The Congress’s misplaced confidence

There is still infighting in the party while the CPI(M) is on a strong wicket

Published - October 17, 2023 12:15 am IST

File photo of Chandy Oommen.

File photo of Chandy Oommen. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

In the wake of decisive victories in the Assembly bypolls in Thrikkakara last year and in Puthuppally recently, the Congress in Kerala has been brimming with confidence. Congress nominee Uma Thomas won the Thrikkakara seat after her husband P.T. Thomas passed away, while Chandy Oommen secured the Puthuppally seat which became vacant following the demise of his father Oommen Chandy. These victories, driven by a wave of sympathy, have bolstered the party’s prospects for the 2024 general elections.

At present, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) leadership is pinning its hopes on several key factors such as its plan to leverage the alleged corruption charges against the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, the simmering discontent among State government employees over delays in the payment of arrears, and issues plaguing the implementation of welfare programmes. However, the Congress may be misguided if it believes that simply riding on the anti-incumbency sentiment will guarantee electoral success. There continues to be infighting within the party’s ranks and many sitting MPs do not want to enter the fray. On the other hand, the CPI(M) is on a strong wicket.

In 2019, the UDF secured 19 out of the 20 seats in the Lok Sabha polls, partly by creating the impression that the Congress could dislodge the BJP-led government at the Centre. Another factor at play was the CPI(M)’s acceptance of the Supreme Court verdict permitting women of all ages to enter the temple in Sabarimala, resulting in its rout. However, now the Congress central leadership’s push for a caste census has faced resistance from influential figures including G. Sukumaran Nair, general secretary of the Nair Service Society, and Vellappally Natesan, general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, who view it as a mere political stunt.

Also, various post-poll surveys have revealed a conspicuous shift of the Hindu electorate’s preference across the State. The UDF is witnessing a substantial erosion of Hindu voter support. A major chunk of the Nair community, which once provided a bulwark for the Congress, has incidentally shifted its allegiance towards the BJP.

On the other hand, the CPI(M) still appeals to the Hindu community in Kerala for votes, although the votes of the Thiyyas/Ezhavas, communities which strongly support the party, are also gradually moving towards the BJP. Still, the CPI (M) has managed to cultivate a better rapport with the Muslim and Christian community leaders over the years. It has even made inroads into the powerful Sunni body, the Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulama, which is traditionally aligned with the Indian Union Muslim League of the UDF. The induction of the Kerala Congress (M) into the LDF coalition during the 2020 three- tier local body polls and the 2021 Assembly elections proved to be a masterstroke by the CPI(M) to win the trust of the Catholic Syrian Christians. Besides, the CPI (M) leadership has learned that caste and religion remain sensitive issues for the electorate, despite Kerala’s avowed secularism. It has commenced preparations well in advance for 2024 Lok Sabha polls and is focusing on improving its 2014 performance when the LDF secured eight seats, with the CPI(M) alone winning five. As the ruling dispensation in Kerala, the party also has to demonstrate its relevance in the INDIA bloc. To its advantage, the LDF government has outperformed the previous UDF regime by successfully executing big-ticket projects with the financial backing of the Central government, including the Vizhinjam International Transhipment Deepwater Seaport in Thiruvananthapuram, the Statewide expansion of the National Highway, and the establishment of the Kochi Metro.

The Congress would also have to reckon with the BJP, which has a formidable presence in at least five Lok Sabha constituencies. The BJP can be a spoiler more for the Congress than for the CPI(M).

The conventional wisdom that distinguishes voting patterns in Lok Sabha from Assembly polls may no longer hold sway. Historically, the Congress has had an advantage in Lok Sabha elections in Kerala, but it would be imprudent to assume that this will happen this time too. If the Congress leaders think that they can effortlessly dominate the elections, it could boomerang, leading to an unexpected setback.

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