Can the Move to a Cadre Structure Save the Congress in Kerala?

The high command has made the Venugopal-Sudhakaran-Satheesan trio a new power centre, much to the chagrin of senior leaders. Their attempts to overhaul the party have been upsetting various factions.

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Kochi/Thiruvananthapuram: Five months ago, just before the assembly election results were announced, I had a chat with a young Congress MLA about the party’s prospects of forming a new government in Kerala. He was not only confident of sweeping the elections, despite opinion polls predicting an easy win for the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), but was also crystal clear about the factors that were going in favour of the party. He said that the United Democratic Front (UDF), the Congress-led alliance, had a decisive edge because the majority and minority communities have thrown their weight behind it. He relied on statistical analytics, big data analysis and other predictive software to convince me that the Congress would sweep to power.

It is fair to say that the Congress leaders had a reason to be confident. Unlike the previous election, they had a think tank that had strategists and public policy experts of international repute – like John Samuel and S.S. Lal. John Samuel took charge of the public policy wing of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), whereas Lal was fielded in the Kazhakkoottam constituency in the capital city, Thiruvananthapuram. He fared poorly, finishing third behind incumbent minister Kadakampalli Surendran of the CPI(M) and Sobha Surendran of the BJP.

Also read: Kerala Assembly Polls: Congress Pulls Out All the Stops for a ‘Do-or-Die’ Battle

When the results were announced on May 2, all the calculations and expectations of the Congress think-tank fell flat. The Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF marched to a record-breaking second term, winning 99 of the 140 seats. The UDF not only won seven fewer seats than its 2016 tally but also lost ground in all its strongholds, excluding the Malappuram district.

This was the first time in the history of the state that the Congress-led front will be sitting in the opposition for two consecutive terms, a fate the leadership could not have imagined in the worst of their nightmares.

Leadership change

Heads had to roll. KPCC president Mullappallay Ramachandran and leader of opposition Ramesh Chennithala were replaced by K. Sudhakaran and V.D. Satheesan respectively. The decision, which took unusually long for the party high command to announce, has changed the inner-party dynamics of the grand old party in this southern state, effectively dismantling the bipolar factionalism of the ‘I’ and ‘A’ groups led by former chief minister Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala respectively.

Obviously, the move hurt the ‘sentiments’ of all the senior Kerala leaders. There has been a perception among senior leaders of the party that Chandy and Chennithala have been ‘humiliated’ by the high command by allowing K.C. Venugopal, the AICC general secretary who is from Kerala and is a comparatively junior leader, to steer the party.

Ramesh Chennithala and Mullappallay Ramachandran. Photo: Facebook/Twitter.

Upsetting the old guard 

Ramesh Chennithala, who had been the leader of the opposition for the last five years, performed reasonably well, pushing the government to the wall on several occasions.

Unfortunately for him, the party and the alliance could not capitalise on these efforts. The Pinarayi-led government’s stellar handling of the two floods and the COVID-19 pandemic was rewarded by the voters.

When the high command announced Satheesan as the new leader of the opposition, it was a jolt for Chennithala, who was hoping to get another term.

Oommen Chandy, despite being the leader of a rival faction, extended full support to Chennithala. But the high command did not budge.

On the other hand, for Mullappally Ramachandran, who had become totally unpopular among the rank and file, the writing was on the wall. K. Sudhakaran, arguably the only Congress leader after Chandy, who has mass support of his own, was preferred over Kodikkunnil Suresh, a prominent leader from the Dalit community, and P.T. Thomas by the high command.

New power axis attempts to upend party’s functioning

Sudhakaran, who is from the Kannur district of northern Kerala, is considered to be a tough and outspoken leader not averse to using muscle against the mighty CPI(M) and is no stranger to the world of political crimes. He had been accused of plotting to murder CPI(M) leader and former minister E.P. Jayarajan in the mid-90s.

His first major decision as the state unit president was to transform Congress into a ‘semi-cadre’ party, which has not gone very well with the veterans, who openly admit that they have not understood the very idea.

Apart from Satheesan, former KPCC president K. Muraleedharan, P.T. Thomas and Kodikkunnil Suresh have thrown their weight behind the new president’s idea of reforming the party to take on the cadre structure of the Left parties and thus forming a new axis of power inside the party, with K.C. Venugopal running point in New Delhi.

The party high command seems to have decided to ignore the dissident voices including that of senior leaders V.M. Sudheeran and Mullappally Ramachandran. Sudheeran has already submitted his resignation from the party’s political affairs committee and the AICC. Mullappally did not hesitate to express his displeasure with the new KPCC president’s attitude towards him.

The Venugopal-Sudhakaran-Satheesan trio has the complete faith of the party high command, for the moment, as evident from the move to unilaterally announce the list of district committee presidents, once again nettling the group veterans of the party. The names suggested by Oommen Chandy and Chennithala were completely ignored if insider reports are to be believed.

V.D. Satheesan’s visit to both the leaders’ houses somewhat pacified them for the time being. Even though they are not taking it to the media or the streets, the discontent within the top party leadership is far from resolved. But the second rung leadership did not have that restraint, and they indeed revolted.

