Southern Lights | For Congress in Kerala, the 2024 Lok Sabha election is an electoral gateway to the 2026 state polls | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Southern Lights | For Congress in Kerala, the 2024 Lok Sabha election is an electoral gateway to the 2026 state polls

Apr 22, 2024 08:48 PM IST

The Kerala electorate has displayed a habit of voting alternately for the LDF and UDF in state elections, bucking this trend only once in 2021

With under a fortnight left for the Kerala electorate to exercise their franchise, the Congress aims to kill two birds with one stone — win the most seats in 2024 and prepare the ground for the 2026 assembly elections. Urging its supporters to back the party in all 20 parliamentary constituencies, Congress leaders in their campaigns are also making pitches for the 2026 assembly election, laying bare their ambition of coming to power in the state two years later.

Kannur: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President K Sudhakaran and other leaders during an election rally ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, in Kannur, Thursday, April 18, 2024. (PTI Photo) (PTI04_18_2024_000161B)(PTI) PREMIUM
Kannur: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President K Sudhakaran and other leaders during an election rally ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, in Kannur, Thursday, April 18, 2024. (PTI Photo) (PTI04_18_2024_000161B)(PTI)

Congress leaders who did not wish to be named told HT that former president Rahul Gandhi had instructed his party workers to fight “2024 for 2026”.

Wayanad is his seat of choice, therefore, it does not come as a surprise because Rahul Gandhi is said to have told his constituents that he will return to seek their votes again. With the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) having won 19 out of 20 seats in the 2019 parliamentary election, the Congress aims to do an encore in 2024 raising its pitch by sounding confident of winning 2026.

“We see a good wave in the state now and this will build the momentum for 2026. Although the issues we will be fighting for then will be different, we consider the Lok Sabha election to be a curtain raiser for the next to come,” said Congress leader Hibi Eden, the incumbent member of Parliament (MP) from the Ernakulam seat.

Two strong currents in the state prompted Congress to consider the 2026 assembly polls. One is the heightened anti-incumbency against the Communist Party-led government, which seemed to have earned the ire of the people for corruption, mismanagement of funds in cooperative banks, and student violence in academic institutions.

Second is the minorities’ worry about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s promise of implementing the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA). With the intent of pacifying a loyal electorate by assuring repealing the UCC in the state once elected to power in 2026, Gandhi and his team have focussed on Kerala with a positive expectation.

“Despite not visiting his constituency regularly in the last five years and not mentioning it during his parliamentary discourse, Rahul Gandhi seems to have an easy rapprochement with the locals in Kerala. He is still the Congress’ trump card in the state and his assurances are taken seriously,” said NP Chekutty, a political analyst. If the Congress’ tally betters its 2019 number of 52 seats, they will be an automatic choice over the LDF in the state election, he added.

The Kerala electorate has displayed a habit of voting alternately for the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and UDF in state elections, bucking this trend only once in 2021, where it voted the Left back into power for the second time. Keeping this in view, the 2026 state election has enjoyed more than its fair share of mention in campaigns.

The Tharoor factor

Three-time MP and former Union minister, Shashi Tharoor has led the dialogue for 2026 hinting to his voters that the current parliamentary election could be his last but vowing to continue working for the state, a possible if quiet indication of his chief ministerial aspiration.

Tharoor’s first public statement in this regard was made last year in January to a Malayalam news channel where he said, "I am ready for the role. But the ultimate decision belongs to the people. The responsibility of finding the underlying reasons for the issues faced by Kerala lies with us." Although he backtracks these statements later, his declaration continues to draw adverse comments from his party colleagues.

Thiruvananthapuram has shown why they like Tharoor so much — the perceived corruption-free image, an international reputation that precedes him, and his attempt to shrug off the image of being a “Delhi Nair”.

Tharoor’s Malabar tour in 2022 was seen as his attempt to project himself as a possible chief ministerial candidate, forcing many of his disgruntled colleagues to acknowledge his ability to foresee a Congress wave in the state in the coming years.

Paul Zacharia, a Malayalam writer and political columnist, compared Shashi’s prospects as a chief ministerial candidate over his colleagues. He said: “The Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee Chief K Sudhakaran is embroiled in a money scam and facing the heat from the state investigative agencies. The legislative leader in the assembly, VD Satheesan is shrewd but will have to bear the brunt of sacrificing his position if the Congress’ tally dips below 19 seats.”

“That leaves us with KC Venugopal, the Congress general secretary, whose distance from Kerala has not gone down well with the people and K Muralidharan, former Congress stalwart K Karunakaran’s son who is battling legacy issues and a poor reputation, with his sister Padmaja Venugopal joining the BJP recently,” Zacharia said.

Zacharia added that a favourable face enhances people’s trust in the party where Gandhi and KC Venugopal have not visited the state often in the last five years.

The UDF core block

To win the parliamentary and the subsequent assembly election, the Congress is working to protect its core vote bank. Upper-class Christians, the Nairs (and the Nair Service Society), and the Muslim interests represented by the Indian Union Muslim League are all being negotiated carefully.

With the Orthodox Syrian Church Head Fr Baselios Marthoma Mathews III pledging his support openly to the Congress, and the NSS general secretary Sukumaran Nair vowing to stand by Tharoor, the party has been able to convey a strong message to the BJP that has been making overt attempts to get closer to both influential groups.

The CPI(M) has been cosying up to the Muslim League as late, much to the chagrin of the Congress. But Gandhi’s overtures to the IUML and Shashi Tharoor’s cordial relations with the Kanthapuram Moulavi have led the Congress to feel secure about the Muslim vote.

Kanthapuram in Calicut district is where the general secretary of the All India Sunni Jamiyyathil Ulama, or the India Muslim Scholars Association sits. The current general secretary AP Aboobacker Musliyar is known to wield influence over the Sunni sect and influence their voting preferences. In his address during Eid, Moulavi said that Jamiyyathil Ulama sees merit in supporting the entire INDIA bloc and not just the Congress alone.

Kerala is important for the Congress because being the largest party in the LS election would mean a good chance to rule the third state in southern India.

Political analyst Sri Kumar said: “Unlike the BJP which focuses on multiple regions and states, the Congress needs to be credited for concentrating its efforts on one state. After winning Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, and Telangana last year, Kerala is the next priority.”

All 20 seats in the state will vote to elect its MPs on April 26 in the second phase of the general elections.

Deepika Amirapu is a freelance journalist based in Hyderabad. Each week, Southern Lights examines the big story from one of the five states of South India.

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