Whatever argument spin doctors of the Congress party may put forward regarding party president Rahul Gandhi's decision to contest a second seat from Wayanad, Kerala, it would fall flat in the face of the general belief that this is evidence of rising nervousness that he may not emerge unscathed from Amethi, a seat he has represented for three consecutive terms.
Despite the party leadership depicting the decision as a move to buoy Congress' fortunes in the southern states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, most people in crucial northern states are likely to interpret the step as Gandhi's fallback option to ensure he continues being a member of Lok Sabha.
There are two reason for Gandhi being unable to escape the impression that Wayanad is his Plan B. First, the contention that this constituency in north-east Kerala has been chosen because it would shore up the party's fortunes in 87 Lok Sabha constituencies of the three states would have appeared plausible if he had chosen a seat from Karnataka, because a contest from that state would have meant taking the Bharatiya Janata Party bull by its horns.
Nationally, Gandhi's principal contest is with the BJP, personal as well as political, and if he had to contest a second seat, it should have been from a region where the saffron party was a significant force. Wayanad certainly is not one of them.
Rahul would have appeared politically confident if he had at least opted for one of the urban seats in Karnataka to set up a dare with the BJP. His decision to contest from Wayanad is little different from Sonia Gandhi's decision in 1999 to contest a second seat from Bellary, and even from Indira Gandhi's decision in 1980 to contest from Medak, Andra Pradesh in addition to Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh.
It must be recalled that in the 1977 polls, not only had Indira Gandhi lost her Rae Bareli Lok Sabha seat to maverick Raj Narain, but her party had also drawn a blank in Uttar Pradesh. In contrast, the Congress had won 41 of the 42 seats in Andhra Pradesh and she chose a safe rural seat because of uncertainty over wining Rae Bareli back. Eventually, she won both but vacated the Uttar Pradesh seat for Arun Nehru.
Likewise, the 1999 election was Sonia Gandhi's electoral debut and her Italian roots were still mentioned ad nauseam by BJP leaders. She was therefore uncertain of defeating Sanjay Singh, who had won the seat as a BJP nominee in 1998.
Congress leaders have argued that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi contested two seats in 2014. It does not, however, require immense political clarity to conclude that while his decision to contest from Varanasi was an audacious move aimed to galvanise party cadre in a state where stakes were high, numerically and politically, Rahul's Wayanad foray is essentially an attempt at playing safe.
Moreover, by choosing a constituency where almost 50 percent of voters are from the religious minorities (estimated at 28.65 Muslims and 21.24 Christians, according to the 2011 district census), Rahul has once again opened his party to accusations from the BJP that the Congress appeases religious minorities, especially Muslims.
The demographic characteristics of Wayanad would certainly be publicised by the BJP through its campaign network and are likely to be mentioned by senior BJP leaders in those states and seats where they hope religious polarisation would benefit the party.
Second, the contest with a Left Front nominee, despite former CPM general secretary Prakash Karat's declaration that his party would strive its best to defeat Rahul, would be seen as a 'friendly contest' in the Hindi heartland.
Rahul's decision to contest from Wayanad would provide further opportunity for Modi to argue that he is up against a 'milawati' or adulterated alliance. Although the Congress and the Left Front are not in alliance anywhere in the country, they were in talks for a long period in West Bengal and even in Bihar for the lone Begusarai seat where the CPI candidate, former JNU students' union president Kanhaiya Kumar is in the fray.
Out of 245 seats in the Hindi-speaking states (for convenience, this includes Jammu and Kashmir in the north and Jharkhand in the east), the Congress is either in direct contest with the BJP or its allies, or at least is a significant political force, with the sole exception being Uttar Pradesh, where the current standing of the party is questionable.
The BJP had won as many as 196 of these and its allies bagged another 15 seats. In contrast, the Congress won just 10 seats, and this is the terrain where the grand old party has to stage a comeback if it wishes to play a major role after the elections.
Unless the party has a yet-undisclosed Plan B, Rahul Gandhi's decision to contest from Wayanad would dampen spirits of even the cadre in other Hindi-speaking states besides Uttar Pradesh.
Priyanka Gandhi dropped a veiled hint that she may well enter the electoral fray, and that too from Varanasi. But this has to be first announced, and only subsequently can it be assessed if the move will have a major impact in shoring up the Congress' fortunes.
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Updated Date: Mar 31, 2019 19:54:43 IST