Southern Lights | Rahul Gandhi’s Rae Bareli candidature triggers discontent and omen of neglect in Wayanad | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Southern Lights | Rahul Gandhi’s Rae Bareli candidature triggers discontent and omen of neglect in Wayanad

May 08, 2024 03:19 AM IST

Having handed Gandhi a victory by over four lakh votes in the 2019 election, the electorate now fears being deserted.

Voters in Wayanad, Congress party workers, and its allies in the INDIA alliance, are feeling shortchanged about Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest in Raebareli.

India's Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi gestures as he waits to file his nomination papers for the upcoming general elections, in Wayanad on April 3, 2024. (Photo by R.Satish BABU / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
India's Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi gestures as he waits to file his nomination papers for the upcoming general elections, in Wayanad on April 3, 2024. (Photo by R.Satish BABU / AFP)(AFP)

Having handed Gandhi a victory by over four lakh votes in the 2019 election, the electorate now fears being deserted. District functionaries and members of the legislative assembly from the Congress have expressed their disappointment to the state leadership about being kept in the dark over the plausible choice of a seat in the Hindi heartland, a party leader who did not wish to be named said.

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While the CPM has raised the issue of Rahul’s seriousness and commitment to Wayanad, the most backward district in Kerala, local Congress party workers fear giving up Wayanad may have adverse implications on the 2026 assembly elections in Kerala.

CPM leader and former Congressman KV Thomas, special representative of the government of Kerala to New Delhi, said: “We expect more from a leader of his stature. He has to look after his constituency and respect the people. He could have taken them into confidence and stated that he was considering another option. If he chooses Uttar Pradesh over Kerala, his decision signals that the Hindi heartland is more important than the south.”

This unwanted perception has led many in civil society to inevitably question Gandhi’s contribution to Wayanad in the last five years.

Why voters think Wayanad is neglected

In 2019, when Wayanad was finalised among the many shortlisted "safe seats" for Gandhi, it was probably because of the Congress' hold over Kerala and more importantly, because the minority population almost equals the Hindu numbers that seemingly would guarantee a win. The 2011 census informs us that Hindus constitute 49%, with Muslims and Christian populations summing up to 29% and 21% respectively. Of the Hindus, the scheduled tribes account for 18%, and the scheduled castes about 4%.

It is the unimpressive human development indices of the tribes and SCs as compared to the other dominant castes that gives Wayanad the tag of the ‘most backward district of the state.’

What's worse is that of the 115 backward districts in India, Wayanad is the only district from Kerala to make it to this list. The district's health rank is 114, and education rank is 112, according to the NITI Aayog’s data on the Aspirational Districts Programme, an initiative to transform the most under-developed districts of the country.

A coffee estate owner from Wayanad who lives in Calicut described Wayanad’s land holding saying, “It is a very fragmented land holding pattern in Wayanad. With coffee, tea, and spices cultivation dominating the landscape, more than 80% of the population owns less than one acre of land.” Wayanad has also faced severe droughts and failed to live up to its name of ‘Vayala Nadu’ - a land of rich paddy fields.

“Barring one polytechnic college and one state government engineering college, there is precious little in Wayanad. Oommen Chandy, Congress leader, and former chief minister inaugurated a medical college during his chief ministership. We have not seen much development in the education sector post his regime between 2011 - 2012,” a senior politician who asked not to be named said.

Wayanad accounts for 38% of the state’s tribal population and the Paniyan community remains backward in many aspects. According to a report published in 2020 by the Kerala Institute for Research, Training, and Developmental Studies of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Kozhikode, the community is found to be backward in education.

Infrastructure, inefficient policy implementation, early marriage, and poor health conditions were found to be some of the major reasons for their backwardness. PV Mini, the institute’s deputy director, called for immediate action and said, “All these problems have to be solved simultaneously. If there is no effective policy intervention, this situation will not change, and the community cannot break the vicious circle of socio-economic backwardness they have been stuck in for years.”

A promise in 2019

A high-profile candidate's entry in 2019 came with a promise of reversing some of these unlikable statistics. But that Wayanad didn't feature even once in Gandhi's speeches in Parliament between 2019 and 2024 is worrisome, the locals said.

The quaint hill town made headlines in February this year for its escalation in the number of human lives lost due to man-animal conflict. Gandhi visited Wayanad after much pressure from local groups when three people lost their lives in less than 10 days due to elephants running amok. More than 40 people lost their lives to human-animal conflict in 2022 - 2023, according to Economic Review.

Over a lakh of estate labourers, plantation owners said were unsure of getting back to work, rattled by the violent deaths. This also triggered another conflict between local Malayalis and labourers from Bihar and Bengal because the former felt outnumbered by the “Hindi speakers”.

Given this background, political analysts say Wayanad could do with five more years of Rahul’s influential presence. Prof Damodar Prasad from Calicut University, a specialist in minority politics said, “Poverty, plantation issues, and man-animal conflict need immediate redressal. Nobody expected Rahul Gandhi to contest from Rae Bareilly. If he wins, he should depute someone responsible from the party to tend to these carefully deftly.”

Political implications: Now and in 2026

Following the announcement of Gandhi fighting for a second seat local party workers convened a meeting, seemingly to discuss the post-poll scenario given the poor voter turnout.

“In fact, during the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee meeting on May 4, we spoke to Deepa Dasmunsi, Congress leader and state in-charge, and KC Venugopal, the All-India Congress Committee general secretary, and asked if Priyanka Gandhi could be fielded from Wayanad in case Rahul wins from Rae Bareilly as well,” said a party worker who asked not to be named.

Annie Raja, the CPM candidate fighting against Rahul Gandhi, was quick to react.

“It poses a question of their morality. Even if they had not taken the final call [at the time of the Kerala election], they should have informed the people of Wayanad that Raebareli was also in consideration. Suppose he wins from both the seats, he will have to resign from one. It will be an injustice to the people. And they have always taken Wayanad for granted," she said.

However, a Congress leader from Tamil Nadu came out with Gandhi’s support. Manickam Tagore said the party would take a call on the seat to be foregone later. State Congress leaders worry that giving up Wayanad may hurt the party’s performance in the 2026 assembly elections.

The campaign narrative of the candidates in the 20 Lok Sabha constituencies had more than a fair share of references for 2026 where the leaders were urging the electorate to vote for the party that would be in power in 2026. 'Vote in 2024 for 2026' was a popular refrain in high-profile constituencies in Kerala.

A CPM leader and current minister summed up the mood in Kerala. “As members of the same alliance, we could have done with prior intimation. If Rahul Gandhi decided earlier, we could have avoided fighting each other in Kerala and Wayanad, ensuring we do not eat into each other’s vote margins.”

The other partner, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) put forward an alternate viewpoint.

CK Subair, IUML general secretary, said: “A lot has to be done for Wayanad, but it is also important that Rahul Gandhi represents INDIA everywhere in the country. At least he will dismiss the BJP’s taunt that Rahul is running southward for protection.”

The Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency is comparatively young. It was formed after the delimitation exercise in 2008. It has seven assembly constituencies from three districts: Mananthavady, Sulthan Bathery, and Kalpetta assembly constituencies in Wayanad district; Eranad, Nilambur, and Wandoor in Malappuram district; Thiruvambady seat in Kozhikode district.

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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