There is no need for Gandhi or the Congress to feel apologetic for choosing Wayanad.
Days before it was made official that Congress president Rahul Gandhi would fight from Wayanad in Kerala as well as from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh and there was a strong buzz that he would choose a second constituency, a worker in the Varanasi area office of the BJP, Amarnath Awasthe, declared triumphantly: “We have won Amethi.” The message, whether it was intended to be so or not, was that Mr Gandhi was not too confident about his victory in Amethi. The BJP leaders and workers can rightfully claim that they succeeded in pushing Mr Gandhi out of his comfort zone. He cannot take Amethi, his family’s pocket borough for decades, for granted any longer.
According to Congress insiders, there was a strong suspicion that the BJP would indulge in foul play to defeat Mr Gandhi in Amethi because the party was in power in Lucknow as well as in New Delhi. There was little doubt that the BJP was hell-bent on defeating Rahul Gandhi. For five years after her defeat in 2014, the BJP’s losing candidate in Amethi, Smriti Irani, visited the constituency regularly and got many things done for the people, no doubt by virtue of her position as a prominent minister at the Centre. The streak of viciousness to electorally humiliate Mr Gandhi is unmistakable, though it cannot be faulted. That is how politics is played. Neither the BJP nor Ms Irani have any special attachment to or concern for Amethi or its people. But the election remains to be fought, and there is a possibility that Ms Irani might lose yet again, though the mind games that the BJP is playing there seem to give her an advantage.
It makes perfect sense for the Congress strategists to throw a ring of protection around their president, Mr Gandhi, and find a safe seat for him. Any other reason that the party leaders would want to offer would be mere rationalisation. And it makes political sense as well. Indira Gandhi fought the byelection from Chikmagalur in 1978 after she tasted defeat from Rae Bareli in the historic 1977 post-Emergency Lok Sabha election. In the 1980 Lok Sabha election, she fought from Medak as well as Rae Bareli. In the wake of the “office of profit” controversy, Mrs Sonia Gandhi had fought from Bellary in Karnataka as well as from Amethi in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. There is no need for Mr Gandhi or the Congress to feel apologetic for choosing Wayanad.
The fight between the BJP and Congress over Mr Gandhi is a simple one. The BJP believes that if Mr Gandhi is defeated in Amethi, then the defeat of the Congress would be complete. It is the antiquated military strategy that once the commander of the “enemy” side is defeated, then the enemy army would collapse. The BJP’s thinking is rooted in antiquated norms, and it is out of sync with democratic politics. Even if it is assumed that Mr Gandhi loses in Amethi as did Indira Gandhi in Rae Bareli in 1977, then the party can find ways of bringing back the leader. The BJP’s intention of electorally decapitating the Congress by defeating Mr Gandhi in Amethi is puerile thinking at best.
The question however remains: Would it have been honest on the part of Mr Gandhi and the Congress to fight the good fight in Amethi despite the potential “foul play” that the BJP could have indulged there, and only then look for another constituency? It is not for outsiders, including political observers, to say what Mr Gandhi and the Congress should do nor not do, or what the BJP and Ms Irani should in fact do in Amethi. It is a judgment call to be taken by the two parties themselves.
But Mr Gandhi’s Wayanad move has left the two Communist parties and the ardent anti-BJP folk red in the face. They appear to be outraged that Mr Gandhi, instead of fighting against the BJP, is now pitting himself against the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala. The burst of anger against Mr Gandhi in the anti-BJP circles is understandable, because the anti-BJP folk assume that it is the duty of all non-BJP parties to defeat the BJP and save the secular fabric of Indian democracy. It is a laudable ideal, but there is a contradiction in the position. The anti-BJP group of parties will have to decide whether they need the Congress in the first place. If they feel that the Congress has lost its political footprint in large parts of the country, then the non-Congress anti-BJP parties should leave out the Congress altogether. But if they believe that the Congress has a crucial role to play because it could win more seats than all the rest of the anti-BJP parties put together, then they cannot ask the Congress to play second fiddle. If the Communist parties feel that defeating the BJP with its toxic communal and nationalist agenda is of the highest national priority, and if it feels that the Congress has a role to play, then the LDF candidate should be withdrawn from Wayanad. It would send a clear signal to the BJP that its bid to demolish the Congress would not succeed. The anti-BJP parties have as much obligation to provide a safe constituency to Mr Gandhi as the Congress itself.
It would be much better for the Congress to explain its stand with regard to the decision to choose a second constituency for Mr Gandhi. It should have openly declared that it does not expect the BJP to fight a fair election in Amethi, and that it suspects that the BJP would misuse its position of being the party in power in the state as well as the Centre to lure and to intimidate the people of Amethi from voting in favour of Mr Gandhi. It would be a fair apprehension but then the Congress must voice its suspicion and its fears in a bold and honest manner.