On February 10, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi cautioned party workers in Kerala that only the Congress could defeat itself in the state.

With less than a month to go for the Kerala assembly elections, Rahul Gandhi’s words in Thiruvananthapuram are ringing true as factionalism is rearing its head in the state unit.

Gandhi’s warning came while concluding the Kerala Raksha Yatra led by the state unit president VM Sudheeran. Now, it’s Sudheeran who has fired the first salvo by being openly against granting tickets to two ministers and a sitting legislator. The three leaders face allegations of involvement in various scams, providing the opposition with their most potent anti-incumbency weapon against the United Democratic Front led by the Congress.

Factions headed by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala put up strong resistance before Gandhi at the Congress headquarters in Delhi. This forced more than a week’s delay in finalising candidates for the May 16 election.

Spotlight on Sudheeran

The Congress high command’s intervention to placate the warring sections by handing out tickets to two “tainted” ministers and denying a ticket to the sitting MLA, who had only a “limited” role in the scams, has made the opposition’s job easy.

“Sudheeran’s dogged resistance to the candidature of Excise Minister K Babu, who is accused of taking a bribe of Rs 10 crore from bar owners, and Minister for Revenue, Adoor Prakash, who is in the dock over a series of land scams, has lent credence to the opposition campaign,” said Jacob George, a political commentator. “Sudheeran has given the issue on a platter to them.”

Sudheeran, who felt let down by the high command, has been lying low since then, leaving the onus of ensuring victory to the leaders of the two principal groups. Chandy, who himself is battling charges of sexual harassment and bribery, is sweating it out with elections just a month away.

Rebels everywhere

Rebels, who have sprung up in many constituencies in the wake of the distribution of tickets on factional lines, may upset Chandy’s efforts to retain power on the strength of his government’s achievements.

Though the party has suspended a rebel leader at Kannur and two candidates fielded by him at Irikkur and Azhikode in the northern district, this has had no effect on the rebels, who are determined to fight against the party’s official candidates in at least a dozen constituencies.

PK Ragesh, leader of the rebels, who had won a seat in the Kannur Corporation as a rebel and helped the Left Democratic Front take control of the urban body, had sounded the banner of revolt by floating an organisation called Aikya Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithy.

He had fielded a candidate at Irikkur, where local party workers had come out openly against the candidature of Rural Development Minister KC Joseph. He was among five candidates whose candidature was opposed by Sudheeran. Action was taken against Ragesh after the chief minister’s efforts to mollify him failed.

The rebel menace is also acute in Pathanamthitta district, which is considered to be a UDF stronghold. While Revenue Minister Adoor Prakash, whose candidature was opposed by the state Congress chief, has no challenge at Konni, rebels have surfaced in nearby Adoor and Chengannur constituencies.

Damage control

A section of the party workers, led by Rajya Sabha deputy chairman PJ Kurien, had also come out openly against a candidate of the party’s ally at Thiruvalla in the district. Kurien eventually reconciled to the candidature of Joseph M Puthuserry of the Kerala Congress (M) after interventions at the highest levels.

“Rebel menace is nothing new in the Congress in Kerala. But with Bharatiya Janata Party forcing strong triangular contests in many constituencies, by stitching together a third front with the help of various caste organisations and splinter groups of parties in the two rival fronts, rebels can prove costly for the party,” said Jacob.

However, senior Congress leaders are confident that there will be no rebels in the fray when the nomination closes. “We are talking to the rebels and trying to address the issues raised by them. We have already talked to many and they have agreed to end the revolt,” said Sudheeran.

Costly victory?

Political observers do not think this that easy. Some of them feel that the Congress high command’s decision to depart from the practice of projecting a leader as the chief ministerial candidate, and putting the election under the joint charge of three leaders, was a recipe for trouble.

“With each of them trying to build their supporters, factionalism became acute. It even forced Sudheeran, who was picked up by Rahul Gandhi to end the groupism in the party, to form his own faction,” said NM Pearson, another political commentator.

He feels that the factionalism in the party would turn ugly if the UDF secures enough seats to form a government after the election. Pearson sees the conduct of Sudheeran now a strong indication that he is not keen in UDF getting the majority.