When the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) assumed power in Kerala in 2011 with a Christian as chief minister and a Muslim as the second in command, the biggest concern among the majority community was the minority dominance in the government.
The BJP deftly used this to make inroads into the upper caste Nair community, the traditional Hindu backbone of the UDF. The minority appeasement card that the saffron party played against the UDF has helped the BJP consolidate majority community in its favour.
The Congress sought to address the issue before the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 by inducting the then Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president Ramesh Chennithala, a member of the Nair community, with the key home portfolio into the Oommen Chandy cabinet.
However, the move backfired with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) painting it as a sign of the soft-Hindutva line that the UDF has adopted to face the saffron party’s challenge.
The LDF seized the advantage by projecting itself as the protector of the minorities, who have been viewing the steady rise of the Sangh Parivar in the state with concern.
Caught between the conflicting images, the Congress saw a series of electoral jolts in the next elections.
It first reflected in the 2014 Lok Sabha election when the UDF share came down from 16 seats in the 2009 elections to 12 seats in the 2014 polls. The message was clear when the UDF lost Christian strongholds like Thrissur, Idukki and Chalakkudy.
However, the UDF did not learn any lessons from the setback. The party paid dearly for this lapse in the subsequent local body Assembly elections which were swept by the LDF. It also helped the BJP to open its account in the Assembly polls in 2016.
The Congress repeated the same mistake in the Chengannur by-election by fielding a Hindu, who is associated with several Hindu organisations as its candidate, and paid for it.
“The party offered the seat on a platter to LDF, which overcame the anti-incumbency by projecting the Opposition candidate as an RSS man. We wasted the opportunity by defending Vijayakumar instead of highlighting the anti-people actions of the LDF government, including the breakdown of the law and order,” said senior Congress leader Rajmohan Unnithan.
He said that the LDF branding of the UDF as a soft Hindutva party has got stuck in the minds of the minorities, who believe that the Congress is unable to counter the saffron threat. The Congress cannot move ahead without changing this perception from the minds of the minorities, he added.
“This is not easy. We need a major surgery to change the perception. This will be possible only when leaders who are responsible for creating such an impression leave. They should give their place to a new set of leaders who can inspire confidence among the minorities,” he added.
The Chengannur debacle has led to a chorus of demand for a total restructuring of the party from top to bottom. While the old guards are getting ready for a minor surgery by replacing the present ad-hoc party chief MM Hassan with one from among them, the student and the youth wings of the party are demanding a generational change in the party.
A number of Youth Congress and Kerala Students Union (KSU) leaders have sent letters to the party’s national president Rahul Gandhi in this regard. Party mouthpiece Veekshanam has backed the move. The daily has urged the old guards to hand over the reins to the new generation and guide them instead.
A senior Youth Congress leader said that the major problem plaguing the Congress now was lack of functionaries at the lower level. While the LDF and the BJP spread squads across the constituency to gather votes and bring voters to the poll booths, the Congress did not have enough workers to manage even the booths, he said.
“We have plenty of leaders, but there are only a very few to work in the grassroots. We had to rely on workers from outside the district to steer election campaign in the constituency,” said the Youth Congress leader, who did not want to be identified.
He told Firstpost that the new generation was not joining the Congress as they do not see any future for them in the party. The BJP and the Left parties, on the other hand, have been drawing youth into their fold by offering them opportunities to rise in the ranks.
The Youth Congress leader is hopeful that Rahul will rejuvenate the party with young blood as he counts on Kerala in his bid to become the next prime minister. “This will be possible only if the Congress emerges as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. Congress in Kerala can support the effort by sending as many MPs as possible,” the Youth Congress leader said.
Political analyst A Sajeevan is sceptical. He said that the intervention from the high command will not help unless the Congress leaders change their factional mindset. Many youngsters whom Rahul Gandhi inducted into leadership positions were not allowed to function by the group managers in the party.
The case of former KPCC chief VM Sudheeran is a glaring example. Rahul Gandhi had picked the group-less leader to end factionalism in the party but the two mutually acrimonious groups in the party joined hands and smoked him out within three years.
Suhdeeran said that groupism was the bane of the Congress party now. “We had a golden opportunity to win the Chengannur seat, but groupism has spoiled it. The group fight has inflicted deep wounds on the party. Skin treatment cannot heal it. It needs a major surgery,” he added.
Cherian Philip, who quit Congress in protest against the apportioning of positions on factional lines, said that even a major surgery may not help the Congress now. The party needs a reinvention to survive in the new tripolar political scene in Kerala.
Cherian said that the Congress can remain relevant in Kerala if it upholds its secular traditions. He pointed out that the party had emerged as a mighty force in the state politics in the seventies when the party kept the spirit of secularism high.
“The Congress cannot compete with BJP in communal politics. It has to fight them aggressively to remain in contention in Kerala politics,” he added.
Updated Date: Jun 02, 2018 18:37 PM