The challenges before Priyanka Gandhi in Kerala's hilly Wayanad constituency - Hindustan Times
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The challenges before Priyanka Gandhi in Kerala's hilly Wayanad constituency

Jun 19, 2024 07:24 PM IST

The new Congress candidate in Wayanad will have to focus on local issues including the increasing incidence of human-animal conflict and farmers’ issues.

Despite being a traditional stronghold of the Congress, Wayanad gave Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi a sleepless night during her first visit to the hilly region located in north Kerala five years ago.

Wayanad, Apr 24 (ANI): Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. (ANI Photo)(Congress X) PREMIUM
Wayanad, Apr 24 (ANI): Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. (ANI Photo)(Congress X)

At that time, she was accompanying her brother, Rahul Gandhi, who was set to file his nomination for the Lok Sabha election for the first time from that constituency, which was less known in national political circles despite being a high-profile global tourism destination.

District Congress Committee president N. D. Appachan recalled that they reached the local state government-run government rest house around 10:30 pm on April 4, 2019.

She went to bed at around 11.30 after holding discussions with the party's local leaders but woke up around 2.30 am after hearing some disturbing noises from the attic.

She called the security staff in fear of the noise, and they discovered two Asian palm civets fighting continuously and running across the attic. Having migrated to the attic of the old building from the surrounding forests, the civets engaged in a territorial fight, which disrupted her sleep.

Even the SPG failed to catch the civets, and they advised Priyanka to shift to a nearby private hotel.

But she refused and continued to stay in the guest house, sharing the unusual experience with those who met her the next day.

Palm civets are endangered mammals resembling cats, and they often create news in Kerala by disrupting the sleep of politicians, including chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, most of his cabinet colleagues, and even opposition leader V. D. Satheesan, who all live in old government bungalows with wooden attics.

But these nocturnal creatures with an omnivorous diet are completely harmless, as per the words of Priyanka herself, who has visited Wayanad since then and stayed in the same room of the same guest house.

Challenges and opportunities

The Congress chose Gandhi as the candidate for the upcoming by-election in the constituency. This by-election was necessitated by her brother vacating the seat to retain Rae Bareli in UP, which he also won with a larger mandate this time.

The Congress hopes her presence would ensure unity in the state unit and help it win the ensuing local body as well as assembly elections.

Worsening human-animal conflicts have become the biggest electoral issue in Wayanad, which shares a border with Mudumalai, Bandipur, and Nagerhole tiger reserves of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which are spread in Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu.

"When Rahul fought and won the constituency for the second consecutive time in April this year, only national issues became the subjects of debate here, as the local people were keen to find an alternative to the BJP at the national level. But this time, Priyanka and other candidates will have to make their stand clear on contentious local issues, which include the escalating human-animal conflicts, the agricultural crisis aggravated by climate change, and the ban on night travel between Wayanad and Bangalore through the Bandipur forests imposed by the Karnataka government,” said writer and documentary filmmaker O K Johnny, who lives in Wayanad's largest town, Sulthan Bathery.

"We have high hopes for Priyanka, who has been with Rahul during almost all his visits to the constituency since 2019. Even when he was away and barred from the Lok Sabha, she singularly travelled every nook and cranny of the constituency. She tried to understand the real issues concerning the local community, which comprises a large number of tribals and landless rural poor,'' said N Badusha of environmental organisation Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithy.

Meanwhile, Priyanka's profile as an effective communicator who has the potential to highlight issues with vigour has raised the morale of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in Wayanad.

"In all probability, her maiden election from Wayanad would facilitate the launch of a second Indira Gandhi in parliament. People here who communicate with me say she can perform better as a Lok Sabha member against the present dispensation at the centre," T Mohanabu, former principal of Pazhassi Raja College at Pulppally in Wayanad said.

On the other hand, Congress feels it would be an easy win for Priyanka in Wayanad as Rahul was reelected in April with a whopping 3.6 lakh margin despite a six percent dip in polling.

"Rahul's candidature in Wayanad helped the UDF win 18 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in the state. He and Priyanka became big influencers across the state,'' said P. K. Kunhalikutty, leader of the UDF's second largest constituent, the Indian Union Muslim League.

UDF leadership feels that Priyanka's candidature has created a feeling that the Gandhi family and Congress High Command have not abandoned Kerala in general and Wayanad in particular.

In the April election, Priyanka addressed huge crowds in almost all Kerala constituencies, while Rahul arrived only in a selected few. In Wayanad, she also addressed more meetings.

“Priyanka is more popular across Kerala than Rahul, as she is more vocal in targeting the BJP government at the centre and the state's CPI (M) government. Rahul reacted only once when the chief minister repeatedly targeted and harassed him, almost in the same language as Modi and Shah, forgetting about India-alliance tie-ups outside Kerala. But Priyanka led from the front in the war against Vijayan, even raising doubts about his communist credentials. Her continued presence in Kerala would boost UDF prospects in the local body and assembly elections,"

Academic M N Karassery said he believes that her charismatic presence will unify the warring factions of the Congress and stem the flow of leaders in the state to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

According to public policy analyst John Samuel, Wayanad, with a demographic composition of about 60% minority communities, including 45% Muslims, remains a safe seat for solidifying the Nehru family's influence in South India and leveraging the Congress's minority voter base in Kerala.

In Wayanad, the BJP is essentially non-existent, and the party continues to struggle to find a level playing field despite former union minister Smrithi Irani frequenting the constituency and launching tirades against the Gandhi family.

In the case of Kerala's ruling LDF, Wayanad is a constituency traditionally contested by the second largest coalition partner, the CPI.

The party's state secretary, Binoy Viswam, has already clarified that LDF will have a candidate in Wayanad, and there would not be any question of supporting Gandhi. "If we are not contesting, that will facilitate the growth of BJP in Wayanad," he said.

However, the prevailing anti-incumbency wave against the Vijayan government, a set of contentious policies, and Vijayan's style of functioning have created displeasure among the public, which will likely be reflected in the by-election.

Along with Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency, there would be by-elections to Palakkad and Chelakkara assembly constituencies vacated by Congress leader Shafi Parambil and CPI(M) central committee member K Radhakrishnan respectively after getting elected to Lok Sabha. Congress feels Priyanka’s presence in Kerala would brighten its prospects in the assembly by-elections as well.

BJP is likely to focus more on the Palakkad assembly constituency than Wayanad in the upcoming by-election. Palakkad is the lone municipality in Kerala under BJP rule, and Congress won in the assembly election last time when LDF cadres cross-voted to ensure a loss for BJP.

“If Priyanka Gandhi can influence voters in Palakkad in the changed political situation, that would be the biggest gain for her and the party. After all, there is no negative or ill feeling in Kerala against her," said J Devika, writer and faculty member of the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Thiruvananthapuram.

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