In the first week of March, soon after the Assembly elections were declared, All India Congress Committee leader and former Tamil Nadu MP P Vishwanathan called a booth-level convention in Nemom constituency.
In Nemom, the party is supposed to have 182 booth presidents; a booth president is the lowest unit in the Congress hierarchy. But in attendance at the convention were just 53 booth presidents. Even among these 53 were, in the words of a local Congress leader, “booth presidents who were taken on rent for a day”.
“Anyone willing to volunteer was quickly declared as a booth president and sent to the convention. The local Congress leaders just wanted to save their faces,” a local Congress worker said.
Last men standing
Even if it is assumed that the 53 were bona fide booth presidents, it still means that in the remaining 129 booths, or in over 70 per cent of the constituency, there was no party machinery even in name.
Onmanorama on Monday contacted seven of the existing 53 booth presidents and found that they were the only Congress functionary in the booth. “Even when we were working for Shashi Tharoor in 2019, when the party was already in a poor shape in Nemom, there were five to seven people with me to visit houses and organise neighbourhood meetings,” said Kumar, a booth president. “Now, no one is interested. Many of our workers have shifted to the BJP and the CPM. These parties offer money and jobs,” he said.
Safety net called BJP
Several of the Congress booth presidents in Nemom have formally resigned, but there are others who have not even cared to inform their leaders that they have quit working.
Candidates picked as booth presidents are normally from financially backward families, and work in low-paying intermittent jobs like bank security, bakery assistant or auto-rickshaw drivers.
At least two of these former booth presidents who had medical emergencies were helped by the BJP. Both these men remain Congress functionaries, block vice-presidents, but their sons are now leaders of Yuva Morcha, the BJP's youth wing.
“I have not gone to any other party but I no longer work for the Congress,” said one of them, Pappanamcode Sreekumar, a former panchayat member of the Congress when the Nemom area was a panchayat. He now works as a security personnel in a bank.
When asked why he was still Congress's block vice-president, he said: “I have not done any anti-party activities to be expelled from the party.”
Stagnant Congress leadership
The 'mandalam' presidents in Nemom, who oversee the workers, have neither bothered to fill up vacant posts nor replace dysfunctional office-bearers.
The way these leaders respond, it is as if they are blissfully ignorant of what is happening on the ground. "We have booth presidents everywhere. We will win easily. If we had lost in the last two Assembly elections, it was only because the seat was given to a minor ally," said Kaimanam Prabhakaran, Thiruvananthapuram District Congress Committee general secretary and one of the 'mandalam' presidents of Nemom.
These local Congress leaders are not being made accountable either for the failures of the party in their area of command.
“In the CPM and the BJP, there are vote targets. If the targets are not achieved, there will be some kind of action. In Congress, let alone disciplinary action, we don't even count the booth-level votes polled by a Congress candidate. It is a surprise that we still have 'mandalam' presidents in Nemom in whose home booths Congress candidates have polled less than 10 votes in the last local body polls,” said a young Congress worker who had stopped cooperating with the party after the 2020 local body poll debacle.
In 2016, when the UDF candidate, V Surendran Pillai of Janata Dal (United), polled below 14,000 votes or lower than 10 per cent of the total votes polled, the then KPCC president V M Sudheeran wanted the entire office-bearers in Nemom sacked. Not a single ward or 'mandalam'-level leader was touched.
It's ruins that remain
On an average there are eight to nine booth presidents under a ward president. These ward presidents, at least eight of them, come under a 'mandalam' president. The whole bunch of 'mandalam' presidents, 10 in Nemom's case, are divided into two and each group put under the command of a block president. These two block presidents, who report to the District Congress Committee president, are shared between the 'A' and 'I' groups.
The 'I' group's block president, Vijayan Thomas, joined the BJP a few days ago, on March 12. Long before Oommen Chandy's name cropped up, Vijayan Thomas' billboards were featured all over the constituency, an indication that he had fancied his chances in Nemom.
Since it was a hall owned by Vijayan Thomas that functioned as the party only office in Nemom, at the moment the party workers have no space to call their own in the constituency.
It is into this organisational void, or mess, that K Muraleedharan is going to enter. If the campaign machinery can be likened to a vehicle, Murali will soon be staring at something that resembles mashed up four wheelers found abandoned near police stations. Both his rivals, CPM's V Sivankutty and BJP's Kummanam Rajasekharan, have been offered new generation high power stuff. They only have to get in and accelerate.
“Murali will have to first rebuild the party in Nemom before he starts campaigning. I don't know whether he has time left,” a top Congress leader told Onmanorama.
2020: Total destruction
By rebuilding, the Congress leader meant that Muraleedharan will have to bring back Congress workers who had either left or had turned their backs on the party. Without these grassroots workers, Muraleedharan will find the going tough.
Their non-cooperation and desertion had led to the virtual rout of the Congress in Nemom during the 2020 local body polls. The UDF was unable to win in any of the 22 wards that make up the Nemom constituency. Worse, it came a distant third, in one case even fourth (Ambalathara), in 20 of them.
The only wards where the party stood second were the coastal wards of Vizhinjam and Poonthura that were once considered Congress citadels.