Ending a week of uncertainty, the Congress on Sunday announced that party president Rahul Gandhi would run for the Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala, in addition to being a candidate in Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.

In Wayanad, Gandhi will take on Left Democratic Front candidate PP Suneer of Communist Party of India in a bipolar contest. The Bharatiya Janata Party is not a force to reckon with in the constituency. Instad, the BJP’s alliance partner, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, nominated VV Paily as its candidate.

Congress leaders from Kerala had dropped hints about Gandhi’s candidature on March 23. They said Gandhi responded positively to their request to contest from Kerala. Immediately after this, the party’s designated nominee T Siddique withdrew from the fray to make way for Gandhi.

But confusion prevailed since both Gandhi and the All India Congress Committee stayed non-committal for seven days. This put the Congress and alliance partners of the United Democratic Front in a difficult situation. They could not begin campaigning even as its main rival Left Democratic Front completed first round of campaign.

Gandhi’s candidature is expected to energie the Congress machinery across Kerala. Party leaders hope the ripple effect will boost the chances of other United Democratic Front candidate, in addition to helping it retain the trust of the minority communities, especially the Muslims.

Minority voters

Muslims, especially, have been viewing some Congress leaders with wariness even since former party spokesman Tom Vadakkan joined the BJP on March 14. Vadakkan’s departure trigerred rumours that many more Congress leaders were planning to join the saffron brigade. In fact, the CPI(M) has made it a poll campaign issue.

The Congress also hopes to use Gandhi’s presence to garner votes from members upper-caste communities that would have otherwise gone to the BJP.

For its party, the BJP aims to reap the dividends of Sangh Parivar protests against the Supreme Court verdict in September that allowed women between the ages of 10 and 50 to offer prayers at Sabarimala Ayyappa temple.

Binding North and South

Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said that party units in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu wanted Gandhi to contest from Wayanad. He claimed that Wayanad represents all three southern states, connecting them geographically and culturally. “So Gandhi decided that he will be able to represent all three states by contesting from Wayanad,” Surjewala said. “He will be able to strengthen the thread that ties North and South India together.”

Congress leaders in Kerala are upbeat about Gandhi’s decision “This is a proud moment for Kerala,” said Congress chief Mullappally Ramachandran. “We will work to ensure record margin for Gandhi.”

Wayanad district Congress Committee president IC Balakrishnan said campaign for Gandhi has already begun. “Workers are upbeat and the campaign will peak in the coming days,” he said. “We are eagerly waiting to welcome Rahulji,” he said.

Congress President Rahu Gandhi will run from Wayanad in Kerala addition to Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: HT Photo

Safe seat

Wayanad is considered to be a Congress bastion, having elected the party candidates in two elections since the constituency was created in 2009. The constituency comprises three Assembly constituencies in Wayanad district (Sulthan Bathery, Mananthavady and Kalpetta), three Assembly constituencies in Malappuram district (Eranad, Wandoor and Nilambur) and one Assembly constituency in Kozhikode district (Thiruvambady).

In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, MI Shanavas won the seat for Congress by a whopping 153,439 votes, with comfortable leads in all the Assembly segments. His victory margin, however, was reduced to 20,870 in 2014 and he led in just five segments as the Left Democratic Front candidate Satyan Mokeri took the lead in remaining two. The seat fell vacant after the death of Shanavas in November 2018.

The constituency moved further to the left in the Assembly election in 2016 with the Left Democratic Front winning four segments, leaving only three to Congress-led United Democratic Front.

These statistics, however, do not worry Congress leadership and they are confident of winning the seat by a whopping margin.

Criticism from Left parties

Gandhi’s decision has drawn sharp criticism from the Left Democratic Front.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan termed Gandhi’s decision as a move against the Left Front. “If Gandhi wanted to represent South India, he should have contested from a constituency where BJP is strong,” he said at a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday. “We all know BJP’s strength in Wayanad constituency.”

Vijayan said that Left Democratic Front has fielded a strong candidate to take on Gandhi. “We will fight to defeat Gandhi,” he said. “We are not thinking of replacing Communist Party of India candidate Suneer.”

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Prakash Karat told news agency ANI that Gandhi’s decision goes against Congress’ national commitment to fight the BJP, as in Kerala it is Left Democratic Front that is the main opponent of the saffron party. “To pick a candidate like Rahul Gandhi against Left means that Congress is going to target the Left in Kerala,” he said. “This is something which we will strongly oppose and in this election, we will work to ensure the defeat of Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad.”

BJP also took a dig at Gandhi’s decision. On March 21, Smriti Irani tweeted that “since the people of Amethi have thrown Rahul Gandhi out, he is creating an environment to make it look as if people in other states want him”.