Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Photograph:( PTI )
The percentage of Muslim and Christian population is over 50 per cent, and Congress believes that the demographics provided a safe enough cushion for Rahul Gandhi to emerge victorious .
The law permits a candidate to contest from two seats, and so there is nothing irregular in Rahul Gandhi deciding to contest from two Lok Sabha constituencies. But the law is not the issue here; the issue is political in nature. From the time it became officially known that the Congress president would fight from Wayanad in Kerala, in addition to re-contesting from Amethi — from where he is the sitting Member of Parliament — his party has been trying to justify the decision using various ways. Whether that defence sounds credible is one matter, but the fact that the Congress has been pushed to the back foot should be a source of satisfaction for the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Congress has given two broad explanations. The first is that it is not unusual for politicians to contest from two constituencies. The party has pointed to Narendra Modi fighting the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from Varanasi and Vadodara. There are many other examples too, but the Modi analogy is flawed. Leaders generally take this route to be ‘safe’, in case the feedback from one constituency is not very assuring. Modi was not a Lok Sabha MP when he decided to take the national plunge. He had 26 ‘safe’ seats in Gujarat, and thus safety could not have been a reason for his choice of Varanasi as an additional constituency.
The idea was to energise his party in Uttar Pradesh where once the BJP was strong but had fallen on bad times since the previous two decades. Besides, Uttar Pradesh, with 80 Lok Sabha seats, was the key to win over the Centre. We now know that the strategy worked wonderfully for the party.
Rahul Gandhi won in 2014 with a vastly reduced margin as compared to 2009 from Amethi. And this happened when he faced a newcomer to electoral politics, Smriti Irani. It needs to be remembered that, in a show of arrogance which is characteristic of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had then quipped: “Irani who?” Since then, Irani has maintained close touch with the constituency, arguably visiting it more frequently than the incumbent MP. The so-called Nehru-Gandhi bastion fell to the BJP in the 2017 State elections, where the Congress could not win a single Assembly constituency.
Over the last five years, with the BJP regime at the Centre and later in the state, Rahul Gandhi’s constituency has benefitted from the equation. The development in the period and lack of it in the previous times despite the Congress chief being its representative is the narrative that the BJP has been relentlessly pushing in the constituency. There is an additional factor to be considered — the refusal of the SP-BSP combine to put up a candidate in the constituency. Apparently, this has been done as a token of magnanimity, and to also ensure that the anti-BJP votes do not split. But it is a double-edged sword. There is no certainty that a majority of the votes that would have gone to SP-BSP candidate will fall in the Congress’s kitty. There is a possibility that some of them might end up in the BJP’s coffer, especially if neither Mayawati nor Akhilesh campaigns for Rahul Gandhi.
In sum, the Congress president faces a tougher contest than even the last time, and this is probably the reason why he has chosen a ‘safe’ seat in Wayanad. How safe even that, remains to be seen, given that the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which too in the fray from that constituency, has vowed to defeat the Congress heavyweight.
The second explanation the Congress has given for the Wayanad choice is that the party wants to ‘bridge’ the north-south divide, carry forward Indira Gandhi’s south-bound legacy, and boost the Congress’s prospects in Kerala. The fact is that Indira Gandhi had contested from Chikmagalur in Karnataka after facing a shocking and humiliating defeat from Rae Bareli in the post-Emergency elections. Karnataka had big leaders from the ruling Janata Dal at the Centre, and yet she won because by then the Janata Party experiment had just about begun to fall apart. The narrative of the north-south divide is specious because by that logic there must have been a west-north divide too when Modi contested from Vadodara and Varanasi — and he managed to bridge it! As for boosting the Congress’s chances in the state, that, for now, remains a fond hope.
The fact is: The choice of Wayanad is self-explanatory, and it has nothing to do with bridging any regional divide or taking a legacy forward. According to the 2011 Census, the percentage of Muslim and Christian population taken together is over 50 per cent, and the Congress believes that the demographics provided a safe enough cushion for Rahul Gandhi to emerge victorious. As per the same Census, nearly 95 per cent of the population lives in rural regions which, the Congress calculates, can be exploited in the party’s favour.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)