Rahul Gandhi in Telangana: South India keeps Congress scion busy but inconsistencies leave voters unsure

South India has and will keep Rahul Gandhi occupied for much of this week. It is an important and complicated patch for the Congress, that is in power in two of the six south Indian states. With the BJP aggressively looking to expand its footprints in the Peninsula, it is a turf the party has to protect along with its allies if it wants to stay relevant.

The problem with the Congress, however, has been it has shown an inconsistency and a tendency to shoot itself in the foot with the manner it has done its politics in south India. Take the ugly Kannur episode for instance, where youth Congress activists in their enthusiasm to defy what they ignorantly interpreted as a beef ban, slaughtered a cow in public glare. It showed that the grand old party of India had in its ranks activists with zero empathy and sensitivity.

For a change, Rahul reacted in quick time. Realising the political damage the visuals that went viral had done, the Congress vice-president suspending the activists. But the image of the Congress with blood on its hands stuck and chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan stole a march, emerging as the champion of the anti-notification lobby. The Congress in Kerala, a state with a 25 percent beef eating population, has been reduced to a sidekick in the debate, with the Reds organising over 300 beef fests and keeping the pot boiling literally.

A file image of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

A file image of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

Across the Mullaperiyar, the Congress at least has the fig leaf of being a junior partner to the DMK. But here as well, it is hardly part of the narrative on the cattle controversy. Is it because one of its senior most leaders, P Chidambaram had a role to play by emphasising the need to amend the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act?

In April during the budget session, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, headed by P Chidambaram pointed out a link between cattle trafficking and cattle markets. Its report said : "There is a wide and deeply entrenched nexus due to which this menace has proliferated and the government needs to strike at the roots of this nexus, if it has to completely curb this problem," says the report. The BJP will now turn around and say it has acted precisely on the recommendations of the Congressman-headed Standing committee.

In both states, the Congress is nowhere getting to occupying the anti-BJP space now completely dominated by Vijayan and MK Stalin. Partly, the dilemma is also governed by its notional status as a national party, even though its current electoral strength would betray that impression. A strong pro-beef stance it fears, could work to its disadvantage in the cow belt, where the BJP's slogan to treat cattle as a holy cow finds more traction. This dilemma is making it fall between two stools.

On Thursday, Rahul will be in Telangana on the eve of India's youngest state celebrating three years of existence. Even though his party took the call to divide Andhra Pradesh, the electoral benefit accrued to the Telangana Rashtra Samiti and the Congress ended up taking the hit in both Telugu states. When he addresses a public meeting in Sangareddy, it will be the beginning of an attempt to revive the party's sagging fortunes in Telangana.

But the party is a divided house, even over the choice of the venue of his public meeting. The ire of disgruntled leaders is directed at Jagga Reddy, who is organising the show. Reddy was former chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy's Man Friday and Kiran's opposition to formation of Telangana is well documented. Jagga Reddy lost the 2014 Lok Sabha election in May as the Congress candidate and went on to contest a by-elections in September as the BJP-TDP candidate only to lose again. He returned to the Congress the following year, establishing himself as Telangana turncoat number one.

Rahul Gandhi's Telangana show will be like a T20 match, where incidentally, BJP chief Amit Shah spent close to three days last month. The BJP has been positioning itself as the alternative to the TRS, punching above its weight, cadre strength and available leadership talent. The threat for the Congress also would be that many of its leaders, looking out for options, have reached out to the BJP.

Rahul will also visit Guntur in Andhra on Sunday to demand special category status for the bifurcated state. Andhra is even more of a challenge than Telangana, as the Congress is still seen as the villain of the division saga, against the wishes of the people of Andhra. The opposition space is completely taken over by YS Jaganmohan Reddy, with the Congress reduced to being a party of has-beens.

Tamil Nadu in contrast presents a confused scenario. While officially it has an alliance with the DMK and Rahul will also attend Karunanidhi's birthday celebrations on 3 June, he did try to flirt with the AIADMK when Jayalalithaa was hospitalised. That was a blunder because not only it miffed the DMK, the possibility of a relationship with the AIADMK also came to nought with the BJP playing a smarter game on the political chessboard.

The AIADMK now is firmly under the BJP's control. Strange are the ways of politics that a party that got just 2.8 percent of the voteshare in the 2016 assembly elections is able to exercise control over a party with a 41 percent voteshare.

Karnataka is the only state where Rahul Gandhi has got things a bit sorted. He put a leadership in place this week, one year ahead of elections and it is for Siddaramaiah and team to deliver now. He has tried to balance the caste arithmetic by making the leader of every caste something of consequence in the state leadership.

Amit Shah will be in Kerala this week, perhaps to gauge for himself the reaction on the ground to the cattle notification. With the battlelines drawn in this warzone featuring formidable regional and national players, the battle for the final frontier is truly on.

Updated Date: Jun 01, 2017 14:40 PM

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