Rahul Gandhi's decision to contest from a second parliamentary constituency—Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala besides his traditional constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh in the north—in the coming national elections is an emphatic statement of his long-term strategy to rebuild his party and bring it back to power.
Conventional wisdom suggests that when the top leader of a party fights polls from a constituency, there is a strong political motive behind it and it has implications for the entire state in which the constituency is located. In the previous parliamentary polls, Narendra Modi had contested from two seats—one from his home state of Gujarat and the other from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. And look at the stunning result his contesting from Varanasi produced for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in ground zero of the national poll battle with the highest number of seats; the party won 72 out of a total of 80 that helped it secure a clear majority in the 543-strong Lok Sabha for the first time for a single party in three decades.
Similarly, Rahul Gandhi's choice of Wayanad is highly symbolic. Kerala is now ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the state has never returned a ruling party or alliance for a second consecutive term. The result: it has swung between the Congress and the Left every five years. Senior Congress leader from Kerala AK Antony pointed to the geographical importance of Wayanad which is located in Kerala but is very close to the borders with neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu—hinting that the Congress' quest for return to power will be through southern India where the BJP's presence is limited.
And history bears testimony to Antony's remarks. Every time the Congress had faced challenging times in the past, it looked to south India for a comeback. Soon after the defeat in the general elections in 1977, in the wake of the infamous Emergency, Indira Gandhi had won the parliamentary by-election in Chikmagalur in Karnataka in 1978. That had signalled the return of Congress to power which finally happened in 1980 under her leadership. In fact, in the 1980 national polls, Indira Gandhi had contested successfully from two constituencies and one of them was in south India—Medak—in the then undivided Andhra Pradesh state. The other constituency she won in that year was Raebareli in Uttar Pradesh. Again in 1999, when the Congress was out of power at the Centre, Sonia Gandhi, who was new to the post of president of Congress and was in her first parliamentary poll contest, had won in the iron ore mining district of Bellary in Karnataka after a stiff fight against Sushma Swaraj. Now, Rahul Gandhi seems to be treading on the beaten track of his grandmother and mother.
Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu together account for 87 Lok Sabha seats and the number goes up to 129 if one were to add 25 seats in Andhra Pradesh and 17 in Telangana states, both of which are also south of the Vindhyachal Mountain Range—that is the geographical dividing line between north and south India. The Congress is strong in Kerala and Karnataka, being the principal challenger to the Left in the former and the BJP in the latter. Rahul Gandhi may have chosen Wayanad keeping in mind that fresh assembly elections in Kerala are just two years away and his contesting from there would make the right statement regarding his party's intent. He is also aware of the fact that Kerala has a history of never returning the same party or alliance of parties to power for more than one term.
In Tamil Nadu, Congress is a fringe force after its steady decline—having lost its supremacy to caste-based Dravidian parties—and is going to contest the forthcoming national polls as a junior partner of an alliance led by regional party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and the creation of a separate Telangana state have no doubt put the Congress in a messy situation in both places, but the party remains a force to reckon with there despite the emergence of regional parties like Jaganmohan Reddy-led YSR Congress Party (YSRCP), a breakaway outfit of the Congress, and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). Last year, Congress lost in Telangana assembly polls against TRS which returned to power. In Kerala, Congress is sensing victory in the next assembly polls given the state's electoral history of swinging between the Congress and the Left and hopes to put up a strong show in Andhra Pradesh where ruling Telugu Desam Party, headed by N Chandrababu Naidu, is battling anti-incumbency.
Another reason for Rahul Gandhi selecting Wayanad constituency is that it will amplify the main components of his campaign narrative against the Narendra Modi government: farm sector crisis, lack of jobs for landless farmers, and pro-poor and pro-minority causes. It is an overwhelmingly rural constituency whose people are largely dependent on agriculture as a source of livelihood, and it has a sizeable Muslim (45 percent) and Christian presence amongst the total population.
While it remains to be seen how his contesting from Wayanad pans out as far as the Congress' prospects in south India are concerned, two political fallouts stemming from his decision have become obvious.
First, the BJP has already attacked Rahul Gandhi claiming he is scared of losing in Amethi, where his principal challenger once again is the saffron party's leader Smriti Irani who had lost to the Congress chief in the previous parliamentary polls five years ago. The Congress may have also reckoned that given Irani's frequent visits to Amethi as part of her efforts to nurture the constituency, it is politically safer to have an additional constituency for Rahul Gandhi as a fallback arrangement in the event of a setback in Amethi.
Secondly, Rahul Gandhi's selection of Wayanad has already prompted the BJP to resort to its favourite political weapon of a polarised narrative against its rivals by pointing to the fact that the constituency in Kerala is dominated by religious minorities.
In opting for Wayanad, Rahul Gandhi has opened himself up to the charge of doing little to amp up anti-BJP unity. The CPI(M) is livid at his choice of Wayanad as evident from sharp reactions from the Marxist party's top leaders Prakash Karat, his wife Brinda Karat, and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan—all of whom have vowed to work towards the defeat of the Congress president in the parliamentary polls. The reaction of the Marxist party is surprising given the fact that the Left and the Congress have always been rivals in Kerala, much like in West Bengal where, too, the two sides failed to form a tie-up to take on the ruling Trinamool Congress and an emerging BJP in the state.
Should Rahul Gandhi be more concerned about opposition unity or about strengthening his own party? It should not be forgotten that all key regional parties across India have either broken away from Congress or grown at the expense of Congress. Rahul Gandhi has signalled his intent to emerge from the shadows of his mother who was more into coalition-building. Wayanad could be the new way forward for the Congress Party and Rahul Gandhi's southern pitch could be the new tune for the party.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.