'Wayanad has become famous because of Rahul Gandhi.'
Rediff.com's Archana Masih reports from Rahul's Southern bastion.
Rahul Gandhi just made two trips to Wayanad since announcing his candidature, but he was everywhere.
In the run-up to the April 23 election, his pictures could be found pinned on tree trunks along narrow roads, hanging from strings in front of homes and on car windshields.
He was an absentee candidate -- but Wayanad saw his dimpled face everyday on its streets, fields and forests.
In the final surge, just before campaigning ended, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi arrived to give the crucial push. Priyanka spent two days in Wayanad.
"Their visit has increased the tempo and morale. There is tremendous response amongst women and youngsters. Rahul's winning margin is going to be by over 5 lakh votes," says senior district Congress leader V M Majeed.
"I first met Indira Gandhi in 1968 -- now as a senior citizen, I met Priyankaji. She reminded me of Indiraji," Majeed adds.
Wayanad has 1.35 million voters and has been won by the Congress since the constituency was created after delimitation in 2009. Its two-time MP, M I Shahnavas passed away last year. His winning margin had shrunk to a slim 20,870 in 2014 from 153,439 in 2009.
The parliamentary constituency is divided into 7 assembly segments. Five are held by the Congress and two by its ally, the Muslim League.
"Wayanad will become famous because of Rahul Gandhi. This time or next time he will be prime minister. Tourism will develop and people will Google 'Wayanad'," says Shahnawas, a young entrepreneur sitting in his jewellery store in Kalpetta, the district headquarter.
"He will win with a huge margin. Indira and Rajiv died for India. This sentimental approach will bring him votes," says the young man.
"This is my best friend, Santhosh," he says introducing the friend, who is standing at the entrance of the small shop.
What is the equation between Hindus and Muslims in the town, we ask? It is an awkward question but one that has become a glaring, recurrent theme in recent elections.
"In Kerala," says Shahnawas, "there is no difference between Muslims and Hindus, here we all are Indians."
India has many Santhoshs and Shahnawas, and another example of such friendships was at display on the campus ground at St Mary's College in the neighbouring town of Sulthan Bathery.
Hayisha, Sara, Reshmapriya, Jyothi and Shumisha are sitting under a shady tree with the placard 'Tree of Friendship' nailed to its trunk.
Discussing the going ons of end of term life, these first time voters rue the absence of any professional institute in their district where they can enroll after graduation.
"We urgently need such institutes, otherwise there is no scope for us," says Jyothi NR.
"Rahul Gandhi has brought a freshness to the poll scenario. I like his attitude. I feel he has been successful in convincing people here," says Jyothi.
While Rahul Gandhi's opponents -- P P Suneer of the Left Democratic Front, an alliance of 10 parties -- and Thushar Vellapally of the National Democratic Alliance -- campaign throughout the day, Rahul Gandhi's campaign has been largely run in absentia.
As the Congress president canvasses for the party around the country, his campaign in Wayanad is conducted by local foot soldiers.
"We are all nominees of Rahulji. In Wayanad, there is no Modi, only Rahulji," says K K Abraham, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee secretary.
At the Congress office in Sulthan Bathery, 25 km away, the mood is upbeat. With a giant poster of Rahul Gandhi providing the backdrop, local Congress office bearers are excited.
"One lakh new voters have registered after he announced his candidature from Wayanad. Young people are enthused to cast their maiden vote for Rahul. People here are voting for PM -- our MP will be PM," says K C Rosakutty, a former Congress MLA and retired teacher.
One of the proposers of Rahul Gandhi's nomination, Rosakutty ma'am says it was beyond the district Congress's imagination that no less than the Congress president is contesting from here.
Rebutting the claim that Rahul is an outsider, paradropped because he was unsure of victory in Amethi, the former MLA and teacher retorts, "As PM, how many days has Modi been in Varanasi?"
"In fact, he has not been in India much!"
"Rahulji has won Amethi thrice. He will win both, but will retain Wayanad. Priyankaji has already said he will not leave you," says K K Abraham, who has been a student of K C Rosakutty.
The Congress office that was listless, even the lights were switched off when we entered 40 minutes ago -- had filled up by now. More district officers joined around the discussion table giving a sense of how Rahul's candidature had galvanised them -- and brought hope for Wayanad.
On the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Wayanad is a remote hilly district in the Western Ghats with Kerala's largest tribal population. It has no railway station and no airport. Ninety eight per cent of its inhabitants are farmers facing severe agrarian crisis.
"The farmers are fighting for survival. They can't repay loans and are on the verge of suicide. Rahulji will be a saviour for the farmers, Dalits, Adivasis," says K K Abraham.
Coffee is the major crop, followed by pepper and rice. Coffee plantation was badly affected by climate change and floods last year devastated pepper cultivation. One part of the district is also drought prone.
"Now that this district is coming into the limelight, I hope some more assistance will flow so that people benefit," says District Collector Ajaykumar AR, explaining that a VVIP's candidature results in a constituency seeing benefits in several ways.
"If his presence is in the government, then it will benefit much more and if not in the government as well, because of his candidature itself, some benefits will come to the district," he says.
An enthused Congress in Kerala is expecting that Rahul will boost the party's chances in South India's 130 seats – but the Left sees this as political immaturity and shortsightedness.
"In the name of so-called love for South Indians, Rahul is contesting from Wayanad. He should have stood from Karnataka where the BJP is a force. There is no BJP in Kerala," says P Sandosh Kumar, the LDF convenor for Wayanad and JNU alumnus, sitting in the CPI's campaign office in Kalpetta.
"Wayanad is a seat where NDA lost its deposit last time. His fight here is not against the BJP, but the Left. Rahul should not try to divide the secular forces."
The Congress argues that since Wayanad was held by them, it was an open seat -- and it is their good fortune that the party's number one leader was contesting.
The district party workers assembled around the party office get agitated when asked about Narendra Damodaras Modi's remark that Rahul chose Wayanad because it had a Hindu minority.
"Even this constituency is Hindu majority and this point is not known to our PM," says K K Abraham, thumping the table.
"Modi has compartmentalised India into pieces -- language-wise, communal-wise and area-wise -- while Rahulji is making a bridge between north and south India that has been destroyed by Modi," adds Abraham.
In neighbouring Kalpetta, NDA candidate Thushar Vellapally, hand-picked by BJP national President Amit Anilchandra Shah, says Rahul is playing a communal game by attempting to separate the Muslim vote.
"The Kerala mind is completely different. It is a secular mind because Hindus, Christians and Muslims live together. We don't like somebody coming from outside, contesting in our state, winning and going and avoiding us," says Vellapally, over a cup of coffee just before leaving for the day's campaign.
In Velapally's support, Modi addressed a rally in Kozhikode last week and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman conducted a road show in Wayanad.
"What if Rahul Gandhi loses?"
K K Abraham and the rest of the Wayanad district Congress leaders are stunned by the question. The question is repeated thrice because they find it too ludicrous to even fathom.
When they finally do reply, K K Abraham does so with a wry laugh;
"As long as the sun, sky, moon are there, Rahulji can never lose."