The AICC nominated Satheesan as the leader of the party's parliamentary party in the Kerala assembly, said KPCC president Mullappally Ramachandran. (Image: Twitter/@vdsatheesan)
The appointment of VD Satheesan as the new Leader of Opposition (LOP) in Kerala is a shot in the arm for the Congress after its humiliating loss in the just-concluded assembly elections. Satheesan, a five-time legislator from Paravur, is a self-professed ‘Nehruvian’ who wears secularism as a badge of honour.
A Generational Change
A week shy of turning 57, Satheesan replaces Ramesh Chennithala, who turns 65 today (May 25). Yet, it is a generational change in many ways as Satheesan emerged in Kerala’s political landscape only at the turn of the millennium. Satheesan is expected to act as a bridge between the senior leadership represented by faction leaders Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala and the restless young brigade.
Satheesan’s appointment has been widely hailed as timely move. As a politician with a progressive outlook, Satheesan is acceptable to even those outside the traditional Congress ecosystem. That is what makes him different from Chennithala, who had to constantly combat the ‘soft-Hindutva’ image thrust on him during his term as LOP.
Although that was primarily on account of the vicious propaganda unleashed on him by the Marxist ecosystem, Chennithala had not helped his case on account of his proximity with the Nair Service Society (NSS) in the past. When it comes to Satheesan, however, he has always taken a position that caste and community organisations need not meddle in party politics.
Taking Everyone Along
Satheesan’s biggest challenge as LOP would be to get the complete backing of the two entrenched factions, led by Chandy and Chennithala respectively. It needs to be recounted that Chennithala did not go down without a fight while staking claim to continue as LOP, and had even enlisted the Chandy faction’s support to this end. In such a scenario, Satheesan, himself part of the Chennithala faction, will have to ensure that the party works together as one unit.
In the past Satheesan has often taken contrarian positions from the official line but now, as LOP, he has the opportunity to get the party to toe his progressive line. Satheesan will also need to enlist the support of the new Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee chief, whose appointment is awaited.
The Question of Ideology
Satheesan is expected to liberate his party from its recent practise of appeasement politics, which meant pandering to the regressive sections of each and every community alike. With the Congress gradually losing the support of a section of its traditional base, positioning the party to a more liberal or social democratic line is the only solution to gain the backing of the youth and progressives.
Back in the early 1970s, when the Congress faced a similar existential crisis in Kerala, the likes of a young AK Antony and Vayalar Ravi had taken a pronounced Left-of-Centre line to come out of the rut and re-establish the party’s dominance among the masses. Later, by adopting K Karunakaran’s model of social engineering, the party slowly moved to a more centrist space.
Ironically, today, it is the CPI(M) under Pinarayi Vijayan, which is playing by the old Karunakaran handbook in extending patronage to various communities in many subtle ways. This presents the Congress with an opportunity to use the CPI(M) strategy from the past when the communists won primarily on account of its mass base. Of course, bolstering of the party organisation down to the booth level would be imperative for this strategy to succeed.
The naysayers doubt Satheesan’s ability to convince the veterans in Congress to adopt this line. However, the party’s misreading of the mandate of 2019 general elections, when the Congress-led United Democratic Front(UDF) swept 19 out of the 20 Lok Sabha seats as a vindication of its middle-of-the-road stand on Sabarimala, has now become an accepted fact. Hence, Satheesan may not find it too tough to convince the party to adopt a progressive line.
Kerala’s Left Psyche
Kerala has a Left psyche — not to be confused with the Communist Left. Vijayan’s CPI(M) has become an antithesis of the communist governments of the past in adopting neo-liberal policies couched in clever euphemisms. This presents the Congress-led UDF to go back to its secular moorings and opt for a more people-centric approach. As well, raising the issues of the marginalised and speaking up for ecology and environment could be the way forward.
That way, the Congress could also stand to gain among the youth in campuses where the party has surrendered to the CPI(M) in recent times.