Congress leader VM Sudheeran sprang a surprise on the party leadership when he resigned as president of the Kerala unit on Friday.

Sudheeran cited ill health as the reason for stepping down as Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president and insisted his decision had nothing to do with issues in the party.

However, Sudheeran had been under tremendous pressure to quit as state president ever since the Congress-led United Democratic Front government lost the Assembly elections in Kerala last May. Two dominant factions within the party that has been torn apart by infighting in recent years – group A and group I – had been baying for his blood.

While the A group owes its allegiance to former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, the I group is led by Ramesh Chennithala, leader of Opposition in the Kerala Assembly.

Sudheeran’s resignation presents a huge opportunity to Chandy, his bête noire, who had resigned from all party posts after the Congress’ defeat in the state polls last year and had felt sidelined by the top leadership in recent months. Political analysts believe that the party could use this as a chance to placate Chandy by appointing his loyalist – or even the former chief minister himself – in Sudheeran’s place.

Tension within

The latest bone of contention between Chandy and Sudheeran was the revamp of District Congress Committees, as part of the reorganisation of the party’s state network after the 2016 poll debacle.

In December, when the names of new presidents to the 14 district committees were announced Chandy, felt that his loyalists had been sidelined. The list had been declared by Sudheeran and finalised with the Gandhis’ approval, with more members of Chennithala’s group finding their names on the list. The Congress leadership had also not paid heed to Chandy’s suggestion that the district presidents be chosen by vote and not through the nomination route.

Upset by the selection, Chandy boycotted the All India Congress Committee’s protest against the Central government’s demonetisation move in New Delhi in December and also kept away from the party’s parliamentary affairs committee meeting held in Thiruvananthapuram in January.

Sudheeran’s exit offers the party’s top leadership an opportunity to make amends with Chandy, the party’s tallest leader in Kerala. The high command knows Chandy’s support will be crucial to ensure the party’s growth in the state.

Keeping it together

When Sudheeran was made the state party chief in 2014, the Congress leadership hoped that his credibility would help him curb the factionalism in the party.

But Sudheeran soon found out that factional politics – that began more than five decades ago and gathered strength in the early ‘70s – were harder to control than expected. He could not dismantle the camps and unite the party during his three year and stint at the at the helm.

Given this, the Congress high command is likely to pick the new Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee chief from one of the two factions. Political observers believe that the Gandhis would prefer a Chandy loyalist at the helm to pacify the former chief minister.

However, though the party is yet to begin its search for a replacement, many aspirants have thrown their hat into the ring. Prominent among them are Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee Vice-President VD Satheeshan, Ernakulam MP KV Thomas and Thrikkakkara MLA, PT Thomas.

There is also speculation that Chandy himself is mulling taking over the reins. Though he has maintained that he would not take up any official posts in the party, Chandy indicated a softening in stance when he told media persons at a function on Sunday that the party high command would take a final decision about the Kerala Pradesh Congress Comittee chief.