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India: How the new Opposition Leader VD Satheesan could change the future of Congress in Kerala

If change was all that the Kerala unit of the Indian National Congress needs at this moment, then VD Satheesan is delivering on that. The newly installed Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly definitely went off script in his first set of pronouncements after taking over. The Congress and the political grouping that it leads, the UDF, could be better off for it in five years’ time, if all goes in this direction.

First off, in a strongly worded speech – some would even say overtly harsh – he let it be known that the Congress in Kerala will not be caving in to pressures from caste, community or religious groupings anymore. And he didn’t bother using that much-maligned term ‘secular’ to make that point of difference. In the speech that quickly went viral for the sheer chutzpah with which it was delivered and the tone it took, Satheesan said Congress candidates in future elections will not be dictated by these external affiliations.

Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan greets newly elected opposition leader VD Satheesan Image Credit: ANI

Secularism Congress style

For any Congress leader, secularism is the one word they swear by. In Kerala, it has meant that the party and its leaders have to be seen as sharing a rapport with the likes of caste-based groupings such as the NSS and SNDP as well as to religious bodies representing Christian and Muslim interests.

Now, let’s go back to what it would have been in the recent past. Any senior level Congress appointment in Kerala would have that person immediately dropping in at the offices of these various pressure groups and taking the “blessings” of whoever deigned to meet them. In the old definition of secular, it meant that the first few weeks of any person taking over as Congress party state president or as Leader of the Opposition – even as Chief Minister back in the days – would be spent taking these blessings. Plus, the mandatory photo opportunities.

Satheesan is, thankfully, not heading down those well-trodden paths…

Instead, he wants to be seen as different. In a speech that won its share of approval and staunch opposition, he told a public meeting that from now on, decisions taken by the Congress will be taken from within the party… and will not be seeking the blessings of others.

VD Satheesan with Ramesh Chennithala in Kerala Assembly on Friday. Image Credit: ANI

Not into groups

The other, but just as crucial, difference is that in the many media briefings he gave after taking over, he did not talk about the Congress in Kerala having to rise above group politicking, under leaders who have long since gone past their usefulness in delivering something for the party.

Instead, all that he said is that these groups and their sundry leaders and followers will continue to remain – and that he and the party would be better off accepting it as a fact. And work on other ways to revive the party.

Again, Satheesan has brought in that much needed realism to his high visibility role. And to think that his elevation was roundly opposed by nearly all the worthies that have brought the party to this dismal state of near non-existence.

Satheesan has made a good start by distancing himself from special interest groups in the form of caste, community and religious affiliations. If he can maintain that over the next five years, Satheesan can write a fresh chapter for the party in Kerala.

Dealing with opponents in disguise

Sateeshan is fit for the role – of taking on a Chief Minister who is at the peak of his political power and with a mandate that was unthinkable to many of the state’s citizens even a few weeks ago. Pinarayi Vijayan saw off the challenge that Ramesh Chennithala posed as Leader of the Opposition in the last Assembly. At best, what Chennithala could deliver were a few pin pricks, but not the body blows to unseat the Chief Minister.

Can Satheesan do better come 2026, when the next state elections are due? He will have many a hurdle to contend with.

Senior congress leader Oommen Chandy (L) greets newly appointed opposition leader of Kerala Assembly VD Satheesan in Thiruvananthapuram, Sunday, May 23, 2021. Image Credit: PTI

Those elections are still some distance away – and some of Satheesan’s most formidable “opponents” remain ensconced within his own party. Sure, all these wise leaders of the Congress have offered their unremitting support to the new leader and those obligatory photos of them sharing a laugh with Satheesan have been taken. But within the state unit of the Indian National Congress, things are never as they seem. Not with the many alphabetical groupings within the party and those leaders and their minions still calling shots.

Sharpest attacks will be from within
Taking on the mighty Pinarayi Vijayan in the Kerala Assembly and outside is the lesser worry for VD Satheesan. How he squares up against his own party legends will determine the course for the new Leader of the Opposition… and a generation change in the state Congress party. The run to him taking over was never a smooth affair; the ranks of those leaders who did not want him to take the step up were increasing by the day. Only a decisive intervention by Rahul Gandhi tilted the final decision in his favour. But he will still have to contend with: RAMESSH CHENNITHALA: The man who was supposed to be the chief minister… but came up well short. The former Leader of the Opposition might have vacated the scene, for now, but he will be harbouring ambitions. And play a waiting game to trip up Satheesan. OOMMEN CHANDY: Now, the official kingmaker in the state unit of the party. Will not sit around until he gets his choice installed as the next president of the state unit. And Chandy has never been known to be much of a Satheesan fan. Can have high nuisance value for Satheesan when it comes to formulating any revival plan.

It’s the tragedy of the Congress party that state leaders (and Chief Ministers) never get a clear run to do what they are supposed to be doing – build an enduring presence within their electoral bases. Look at how Capt. Amarinder Singh, the Punjab Chief Minister and one of the tallest state-level leaders left in the Congress, is facing mounting challenges from within the party. Or ‘rebels’, which is a favoured term in Indian politics for anyone who wants to bring down someone in power and install themselves in their seats. Ashok Gehlot, the incumbent Chief Minister of Rajasthan, fended off his own challengers, but that had to do more with his political finesse and politicking.

Given this constant turmoil from within the ranks, Satheesan can expect nothing different from within his own camp. Hopefully, this will not lead him to go in for a deep sulk, much like what former Congress state president VM Sudheeran did and what incumbent president, Mullapally Ramachandran, is doing ahead of his imminent ouster.

A worthy partner?

If Satheesan gets lucky, the powers that still control the party from Delhi will finally ditch the dithering – and make another popular-with-the-ranks Sudhakaran as Congress president in Kerala. Worthies from Delhi have taken feedback on Sudhakaran and other candidates in with a chance from sundry state leaders – including those like MM Hassan, the UDF convener who just can’t seem to win any elections… ever.

But if the Congress ‘high command’ – if that words makes you roll your eyes, you aren’t alone – decides on Sudhakaran, it will be the best chance that Satheesan will get to fire up the party’s faithful… and bring those back who have given up hope on the Congress ever getting things right. Rahul Gandhi’s word was decisive for Satheesan – can luck finally favour the Congress again in making Gandhi choose Sudhakaran over the other feckless choices? (Take this poll all you Congress supporters – Does the choice of Benny Behanan fire up your imagination?)

K Sudhakaran and VD Satheesan. Image Credit: PTI/ANI

A Satheesan-Sudhakaran combine somehow, on the face of it at least, looks far more capable of taking on the Pinrayi Vijayan-KK Shailaja duo come the next state election. For all you know they could end up doing much better than whatever the esteemed Oommen Chandy-Ramesh Chennithala dream due could not deliver in May 2021…

Will the Kerala electorate deliver an unprecedented third straight term for the same party and political bloc in 2026? It’s up to Satheesan – and Sudhakaran, if all his stars align – to make sure that such history is not created.

He’s made a good start by distancing himself from special interest groups in the form of caste, community and religious affiliations. He has let his voice be heard above the typical clamor of Congress politicking. If he can maintain that over the next five years, Satheesan can write a fresh chapter for the party in Kerala.