Know Your Candidate: In Wayanad, CPI & BJP dream of turning Rahul Gandhi's safe house to short-stay home

Illustration: Onmanorama

Onmanorama's Know Your Candidate (KYC) captures the changing trends in a constituency, the pulse of of the voters from the ground and gauges candidates' chances.

Rahul Gandhi
Hilly Wayanad is an anomaly when it comes to election campaigns. The constituency dotted with posters of a smiling Rahul Gandhi also echoes the physical absence of its incumbent MP. His campaign, which relies heavily on videos and narratives showcasing his work, is complemented by the outreach efforts by his team.

Despite his absence, the enthusiasm for Gandhi is palpable. When he arrived in Kalpetta to file the nomination papers on April 3, thousands braved the scorching heat to catch a glimpse of the national leader. “We love Rahul Gandhi. My friends and I came all the way from Malappuram to see him,” a teenager told Onmanorama before climbing onto a fence to catch a better glimpse of the Gandhi scion.

If Rahul Gandhi's national image worked in his favour last time, his opponents say his poor performance card would upset his chances this time.

Since the announcement of his candidature, CPI's Annie Raja and BJP State President K Surendran have not wasted a single opportunity to criticize his infrequent visits and failure to address Wayanad's concerns in Parliament. The argument that he did not represent the constituency effectively in the Lok Sabha, however, falls flat. He submitted 99 unstarred questions in the 17th Lok Sabha, with 27 focused on Wayanad, and initiated eight debates, two of which concerned the constituency. However, his attendance (51 per cent) in the House fell way behind the national average (79 per cent) and state average (83 per cent). Many voters Onmanorama spoke to pinned the blame of poor attendance on the MP's disqualification which lasted for almost five months and the Bharat Jodo Yatra. “They even disqualified him. He has initiated a lot of projects in Wayanad through his MP funds,” said Sarojini, the owner of a women's-only mess in Kalpetta.

Congress, though certain of a victory, is wary of certain factors that could affect Rahul's margin. The subdued enthusiasm from Muslim League supporters and the removal of all IUML-related insignia from the campaigns following the flag controversy in 2019 may reflect in the final verdict.

Annie Raja
If Rahul Gandhi is like a carefree schoolboy acing exams by simply riffling through lessons, Annie Raja, the LDF candidate is the studious nerd who reads the book cover to cover to ensure her victory. She arrived in Wayanad on March 1, a fortnight before the election dates were announced. The objective of the poll debutant is simple -- use the time to make herself familiar to the 14 lakh voters in the constituency. As she completes the second phase of her campaign, her efforts are not entirely in vain. “I think Annie Raja will win this time. Many people are supporting her. An MP should be able to raise the issues of the constituency in the Lok Sabha and resolve them,” Krishnapriya, a student of Oriental College, Kalpetta told Onmanorama.

A crusader for women's rights, Annie Raja is known for speaking her mind even if it means criticising the CPM-led Left front and its ministers.

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Despite being a part of CPI, an important ally in the INDIA bloc, she has not minced words when it comes to criticising her opponent -- Rahul Gandhi. "What has Rahul Gandhi done for this constituency in the past five years? He did not even once mention Wayanad in the Parliament," the LDF candidate told Onmanorama.

However, it remains to be seen if Raja's words would persuade the voters to choose her over the popular Gandhi. When Rahul Gandhi and Annie Raja held an election rally before filing their nominations on April 3, the streets of Kalpetta swelled beyond capacity to welcome the Congress leader. The CPI rally was modest. A small group of party supporters walked their candidate to the Civil Station.

K Surendran
When BJP candidate K Surendran led a rally before filing his nomination on April 4, most of the party banners and posters in Kalpetta sported a large smiling image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The candidate's image was restricted to the corners of these posters and the tiny badges pinned on volunteers. The Modi-centric campaign was perhaps a deliberate attempt to compete with Rahul Gandhi's pan-India image.

But the Bharatiya Janata Party's decision to field its State president against its arch nemesis Rahul Gandhi is not based on winning alone. Victory would be tough for a right-wing party like the BJP in the minority-dominated constituency. The party merely intended to pose Gandhi with the toughest challenge it could offer. BJP's vote share was a meagre 7.25 per cent last election and 8.83 per cent in 2014. By fielding a known face like Surendran in the constituency, the party hopes to consolidate the BJP votes that may have deserted them due to the presence of the BDJS candidate in 2019.

The BJP's campaign in Wayanad revolves around four strategies. One, focus of Rahul Gandhi's failure as a Wayanad MP.

Two, bring the public's attention to SDPI's willingness to throw its weight behind the Congress. "The Congress is resorting to divisive politics by aligning with groups like SDPI and PFI to secure votes. Everyone knows of PFI's hostile intentions towards Christians and Hindus,” the BJP candidate alleged.

Three, a targeted effort to appear as a minority-friendly party through frequent visits to Church leaders.

Four, project the party as a development-friendly one which could bring about the much needed changes in Wayanad including rail, road or airstrip. In fact, the party sent Union Minister Smriti Irani to the constituency to convey this message- Wayanad too could achieve 'salvation' like Amethi if the public chose so.

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