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Rahul Gandhi’s Wayanad blitzkrieg further consolidates Congress’s ‘Look South’ strategy
2019 Polls

Rahul Gandhi’s Wayanad blitzkrieg further consolidates Congress’s ‘Look South’ strategy

Naveen Nair

Naveen Nair

Congress President Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka at a road show in Kalpetta, Wayanad on April 4, 2019

The Kerala CPM top brass is reportedly worried about erosion of the party’s traditional votes in the upcoming Lok Sabha election following the massive road show put on by the Congress led by Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi in Wayanad on April 4, 2019

If the number of people who turned out to welcome Rahul Gandhi at Wayanad is an indication of the impact his candidature will have on voters in south India, then the Congress party seems to have won the perception battle, at least in this initial round.

It was nothing short of a hero’s welcome for the Congress president at Wayanad as Priyanka Gandhi accompanied him to file his nomination papers for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections at the Kalpetta collectorate on Thursday, April 4, 2019.

Kalpetta, an otherwise sleepy town on the hilly Western Ghats, saw a cacophony of flags, loud speakers and cars creating a din the likes of which has never been witnessed here before.

Right from the Kozhikode International Airport where Rahul landed on Wednesday night to the collectorate in Kalpetta, there were jubilant scenes bordering on hysteria as thousands thronged all the localities that Rahul went to.

For all the flak that the Congress had taken from the BJP on allegations of running away from Rahul’s traditional seat of Amethi—he is also contesting from there—and from the Left for choosing to fight against it, the turn of events at Wayanad is perhaps a vindication that Congress’s ‘look south’ strategy might be worth the effort.

“The Narendra Modi government has all the while neglected the southern part of the country. My candidature in Wayanad is an answer to it. I am here to unite the whole of India,” Rahul said to media persons after filing his nomination.

It was a clear message that the Congress party’s strategy of a pan-south consolidation was indeed an attempt to project the BJP as a party of north India and north Indians alone.

The state leaders of the Congress party meanwhile are over the moon since Rahul landed in Kerala.

Don’t you see the spirit of the people? It is almost like a hysteria. Can any political party bring so many people like this? The majority of the people have come on their own. The people of Wayanad are embracing Rahul Gandhi with open arms,” former Kerala Chief Miniser and senior Congress leader Oommen Chandy told media persons.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka meet 68-year-old Elsy Amma, one of the victims of the Kerala floods, at Kozhikode on April 4, 2019
Congress President Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka meet 68-year-old Elsy Amma, one of the victims of the Kerala floods, at Kozhikode on April 4, 2019

The Story of ‘Pak flags’ and polarisation

Ever since announcement of the Rahul’s candidature from Wayanad, there has been speculation of a consolidation of the minority vote bank.

While such a consolidation could be a reality considering the fact that in Wayanad Muslims and Christians put together at 49.99% have traditionally been a Congress vote bank, the crowd that turned up to receive Rahul Gandhi is hardly based on any such consolidation.

While it’s true that Kalpetta town had seldom seen so many green flags, green, shirts and caps, it’s to be kept it mind that they all belong to workers of Congress’ United Progressive Alliance ally, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), rather than the wild speculation of a ‘mini-Pakistan’ done by a section over the social media space.

Such claims had even led to rumours that the Congress had asked the IUMIL to undercut its euphoria surrounding Rahul’s coming and dissuade workers from using green flags so that its does not give the BJP further fodder to raise claims of polarisation.

But no such restrictions could be witnessed on the ground as hundreds of green flags competed with the Congress ones across the streets of Kalpetta.

“We are dressed for the occasion. Our colour is green and we are proud of it. We have been here since 5 am hoping to catch a glimpse of Rahul Gandhi. We are sure he is going to win by a huge margin here,’’ said Abdul Salam from Tirur in Malappuram district.

The number of people that landed up in Wayanad on Thursday to welcome Rahul Gandhi was unprecedented for its numbers. While unofficial figures gathered by local reporters put the numbers at a few lakhs, it has been reported that more than 200 vehicles carrying Congress workers and supporters from the neighbouring districts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, apart from the huge influx of supporters from across Kerala itself, had made it to Kalpetta.

“We started yesterday night from Mysuru. We have been waiting since morning. But it does not matter. We are here to see the future Prime Minister of India,’’ says one worker from Mysuru in Karnataka.

Women supporters have been equally thrilled to see Rahul Gandhi and they too came in large numbers from neighbouring districts in Kerala. Priyanka too had become an instant hit.

“Last time I voted for the Left candidate here. But this time round I have changed my mind seeing Rahul and Priyanka. It was so nice to see the siblings together,’’ said 60-year-old Rajamma who came from Kozhikode.

