If the Nemom candidature has to look like a daring gamble that could dramatically alter voter preferences across Kerala, Congress will have to field former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy from the BJP's lone sitting seat.
Anyone else, even a strong leader like K Muraleedharan, would seem like a compromise that, given the constituency's pro-BJP inclination, could split the neutral votes between the CPM and the Congress causing an even bigger BJP victory.
Chandy alone can aggregate virtually the whole of the minority votes in Nemom; Christians and Muslims constitute nearly 30 per cent of the voters.
No other Congress leader except Chandy can hope to bring the Nadar Christian community back to the UDF fold. The LDF had effectively wooed this community, a traditional UDF vote bank which forms over 12 per cent of the Nemom electorate, by including it in the OBC list. Nadar Christian leaders acknowledge behind closed doors that Chandy, when he was chief minister, had tried to include the community in the OBC list.
Moreover, in the coastal regions that make up the Western end of Nemom, Chandy is loved as the chief minister who had given rice at one rupee a kilo, a reputation that works as a counterweight to the Life's welfare claims.
It was also during Chandy's time that the subsidy for kerosene was fixed at Rs 25 when the price was Rs 50 a litre. Even at the end of the Pinarayi Vijayan term, when the price of kerosene has touched Rs 93 a litre, the subsidy remains stuck at Rs 25.
Besides, like A K Antony, Chandy is the only Congress leader whose image has transcended religious or community lines. In other words, the former chief minister is a leader with whom even secret Hindutva admirers are comfortable.
It is also a fact that the urban areas of the constituency, which now has a predominant right-wing slant, was once pro Congress. It was only in 2011, when the Congress handed over the constituency to a minor ally like Janata Dal (United), that it's traditional voters migrated to the BJP.
Chandy's candidature could bring them back. The presence of the tallest leader in the Congress, possibly the next chief minister, at their doorstep can also work as a good enough prompt for many BJP-inclined voters to opt for the Congress. Ramesh Chennithala also could work this magic but it is doubtful if he could unify all castes and communities under the UDF the way Chandy can.
Shashi Tharoor, though he is hugely admired, will also be a wrong choice. One, he clearly has failed to charm Hindutva voters even during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when he won by nearly one lakh votes; Nemom was the only area where Tharoor lost, that too by a margin of 12,000 votes. Two, fielding Tharoor in an Assembly seat would send the wrong message elsewhere in the state. It would be interpreted to mean that the existing crop of leaders like Chennithala and Chandy are inadequate for the job. This can fuel disgruntlement, leading to possible sabotage from within.
Chandy, however, has not fully ruled out accepting the Nemom challenge but his reluctance, sources said, had intensified after the emotional scenes he had encountered in front of his residence in Puthuppally on March 13.
Though the Congress is looking for options, the party is also trying to work out a formula that could satisfy Chandy. A proposal that is under serious discussion is the fielding of the staunch Chandy loyalist Lathika Subhash in Puthuppally. It also helps that the candidate is a woman. In addition to the sharp political intent that Chandy's name in Nemom could convey, Lathika's candidature could instill gender sensitivity into the UDF's electoral image. It is still not clear whether Chandy has okayed the plot.
It is also not as if Chandy is alien to Nemom. He has a house in Jagathy, which falls under the Nemom constituency.