The meeting of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee's political affairs committee in Malappuram on Saturday was uneventful. M.M. Hassan, the new president of the Congress in Kerala, managed to steer the committee without getting into any of the political hot spots as directed by senior leaders including A.K. Antony.
Hassan’s choice as a replacement for V.M. Sudheeran is not seen as a thought-through decision. The party could not go to the Malappuram parliamentary byelection without a leader.
Those who see Hassan’s appointment as a kneejerk reaction to the sudden exit of Sudheeran may take note of the party’s condition in the neighboring states.
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Sudheeran could withstand the rout of the party in the Kerala assembly election in 2016. His counterpart in Tamil Nadu, E.V.K.S. Elangovan, was not so lucky. It took the high command three months to pick S. Thirnunavukkarasar as Elangovan’s replacement.
The gap of two weeks in Kerala could easily be overlooked when considering the party’s performance in Tamil Nadu.
The Congress’s situation is no better in Karnataka. G. Parameswara is still the party’s chief in the state even though he was inducted into the Siddharamaiah government as home minister two years ago. Ramesh Chennithala was relieved of his duties as the PCC chief in Kerala soon after he was sworn in as home minister in the Oommen Chandy government but Parameswara is still saddled with both responsibilities.
The indecision contrasts with the dynamic decision making process of its rival BJP under prime minister Narendra Modi. The BJP surprised everyone by selecting Yogi Adityanath as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister. The Congress has nothing exciting to offer.
The major parties have to flaunt their pivotal position in national politics if they were to strike alliances with regional parties or keep existing allies. The grand old party, however, is at the mercy of its regional allies in Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to secure a few seats to contest the polls.
The weakening of the Congress-dominated politics was reflected to a lesser extent in K.M. Mani’s decision to free the Kerala Congress from its bigger partner. Muslim League leader P.K. Kunhalikutty’s imminent shift to national politics also points to a weakening of the Congress-led politics in Kerala.
Congress allies in the United Democratic Front are a depressed lot though they are happy with the bigger partner’s active strategies under opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala.
The Congress and the Muslim League work in tandem in Malappuram but the major party is expected to do more than just keeping its allies in humor. What the allies expect of the Congress is a resurgence aimed at regaining the lost glory. They want the sentiments in Malappuram to be replicated across the state.
Such confidence is lacking, as evident by Mani’s hesitation to patch up with the Congress even as he campaigns for Kunhalikutty in Malappuram.
Other allies such as Janata Dal and the Revolutionary Socialist Party are still peeved at the Left Democratic Front’s performance but the small parties are careful not to burn bridges with the CPM. They know they are not secure with the Congress.
All smaller partners want the Congress to pick a leader who could ensure the advance of the party and the front in the next Lok Sabha election. Former chief minister Oommen Chandy is a natural choice. Better, if Chandy and Chennithala can work together. Many leaders are in favor of the duo coming together to lead the party and the front effectively but the Chennithala camp is not very amused. A return of Chandy also means the relegation of Chennithala to the second position.
If Chandy is brought back to the leadership, it may provoke Sudheeran to wash dirty linen in public. Sudheeran wants V.D. Satheesan or P.T. Thomas as his successors in the party.
Chennithala and the ‘I’ Group of the Congress have a do-or-die battle in the 2019 general election. The United Democratic Front has to secure at least half the seats in Kerala if they were to guard their leadership role. Calls for infusing younger blood into the organization will become shriller.
Chennithala may be hoping for a change of guards like what happened in the CPM, where Kodiyeri Balakrishnan rose to be the party state secretary and Pinarayi Vijayan moved up to be the chief minister.
Kerala is key to the Congress because the small state contributes a sixth of its total strength in the Lok Sabha. The Congress has been reduced to 44 MPs in the 2014 general election, eight of them coming from Kerala. Kerala is the only state in the south where the party can hope to win some seats.
The BJP wants to deny the Congress that chance.
May be the Congress can take a leaf out of its own past when a 32-year-old Antony was chosen to lead the party in Kerala. Forty five years down the lane, the risk-taking mentality has given way to compromises. The party high command and the state leadership are vying with each other to be the custodians of status quo.