72-year-old Vijayaraghavan who runs a grocery shop at Kalpetta is a Congress supporter. He has been witness to a number of political campaigns in this part of the world. But he says he has never seen anything like this before.

“I have seen many elections here. But I have never seen such a huge crowd in Kalpetta. I think it is because lot of people came from all over the region. We have seen so many vehicles with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka registration numbers over the past 24 hours. Wayanad is suddenly the centre of all attraction due to Rahul Gandhi. Hope it brings a lot of development,’’ added Vijayaraghavan.

That Rahul Gandhi brings a lot of hope for a place as neglected as Wayanad is reflected in the number of people who had landed up at the collectorate with various requests.

Most of them are farmers and small-time businessmen who have a lot of concerns to raise with their likely future member of parliament, or who many hope is a future Prime Minister.

Many even carried placards mentioning some of the demands and one among them was having a medical college at Wayanad, perhaps a reflection that Rahul would have his task cut out if he becomes an MP from here.

Rahul plays a ‘Modi stunt’

By noon Rahul Gandhi had filed his nomination and had set on his mega road show with Priyanka. But before that, the Congress president did try to pull off a ‘Modi act’.

Breaking the SPG cordon outside the Kozhikode government guest house, the Congress president got out of his car to mingle with the crowd on the streets.

Hardly had the SPG managed to convince to get back in his car, Rahul spotted a little boy waiting on the footpath. He got the convoy to a halt and waved the family to get close to the car to interact with the boy.

Five-year-old Haathim from Kozhikode got his moment in the limelight and the Congress president his much needed few moments of PR on camera.

“I was very happy to meet him. Rahul sir asked my name and wished me all the best,’’ a beaming Haathim told media persons. Haathim had accompanied his parents and little sister all the way from Kozhikode to see Rahul Gandhi.

Wayanad had always had its share of problems with the banned Maoists groups and hardly a month ago a Maoist member was shot dead at a resort while a group had tried to extort money.

The district administration had even expressed its inability to provide enough security to Rahul Gandhi when he wanted to visit the house of CRPF jawan Vasantha Kumar, who was martyred at Pulwama. Hence the SPG had its own challenges when Rahul became the candidate at the same Wayanad.

But on Thursday all such restrains had little meaning as Rahul and Priyanka hit the mega road show on a route completely opposite to what was initially chartered, creating quite a flutter among the security men.

In the commotion that ensued during the road show, a couple of media persons were injured and both Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi went out of their way to ensure the injured get immediate medical attention. It was an outright Gandhi siblings’ show at Kalpetta.

A fig leaf to the Left?

Meanwhile in a move that has baffled the state Congress leaders, Rahul Gandhi told media persons in Kalpetta that he was not here to criticise the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist; CPM)).

“I understand that in Kerala the Congress has had long drawn battle against the CPM. They may have a lot of things to say to attack me too. But I am not going to say anything against the CPM. I am here to send a message of unity for India,” added Rahul Gandhi.

This statement of the Congress president has surprised many considering that the state Congress party has no option but to openly criticise the CPM and the Left across all the other 19 Lok Sabha constituencies. For the Congress-led UDF, the Left forces in Kerala, and not the BJP, are their primary opponents in almost all the constituencies.

The top brass of the state Congress who were flanking Rahul when he made the statement were soon in damage control mode.

“What Rahul Gandhi said only reflects his political maturity. Even when the CPM is attacking him he has chosen not to say anything against the party. It is only in keeping with the highest traditions of the Congress party. However .to answer Pinarayi Vijayan and his gang, we the state leaders in the Congress are more than enough,’’ Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala told media persons minutes after Rahul spoke his mind.

Political pundits are however saying that Rahul is purposely playing a measured game with his words looking at the post poll scenario.

“Rahul is certainly looking at the post-poll scenario where he doesn’t want to burn any bridges. But more than that such measured words sends out a signal to the voters that in spite of being attacked he is refraining from it which will ultimately blunt the attack of the CPM. I think it’s a well calculated statement,’’ political commentator Sunnykutty Abraham told The Lede.

The Left has meanwhile made it very clear that it would not do anything to dilute its stand against the Congress in Kerala nor would it put its guard down even against Rahul in Wayanad.

“By contesting in Wayanad, Rahul has given his nomination against the Left as there is no BJP candidate in Wayanad. So what is the message that Rahul wants to send out? This is the issue with his leadership,’’ Kerala Chief Minister Pinnarayi Vijayan said, speaking at an election rally.

There is no doubt that success of the Rahul Gandhi road show, where ground reports suggest that even Congress leaders are surprised by the sheer number of supporters who turned out, has rattled the state leadership of the CPM.

Sources close to the top brass say that the party workers have been asked to leave no stone unturned in ensuring that the traditional votes of the party don’t get eroded following the Rahul blitzkrieg, something which the party fears could be a real possibility across Kerala.