paper called Gandhi ‘Pappu’ in an editorial.
CM Vijayan has also expressed doubts about Gandhi being able to forge a post-poll secular alliance.
TT Sreekumar, a writer and political analyst who teaches at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, says that the last Left citadel in India, Kerala, has begun crumbling.
“Though LDF leaders are terming Rahul’s contest from Wayanad as a regressive political move weakening the national level fight against the BJP, the real concern is the possible setback the Left Front would suffer in Kerala, resulting in a total wipeout of communists from electoral politics in India,” he said.
In the 2014 election, five among the nine CPI(M) members of Lok Sabha were elected from Kerala, the rest being from Tripura and West Bengal. CPI’s sole Lok Sabha MP was from Thrissur in Kerala.
If the prevailing political condition is any indication, there are slim chances of West Bengal and Tripura electing a CPI(M) candidate. Outside Kerala, both the Left parties have hopes only from Tamil Nadu, where the DMK-Congress alliance has allocated two seats each to CPI and CPI(M).
Though Kerala is the only state where the Left is now in power, some opinion polls have suggested that the front would not fetch more than four to five seats out of the total 20 in the state. “The Left parties are trying to get as many MPs from Kerala as possible in this election. Only then will the party have anything to bargain with in case of the formation of an anti-BJP coalition at the centre. But it seems the calculation has gone wrong with Rahul Gandhi deciding to contest from Wayanad. His candidature is giving advantage to the Congress-led UDF’s candidates in almost all of the 20 constituencies,’’ said Malayalam writer and academic MN Karassery, whose vote also falls under Wayanad constituency.
While the Sabarimala issue no longer occupies centrestage in Kerala (the state’s chief poll officer has said parties can’t use it for campaigns), the Left is facing challenges including antipathy towards some of its candidates. These include Vadakara’s P Jayarajan who has been named as accused in several criminal cases, Chalakudy candidate Innocent, a sitting Lok Sabha MP and former president of cinema body AMMA, who dilly-dallied after actor Dileep was accused of hiring goons to sexually assault an actress, PV Anvar (Ponnani) who is being investigated for financial fraud and Joice George (Idukki), who faces charges of land grabbing and cheating.
“This election would make Left parties more insignificant at the national level. Lack of adequate representation even from Kerala would eclipse its chances to become a powerful force in the post-poll scenario,’’ said CK Janu, a powerful tribal leader from Wayanad who recently exited the BJP-led NDA.
The Congress is confident that Gandhi’s entry will help them tremendously.
“We will gain most of the seats in Kerala this time under Rahul’s impact and the UDF would consolidate itself to face future challenges. We will be able to retain the Rahul effect till the next assembly election. This is our reply to the Left leaders who said the Congress has no future in Kerala,’’ said Congress leader and former chief minister Oommen Chandy.
Wayanad, which became a constituency in 2009, has remained a Congress citadel since its formation. The BJP has barely any ground in the constituency, which is why it has allowed alliance partner BDJS leader Thushar Vellappally to contest from there. Vellappally seems to be using this chance to gain some national attention and bargain with the BJP leadership for a Rajya Sabha seat in the future.
PP Suneer, the CPI’s candidate from Wayanad, isn’t giving up easily.
“Will Rahul be another migratory bird which will fly away from Wayanad after securing comfortable majority in Amethi?” he asks. “People will prefer me over the guest candidate.”