Though Congress leaders in Kerala publicly swear by the High Command, it is a known fact that top leaders like Oommen Chandy are generally driven by their own political whims. Reason why a decision on Nemom is proving infuriatingly elusive.
The High Command wants the Nemom candidature to be the biggest political statement of Assembly elections 2021. Top sources said Rahul Gandhi, who is leading the brainstorming in Delhi, has told the leaders that the candidature should come across as the most daring move of the Kerala polls, and at the same time, should forcefully establish Congress's secular credentials.
The three top state Congress leaders – KPCC chief Mullappally Ramachandran, opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy – are convinced, and all three, sources say, are equally enthusiastic about the prospect.
But it is in the choice of the candidate that the three cannot reach a consensus. Initially, three candidates were discussed: Chandy, Chennithala and K Muraleedharan.
Rahul struck out Murali's name. This was not because the Vadakara MP was seen as a relatively weak candidate but because he thought the political message he wanted to convey, that the Congress would go to any extreme to stall the BJP's progress, would be forcefully delivered only if the seniormost leaders take up the challenge.
Rahul wanted either of the other two leaders, Chandy or Chennithala, to pick up the gauntlet. Chennithala was not keen. He argued that if he was chosen, he would be bogged down in Nemom. Being the opposition leader, Chennithala said he should be everywhere. “If he had to lead the UDF from the front, Chennithala had to contest from Harippad, a safe constituency he had won twice,” a close Chennithala aide said.
In fact, Rahul was more interested in Chandy. The former Chief Minister was not only highly regarded but he was also a Christian. Rahul was fascinated by the prospect of a leader from the minority community taking on the BJP in its lair. Chandy's win will enhance Kerala's reputation nationally, Rahul reportedly told Kerala leaders.
Chandy was in half a mind. By sheer habit he just could not think of moving out of Puthuppally. He has been representing the constituency, in Kottayam district, for over 50 years. He virtually had to do nothing to win, it was almost automatic. Chandy was Puthuppally's habit, too.
Nemom has no such commitment to Chandy. At 77, the two-time Chief Minister will find himself in the most unlikely role, as the underdog. Having won repeatedly and so easily from Puthuppally, a strong triangular fight is not a scenario Chandy had ever been in.
Yet, being the quintessential politician, Chandy but kept his options open. In public he said he had no plans to move out of Puthuppally. But in private, sources said, he bargained.
“Congress's tallest leader has been asked to make the biggest sacrifice at this stage in his career. What will he get in return for this risk,” a leader close to Chandy asked. Though the demand was not spelled out in definite terms, the message was clear.
Chandy is bargaining for the Chief Minister's post. Earlier, in public and in private, Chandy had acknowledged Chennithala's claim to chief ministership. Therefore, sources say, the latest ploy could be an attempt to ensure at least the home minister's post for his 'A' group if the Congress comes to power, and also seats for loyalists like K Babu and K C Joseph whose names the AICC is loathe to include in the candidate list.
Fed up with Chandy's dilatory tactics, Rahul Gandhi has suggested that Shashi Tharoor take up the challenge. Tharoor is not just an iconic figure but is also the hugely popular MP of the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha, under which Nemom falls.
However, the Congress top brass is not very optimistic about Tharoor's chances in Nemom. Even when Tharoor won by nearly one lakh votes in 2019, he had trailed BJP's Kummanam Rajasekharan by over 12,000 votes in the Nemom segment, a far bigger lead than what BJP's O Rajagopal had when he beat CPM's V Sivankutty in 2016.
The general feeling is as a candidate Tharoor will not have the novelty of Chandy or even a Chennithala in Nemom.