On January 18, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and former party president Rahul Gandhi met a group of Congress leaders from Kerala. On January 19, the grand old party announced a 10-member committee for the upcoming assembly polls in Kerala and named former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy as its head.
On the face of it this would look like a wise and matter-of-fact move — after all Chandy is a very popular leader. However, what makes it interesting is that the party has approached Chandy four years and eight months after it washed its hands of the leader and virtually forced him into political exile after the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) lost the 2016 elections to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).
The All India Congress Committee (AICC) has had to eat crow by agreeing to Chandy’s reinstatement, and it is also a clear statement by the party that it needs Chandy to win the upcoming assembly polls.
The truth is that the AICC has once again found itself between a rock and a hard place. A complete absence of young leaders in the party with even a semblance of mass connect has forced it on the inevitable ‘rediscovery’ path. With this announcement the Congress has adopted in Kerala the course it took in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2018.
Apart from Chandy, the 10-member committee will have Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) chief Mullappalay Ramachandran, AICC general secretary KC Venugopal and Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor. This arrangement gives the party ‘high command’ legroom to choose the next Chief Minister if the UDF wins the elections.
The ‘united front’ put up for the press by the Congress leadership air-brushes the fact that the party has realised (late in the day) that Chennithala — who was Congress’ de-facto chief ministerial candidate since May 2016 — has been found wanting. The Congress got a rather startling wake-up call in December when it was trounced at the local body elections that neither Chennithala nor Mullappally had the guile nor the political acumen to win an election. They soon found that playing to the gallery with accusations about gold smuggling is easier than making astute moves on the political chessboard.
Though the Congress is the major party in the UDF, allies have always had considerable say in formulating poll stratagem — and for most UDF allies Chandy is by far the most acceptable leader. This, sadly, reiterates a rather painful point — that there is no other Congress leader with half the charisma and grassroots connect as 77-year-old Oommen Chandy.
The party, at the national and state level, has left the septuagenarian to do the heavy lifting with barely four months to go before the polls.
Chandy would be mindful of the treacherous pitfalls that lie ahead, as he would have to divide time tackling ‘friends’ within the Congress committee and fighting the LDF. With the likes of Congress leader VM Sudheeran, his sworn nemesis who played a significant role in undoing much of the image he built as Chief Minister, Chandy would have his hands full. One is not sure if he would have the energy to go about it with the same zest as he did in 2016.
Assuming Chandy, despite the odds, once again pulls a rabbit out of the hat, there is no guarantee he will be the AICC pick for Chief Minister. Surely, the ‘high command’ is quite capable of parachuting its own choice from Delhi, like Venugopal. On the home front, Chennithala would be in no tearing hurry to give up his claim to the top job. Tharoor could be the wild card.
The Oommen Chandy of 2016 would have been game for the rough and tumble. Despite his physical ailments, he may still have a go at it. If he actually pulls it off, which, of course, will cause as much dismay within sections of the Congress leadership as it would with the Left, the UDF allies would still want him at the helm.
Whatever be the outcome in Kerala, this dilemma talks volumes about Congress’ inability to groom young leaders who can take the baton from the senior leaders — a problem the grand old party is facing across India.