Election aftermath: Can Ramesh Chennithala save the Congress in Kerala?
In Kerala, Chennithala will have to work overnight to build harmony among the warring groups within the Congress, ensure the backing of UDF’s minority allies, besides bracing for the rising challenge from the BJP-BDJS alliance that has announced its presence in the Assembly polls
In 1982, one of the factors that helped Ramesh Chennithala to rise through the ranks of Congress party’s student union, the NSUI, to its national leadership, was his proficiency in Hindi and, of course, his rapport with the late congress leader, K Karunakaran. A protégé of the ‘leader’, Chennithala’s growth was enviable to his contemporaries in the party’s state unit.
In the same year that Chennithala became the national president of NSUI, he was elected as a member of the state legislative Assembly. By 1986, he became the youngest minister (rural development) in the Karunakaran government. Since then, Chennithala has carved his name in Kerala’s bipolar political map.
Some 30 years later, when he is taking over the as the leader of the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) and the Leader of Opposition in the House, Chennithala has the unenviable task of reviving the state’s shattered Congress units from the abyss of a massive failure. The party is reduced to just 22 seats in the just concluded state Assembly polls — its biggest failure in over decades.
Chennithala will have to work overnight to build harmony among the warring groups within the Congress, ensure the backing of UDF’s minority allies, besides bracing for the rising challenge from the BJP-BDJS alliance that has announced its presence in the Assembly polls. “The period of groupism and infighting in the party is coming to end,” said Chennithala speaking to reporters on Monday, adding, “A new chapter is beginning.”
But one will have to wait and watch to see if that is indeed happening.
One thing is for sure. The Congress desperately needs the change to survive in the southern state. In the state polls, the left parties have made a massive comeback with its alliance scoring 91 out of 140 seats and third front led by the BJP is slowly taking shape.
The Oommen Chandy government that had a stormy five-year period — battered with scams, corruption cases involving allies and flipflops on liquor policies — approached the polls with no strong organisational structure on the ground from the Christian, Muslim minorities (which constitute 45 percent of the state’s population). This benefitted the Left parties and in some pockets, the new BJP-Ezhava alliance. Regaining this lost ground is Chennithala’s major challenge.
His task isn’t easy, especially when the Congress workers in the state hardly remember a time in the past with no infighting and mutual blame-games. K Murleedharan, son of Karunakaran and a senior leader in the party, had demanded the CLP leader's post from Chandy, but he was denied. Although there is a temporary truce, Murleedharan could return as a challenge for Chennithala sooner or later. Also, with the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government vowing to follow up the corruption cases against Congress leaders (those included in the solar scam), there will surely be troubled days ahead for party.
Chennithala’s biggest task is to win back the confidence of its own workers on the ground, particularly those who are demoralised after the major defeat. He will have to rebuild the units on the ground across the state and guide the party to play the role of a strong Opposition. That’s something Karunakaran did in 1967 when the Congress was reduced to just nine seats in the Assembly polls while the CPM and CPI together won 71 seats.
In 1967, the task to resurrect the party then was with Karunakaran, who did the job meticulously and thereby positioned himself as the ‘leader’ in Kerala’s political landscape. Certainly, the Congress’ plight isn’t as bad today. The Congress still has 24 percent of the votes in the state compared to the CPM’s 26.5 percent. But a weak Congress leadership at the Centre complicates Chennithala’s task.
Can the former NSUI youth icon revive the fortunes of his party in the God’s own country? Only time will tell.
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