Congress at crossroads: Jubilant Ernakulam or humiliating Pathanamthitta?

The Kerala assembly election has a striking parallel to the local self-government body elections held a year ago. The CPM state committee had estimated that the voting pattern in the local body elections would translate to victory for its alliance in 99 assembly constituencies. The Left Democratic Front ended up winning 99 seats when the assembly election results were announced this week.

The CPM estimate also forecast that the BJP would draw a blank. So it happened. The Congress-led United Democratic Front won 41 seats. The UDF recorded a majority in the local body elections in areas corresponding to 41 assembly seats. In the assembly elections held a few months later, it maintained its top position in 29 of them. Though it lost the other 12, it made up for the loss elsewhere.

This is the first time that the assembly election verdict has tracked the previous local body election so closely. The election result has undermined the line of thinking among political pundits that elections to the Lok Sabha, state assembly and local bodies take different courses in Kerala.

This should be a wake-up call for the Congress and the alliance it leads. They have lost two elections which happened within a gap of several months. The last time the UDF registered a convincing victory in an assembly election was 20 years ago when A K Antony was sworn in with the backing of 99 legislators. In 2011, the Oommen Chandy ministry was sworn in with a wafer-thin majority of 72 legislators.

That victory might have been handed to the UDF by the faction-ridden CPM. Many analysts believe that the Pinarayi Vijayan-led party was not very enthused about another term for V S Achuthanandan as the chief minister. Since then, the CPM has transformed itself into a professional organization by uniting the party and reforming it to reflect the aspirations of the modern era.

Meanwhile, the Congress was weakened by a split triggered by K Karunakaran and K Muraleedharan. Ramesh Chennithala’s successors as the party’s state president, be it V M Sudheeran, M M Hassan or Mullappally Ramachandran, could not lead the party to its past glory. The organization came to be in the control of warring groups.

Once the CPM and the LDF decide on a candidate, they do everything they can to get their candidates elected. In the UDF, however, the candidates are left to fend for themselves. They have to mobilise forces to do all the work. Campaign material dumped in canals and sold to recyclers bear testimony to the dwindling motivation of Congress workers.

The assembly election result has raised so many red flags for the UDF. The foray of the LDF in the Malappruam district is just one of them. The LDF has fought back in the UDF fortress. It improved its vote share to 42.43 percent in the district where it once received a humiliating below-30 percent. The LDF secured a lead of 9,000 votes in the Ponnani municipal council despite an intra-party rebellion against the candidature of P Nandakumar in the Ponnani assembly constituency. Evidently, the Muslim League bastions have been shaken, judging by their sliding vote share.

Even as the LDF made inroads into Malappuram and dominated Kottayam, the UDF withstood the headwinds in the Ernakulam district. Even an upcoming entity like Twenty20 could not spoil the Congress-led front’s chance in the district, where the Congress can boast of a party machinery that can match or even excel that of the CPM. The Congress has several leaders who can actually claim more acceptability than those of the LDF.

From veteran K V Thomas and senior leader V D Satheesan to emerging leader Roji M John, the Congress has a formidable team in Ernakulam. They have kept the communication channels open despite the presence of the usual saboteurs. They all want the Congress and the UDF to lead in Ernakulam, which is home to the most elegant Congress party office in Kerala. The Congress is represented in the district by a group of youngsters who promise to emerge as state leaders.

The Congress can choose between the Ernakulam model or the Pathanamthitta model. Pathanamthitta was once a staunchly UDF fortress just like Ernakulam. Today, the front is a non-entity in the district, thanks to the controlling stakeholders who are only interested in promoting their self-interests.

Time has come for the Congress and its alliance to choose a path.

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