In Kerala, an offer, an uproar, and a rejection

The Congress was wise in rejecting the SDPI’s offer in Kerala

Updated - April 15, 2024 02:23 am IST

Published - April 15, 2024 02:22 am IST

Social Democratic Party of India State president Muvattupuzha Ashraf Moulavi led the party’s State-wide yatra in Kerala with the theme ‘Reclaiming the country’. In this picture, he is seen in Kozhikode.

Social Democratic Party of India State president Muvattupuzha Ashraf Moulavi led the party’s State-wide yatra in Kerala with the theme ‘Reclaiming the country’. In this picture, he is seen in Kozhikode. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

On April 1, the president of the Kerala unit of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), Muvattupuzha Ashraf Moulvi, held a press conference and offered support to the Congress in the State in the Lok Sabha elections. The SDPI is the political arm of the proscribed Popular Front of India (PFI).

Congress leaders were guarded in their response. The convener of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), M.M. Hassan, stressed that the party would hold discussions on whether or not to accept the support offered. The Leader of the Opposition, V.D. Satheesan, clarified that the UDF had not held any discussions or reached any understanding with the SDPI. Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala pointed out that in a democratic setup, individuals, not parties, voted during elections and the party would not refuse votes from anyone. He, too, said that the Congress had not had any discussions with the SDPI.

As expected, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) saw in the dithering an opportunity to attack the Congress. BJP State chief K. Surendran questioned Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who is seeking re-election from Wayanad, to clarify his stance on the party’s endorsement of the SDPI. Mr. Surendran, who is also a candidate from Wayanad, alleged that the PFI was involved in the killings of Hindus and Christians and was implicated in several violent incidents. By aligning with an outfit that is trying to “disintegrate the nation,” the Congress was betraying citizens, he said.

The State secretary of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), M.V. Govindan, also criticised the Congress in a similar vein. He said that the Congress had a history of forming the CoLeBi (an acronym for Congress-League-BJP alliance) and was now prepared to receive support from another controversial political element. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stressed that the statements of Congress leaders revealed a clear deal between the Congress and the SDPI.

The controversy also played out at the national level, with Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Anurag Singh Thakur lashing out at the Congress.

Four days after the SDPI’s press conference, recognising the potential backlash from both Hindus and Christians, the Congress leadership rejected the offer of support from the SDPI. Mr. Satheesan stressed that the Congress saw both majority and minority communalism as two sides of the same coin. Citizens vote as individuals and the UDF hoped to get their endorsement on the merit of its manifesto and political agenda, he said.

Whatever be the Congress’s stand, UDF candidates perceive the SDPI’s votes as crucial in a tight contest, not only in the Malabar region but also in some constituencies in south Kerala. The SDPI holds some influence in pockets including Ponnani, Malappuram, Vadakara, and Kannur. In the 2014 parliamentary polls, it contested 20 seats and garnered 1.7% of the votes polled. The party also finished second in two Assembly segments — Malappuram and Vengara — in the Malappuram Lok Sabha constituency. But in the 2019 polls, the party contested only 10 seats, securing 0.4% of the vote share.

Also read | Congress has become untrustworthy for minorities, says Rajeeve

Before the announcement of the Lok Sabha elections, the SDPI organised a procession with the theme ‘Reclaiming the country’ and raised issues such as protection of constitutional values, conduct of caste census, withdrawal of anti-people laws, conservation of federalist principles, correction of anti-farmer policies, and a solution to the unemployment problem. However, it refrained from fielding candidates, possibly due to scrutiny following the ban on the PFI under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in September 2022. Though the party espouses the cause of Muslims, its political approach has been vehemently criticised by mainstream Muslim organisations.

Had the Congress leadership remained silent or quietly accepted the offer of the SDPI, they would have faced an electoral setback in Kerala. The party did not allow the controversy to fester to give ammunition to the BJP and the CPI(M) for long. By keenly observing reactions and making a quick decision, it stopped its rivals from hijacking the political agenda at both at the State and national level. But the jury is still out on whether the damage-control exercise will help it reap electoral dividends.

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