At a meeting held last week to deliberate ways to revive the Congress in the country, Vice-President Rahul Gandhi lauded the party’s Kerala unit for its organisational strength and the commitment of its leaders. Gandhi said that the unit’s leaders had stood firmly behind the party despite several electoral losses since its defeat in the 2014 general elections.

Gandhi’s statement at the April 18 meeting, attended by about 40 senior Congress leaders, came in a week when the Grand Old Party had seen a series of defections to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

On Wednesday, former Delhi Congress Chief Arvinder Singh Lovely and Delhi Youth Congress president Amit Malik joined the saffron party, while Delhi Women’s Congress Chief Barkha Shukla Singh bid goodbye to the Congress on Thursday, blaming Gandhi for not listening to workers’ woes and hiding from the party workers. She joined the BJP on Saturday.

Gandhi’s assertion that Kerala leaders have stayed loyal to the parties is partly correct – but that does not mean all is well within the party’s unit in the southern state

No alternative

Last month, Kerala Youth Congress Vice President CR Mahesh resigned from the party after launching a scathing attack on Gandhi. After the party’s poor performance in the Assembly elections earlier this year, where it formed the government in just one of five states that went to polls, Mahesh, in a Facebook post, said the Nehru-Gandhi scion should quit if he was not interested in leading the party.

Many other Congress leaders in Kerala are also disgruntled, but they have not considered joining the BJP because the saffron party does not yet have a significant presence in the state.

A Congress leader, who did not wish to be identified, said, “The BJP is still perceived as a party pursuing the Hindu Right-wing agenda in Kerala. Joining the saffron party will affect my credibility among Muslims and Christians. That is why I am continuing in Congress.”

Former Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee state secretary Cherian Philip, who left the party in 2001, said party leaders would not join BJP until it becomes a formidable force in Kerala. “They knew that it would be suicidal to associate with the saffron party at this point,” he said. “The situation in Kerala is quite different from other states where BJP has strong Gandhi doesn’t have to worry about exodus of Kerala leaders to BJP, at least for the time being.”

Fractured unit

While lauding the Kerala Congress Pradesh Committee’s organisational structure, Gandhi also conveniently forgot to mention the intense factionalism that has been the hallmark of the unit since the 1980s.

The Congress unit in the state is divided into two dominant factions: Group A, which owes its allegiance to former state Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Group I, led by Ramesh Chennithala, leader of Opposition in the Kerala Assembly.
The infighting had also led to the resignation of the Congress’ Kerala unit President, VM Sudheeran, in March.

Sudheeran was chosen as the Kerala Congress Pradesh Committee chief by the high command in February 2014, with the hope that his image as a credible leader would help curb factionalism. But Sudheeran was not able to root out the decades-old divisions during his three-year stint at the helm. After the Congress-led United Democratic Front government in Kerala lost the 2016 Assembly elections, both dominant groups had been seeking Sudheeran’s removal as party chief. In particular, ties between Sudheeran and Chandy’s faction were known to be bad and the animosity between the two leaders also hurt the former chief minister’s relationship with the party’s top leadership.

Chandy, who had decided to resign from all party posts after his government’s defeat in 2016, sent a strong message to central leadership recently when he expressed disinterest in leading the party in Kerala after Sudheeran’s resignation. Senior leader MM Hassan is presently the Congress unit’s interim president.

However, Congress leader PC Vishnunath, who attended the meeting in New Delhi, discounted the infighting fighting in the party. “Factions are there in all political parties. I don’t think that factional fighting has affected the party in Kerala,” he said. “Leaders and workers keep factional politics aside at the time of election, and Congress will continue to win in Kerala.”

He added. “Congress in Kerala has a strong organisational structure. Besides, no leader from Kerala has joined the BJP so far.”