The game plan of Kerala's ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front in this election was to rally minorities against the Bharatiya Janata Party's bid to consolidate Hindu votes by projecting the issue of women's entry to the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala as emotively as the Ayodhya Ram temple issue that the saffron party used successfully to come to power at the Centre.
However, the entry of Congress president Rahul Gandhi in the electoral fray in Wayanad appears to have deprived the LDF of the minority card that helped it immensely in the 2016 Assembly polls. Rahul's campaign this week has helped a large section of Hindu faithful who traditionally supported the LDF to turn to the Grand Old Party instead of the BJP.
The Congress leaders can take heart from Rahul's campaign this week being a runaway success. Wherever he addressed public meetings, the response was overwhelmingly spontaneous, as though there was a pro-Congress wave sweeping the state.
Veteran leader and Congress Working Committee member AK Antony has described the mood as very similar to the pro-Congress wave in the state in 1977 when the party was routed in most parts of India. Antony said Rahul’s candidature in Wayanad will have a ripple effect in all the 20 seats in the state and in many seats in the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Apart from the public enthusiasm at the Congress president's rallies in different parts of the state, Rahul managed to send out the right message at all his events. His speeches struck a chord as he spoke about local issues as well as provided a national perspective to the Congress' priorities in this election. It was the total package, the impact of which will reverberate throughout south India, a crucial battlefield for both the Congress and BJP in determining who is going to make it in 2019.
The Congress expects this Rahul effect to be felt not just in Kerala and the neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, but the entire south India. The decision to pick Wayanad as the second constituency itself had a larger message for the South as the picturesque hill station lies in the tri-junction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
"Southern state PCCs, thousands of Congress workers and the people of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have urged Rahul to contest the Lok Sabha election from these states. Their sentiments are deeply valued and respected," national spokesman of the party Randeep Surjewala had said ahead of the announcement of Wayanad as Rahul's choice. Congress strategists have argued that a Gandhi family member pitching to enter Lok Sabha from the South can maximise the party's gains in the other key states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The strategy is also seen to be in line with the projection of Rahul as the prime ministerial candidate by the DMK — the Congress ally in Tamil Nadu.
There is another positive angle too. When grandmother Indira Gandhi contested from Medak in Andhra Pradesh and Chikamagalur in Karnataka and Sonia Gandhi from Bellary, they did so in the search for a safe seat. The party's situation at that time could be understood from the fact that when Indira contested from Chikamagalur in 1977 and Sonia did so from Bellary in 1999, Congress was voted out of power. But Rahul is not facing any such predicament. In fact, the party has its best chance of returning to power this time.
This message was loud and clear in Rahul's speeches. "South India feels hostility from Narendra Modi. I wanted to send the message that I am standing with you," Rahul told reporters, "There is a very strong feeling in south India that they are not carried along by the Modi government while taking decisions for the nation. That is why I am standing with Kerala."
The BJP and its allies had won 211 out of 245 seats in the 10 states in the Hindi heartland and Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir in 2014, leaving only 34 seats to its opponents. Poll pundits feel the saffron tally could plummet by 70 percent in the Hindi heartland this time.
Success in the five southern states and one Union Territory is, therefore, crucial for BJP to retain power. The party is eyeing 50 to 60 of the 130 seats from the south to compensate for the loss being anticipated by the NDA in the Hindi heartland in the Lok Sabha polls.
Greater success for Congress in south India will be the perfect antidote for BJP president Amit Shah's game plan to maximise the number of saffron MPs from the South. He is learnt to have set a minimum target of 50 from the south Indian states, which sounds a tall order as things stand today, and it is in this context that the Rahul effect becomes very crucial. The Congress and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (AIADMK) together had swept Tamil Nadu in 1977 by winning 34 out of 39 seats and Karnataka by winning 26 out of 28 seats. Congress and its allies had won 13 seats in Tamil Nadu and 18 seats in Karnataka in 1999, when Sonia contested from the South.
Congress had drawn a blank in previous two elections in 1996 and 1998 while it won five and nine seats in Karnataka in the two elections. In Kerala, the Congress-led coalition, which also included the CPI, had won 19 out of 20 seats in 1977 and 11 seats in 1999.
In Tamil Nadu, Congress is this time in alliance with DMK, which is seen as a positive for the party as BJP, which has tied up with the AIADMK, has to contend with double anti-incumbency on account of the association with the ruling party. Detractors allege that the AIADMK party apparatus is completely under the control of the BJP, which incidentally is not a major player in the Dravidian politics of the southern state.
In Karnataka, where the Congress is a ruling partner with HD Dewe Gowda's JD(S), problems between the alliance partners are expected to help BJP put up a better show. In fact, Karnataka is the only south Indian state where the BJP is a leading player.
Although by simple electoral arithmetic, the Congress-JD(S) alliance stands to gain, there are undercurrents between the two parties that might affect the fortunes of both. For instance, in 2014, when the BJP won 17 of the state's 28 seats, its vote share was nine percent less than the combined vote share of the Congress and the JD(S).
It is pointed out that even in the state Assembly elections held last year, a perfect transfer of votes between the two parties would have reduced the BJP tally of 104 seats by at least 34. In that case, the alliance could have won two-thirds of the state Assembly with 150 seats, as opposed to the 116 it currently has.
It is in this context that the success of Congress in Kerala assumes extra importance. Irrespective of what happens in Karnataka, the Rahul effect should play out much to the advantage of the Grand Old Party in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. And to that extent, it would frustrate the ambitions of Modi-Shah election machine.
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Updated Date: Apr 19, 2019 15:40:20 IST