Former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy
The Congress party’s humiliating defeat in the Kerala state assembly elections makes it amply clear that the party's redundant old guard must go, at least now.
They should cede the leadership space to the party's young leaders. The senior leadership has failed miserably to keep the party together and put up a fight against the Left Democratic Front (LDF).
The Congress' election campaign was largely confined to TV studios and social media, while the CPM fought it out on the streets. The result: Congress party-led United Democratic Front (UDF), which was hoping to ride on the anti-incumbency wave, was reduced to a tally, even below the 2016 assembly elections.
The Left Democratic Front (LDF) bagged 99 seats while UDF got only 41. It is after four decades that a ruling party has been voted back to power in Kerala.
One thing is crystal clear. The Congress party didn't have a person in charge who could match Pinarayi Vijayan's leadership capacities.
That's among the critical factors that propelled Vijayan to a landmark victory. The leadership vacuum at the Congress party’s leadership had a telling effect on the poll outcome.
The voters didn't trust the abilities of the party's top leaders to lead them at a time when the state is ravaged by a deadly pandemic.
The Congress trio--opposition leader, Ramesh Chennithala, former chief minister Oommen Chandy and Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President, Mullappally Ramachandran-- failed to warm up to the party's grassroots workers.
Congress was a divided house, operating as individual units under different groups. After the victory in the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, when UDF won 19 out of the 20 parliamentary seats, the Congress party went into a deep slumber, from where it never really woke up.
The aging, overconfident state leadership failed to connect with the ground in the run up to the polls, unable to foresee the rout awaiting the party.
The Chennithala-Mullappally—Chandy trio were unable to take the party workers into confidence at any stage. According to insiders, in many places, the Congress party was not even campaigning aggressively whereas the well-oiled election machinery of the CPM cadres quietly dominated the show.
The decimation of the Congress in the state was greatly aided by an incompetent opposition and in the absence of an able leader.
Rahul Gandhi's occasional visits and photo ops was never going to be enough. Chennithala, who rose through the ranks in the youth politics of the 1980s, was never accepted as a mass leader, both among the party rank and file and among its allies, including the now weakened Muslim League.
At the same time, the captain’s - as Pinarayi Vijayan is called by his supporters - charismatic leadership was a talisman for the Left cadres. The party worked as a single unit to get back to power. That was despite a series of corruption charges and controversies.
Chennithala did raise back-to-back corruption charges against the LDF-government but failed to get the messaging down to the ground. He also did not have any support from the party.
The charges against the CPM-led government, including the government’s alleged connection with the gold smuggling case, the controversy surrounding the deep sea fishing contract and a raft of backdoor appointments were not pursued beyond TV studios.
At the same time, the Kerala Chief Minister worked on the ground, ticking all the right boxes by launching a massive populist campaign, offering free food kits, housing schemes and monthly pension to people, which gained him popularity even across party lines.
Chandy and Mullappally, two old warhorses in the Congress, could never connect with other influential party centres and factions. KC Venugopal, the AICC general secretary in charge of organisation, remained on the sidelines till the last moment. The UDF leadership boasted of bringing in young candidates to the field, but the massive Left wave meant most of them tasted defeat at the end of the day.
The call for leadership change has already begun with K Babu, a winning Congress candidate, hinting at this demand and Thiruvacnhoor Radhakrishnan pitching for G Sudhakaran's entry to the state Congress leadership.
The Congress party has a bunch of promising young leaders including Shafi Parmabil, K S Sabarinathan, P C Vishnunath and M Liju, among others.
The old guard of Congress, including A K Antony, Oommen Chandy, Mullappally and Chennithala entered the political scene in the 1970s and 1980s and the party, now, needs to think beyond these leaders and begin a major organisational overhaul if it wants to get back in the game.
It is not over yet for the Congress party in Kerala, which still has a loyal vote bank. Despite the massive defeat, it's vote share is still significant - 25.1 percent in 2021 vs 23.7 percent in the 2016 assembly elections.
The CPM has a vote share of 25.4 per cent in 2021 compared to 26.5 per cent in 2016. But for the Congress party, a rejuvenated LDF is a bigger political threat. The party's redundant old guard should admit their failure and hand over the baton to the young guard at the earliest.
If not, the damage will not fix itself; it will only get worse.