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Let us give Rahul credit when he deserves it!

February 20, 2014 10:22 IST

Kerala is one state where the Congress may do well in the general election and it where Rahul Gandhi has demonstrated why he is serious about rebuilding his party, says T V R Shenoy.

Rahul Gandhi was the focus of Congress posters during the Kerala assembly election three years ago. Photograph: Reuben NV/Rediff.comRahul Gandhi caught flak for his wretched performance when interviewed by Arnab Goswami. But when the man does something right you have to give him kudos too.

One such occasion arrived on February 10 when V M Sudheeran was named the new president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, with V D Satheesan as vice-president.

This is the first sign that Rahul Gandhi might be serious about rebuilding the Congress. Many think it would be wonderful if the Congress faded away altogether; I am not one of them.

Balance requires a Left-of-centre party; how many Indians would be comfortable if that space were occupied by the Aam Aadmi Party or the Marxists?

Kerala is a good place to start that phoenix act. The state was the Congress's first exposure to coalition politics.

Second, it is one of the few states where the Congress still practises cadre-based politics.

Third, and of immediate consequence in 2014, Kerala is, in my opinion, one of the few states in India where the Congress might hold its ground come the general election.

In 2009 the Congress touched double digits in seven states, namely Andhra Pradesh (33 MPs), Uttar Pradesh (21 MPs), Rajasthan (20 MPs), Maharashtra (17 MPs), Kerala (13 MPs), Madhya Pradesh (12 MPs), and Gujarat (11 MPs).

It was reduced to single digits in other large states -- West Bengal, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Orissa.

The recent assembly elections -- and the Telangana imbroglio -- suggest that the Congress could be decimated in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat.

It could do even worse than in 2009 in Tamil Nadu and in West Bengal, where the DMK and the Trinamool Congress chose to snap links with the Congress.

Maharashtra is difficult to call, but I am none too sure if the Congress could repeat its success in the Karnataka assembly when the Lok Sabha elections are due.

That leaves Kerala.

It will still take hard work, but Rahul Gandhi began well by backing Sudheeran and Satheesan.

Sudheeran is one of those rare Congressmen that speaks his mind. Satheesan is known for doing his research before mouthing off.

Both men enjoy a reputation for honesty, both arose from the Kerala Students Union (a branch of the Congress-affiliated National Students Union of India), and the 16-year gap in age between the two men demonstrates a certain amount of planning for the future.

So, why should Rahul Gandhi get any credit?

The saga began when Ramesh Chennithala, V M Sudheeran's immediate predecessor as head of the Pradesh Congress Committee, joined the Oommen Chandy ministry, as home minister.

It was widely held at the time that Chennithala would try to run the party unit through remote control.

From what I hear it was Rahul Gandhi who put his foor down, insisting that the duo of Sudheeran and Satheesan get their day in the sun.

They certainly have their work cut out for them. The Congress has been a house divided in the state, with the 'A Group' and the 'I Group' vying for control ever since A K Antony broke with Indira Gandhi's Congress -- championed by K Karunakaran in Kerala -- immediately after the Emergency. Indira Gandhi and Karunakaran are gone, Antony operates in Delhi rather than Thiruvananthapuram, but the factionalism endures.

Sudheeran and Satheesan can take some comfort in the fact that dissidence is equally a problem for their foes in the Marxist camp. It is no secret that the local party boss, Pinarayi Vijayan, is at odds with former chief minister V S Achuthanandan.

In 2007 the fighting proved so embarrassing that both men -- senior members of the party -- were suspended from the CPI-M Politburo, the equivalent of misbehaving kindergarten children being told to go and stand in the corner.

Factionalism is not all that unites the CPI-M and the Congress.

Kerala was the birthplace of Adi Shankara, that supreme proponent of the doctrine of 'Advaita' (non-duality). True to that heritage, the seeming duality between Congressmen and Marxists is largely 'maya'.

Space does not permit a complete recitation of the SNC-Lavalin Scandal. Suffice it to say that the Comptroller & Auditor General found that the Kerala State Electricity Board had incurred an estimated loss of Rs 374.50 crore (Rs 3.74 billion) after signing a deal with the Canadian firm SNC-Lavalin.

Those subsequently investigated included two former power ministers in Kerala, the Congress's G Karthikeyan and the CPI-M's aforementioned Pinarayi Vijayan.

Both the Congress-dominated United Democratic Front and the CPI-M-led Left Democratic Front took refuge in the same excuse of 'zero loss' (later made much more famous by Kapil Sibal while defending the Congress position in the 2G Scam).

Or take the stated positions of both the Congress and the CPI-M when it comes to foreign direct investment in the retail sector. While the prime minister was prepared to risk his ministry on the issue in Delhi the chief minister of Kerala was equally adamant that it would not be permitted in his state -- precisely the position adopted by the CPI-M in Parliament.

What do Keralites do if they want a break from this political 'advaita'?

Could voters see the BJP as an option? I was surprised at the numbers who turned out to attend Narendra Modi's rallies in Kochi and in Thiruvananthapuram, but numbers may not translate into votes.

Narendra Modi's popularity may be more of a headache to the CPI-M than to the Congress. What is not generally understood outside Kerala is that the CPI-M is largely the 'Hindu' party in the state.

The Congress rests on the Christian and the Muslim vote, given political expression by its allies, the Kerala Congress and the Muslim League.

But are Christians in Kerala completely committed to the Congress?

One by-play missed by a Delhi-obsessed media was the meeting between Narendra Modi and two leaders of the Malankara Orthodox Church (Kerala's chief minister's own sect). You could explain away the presence of the Ahmedabad diocese's Geevereghese Mar Julius in meeting his own state's chief minister, but not that of the Chengannur diocese's Metropolitan Thomas Mar Athanasius.

After the meeting Mar Athanasius told journalists that he would be happy to see Modi as the next prime minister. That is as unsubtle as it gets!

But if your political affiliations are Left of centre the BJP is obviously not an option. Could the Aam Aadmi Party offer a real choice, particularly to disaffected members of the CPI-M?

On December 30, Prashant Bhushan of the Aam Aadmi Party was in Thiruvananthapuram. The Aam Aadmi Party's resident legal eagle said he come to seek V S Achuthanandan's 'guidance, help and support to bring about a political transformation', adding without prompting, 'I have not invited him to our party.'

Left unsaid -- but understood by everyone -- was the word 'yet' hovering between 'not' and 'invited'.

The upshot is that both Narendra Modi's BJP and Prashant Bhushan's Aam Aadmi Party are wooing sections of the CPI-M, either (subtly) as Hindus or (none too subtly) by preaching against corruption. This plays into the Congress's hands.

V M Sudheeran and V D Satheesan are well placed to woo voters on several counts. Even their foes dare not accuse them of corruption. Having risen from the cadres they have an affinity with the ordinary Congress worker. They are under the circumstances the two best choices for reviving the Congress.

Let us give credit where credit is due. Rahul Gandhi has, for once, chosen well.

For more columns by Mr T V R Shenoy, please click here.

Image: Rahul Gandhi on Congress posters during the 2011 assembly election in Kerala. Photograph: Reuben NV/Rediff.com

T V R Shenoy