As Rahul Gandhi Chooses Wayanad, is the South Still a Safe Haven for Congress?

Rahul Gandhi aims to invoke the lucky charm of South India for his family and party. But the South is not what it was twenty, or forty, years ago to his mother and grandmother.

It was 1980. C.M. Stephen, an Indira Gandhi loyalist, had lost to A.B. Vajpayee in the New Delhi constituency by about 5,045 votes. She wanted him back in Parliament. So, she sent him to Gulbarga in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region.

Those days Gulbarga was not a reserved seat. Dharam Singh had won handsomely with a margin of 1.17 lakh votes and a 56.20% vote share. Even before Singh could take oath as a parliamentarian, he was asked to resign, and a by-poll was forced to accommodate Stephen.

Stephen, who hailed from Kerala, had been in Mrs. Gandhi’s cabinet as a communications minister, and a leader of opposition for little over a year during the Janata regime. What is astounding here is the cultural incongruence. A person who had seen lush green and bountiful rain at all times growing up in Kerala’s Mavelikara (Alappuzha district), was contesting from Gulbarga, an arid, drought prone, backward district.

If Stephen, a Kerala-Christian, was an obvious mismatch in that constituency, Singh, too, was a wonder-victor because he was demographically challenged. The Rajput community to which he belonged were only in a few hundred in this constituency.

The story goes further that when this near impossible task was assigned to Singh and Congress leaders of Karnataka, they presented Stephen as Thipanna (a popular Lingayat/OBC name) to the locals, and ensured he won by a margin of 10,000 votes. There are many issues to glean from this episode of nearly 40 years ago.

Is something like this possible today, in 2019, for the Congress party? There are larger questions of identity and sub-nationalistic politics that have acquired a different form, but the more immediate enquiry for us is: does the Congress still command the loyalty of South India like it once did?

Southern comfort

South India for decades was like an insurance package for the party. When there was electoral failure in the rest of India, the South would keep the lamp glowing for the Congress. Even when the party split, moral and material back up for the Nehru-Gandhi family would come from the South. But has that all changed in the last decade or so?

This enquiry becomes relevant in light of Rahul Gandhi now deciding to contest from Wayanad in Kerala – a seat created in 2009 after the delimitation process. Before he made up his mind to contest from Kerala, Congress leaders had repeatedly petitioned him to pick a seat from the South for the ensuing polls.

It started with the Karnataka unit of the party, then Tamil Nadu and finally, Kerala jumped in and spoke on similar lines. Strangely, Andhra and Telangana units were quiet. Some constituencies like Bidar, Koppal, Bangalore Rural and Wayanad came up for discussion as ‘safe bets’ in the media. He has now settled with Wayanad.

The most popular part of the ‘South-as-Congress-safe-haven’ story is Indira Gandhi’s Chikmagalur victory in the by-poll contest of 1978. It was seen as her revival. In fact, after her defeat in 1977, and while she planned to move to the South, there was a quip to counter the Barooahism, which said ‘Indira is not India, but she is at least South India’.

It turned out to be true, not only in Chikmagalur, but in Medak (Andhra Pradesh), in 1980 as well where she cornered a whopping 67.93% vote share. Her nearest rival, Jaipal Reddy, got a mere 18.57% vote share. This popular narrative perpetuated itself when, twenty years later, Sonia Gandhi contested the Bellary seat in 1999 and won against a formidable Sushma Swaraj. That moment was about re-establishing the primacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family in the Congress party.

Now, at a third two-decade interval, in 2019, when the party is challenged by ideological decisiveness of a Modi-led Right, Rahul Gandhi has been invited to invoke the lucky charm of the South for his family. But the South of today is clearly not what it was twenty, or forty years ago for Rahul’s grandmother and mother.

Voting trends in South India

Even if one were to take a broad view of electoral data from 1971, the general election after Congress’ first major crisis, when it split, and till 1991, the one held after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, for two decades, the pattern is apparent: Karnataka (Mysore before 1973) has been most loyal, followed by undivided Andhra Pradesh. Tamil Nadu and Kerala are almost on even keel.

Things begin to change even in Karnataka after 1996, and Sonia Gandhi’s victory in Bellary, in 1999, can be read as residual aura for the party. Immediately after that election the entire region became a BJP terrain.

