Kerala’s Congress-Left political paradox: Nationally aligned, locally sparring | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Kerala’s Congress-Left political paradox: Nationally aligned, locally sparring

Apr 24, 2024 08:46 PM IST

As CM Vijayan faces a strong anti-incumbency factor in the state, he has few options but to go strong against Congress, setting aside electoral compulsions.

During his campaign rallies in Kannur and Palakkad last week, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi raised a question targeting Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who is a politburo member of INDIA bloc partner Communist Party of India (Ma).

Pinarayi Vijayan and Rahul Gandhi have been at loggerheads for many weeks now though the Left is part of the Congress-led INDIA bloc. PREMIUM
Pinarayi Vijayan and Rahul Gandhi have been at loggerheads for many weeks now though the Left is part of the Congress-led INDIA bloc.

Gandhi wondered why Vijayan was yet to be investigated by the central agencies while two other non-BJP chief ministers in the country were already in jail for corruption, in cases that have been interpreted by the opposition as politically motivated and an effort by the Narendra Modi regime to throttle the Opposition.

"If Vijayan is against the BJP, why has he not faced legal consequences yet? Why didn't he go to jail? The CM is attacking me 24 hours a day, and my only request to him is to spare a little time to attack Prime Minister Modi, also in similar lines," Gandhi said.

``Nobody has taken away his house or Vidhan Sabha membership, and the central agencies have not questioned him for even a single minute. So, it's surprising that if he (Vijayan) is fighting the BJP, why are they (the BJP) so pleased with him?''

Political paradox

While 40 days of intense campaigning for the general election's second phase ended on Wednesday evening (April 24), the Gandhi family scion's tirade against the nation's lone leftist chief minister has become the biggest electoral issue dominating the southern state.

This is largely an aberration from the national discourse of Modi versus the entire opposition on issues ranging from minority rights, and the Citizenship Amendment Act to the politicisation of religion.

Vijayan's response to Gandhi was acidic and full of his usual scorn.

He brought up Rahul's former political nickname and recalled his grandmother Indira Gandhi's treatment of opposition leaders including himself during the Emergency.

"Your grandmother was the reason for our incarceration," said Vijayan.

He declared there is no need for fear of prisons, recalling the days he spent in Kannur Central Jail during the Emergency.

Referring to the moniker, Vijayan told Gandhi that he must do his best to dispel the notion that he had remained unchanged from his previous moniker.

The back-and-forth between the two leading opposition figures even got Modi's attention, who referred to it at many campaign rallies in North India to cite disunity within the grand opposition alliance.

Even though the Congress and the CPI (M) are in a national alliance, the fact that their respective state units are running for all 20 legislative seats in Kerala is paradoxical.

What has transpired in Kerala is not a mere friendly skirmish but a full-scale political war between two powerful forces.

The heated exchanges between the leaders have led to vicious attacks and counterattacks, involving even junior leaders from both parties.

The latest salvo against Gandhi was fired by CPI (M)-backed Independent legislator P V Anvar who questioned the 'DNA' of the Congress leader.

Addressing a CPI (M) election convention at Edathanattukara in Malappuram, Anvar said, "Rahul has no right to use the Gandhi name. He has stooped to the level of a fourth-class citizen. Was he born into the Nehru family? I have doubts—his DNA should be examined." Vijayan loyalists E P Jayarajan, M M Mani, and A K Balan's anti-Rahul comments were almost identical.

Even national leaders of CPI (M), including Sitaram Yechuri and Brinda Karat, who addressed campaign meetings with Congress elsewhere, were forced to comment against Gandhi in Kerala.

Also read: The saga of Kerala's rare mineral sand, corruption and coast deterioration

Kerala politics

Contrary to the political realities outside the state, Kerala has a unique battlefield where the BJP remains a distant third force despite numerous high-decibel campaigns conducted by Modi, Amit Shah and the rest of the Sangh Parivar leaders.

Here, the fight is between CPI(M)-led LDF and Congress-led UDF, and the electoral tussle is a binary even in Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram where BJP ensured a high-pitched triangular contest by fielding strongmen.

As Vijayan faces a strong anti-incumbency factor in the state and his party's national-level influence wanes, he has few options but to go strong against Congress and its key campaigner, Gandhi, setting aside electoral compulsions in other states.

For a chief minister, who developed his political career on an anti-Congress platform, the Lok Sabha election is critical because its outcome could decide the future of left politics in its last bastion of Kerala.