KPCC president K. Sudhakaran, AICC general secretary K.C. Venugopal and Leader of opposition V D Satheesan. Illustration: The Wire/Facebook/Twitter.

K.P. Anilkumar, the former president of the Kerala Youth Congress and the general secretary of the KPCC, was the first to question the high command and new state leadership over the district Congress committee nominations. He openly criticised the nominations on a television show that resulted in his resignation from the party, so did P.S. Prasanth, KPCC secretary who had unsuccessfully contested from Nedumangad constituency in the last assembly election. Both of them were welcomed by the CPI(M) immediately after they announced their resignation.

A.V. Gopinath, the senior leader from Palakkad also tendered his resignation from the party but has just stopped short of joining the rivals, even though he has showered praises over chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Now with the nominations of the KPCC office bearers, it will be even tougher for the new leadership to manage things under control.

The Sudhakaran-led Kerala unit of the Congress is going ahead with the proposed caderisation process in the party despite the scepticism raised from many corners. Even the resignation of senior leader and former KPCC president V.M. Sudheeran’s from the political affairs committee and the AICC and Mullappally Ramachandran’s open remarks about him being ignored have not deterred them from going ahead with the party revamp.

The ‘semi-cadre’ structure is all set to be in place within a couple of months, with members paying levy, committees being constituted and workers even addressing each other as comrades. They have already taken these developments to Rahul Gandhi and have his concurrence.

Factions in the party  

Leaders who have fallen in line with the new power axis in the party, the Venugopal, Sudhakaran and Satheesan trio, believe that this is the only option to set the ball in motion again for the party in Kerala.

According to them, the primary reason for the debacle of the Congress is the bipolar factionalism which has created a virtual but vertical split in the party. The party in Kerala had been functioning as a federation of factions or groups – predominantly ‘I’ and ‘A’ factions, with the ‘third group’ emerging in the late 1990s later and then merging with the ‘I’ group – for the last 40 years.

Congress leader K. Karunakaran. Photo: Wikipedia.

The history of the groups in the Kerala Pradesh Congress dates back to the late 1970s, when veteran leader and four-time chief minister K. Karunakaran stood firmly behind Indira Gandhi to take on the organisational Congress faction, paving the way for the formation of I (Indira) group.

A.K. Antony, former Kerala chief minister and Union defence minister, Karunakaran’s betenoire, later split with the Congress (U) led by Devaraj Urs to form Congress (A) in 1979. Antony allied with the CPI(M) to form the government in 1980, but later returned to the Congress and remained as the ‘A’ faction inside the party.

Ever since this development, the tug of war inside the Congress had been between the ‘I’ group led by K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony’s ‘A’ group, which was later taken over by Oommen Chandy. The third group was formed in the early 1990s when Ramesh Chennithala attempted a palace coup against Karunakaran, but it was comparatively short-lived. Chennithala took over the ‘I’ group when Karunakaran left the party in 2005 to form the Democratic Indira Congress for a short period.

Congress leader A.K. Antony.Photo: PTI.

After the unceremonious exit of A.K. Antony as the chief minister in 2004, it was Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala running the groups, maintaining the balance of power within the party. In fact, this sharing of power and balance had been the central thread that held the party together for decades. The very dynamics of Congress politics in Kerala is under threat when Sudhakaran and Satheesan try to revamp the organisation with semi-cadre characteristics.

A senior Congress leader The Wire spoke to expressed his concerns, stating that the party is facing a unique problem after the re-election of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF to the power.

According to him, the Congress party used to connect with the people at the grassroots level through various welfare projects of the government when it was in the power. The mass people outreach programme by Oommen Chandy was a classic example of this. Now with the party sitting in the opposition for the second consecutive term, it will be very difficult for the workers to approach the people. He feels that it is nearly impossible to transform workers of a “democratic party with loose organisational structure” into a semi-cadre character.

“Even the BJP, which has the RSS as its backbone, could not do this in Kerala. IUML is the only party, other than the Communist parties, that somewhat maintains a tightly knitted organisational network and committed rank and file. That is largely because of the community organisations that back them strongly,” opines the leader who is not comfortable being named.

Trouble from dissidents 

CPI(M)’s open-door policy for the dissidents from Congress is another worrisome factor for the grand old party in the state. With K.P. Anilkumar and P.S. Prasanth already getting a warm welcome from the AKG Centre, many unhappy leaders could follow their steps once the KPCC office bearers list is out.

“I am relieved that they are opting for CPI(M), not the BJP,” says the leader with a smile.

The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) now led by P.C. Chacko, the Congress veteran who jumped ship just before the assembly elections, is another option for those dissident Congressmen, who are not comfortable with the cadre structure of the Communist parties.

In these circumstances, the decision to go on with the revamp project is definitely an uphill task before the new leadership. V.D. Satheeshan, the leader of the opposition, a spotless leader of repute, is the key figure if they have to chase a victory.

As far as they have the backing of the high command, it will not be difficult to go ahead, but the end result is something that matters. It will be interesting to watch how the Sudhakaran-Satheesan-Venugopal trio, which has emerged as the last word of the party in the state, manoeuvre ahead with many of the party veterans already feeling blue.

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.