In 1971, Mysore state gave 100% results, 27 of 27, while Andhra Pradesh delivered 28 of 41 seats. Tamil Nadu, with a strong Dravidian counter narrative, offered 9 out of 39, and in Kerala, where the Communists were strong, they picked up 6 out of 19 seats. But, in the general election after the Emergency was lifted, in 1977, when Congress won 154 seats across the country, the South made up for 92 seats, that is 60% of the party’s total tally, with Karnataka and Andhra delivering near 100% results, and numbers slightly improving in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

In Indira Gandhi’s comeback election of 1980, after the Congress had witnessed a second split in 1978, the South again held up. Andhra and Karnataka delivered nearly all seats in the arena. Kerala dipped by a few seats, but Tamil Nadu bounced back giving 20 out of 39 seats. Again, the South’s numbers for the Congress amounted to 26% of the party’s overall tally. In the post-Indira Gandhi election of 1984, surprisingly, Andhra delivered a hard blow. Telugu Desam with its screeching sub-nationalistic agenda emerged as a force, and picked up 30 of the 42 seats, leaving only 6 for the Congress.

After the emergence of TDP, Andhra’s loyalty to the Congress becomes fickle like that of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but the state kept its affair with the party every alternate poll, like it did in 1989 with 39 seats. Following an established pattern, the polls in 1991 after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, saw a slump in numbers. But it so turned out that after the elections Andhra’s own P.V. Narasimha Rao was catapulted to the prime minister’s chair.

However, post-Babri Masjid demolition, Congress’ fortune began to plummet in the South, and that includes in its most loyal state of Karnataka. In the 1996 polls Janata Dal bagged 16 of the 28 seats, and Congress was reduced to 5. In the same election the party was wiped out in Tamil Nadu as well. It got zero.

Prominent Congress leaders grouped under the Tamil Manila Congress umbrella and garnered 20 seats. Post this election, Congress lost the ability to keep a steady vote share in Tamil Nadu that delivered an average of 20 seats even in the most trying times. It became entirely dependent on alliances with Dravidian parties. Interestingly, in 1998, Congress contested 35 seats in the state and forfeited deposit in all of them.

Returning to the case of Karnataka, except for the 1999 election when Congress faced a splintered Janata Dal, and a still plotting BJP, it has been reduced to single digits in three successive elections. There is no indication of a dramatic surge in the present polls too. The BJP mixed Lingayat identity politics and Hindutva to make a potent electoral keg. The Congress, part comatose, part complacent, never challenged the rapid implementation of this strategy that has gone on to include sections of Dalits and OBCs since 2009.

In Andhra Pradesh, Congress temporarily revived under Y.S. Rajashekar Reddy in 2004 and 2009, when it delivered 29 and 33 seats respectively, and contributed significantly to the shrunk national tally of the party. However, after the disastrous handling of the bifurcation of the state, it lost its audience in both Andhra and Telangana. If the assembly and parliamentary elections of 2014 in the two states, and the most recent Telangana assembly elections are used as a barometer, then, this Lok Sabha poll, too, doesn’t hold much promise for the party.

Congress faces a hostile identity and ideological ecosystem in the big states of the South, where it has ceded space to regional players and BJP. In this context, Rahul Gandhi’s contest from Kerala can be viewed as some nature of bravado. Statistically, and emotionally speaking, there is nothing that guarantees the proposed Wayanad seat as a safe bet.

In 2014, when M.I. Shanavas contested this seat for the second time after its formation in 2009, his victory margin was reduced from over 1.5 lakh votes to 20,870 votes. There was an erosion of 8.65% vote share. In fact, now, an element of uncertainty has been introduced by the Sabarimala controversy, where the Congress officially stood for a status quoist position against the ruling of the Supreme Court. Also, the Left parties are not allies of the Congress in Kerala, in fact, they are bitter opponents.

In short, the thesis is there are no safe seats anymore in the South for the Congress. Every seat has to be keenly contested and won. There are no walkovers anymore. Kerala’s Stephen from New Delhi can no longer go to Gulbarga and win by becoming Thipanna for a season.

Sugata Srinivasaraju is a senior journalist and author