Will Rahul Gandhi contest elections from Wayanad—or not? This question dominated Kerala's airwaves for the past week or so.
Now that Gandhi's candidature from Wayanad has been formally announced, Kerala's Congress unit and other parties that make up the United Democratic Front (UDF) are jubilant.
Conversely, this news came as a huge setback to the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), already seen to be trailing behind the UDF.
Despite being the favourite, the UDF had been grappling with many issues, not least the delay in the naming of its candidates and the uncertainty around Gandhi's Wayanad candidature. Even K Muraleedharan's candidature in Vadakara, where he is engaged in a high-stakes contest with the powerful ex-Kannur District secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) P Jayarajan, was yet to be officially declared--till yesterday.
The resultant chaos in the interim had the UDF leaders in Kerala in a spot. But, with 22 more days still to go for the polls, the UDF campaign has received a shot in the arm. And how!
Rahul Gandhi contesting from Wayanad will have a huge bearing on the poll outcome in Kerala. This constituency encompasses three districts (Wayanad, Kozhikode and Malappuram) in North Kerala and is perched at the tri-junction of Kerala's border with Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Apart from possibly being the safest seat for Gandhi to contest nation-wide, the ripple effects of a prime ministerial candidate contesting from this constituency will be felt in Malabar from Palakkad to Kasaragod.
Despite being late off the blocks, Congress has managed to put up formidable candidates in almost every constituency. With so much going for the UDF, this election could well see a decimation of the LDF.
Battleground Central Kerala
Still, the UDF has its task cut out in its Central Kerala strongholds of Chalakudy and Idukki where they lost to the LDF in 2014 on account of the circumstances prevailing back then.
In the UDF fortress of Ernakulam, Congress made a tough call to drop veteran KV Thomas and replace him with the young Hibi Eden. It was in direct response to the LDF naming P Rajeev as its candidate and this gamble could help the party to retain this seat despite Rajeev's impressive credentials.
As for Kottayam, where UDF-ally Kerala Congress won in 2014 with a comfortable one lakh-plus margin, the intra-party feud among the KM Mani and PJ Joseph factions in Kerala Congress and the spite among the Congress workers against (Kerala Congress Vice-Chairman) Jose K Mani might put affect UDF hopes to hold on to the seat.
LDF might have missed a trick in not fielding the tried-and-tested Suresh Kurup ahead of CPI (M) district secretary VN Vasavan in this crucial seat although Vasavan's superior networking skills might have tipped the scales in his favour.
In neighbouring Pathanamthitta, incumbent Anto Antony had to quell dissidence from within the party to secure the Congress ticket. The LDF gamble to field Aranmula MLA Veena George, banking on the Christian Orthodox community's votes, might backfire owing the Orthodox Church's overt stand against the LDF government for its failure to implement a Supreme Court order on the administration of disputed churches.
In what might turn out to be a double whammy for the LDF, the Sabarimala issue would also influence the result in its epicentre. Although BJP's K Surendran is fancying his chances, the assembly divisions of Poonjar and Kanjirappally should decisively swing it the UDF way.
Sabarimala factor in South Kerala
In many constituencies in South Kerala, the Sabarimala issue can have an impact on poll outcomes with the UDF expected to gain from the LDF's loss. In capital Thiruvananthapuram, where the BJP's O Rajagopal gave the charismatic Shashi Tharoor a run for his money in 2014, BJP is pinning its hopes on former state president Kummanam Rajasekharan to open its Lok Sabha account in the state. Sabarimala undercurrents notwithstanding, Tharoor is expected to win the triangular contest with LDF's C Divakaran most likely to get relegated to the third position.
In next-door Attingal, LDF incumbent A Sampath seems to enjoy a definite edge. However, in naming a strong candidate in Adoor Prakash, Congress has ensured a tough contest in this LDF bastion. The contest in Kollam will go down to the wire.
Malabar and North Kerala
That brings us back to North Kerala. In the UDF stronghold of Ponnani, the LDF was sniffing its chances after fielding Nilambur MLA and moneybags PV Anvar against Indian Union Muslim League (IUML)'s ET Muhammed Bashir. But Rahul Gandhi's Wayanad candidature could dash the LDF hopes here.
Kozhikode, Kannur and Vadakara are set to witness tight contests but even these constituencies will be heavily impacted by Gandhi's arrival.
So will be Kasargod. In this CPI (M) stronghold adjoining Karnataka, Congress has gambled on star spokesman Rajmohan Unnithan. But Unnithan has to contend with a strong local face in LDF's KP Sathish Chandran and the organisational might of the Marxists. The UDF is banking on Unnithan's oratorical skills to highlight the twin political murders of Youth Congress workers in this constituency and swing the seat away from the LDF. Whether Palakkad will see any impact of Gandhi's candidacy remains to be seen.
Will taking gambles pay off for UDF?
The delay in naming candidates notwithstanding, the UDF has put its best foot forward to catch the LDF by surprise in at least three constituencies. This is quite uncharacteristic of the Congress campaigns of the yore when candidates were by and large predictable. Now, with Rahul Gandhi's candidature from Wayanad being confirmed, the UDF looks set to sweep this election in Kerala.Anand Kochukudy is a Delhi-based academic and political commentator. Views are personal.