On Thursday, the Congress decided to “gift” the Rajya Sabha seat being vacated by its veteran leader PJ Kurien to Kerala Congress (Mani). The decision immediately split the party, with several senior leaders urging the central leadership to review it.

The party’s former state chiefs, K Muraleedharan and VM Sudheeran, even boycotted a meeting of the United Democratic Front, the opposition alliance led by the Congress, on Friday to protest the deal. The decision was reportedly driven by former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.

“How can we strengthen the coalition by destroying the Congress?” Sudheeran asked. “This decision is going to destroy the Congress and benefit the Bharatiya Janata Party.”

Muraleedharan reacted with sarcasm. “Congress should now sacrifice a Lok Sabha seat to bring back MP Veerendrakumar to the UDF,” he said. Veerendrakumar is the leader of the Janata Dal (United), which left the United Democratic Front for the ruling Left Democratic Front early this year.

The Janata Dal (United) is not an electoral force to reckon with in the state. The Kerala Congress (Mani), on the other hand, wields considerable influence in Christian-dominated Kottayam and Idukki, garnering nearly 4% of the total vote in the two districts in the last Assembly election in 2016. Kerala’s Christians traditionally vote for various factions of the Congress and the Kerala Congress.

The Mani faction severed its 35-year association with the United Democratic Front in August 2016, accusing the Congress of trying to weaken it. On Friday, however, the party accepted the Congress’ offer of the seat and returned to the coalition. “We are part of UDF now,” the party’s chief KM Mani said.

The seat falls vacant on July 1, when Kurien, who is currently deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, retires along with two other members from Kerala, CP Narayanan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Joy Abraham of the Kerala Congress (Mani).

Going by the current strength of the Assembly, the ruling Left Democratic Front can win two of the seats and the United Democratic Front one.

‘The main architect’

Announcing the decision in Delhi on Thursday, Chandy said the Rajya Sabha seat was “given to the Kerala Congress (Mani) as a special case”, indicating that it was meant to lure the estranged ally back into the fold. But party officials said strengthening the United Democratic Front was only a pretext for Chandy to convince the central leadership against renominating Kurien, his bête-noire. He roped in the Indian Union Muslim League, the second largest constituent in the alliance, to lobby the Congress leadership to make a deal with the Kerala Congress (Mani). The plan paid off.

Kurien alleged as much. “Chandy is the main architect of the decision,” he said in Delhi on Friday. “He complained to Rahul Gandhi against me. No discussion was held in the party or election committee about allotting the seat to Kerala Congress (Mani). This is a surrender of Congress.”

Chandy denied that was the case. “Kurien raised the allegation without understanding the situation,” he said on Friday. “I never raised a complaint against Kurien. He can check with Rahul Gandhi if needed.”

PJ Kurien retires on July 1. Photo credit: HT
PJ Kurien retires on July 1. Photo credit: HT

It is no secret, however, that there is no love lost between Chandy and Kurien. Their relationship has been fraught for long but it deteriorated after Chandy’s Congress-led government was voted out in 2016. The defeat was especially stinging for Chandy because his confidantes, PC Vishnunath and Sivadasan Nair, lost the election. His camp accused Kurien of orchestrating the twin defeats.

Now, party officials said, Chandy has exacted “revenge”.

In the wake of the defeat, Chandy resigned from all party posts. He, however, remains the undisputed leader of one of the Congress’ two major factions in Kerala. The other is led by Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala.

Getting his way

By getting the Congress leadership to give away Kurien’s seat, Chandy has also clipped the wings of the party’s young legislators. Last week, after reports emerged that the Congress planned to renominate Kurien, six young lawmakers – VT Balram, Shafi Prambil, Anil Akkara, Hiby Eded, Roji John, KS Sabareenath – demanded “adequate representation” in the Rajya Sabha for young leaders. Hiby Eden wrote on Facebook that the Rajya Sabah should not be made an “old age home”.

But despite being outwitted by Chandy, the young legislators are in no mood to give up. On Friday, they wrote to Rahul Gandhi, urging him to review the decision. “We want the Congress president to reconsider the decision and field a party candidate,” said Balram.

This is the second time in recent months that Chandy has got the better of his rivals in the state Congress. In April, he prevailed on the party’s leadership to field D Vijayakumar, a prominent leader of his faction, in the bye-election to Chengannur. Vijayakumar, however, lost by 20,956 votes to the CPI(M)’s Saji Cherian.