The key challenge the LDF faces in Kerala is the clout Gandhi seemingly maintains among the electorate across the state by being the candidate in the hill constituency of Wayanad.

So far, opinion polls have predicted a clear edge for the UDF in Kerala while some even predicted zero for the LDF. Electoral opinion polls, of course, have a history of making wrong forecasts.

In the case of Vijayan, he is now attempting to create at least a split in the political preference of Muslims in the state, who constitute 26.56% of the population.

Most Christian denominations -- the combined percentage of the religion in Kerala is 18.4% -- have pledged their support to UDF. The same is the case with the upper caste Hindu organisation Nair Service Society (NSS). In the case of OBC Ezhavas, who constitute the backbone of the Left’s support in the state, both UDF and BJP have made considerable inroads into its mass base.

To turn at least a sizable section of Muslims in the state against the Congress party, Vijayan has said during campaigning that through the CAA, the BJP is implementing the RSS agenda, and the Congress at the national level has failed to act against that agenda.

Vijayan said Gandhi should answer whether the Congress national leadership told its Kerala unit to avoid anti-CAA protests. He even went to the extent of referring to the Congress election manifesto, saying it said nothing on repealing CAA. However, that campaign lost its sheen in the last leg of the electioneering, with All India Congress Committee (AICC) president Mallikarjuna Kharge and Priyanka Gandhi, making it clear that Congress, if voted to power, would repeal the controversial law.

Raising the wrong flag

In the 2019 election, the BJP had launched an unsubstantiated campaign in North India, saying Pakistan flags were a scene in Gandhi’s election meetings in Wayanad.

The BJP had misinterpreted the green flag of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest constituent of UDF, as Pakistan’s flag.

To avoid such a situation this time, the UDF strategically decided not to use any party flag in the campaigning for Gandhi; instead, they used coloured balloons.

Attempting to make this an issue, Vijayan soon made an entry into the scene. It was a sheer disrespect to IUML and its minority politics, he said, criticising Gandhi for ignoring IUML in campaign meetings: This narrative garnered widespread attention, and the BJP used it to cite differences between the two nationally aligned but locally sparring parties.

However, the IUML has maintained that it was a collective decision not to use any party flag including that of Congress.

"The Congress failed to take a strong stand against the CAA and the financial policies of the Union government. The fight in Kerala is between the LDF, which has taken a strong stand on certain issues, and the UDF, which is reluctant to take strong stands on matters affecting the people in Kerala," said Vijayan when contacted by Hindustan Times over the phone.

The chief minister added that the NDA, which is in the third position in the state, will become irrelevant after this election.

According to V D Satheesan, the leader of the opposition in the state assembly who leads the Congress campaign, the so-called “Pinarayi factor” that gave the LDF two consecutive terms in the state assembly is now undergoing a tectonic shift.

"Even those who once beloved and revered him as the Captain find his autocratic style and inflexible character would eclipse LDF's chances in this election. What he has spread so far against Rahul (Gandhi) and UDF are utter lies, and those campaign issues have already been exposed. Even people who traditionally stayed away from Congress and UDF now say only Rahul can ensure a viable alternative at the centre. We will win in the state with thumping colours," he said during a campaigning event in Thiruvananthapuram for Congress candidate Shashi Tharoor.

"There has been a noticeable anti-incumbency trend in Kerala, which is against both the central and state governments. Kerala has a different political scene now, and people would vote against both Modi and Pinarayi governments," said J Devika, faculty member of the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), in Thiruvananthapuram.

"While the LDF-UDF campaign has sown discontent against Modi, voters are also bitterly opposed to Pinarayi due to the chief minister's apparent unwillingness to condemn the political violence perpetrated by student groups leaning to the left, most notably the SFI, and his obvious inability to put a stop to it," she said.

"Pinarayi's autocratic style and defining characteristics have drawn criticism from many quarters. However, we shouldn't restrict this feeling to Pinarayi alone. There's a general disapproval of the Left administration and all the problems it's caused, like the present financial crisis, ministers' incompetence, SFI's brutality, and many more. As the leader, he will naturally bear the brunt of the responsibility,'' according to G. Gopakumar, a political analyst.

The leaders of the left are aware that there is anti-Vijayan sentiment, particularly among liberals leaning to the left. They can only hope that this sentiment does not reflect in voting patterns in the polls.

Also read: Analysing BJP’s focus seats in Kerala for 2024 general elections

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