Analysis | Rahul overrules veterans to revamp the Congress in Kerala

Congress leader Rahul Gandh, centre, with (from left): P K Kunjalikutty, Oommen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala, KC Venugopal and Mullapally Ramachandran at a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram on February 23.   | Photo Credit: S Mahinsha

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi stood firm on appointing V.D. Satheesan as the party’s legislature party leader in Kerala, in the face of stiff resistance against the move from the current incumbent Ramesh Chennithala and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Rivals-turned-allies, Mr. Chennithala and Mr. Chandy have been in control of the party in Kerala for more than five years now. As the defeat of the party in the recent Assembly elections is being attributed to a series of steps taken by the duo, many of their own supporters now want a “generational shift” in the leadership. Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president Mullappally Ramachandran will also be replaced soon, according to party functionaries familiar with the developments.

Mr. Chandy has proposed 74-year-old K.C. Joseph to the post, who is not finding favour among several MLAs, MPs and other party workers who spoke to The Hindu. “Sentiments of the workers will be the determining factor. Mr. Gandhi is clear that the current level of factional favouritism cannot be allowed in the party,” an AICC functionary said. “The message is clear. At all levels, people who are willing to work, who have the merit and public acceptance must be given leadership. That is the only way the party can rebuild in Kerala,” the functionary said.

Mr. Gandhi is, however, eager to hold both leaders close. Mr. Chandy, at 78, is frail; Mr. Chennithala, 64, will likely be given a responsibility at the national level. As a former president of the National Students’ Union of India and Indian Youth Congress, he has a national network. Mr. Satheesan has been asked to work closely with these leaders, and build a new unity of purpose in the Congress.

Danger visible since 2011

“The party used to work on the premise that we don’t need to do anything to return to power after a five-year hiatus,” a Congress MLA said. “The danger was visible as early as 2011, when the United Democratic Front (UDF) barely won the election. The CPI(M) did not want a second consecutive term for V.S. Achutanandan and but for that factor, we would have lost that election.”

Mr. Chandy became CM in 2011, and mid-term, Mr. Chennithala’s demand to be inducted as Home Minister strained the relations between the two. But soon they closed ranks. They began to watch out for each other, and promoted their loyalists, as more and more leaders and social groups were alienated from the party and younger and meritorious hopefuls found their paths blocked.

A Congress leader pointed out the collapse of the party in the central Travancore region, which was once a stronghold, to illustrate the point. The Congress had no Hindu Ezhava candidate in Pathanamthitta district, pushing the community, entirely, to the Left Democratic Front that won all five seats. “At one point, the UDF used to win all. The candidates that we fielded offered little more than their factional loyalties,” the leader said.

The Congress also established a practice of gifting seats to allies in order to cut out internal rivals of the leadership. It gave two Rajya Sabha seats to UDF constituents who crossed over to the LDF soon after, in the last six years. Kerala Congress (Mani) leader Jose K. Mani was fielded as a Rajya Sabha candidate, blocking the path for another term for former deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha Professor P.J. Kurien.

Stunned by the move

The party’s young leaders who were publicly calling for a fresh Congress candidate in place of Prof. Kurien, who had finished three terms in the upper House, were stunned by the gifting of the berth to Mr. Mani. “Mr. Mani had not even asked for it,” a Congress MP said. Within months after gifting a RS berth to the Kerala Congress (M), the Congress leadership began to push for its exit from the UDF.

“This time, factional leaders began to calculate that they could contest more seats and more convenient ones, and the Mani faction was expelled. The impressive performance of the party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections gave a false sense of invincibility,” the leader said. Several senior leaders, such as Prof. K.V. Thomas, called for efforts to keep the Mani faction within the UDF, but to no avail. This time, the party high command has decided to keep allies out of the internal party deliberations.

KPCC president Mullapally Ramachandran is also facing the wrath of the party workers, who are populating social media sites with emotive outbursts. “Once it so happened that he locked his front door and stayed inside the house to avoid meeting party workers,” a party MLA said. He refused to resign after the defeat but has changed tack now and has offered to quit.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 6:32:18 AM |

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