Lessons from Kerala poll debacle: How to save Congress from its own leaders in Kerala, look what Trinamool and CPI(M) are doing

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KERALA 44-1617109116566
A Congress supporter clicks a selfie with party leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra during her election campaigning at Karunagappally in Kollam district, Kerala. Not one to disappoint, Priyanka Gandhi was seen taking her SUV ride greeting people enthusiastically as they waved to her from everywhere roof-tops and buildings as her cavalcade passed.
Image Credit: ANI

All those Congress party sympathisers out there in Kerala, please take note. Forget those two words ‘high command’ – for good. The party’s survival depends on it. [For those uninitiated in Congress party politics, these two words represent the so-called central leadership of the party, sitting far away in the nation’s capital, New Delhi. In other words, it is nothing but the Gandhi family and the cronies surrounding them.]

This is the first step anyone wanting to secure some sort of future for the Indian National Congress in the south Indian state should take.

And here’s another suggestion:

Stop thinking that three members of a family with that surname are capable enough to take all decisions on behalf of the 135-year old political party. And that a visit by the cherubic Rahul Gandhi or charismatic Priyanka Gandhi will translate into enough votes at the constituency level come election time. And also that photo opportunities with students or a dive into the high seas with fishermen will get the clicks on the voting machines.

Congress Leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra
Congress Leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra plucks tea leaves at Sadhuru tea garden in Biswanath on Tuesday.
Image Credit: ANI

A passing resemblance to her grandmother might be good for Priyanka, but could not conjure up enough votes for the Congress/UDF candidate in the 99 seats they lost in these elections.

The bane of ‘high command’

If the Congress needs a future in Kerala – or any other state where the party stands decimated now – decisions handed down from Delhi should stop – unless the Congress finds a mass leader who can match up to Modi on the persona scale. Even someone who does not have a ‘Gandhi’ tag at the end of his/her name will do.

Elections are always local, or in India’s case, the states. If the latest assembly polls showed up any common trend, it was that the electorate preferred their Chief Ministers to be their own person… and not decided by diktats from New Delhi. Mamata Banerjee showed how it is done – in an election that she was supposed to lose, or at best scrape through.

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Mamata Banerjee
Mamata Banerjee
Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

MK Stalin, the DMK party supremo, came up with a comprehensive win in Tamil Nadu in a similar fashion.

These leaders showed that for them, the ‘high command’ begins and ends with them.

Brand Vijayan

If anyone still remains in doubt, what transpired in Kerala should convince them. The sweeping victory by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) was built around the persona of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. It wasn’t about ideology, nor of election manifestos. Sure, these details might have mattered for many – but the nature of the wins was about Pinarayi Vijayan convincing a majority of voters that he can be decisive. Truly decisive, whether right or wrong.

If a Congress follower has hesitations about jettisoning the high command, they should look within their own party and see the merit of taking their own decisions at the state level. They have prime examples of Capt. Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister of Punjab, and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan. Capt. Singh can take on dissidents and change ministers without first having to make the flight to Delhi. And Gehlot has successfully spun a strategy of keeping opponents within his own party guessing – all the while staying on as the Chief Minister. Clearly, he doesn’t need the Gandhis to do that for him.

Stock Pinarayi Vijayan
Pinarayi Vijayan, CM of Kerala
Image Credit: Gulf News archives

‘Historic’ defeat

Over the last five years, the Congress strategy in Kerala hinged on one hope – that history will favour them in 2021. Because the last 40 years had never seen the incumbent party running the government a second term. History was all that mattered to these Congress leaders – now, after the elections, many of these worthies will have been consigned to history. Or at least that’s what anyone hoping for an eventual revival of the party should hope for.

Once the scale of the party’s wipeout became clear, those leaders rushed to claim “moral responsibility” for the defeat. And, without losing a breath, started talking about the need to “introspect”, come up with “fact-finding reports” and “once again start building the party from the grassroots”.

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The party of K. Karunakaran needs to show some decisiveness. Adding a spine will also help. Ditch the high command. Ditch the Gandhi troika.

This all sounds like déjà vu to a Congress follower. This is exactly what the party and its top-tier leaders have been saying each time they have lost an election since 2014, when the first Modi government came to power… in Delhi.

It’s an excuse that no one takes at face value – and stopped doing so a long time ago.

Melee of mediocrity

Having owed up to moral responsibility, for a change, those worthy leaders of the Congress party in Kerala should take the next logical step. Step down. The state party president, Mullapally Ramachandran, is still waiting for the summons from above – ie, the high command – to do the right thing.

If Mullapally had spent more time on the campaign trail, hitting the highways in Kerala, he could have had a better feel of where his party stood. Instead, he and other state leaders were seen in Delhi early March – just a month before the vote – in deciding candidate lists.

Ramesh Chennithala, who was one of the chief ministerial candidates if the Congress had won, should give his hopes a rest. It will take a whole lot of shifting of political fortunes to get him back in the reckoning. As the Leader of the Opposition in the last Assembly, Chennithala’s track record is top notch. The tragedy is that few in his own party are willing to give him credit for that.

Ramesh Kerala
Ramesh Chennithala with other party leaders

For Oommen Chandy too, it’s time to step back. The only sound decision he made in these elections was to stay on as candidate in his hometown Puthupally rather than shift to Nemom in Thiruvananthapuram. That he did so despite pressure from the high command makes it even more notable.

The plight of Dr. Shashi Tharoor

The only organisation in the world that seems to think Shashi Tharoor cannot be of much use is the Kerala unit of the Indian National Congress. Through the years, the state’s leaders have kept an arm’s length relationship with Dr Tharoor, who, incidentally for those not in the know, is a two-time Member of Parliament from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency.

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Now, here is someone who spent years at the United Nations in New York, and was even in the running to be the organisation’s Secretary-General. Here’s a man who is feted by universities and emerged as a genuine icon among the youth. Above all else, he’s someone never at a loss for words (preferably in English, by the way).

But ask the esteemed Mullapally Ramachandran or Ramesh Chennithala whether these credentials matter, and chances are you would get a collective shrug.

So, what are the chances of a person like Tharoor getting a shot at a senior leadership position in a reconstituted Kerala unit?

Zilch.

Another stalwart, the venerable A.K. Anthony, too should be heard even less. His pronouncements about a glorious comeback for the Congress may still resonate with the faithful. But in the absence of any coherent blueprint, Anthony’s words are nothing but sermons. Empty sermons at that.

Also, it’s time to say byes to all those leaders who keep showing up in candidate lists… and then fail to make it anywhere near the Assembly once the final votes are counted.

Is there a way out for the Congress? Yes, total revamp – the Congress party in Kerala could do with some of that. But throwing out one set of leaders on “moral responsibility” for an election loss and replacing them with another set of “installed” leaders will not do the party any good.

Rahul Gandhi Kerala fishermen
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi catches fish with fishermen, at Thangassery Beach in Kollam on Wednesday, February 24, 2021, during election campaign in Kerala.

It is high time to ditch those fact-finding reports, too. Start with a clean slate.

The party of K. Karunakaran needs to show some decisiveness. Adding a spine will also help.

Ditch the high command. Ditch the Gandhi troika.

Learn from Mamata – she didn’t give a second thought about leaving the Congress and striking out on her own. Even the years when she was nowhere in the power equation was used to strengthen her resolve – and the party she created, the Trinamool.

Congress leaders in Kerala need to learn the right lessons from history.



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