Opinion: Delhi via Wayanad, Varanasi!

Abhilash Khandekar
New Delhi: Congress President Rahul Gandhi speaks in the Lok Sabha on 'no-confidence motion' during the Monsoon Session of Parliament, in New Delhi on Friday, July 20, 2018. LSTV GRAB

New Delhi: Congress President Rahul Gandhi speaks in the Lok Sabha on ‘no-confidence motion’ during the Monsoon Session of Parliament, in New Delhi on Friday, July 20, 2018. LSTV GRAB

Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, both before and after its bifurcation in November 2000, is habitual of electing Prime Ministers. Barring handful number of the 14 Prime Ministers that India has seen so far, only five–Morarji Desai, Deve Gowda, Narasimha Rao, Dr Manmohan Singh and I K Gujaral-were from outside UP. All others hailed from this north Indian state, known to be politically very alert, and thus significant for every party. From the first Prime Minister Pt Jawaharlal Nehru who stood from Phulpur constituency of the Allahabad district to the present incumbent Narendra Modi who sprang a surprise by going to UP from Gujarat (should I say from Vadnagar to Varanasi) all were sent to the Parliament with huge victories. Interestingly, Nehru never changed his constituency till his death in office in 1964.

But some of the later occupants of the top post, mainly Indira Gandhi and AB Vajpayee, tried their lucks from a number of constituencies. Vajpayee, one of the senior most parliamentarians of India, fought from constituencies as diverse as Balrampur and Lucknow in UP to Gandhinagar in Gujarat and Gwalior and Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh.

However, with Prime Ministerial contender and Congress President Rahul Gandhi deciding to contest from Communist-dominated Kerala state’s Wayanad constituency, in addition to his family pocket borough Amethi and ‘Gujarati’ Narendra Modi sticking to Varanasi, an interestingly colourful canvas is unfolding in the general elections this time around. While in 2014 people keenly watched Modi fighting from two constituencies simultaneously, one each from Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, this time it’s Rahul’s turn to stand from two seats-one in the north and another in the south, simultaneously!

PM Modi in Lok SabhaAt a time when both the national coalitions of NDA and UPA, led by Modi and Gandhi respectively, are claiming to form the government at the Center, with various national and regional parties riding piggyback on BJP and Congress, the real fight is between the well-entrenched and tallest political leader Modi and the grand old party’s young chieftain Gandhi who filed his nomination papers from Amethi on Wednesday. Of course, they are not pitted against each other, the fierce fight of perceptions is against Gandhi and Modi. And both are in a great combative mood!

Even as the seven-phase elections with highly charged political atmosphere, begin from 11 April, what people are discussing is the reason why Rahul chose to go to a southern state. Is he not feeling safe in Amethi, a seat held by his uncle Sanjay and father Rajiv for many years? Or is he really aiming for enhanced support from five South Indian states to help form a government in Delhi? Incidentally, BJP does not have a base in any of these five states with the exception of Karnataka where they had formed a government a few years ago.

In practical politics, winnability remains the first and foremost reason why a candidate chooses a given constituency but at the same time, posturing and perceptions also matter a lot. And strategies are drawn around the same. This is the reason why Narendra Modi, Then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, took everyone by surprise when he announced to contest from Varanasi in 2014. But he too was not very sure of his victory, despite his huge popularity five years ago, and had filed his nomination from Vadodara as well. His strategical posturing and political aim of sending a strong message to Uttar Pradesh paid off well with BJP winning highest ever number of seats- 73 out of 80. That was because of Modi’s presence in Varanasi. From Vadodara, perhaps such a miraculous turn around would not have been possible. It also helped BJP a few months later to come back to power in the state, ruled for long by SP and BSP, with a handsome majority.

But why did Rahul decide to go to Wayanad? I suppose it’s a mixed decision driven by the need to win at least from one constituency and also try and recover lost ground in Kerala, just the way Modi did in UP.

Parliament of India (File Photo)

Parliament of India (File Photo)

From Amethi, Rahul had recorded a comfortable victory by over a lakh of votes over Smriti Irani at the height of Modi wave. So, no political forecaster has even hinted at Rahul’s defeat yet. Nonetheless, he has chosen Wayanad. In 2016 state elections, the LDF had thrown out the Congress-led coalition to form Government in Kerala where BJP’s presence is almost negligible ( it has only one seat in Assembly). Remember, Kerala goes to polls in 2021.

Clearly, Left-wing politicians are flabbergasted by the Congress party chief’s entry into their fiefdom though Rahul, the chief campaigner of his party, has promised not to attack the CPI (M). The Community Party wonders why Rahul is directly taking on the Left instead of the BJP? Curiously, in Wayanad, there is no BJP candidate in the fray. The triangular fight is among Rahul, LDF’s PP Suneer and Bharat Dharma Jana Sena’s Thushar Vellappally.

I have referred to the importance of UP above and have also mentioned that some of the towering people have gone to different constituencies to ensure victories. So, it was Indira Gandhi who began tapping the South first, despite being the top leader from UP. She won a by-election way back in 1978 from Chickmaglur in Karnataka after she received a shock defeat at the hands of the maverick politician Raj Narain from Rae Bareli in 1977; she also fought from Medak in Telangana in 1980. Similarly, UPA chief Sonia Gandhi had successfully fought from Bellary seat in Karnataka in 1999 where Sushma Swaraj gave her a tough fight. Sushma, incidentally, is a sitting MP from Vidisha, though she hails from Haryana and was also the chief minister of Delhi.

And one thought politicians are known only for changing colours!

-Abhilash Khandekar, Senior Journalist